Molise History Travel Guide
Facing the Adriatic Sea, Molise is the newest and second-smallest region of Italy. Initially constituted as a sub-region of Abruzzo, Molise was established as a separate entity only in 1963, and it was divided into two provinces in 1970.
A trait of common history is not the only thing Molise shares with nearby Abruzzo. The succession of geological elements and the characteristics of the landscape are also similar between the two territories. In detail, Molise surprises with the transition between the mountainous areas and the coastal lines, while the region’s eastern border faces the Adriatic Sea.
Traditionally poor, Molise doesn’t boast any large centers, while its distant location from the main communication routes marginalized this land, isolating it from the great trade flow since the pre-unification age.
As a result, the local population focused on breeding. The transhumant pastoralism became the main occupation as the infertile lands of the area led to a poor agriculture.
Due to the lack of economic growth, the region became a land of emigration and, even if the phenomenon ceased for a short time in the 70s, the lack of communication routes posed an obstacle to the proper development of Molise. Already disadvantaged by the harsh nature of the soil and still lacking the entrepreneurial spirit, the region faced stagnation and the emigration phenomenon emerged again.
In an attempt to retain the population and boost the economy, the local authorities implemented an agrarian reform in the 70s. This measure didn’t bring the desired benefits due to the excessive fragmentation of the properties, but at the beginning of the 80s, the industrialization established itself in the region.
As a result of the industrial development, the FIAT factory in Termoli emerged, and this event caused a decisive turnaround of the socio-economic structure of the region. However, towards the end of the 90s, the industrial crises struck Italy and Molise was faced with new challenges.
From the beginning of the twenty-first century, the local efforts began to focus on the development of services and tourism. Taking advantage of the relative territorial integrity, the tourism sector developed quickly and Molise started to build its own regional identity. Without a doubt, the boost of this sector is a result of the initial stagnation of the region which protected the territory from the damage caused by industrialization.
The name of the region is attested from the Middle Ages and it belonged to a Norman dynasty that gave it to the territory.
Prehistory of Molise
Despite its tiny territory, Molise boasts an impressive prehistoric evidence. Deposits of Isernia-La Pineta came to light in 1978, where archaeologists have discovered evidence of the most ancient phases of the European prehistory. The remains refer to at least three overlapping settlements belonging to different humanoid civilizations.
The most ancient layer dates back more than 700,000 years ago, and it’s safe to say that this is one of the most ancient sites in the world.
Thanks to the richness of the archaeological deposits and to the excellent conservation of the lithic and paleontological finds, the prehistoric site of Molise is one of the most important in the world. Therefore, this small and neglected region became of fundamental importance in the study of the human presence in the Mediterranean basin. Apart from this important site, there are numerous other testimonies widespread throughout the territory.
There were found important artifacts belonging to different Paleolithic phases, from the Neolithic and also from the Bronze Age.
History of Molise
In the historical age, the first documented civilization to inhabit the region were the Samnites, organized in two major ethnic-political entities, the Pentri, concentrated around the Matese massif, and the Frentani who settled in the coastal area. A smaller yet noteworthy tribe was constituted by the Caraceni who occupied the high areas of Molise.
These territorial divisions are deducible from the various findings in the area, including a bronze lamina
with Oscan inscriptions. Found in the region of Capracotta, this commonly-called Oscan Table is currently preserved by the British Museum and is considered one of the most important pieces of evidence of the Samnites in Italy.
The territory of Molise passed under Roman rule at the beginning of the third century BC, following the defeat suffered by the Italic coalition. In fact, during the third Samnite war, the Terravecchia area was conquered in 293 by Titus Livius. The Romans reduced the fortified center to ruin and the few survivors abandoned the city and established a modest village in the Valley of Altilia.
There, the survivors found ideal conditions. The fertile land promoted agriculture while the proximity of a pastoral road promoted trade.
With the definitive defeat of the Samnites by the Romans in the first century BC and under Roman influence, the settlement started to grow and evolve into the Roman Saepium.
Achieving the title of municipality under the new Augustan administration, Saepium was surrounded by thick city walls and the main buildings of the center arose in the same period. The construction of the complex walls, forum, capitolium, spas, and other urban buildings, was undoubtedly inspired by Augustus himself.
In the same century, the Augustan administrative reorganization included the Molise region in the IV region of Samnium, with the exception of the southern coastal part of the Biferno River. This territory, incorporated in the II Roman region, belonged to Apulia.
Thanks to its position on the principal routes of transhumant pastoralism and to the flowering agriculture in the coastal areas, the region enjoyed the benefits of the Imperial Age and witnessed the development of the urban centers of Larino, Venafro, and Isernia, in parallel with Saepium.
This period of welfare ceased in 570 AD when, following the devastation produced by the barbarian invasions, the region was involved in the Gothic war. As a result of the war, Molise was annexed to the Longobard Duchy of Benevento.
