Benevento, one of the most mysterious cities in Campania.
It is no accident that it is the land of Witches, a place that is the child of a complex and fascinating religious and spiritual history, a resplendent city full of majestic and monumental works that must have impressed contemporaries by their beauty and splendor and that still represents a uniqueness worldwide, sometimes unfortunately forgotten.
Rich territory with a great history that has left important evidence, capable of fascinating visitors who understand travel as an opportunity to grow and enrich their knowledge and culture.
Benevento, the ancient capital that put fear into Rome, remained a fervent religious laboratory for centuries on end.
The mythical foundation
The Benevento version of the myth is given by Procopius. Rejected by Argos after the taking of Troy Diomedes, a victim of marital infidelity, is forced to leave his Greek homeland to come to Italy. As identifying marks he left the city the tusks of the Caledonian boar that his uncle Meleager had killed as a hunting trophy. The caledonian boar mentioned in the legend, in medieval times became the symbol of Benevento so much so that it is still depicted today in the municipal coat of arms. In this regard, a 19th-century Benevento historian relates that of Benevento’s noble origin “bears full witness to the Greek marble coat of arms set in the bell tower of the archbishopric, representing the Caledonian boar killed by Meleager.
The Samnites: Proud enemies of Rome
The first major phase of Benevento’s history, about which little is known, is related to the affairs of the Samnites. The primitive settlement was located in contrada Cellarulo, at the confluence of the Sabato and Calore rivers, in a border position between the Sannio Irpino and Caudino Sannio.
Samnium was the scene of three wars against the Romans.
The Second Samnite War (c. 327 B.C.-304 B.C.) constituted the first real confrontation between the rising power and the Samnites, which was resolved in favor of the latter. The Romans attempted to wage war from Capua to Benevento, but a clever Samnite stratagem succeeded in blocking near Caudium the Roman troops. Once trapped, the Roman soldiers were forced to pass under the Forche Caudine, an arch composed of the enemy’s spears in such a way as to force each soldier to bend his back in order to pass. In theThird Samnite War (c. 298 B.C.- 290 B.C.) it was the Romans who won it, defeating one by one all the Samnites and finally forcing them into a peace treaty :Maleventum was taken by the Romans.
The historian Mario Rotili thus describes the Roman city of Benevento in its heyday: “The city in its heyday extended from the Ponte Leproso and the Pons Maior (Fratto bridge) in the west to the area surrounding Trajan’s Arch in the east, while the northern boundary was given by the Calore and the southern boundary by the Sabato. In the far eastern part arose the Temple of Isis built under Domitian in 88 AD, the Temple of Minerva and the grandiose Arch of Trajan erected between 114 and 117 AD at the beginning of the new road that shortened the route of the Appian Way and was named after the wise emperor. The importance and happy condition of Beneventum under the Roman Empire is sufficiently attested by the numerous ruins and inscriptions. Its wealth is also confirmed by the large quantity of coins it minted. It certainly owed its prosperity to its favorable position along the Appian Way, precisely at the junction of the two main branches of that important road (one of which was later called the Via Traiana). The stop at Beneventum in Horace’s account concerning his journey from Rome to BrundisiuShe owed to the favorable location the honor of repeated visits by emperors, among which those of Nero, Trajan, and Septimius Severus are particularly remembered.
Later emperors gave the city additional territories and erected, or at least named, a variety of public buildings. It also appears that Roman Benevento was a place of great literary activity.
Isis, "Lady of Benevento"
It is little known, in fact, that there are a considerable number of Egyptian artifacts in Benevento, a temple of artifacts, some preserved in the Arcos Museum, others scattered throughout the city, but all indigenous. To be clear, the Egyptian museum in Turin, the largest in the world after Cairo, holds artifacts from Egypt, while those in Benevento were found locally.
For fans of this civilization, a visit to Benevento is therefore indispensable.
In Samnium, the imposition of Christianity was clearly not easy. Benevento, the ancient capital that put fear into Rome, remained a fervent religious laboratory for centuries on end. But even before the arrival of the Lombards, the cult of Isis imposed itself.
