In the Agri Valley, in the footsteps of the Ancient Romans

A crossroads of different peoples, Basilicata, once Lucania, was inhabited by the Romans from the 3rd century BC. The Lucanian people, who first settled in these lands by occupying natural caves, found themselves up against the Greeks, whose colonies built on the Ionian coast soon became flourishing cities, between the 7th and 6th centuries BC. The Lucanians emerged victorious, but their strength could not hold a candle to the greatness of the Roman Empire as it expanded southwards. Two centuries of Roman domination marked the history of Lucania, followed, from the 5th century BC onwards, by invasions by a number of populations, such as the Goths, the Lombards, the Byzantines, the Swabians and the Aragonese, right up to the Bourbons. Each of these peoples etched a symbol of their culture, a sign of their passage, into the soul of Lucania, in some areas more than in others, whether it be customs, habits or architectural remains. The appeal of discovering Basilicata lies precisely in this: unexpectedly, its villages reveal their origins, whether ancient, painful, epic or simply fragmentary. Often legend mixes with history, adding salt to an already richly flavoured dish.

In the Agri Valley, the Roman influence can be seen in the fascinating remains of the archaeological park of Grumentum, which today resembles a sort of time portal that takes us back to a remote past, when the small pre-Roman and Roman colony was strategically located on high ground, surrounded by slopes carved out by various waterways, including the Agri and the Sciaura. The structure, which you can wander around, gives you a glimpse of the urban planning model of the period; private and public spaces, the sewerage system and water pipes can be clearly distinguished. Outside the city are the baths, the impressive amphitheatre and several public buildings. The ancient Roman colony is now home to a captivating archaeological area and the National Archaeological Museum of Alta Val d’Agri.

In Spineta, near Lago di Pietra del Pertusillo lake, a reservoir built in 1962 and now an enchanting oasis, history reigns supreme, and you can lose yourself in its meanders by following the path traced between the walls of the National Archaeological Museum of Alta Val D’agri, where you can explore the history of the area’s population, from prehistoric times to the Roman era, represented by the city of Grumentum, whose remains are still visible today. This is followed by sections dedicated to the prehistory and protohistory of the area, with fossil remains of equids over 120,000 years old and the Elephas antiquus, an imposing proboscidean with 3 metre-long straight tusks, cousin of the well-known mammoth, which migrated southwards from central Europe at the time of major climate cooling in the Pleistocene. There are also sections from the Classical and Hellenistic periods, where entire grave goods can be seen, whose details illustrate the customs of different periods and the differences between social strata. Precious ceramics depicting red figures, as well as armour, cosmetic objects and various furnishings stand out in the showcases. All due to the strong presence of an aristocratic elite. There are also numerous sacred artefacts from the Hellenistic period from the 4th-3rd century sanctuary at the edge of the town, dedicated to a goddess of fertility. But the most interesting area remains the one dedicated to the Roman Age and Grumentum, the Roman colony built in the 3rd century BC. This section features an abundance of marble statues that once decorated the forum and baths area, as well as a rich collection of coins from the Republican and Imperial periods.

A leap into the past takes us back to a crucial historical moment: the Romans were preparing to bring the war against the Samnites to a victorious end, and Grumentum was one of the most strategic fortified outposts from a military point of view, a junction between two important public roads, the Via Herculea, which led to Heraclea on the Ionian side, and the Via Popilia, which led to the Tyrrhenian coast. Entire pages of Livy’s Annales tell of the Second Punic War, in which two battles took place between the Romans and the Samnites, in 215 and 207 BC respectively. It was in the latter that Hannibal set up camp near the town of Grumentum, exactly 500 steps from today’s Grumento Nova (as the story goes), and was defeated by the Romans led by Gaius Claudius Nero. Unfortunately, the fate of the Roman town was sealed. Having escaped the wrath of Hannibal, it was destroyed by the Italics because it sided with the Romans in the social war of the 1st century BC. In the Caesarean and Augustan periods, however, it underwent a thorough process of reconstruction and modernisation and was promoted to the status of colony. Flourishing during the Diocletian era, it boasted thermal baths and renovated roads, until it reached the height of its splendour in 370 BC when it became an episcopal see. It was the Saracens who sacked and destroyed it in two attacks, in 872 and 975.

The episode that led to the nomination of Grumentum as an episcopal see sees the martyr Laverius at the centre of a tangle of history, legend and hagiography. He was a young Roman soldier, born of pagan parents but intent on professing the Christian religion, spreading the word of the Gospel among the people of Teggiano first, and then Acerenza. It was here that he met the pagan prefect Agrippa who, opposed to the soldier’s actions, arrested him and forced him to convert to paganism. When he refused, he tortured him for a whole night and then threatened to have him mauled by beasts in the amphitheatre. When he was brought in, they approached him and knelt before him instead of biting him. The image of Laverius as a friend of the Lord only strengthened. He was thus imprisoned but another miracle saw him freed. This time an angel brought him out of his cell and showed him the way to Grumentum. He went to this town where he continued to preach the word of Jesus. Agrippa soon discovered his hiding place and, after having him flogged several times, ordered him to be beheaded. So, taken to the point where the river Agri and the stream Sciaura meet, Laverius was beheaded. It was 312 AD when a sword pushed his soul out of his body. It is said that many saw him fly to heaven to receive the crown of glory and the palm of martyrdom. An image that terrified Agrippa’s soldiers stationed there. His body was solemnly buried, probably in the Roman necropolis. The 19th-century chapel dedicated to him stands there today. Archaeological excavations have revealed the remains of an early Christian church dating back to the 5th-6th centuries, which was later replaced by a smaller one until the 19th-century one. Two sarcophagi were found, one of which, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Alta Val d’Agri, is thought to contain the remains of the saint.

Roman traces can also be found in Marsicovetere.

The remains of a silent, monumentalised Roman villa from the Imperial age were discovered in 2006. This country house is thought to have belonged to the Brutti Praesentes family, the family of the wife of Commodus in 178, Empress Bruttia Crispina. The villa is located at the foot of Monte Volturino, an advantageous position in Roman times because it was close to the Via Herculia and therefore well connected to Potentia, Venusia and Grumentum, strategic locations for trade.