The beginning of the Longobard domination marked the beginning of feudalism in Molise. Under the Duchy of Benevento, the first castles emerged on the highest peaks, surrounded by modest settlements at lower altitudes.
One of the main settlements that emerged in the period is Campobasso, and the city still preserves many edifices from the era.
In 667 the Duchy granted the plain of Sepino to a colony of Bulgarians, and thanks to the human presence, the municipality recovered part of its administrative role in the territory.
After the Longobards adhered to Catholicism, the Church acquired a great power in the region. At the same time, the agriculture started to recover in the plain of Sepino thanks to the investments of the Benedictine monastery of Santa Sofia di Benevento. The involvement of the church in the region marked the edification of the Benedictine abbey of San Vincenzo al Volturno that became one of the most important centers in southern Italy from a cultural, religious, and economic standpoint.
In the countryside, the human intervention became more consistent until the second half of the ninth century, when the Saracens invaded the territories. However, the political-administrative fractionation and the reorganization of the settlements in small isolated nuclei didn’t favor a real economic growth.
The advent of the Carolingian domination in 774 didn’t change the situation much. Then, with the Saracen invasions in the ninth century, Molise’s economic growth stopped completely. In fact, the Saracen raids spread terror in Molise, and many urban centers, including Saepium, suffered their harassment.
The local population tried to find refuge on the peaks surrounding the plain, determining the edification of castles and settlements on the mountains, and this is when the Sepino of today arose. Moreover, the Saracen invasions marked the economic decline of Molise. In the following centuries, Molise’s territory was disputed by both the Byzantines and the Longobards.
Following the Norman conquest in 1042, the territory was united with the counties of Loritello on the coast and Bojano, founded by Rodolfo de Molisio, in the inland. Unlike the Saracens, the Normans brought wealth to the region, and under Ugo II de Molisio, the region became the strongest continental state of the Norman monarchy. The Molisio dynasty gave its name to the region.
In 1197, the region was assigned by Henry VI to Markward von Annweiler, and under his rule, Molise lived through years of total anarchy, becoming the scene of clashes between Tancredi and the Swabians. With the advent of the Anjou in 1268, Molise was reabsorbed into the royal domain.
In the following centuries, Molise ceased to exist as a separate entity and became part of Capitanata. In 1442, the region, together with the whole Kingdom of Naples, passed under the Aragon and, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, to the Spaniards.
As a result of these events, the region went through a new period of crisis and only began to enjoy a slight improvement in the eighteenth century, with the advent of the Charles III of Bourbon.
Molise was detached from Capitanata during the Napoleonic period and became an autonomous province in 1806, shortly after it has been devastated by an earthquake in 1805. The natural disaster left an already poor region even more shaken, therefore the role Molise played in the Risorgimento is almost negligible.
Nevertheless, in 1860 the region posed resistance to the troops of Garibaldi.
After the unification of Italy, the region was united with Abruzzo. Yet, despite becoming part of a greater territorial administration, the political and economic situation didn’t improve in Molise.
Depopulated by emigration, Molise suffered serious damage in the First World War, while the Second World War brought nothing but further destruction to the region. Isernia and Termoli are probably the municipalities that suffered the most.
In 1963, after a long and troubled history, Molise was detached from Abruzzo and became the twentieth region of the country. Struggling to grow its economy during the twentieth century, Molise had little benefits from the industrialization and almost none from the pastoral and agricultural activities.
Fortunately, the local authorities turned their focus towards the service and tourism sectors and the region has now entered an era of economic and social development.
Archeology in Molise
Archaeology is well represented in Molise, despite the small territory of the region. In addition to numerous prehistoric remains, the region preserves important evidence of the Samnite age.
Of particular importance is the area of Terravecchia di Sepino that holds evidence of the original populations destroyed in 293 BC by the Samnites in one of the most violent battles of the Samnite wars.
The areas of Campobasso are also particularly important from an archaeological point of view.
In the Matese area, numerous megalithic walls and temples are concentrated, including the temple of Campochiaro, dedicated to Hercules. The temple of San Pietro di Cantoni, near Sepino, is also noteworthy and is dedicated to a female deity.
The largest monumental complex of the Samnite age is located in the archaeological site of Calcaceto, near the town of Pietrabbondante. The site includes three temples and a theater. Noteworthy is also the site of the ancient Sepino, also known as the Roman Saepium.
Remains of rural villas, spas, baths, aqueducts, theaters, amphitheaters and mausoleums are scattered throughout the territory. Of particular interest is the area of Venafro, whose museum houses a valuable statue of Venus from the second century BC and a tabula aquarium of the administrative aqueduct of Augustus.
Larino, Isternia, and Atilia are other noteworthy municipalities where the presence of archaeological evidence is rather impressive.
Apart from these outdoor sites, there are numerous artifacts exhibited in the regional and national museums present throughout the territory. Moreover, important archaeological evidence from the region is also exhibited in international museums in Europe.
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