Isis, universal goddess, coming from afar and yet still so close.
Close because she is even named “Lady of Benevento,” by Domitian, Emperor of Rome.
It was the period of imperial Rome, then, the years of Domitian in particular.
With the Gens Flavia (Vespasian and his son Domitian) the cult of Isis assumed particular importance, to such an extent that Domitian used it to legitimize the divine kingship of his imperial power.
“during his reign, the emperor escaped a conspiracy and saves his life by disguising himself as an Egyptian and following the priests of Isis. Allore to thank the deity believed to be his savior what does he do? He asks a friend of his, Rutilio Lupo, a prominent businessman and industrialist from Benevento, to build a shrine dedicated to Isis(L’Iseo) in the years 88/89 A.D. and proclaims himself Domus e Deus (lord and deity).” The foundation of the shrine of Isis in Benevento is not accidental: Beneventum was in fact one of the final stops for those who wanted to travel along the Appian Way to Brindisi. Isis, among her many roles, held precisely that of Pelagia, that is, protector of travelers and maritime traders.
The religious complex of the Samnite Isis, however, is a history in itself, as it organically prospects us with “the most homogeneous testimony existing on Italian soil.”
(We also discuss the Egyptian Isis artifacts, the most important Egyptian artifacts in the world found outside Egypt.) First, because of the name chosen to distinguish this deity: “Lady of Benevento.” In the second instance because of the workmanship of the artifacts: original pieces, made along the Nile and not prepared on site. The establishment of the cult in the center of the peninsula should not be surprising, given the location of the city intersected by major thoroughfares and populated by foreigners from every country whose money had evidently also served to erect this sacred monument. Thus today, alongside Roman and Nilotic finds, the Benevento finds express a valuable unicum of archaeological history, undoubtedly the most substantial and organic apparatus of Egyptian artifacts discovered in Europe.
Domitian inaugurated a tradition that was particularly successful in later centuries: it waned between the fifth and sixth centuries CE as Christianity spread.
Egyptian Finds unearthed in Benevento, relating to the temple of Isis.
The bulk of the works that came to light from the grounds near Port’Aurea and the Via Traiana in 1903 and later, represent, without a doubt, the most substantial and organic apparatus of Egyptian artifacts discovered in Europe:
If Turin can boast the largest collection of artifacts in its famous Egyptian Museum, Benevento can consider itself the ” most Egyptian” city in all of Italy. And because the cult of Isis was widespread not only in Egypt and Syria but also throughout the Grecized East, it became the cult most frequented by outsiders settled in Benevento. In this aspect of Eastern reception Benevento could only compete with Pozzuoli.
Most of the material evidence of the Samnite Isiac cult, are today preserved at the Arcos Museum, where they are on permanent display, but since our city has experienced several dominations throughout history, it is possible to find many remains of Egyptian artifacts also in buildings related to other historical periods, most often used as repurposed material; or simply scattered along the streets and alleys of our beautiful city.
When the Roman Empire fell (476 A.D.), the so-called barbarian peoples broke into Italy, devastating the best lands and occupying the main cities, which fell to the force of their arms. Benevento was no exception.
The Lombards made Benevento the capital of a powerful Lombard duchy that, while essentially independent, gravitated to the area of influence of the Lombard kingdom of northern Italy.
The figure of St. Barbatus, bishop of Benevento, has an aura of legend: He became bishop for a space of no less than nineteen years and governed the diocese sanctely, urging the Lombards to abandon superstitions and give themselves over entirely to the true faith. Constant II’s siege and the hardships of war forced the Lombards to abandon idol cults and cut down the walnut tree, a demonic tree around which strange rituals took place.
According to legend as the tree was being uprooted, “out of the distraught roots came a scaly and barren serpent, the devil.”
Recurring gatherings took place around the tree, during which participants used to sauté a goat skin suspended from a branch, and then chew parts of it in order to take possession of the power contained in it. This rite, homophagic in nature, was nothing more than a totemic banquet in which the raw meat of the sacrificed animal was eaten.
From this primitive practice, in use by the early Lombards, came the legend of witches, which originated in the 12th and 13th centuries. According to legend, witches used to gather around the walnut tree to do strange dances and magical rituals.
With King Desiderius’ march on Benevento settled Arechi II(thanks to whom we owe the construction of the church of St. Sophia, part of his vast patronage project) who had married the king’s daughter.
After the fall of Langobardia Maior to the Franks (774), Duke Arechi II became a vassal of Charlemagne. The recognition of Frankish sovereignty, imposed by circumstances, Arechi made Benevento the second Pavia. He took in refugees from the dissolved Lombard kingdom and had the relics of his people (reliquiae Langobardorum gentis) arranged worthily. He built the magnificent, star-studded church of St. Sophia and sponsored other civil and religious construction sites.
However, the Last Lombard exponents would have to fight not only the Byzantines but also the new conquerors of southern Italy, the powerful Normans.
The pro-imperial policy ended with Pandulf III, who in 1047 had the courage to close the city gates in the face of Emperor Henry III the Black and Pope Clement II, who excommunicated him. Such a resounding gesture was due to the fact that the Benevento dynasty now felt encircled on every front: on the one hand the emperor disposed of Lombard lands in favor of the Normans, and on the other the pope claimed possession of Benevento. As the Normans ramped up, the principality tightened, and the Benevento princes had no choice but to watch helplessly as their rule came to an end.
In 1077 papal rule officially began. The government of the city is entrusted to the rectors. A dark period in Benevento’s history begins, thick with massacres and revolts culminating in 1128. With the pontificate of Innocent III, the power of the Holy See reached its zenith. The new pontiff Gregory IX, a rigid and inflexible man, enjoins the Swabian emperor Frederick II of Swabia to leave for a crusade to the Holy Land. The emperor, due to health reasons, cannot leave. The pontiff, without hearing reason, excommunicated him on September 29, 1227. Thus began a decade of tension between the Swabians and the Papacy that culminated in 1241 when the starving city was sacked and destroyed by Frederick II’s troops.
Frederick II died soon after, and Innocent attempted to subjugate the Kingdom of Sicily by financing the rebuilding of Benevento, which had repopulated in the meantime. But soon Frederick’s son Conrad IV regained possession of the kingdom and with it Benevento, which had no chance to defend itself. With Conrad’s untimely death (1254), the Church held the northern part of the kingdom and granted the southern part to Manfred of Swabia as papal vicar; but soon Manfred regained the entirety of the territories.The new pope Clement IV meanwhile came to an agreement with Charles of Anjou: having renounced dominion in the Mezzogiorno, only the return of Benevento to papal rule was guaranteed, with the reinstatement of the city’s rights. Manfred decides to face Charles of Anjou in battle. The Battle of Benevento took place on February 12, 1266 right near the city. Manfredi, also complicit in desertions and betrayals, loses and dies. His body is scattered in the Calor River. Charles of Anjou let his troops loose to sack the city. Relations between Beneventans and the Holy See remain strained.
From the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century.
In the mid-fifteenth century Benevento still retained its Longobard urban structure. The most prestigious building is undoubtedly the basilica of St. Bartholomew, the destination of many pilgrims who come there from all over to venerate the Saint’s prodigious relics. In the war of succession of the kingdom of Naples, the papacy remained loyal to the Angevins but the Aragonese prevailed. On December 18, 1440, Alfonso of Aragon, thanks to the complicity of the castellan, seized the city and placed his staff there in anticipation of the conquest of Naples. In Benevento he convened his first parliament in which the nobles of the realm were asked to swear allegiance to him and his son Ferrante of Aragon.
King Ferrante responded to the papal bull with the occupation of the city. The two sides after a few months come to an agreement: in exchange for investiture to the kingdom Ferrante abandons Benevento and returns it to the papal delegate. The years that follow are thick with furious quarrels between the pro-pontifical and anti-pontifical factions. A severe blow to the city occurred in 1528 when the troops of Charles V of Habsburg stayed for three months in Benevento, staying, eating and drinking for free, stripping Beneventans of all substance. With the appointment of Ferrante I Gonzaga as governor for the city began a period of prosperity and economic growth. Gonzaga and the rectors who succeeded him did not rule oppressively and left the civic administration ample room to maneuver. The new course of concord and cooperation between the papal governors and the people is solidly riot-proof.
After the year of the statutes (1588) the city continued to grow and prosper until it received two nasty blows with the plague epidemics of 1630 and 1656.
The Orsinian Period
In 1686, with the appointment to the diocesan chair of Vincenzo Maria Orsini (later pope by the name of Pope Benedict XIII), Benevento experienced a new period of balance and serenity. Orsini is “sleepless, tireless, irresistible, he turns the diocese upside down, waking the sleepy, stimulating the lazy, warming the lukewarm.” As a good Dominican he repudiates Baroque pomp and pompous ornaments, reforms the liturgy, chants, rites, catechesis. He convenes annual diocesan synods where he discusses everything (before him the last synod was held several decades ago).
Cardinal Orsini’s effort is aimed particularly at catechesis. He harshly condemns any practice of magic or superstition considering them as forms of deviance from the straight path, that of religious faith. During his episcopate, on June 5, 1688, a terrible earthquake struck the city. The death toll is one thousand three hundred sixty-seven. Orsini even as pontiff continued to retain the title and dignity of archbishop of Benevento, where he returned in 1727 and 1729.
From the Napoleonic age to the unification of Italy
In 1798 Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, King of Naples, concerned about the occupation of Rome by Napoleon’s troops, decided to take Benevento before a pro-French government, dangerous to the stability of Bourbon rule, arose there as well. Having carried out the operation, he attempted confrontation with the Roman Republic, but soon had to surrender; with the armistice of Sparanise, he left Benevento and Capua to the French.
In 1806 he made Benevento an independent principality, headed by Marquis Talleyrand. With the Congress of Vienna (1815), at its June 4 session, under Article 103 it was determined that Benevento be returned to the Holy See.
When, in July 1820, news came that revolution had broken out in Naples and the Constitution had been proclaimed, the Benevento Carbonari also rose up, demanding the same guarantees of freedom.
On September 3, 1860, even before Garibaldi arrived in Naples, there was a singular “revolution,” which met with no papal resistance. Beneventan Salvatore Rampone, unescorted, dressed in the red shirt of a Garibaldi colonel, went to the castle to notify the last apostolic delegate, Edward Agnelli, of the order to leave the city within three hours. Papal rule was over. In exchange for incorporation into the Savoy kingdom, Salvatore Rampone obtained that an ad hoc province be created in Benevento, which also included some territories from the neighboring provinces of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Principato Ultra, Molise, Terra di Lavoro, to a lesser extent Capitanata).
Because of its centrality in rail communications between Rome and Apulia, the city was hit extremely hard by Anglo-American bombing in 1943. On August 21, the Allies began bombing the city to flush out the Germans and push them up the Peninsula: the first target hit was the train station.
On September 8, 1943 came a new bombardment by the Anglo-Americans, this time in the area around the Vanvitelli Bridge. The shelling continued on September 11 and 12. The 15th was the most fateful day for the city: five waves of bombardment leveled the entirety of Piazza Duomo and Piazza Orsini.
Political life resumed on the basis of two political groups, one liberal, led by Raffaele De Caro, and one Christian Democratic, of which Giambattista Bosco Lucarelli was leader. The two groups contested the administration of Benevento for a number of years.
A few years after the war, the terrible flooding of the Calore River on October 2, 1949, again brought casualties and destruction.
For fans of this civilization, a visit to Benevento is therefore indispensable…come to Benevento and you will be able to retrace among the mysterious alleys of the city its many historical phases, but above all you will be able to experience them by observing the various testimonies that it has left us.