A 4th century B.C. Samnite tomb has been found in the necropolis of Porta Ercolano, a burial ground just outside Pompeii’s northwest gate a few steps from the famous Villa of the Mysteries (see the top left corner on this map). The necropolis was in use from the 1st century B.C. until the city’s destruction on August 24th, 79 A.D. for cremation burials and tombs in keeping with Roman customs at the time, but earlier inhumation burials have been found there as well. They’ve been heavily damaged by construction of the Roman city, Vesuvius, looters, rough excavations and Allied bombing in World War II. That makes this find exceptionally rare because the tomb was discovered intact with an articulated skeleton and all of its grave goods.
The archaeological team from the Jean Bérard Center of Naples wasn’t even looking for graves, even you might think it was considering it was excavating a necropolis. In fact the Porta Ercolano area was what we today would call mixed use with shops, villas and tombs side by side. Archaeologists were exploring the site of a pottery production complex they’ve been excavating for the past four years as part of a research project focusing on artisanship and the economy of Pompeii.
While digging in area that had no surface construction, they unearthed the cyst grave of an adult woman about 35-40 years old with extensive grave goods. She was buried with about 10 vases and urns that date to the middle of the 4th century B.C. The skeletal remains haven’t been radiocarbon dated yet, so the style of the vases is what dates the tomb. The burial type is known in other Samnite centers like Paestum, but has only been recorded in Pompeii from 19th century excavations which leave a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. Finding an intact grave, left completely alone and undamaged by thieves or construction or the bomb that exploded feet away in 1943 leaving burn marks on the stone slabs of the cyst, gives archaeologists the opportunity to study Samnite Pompeii in heretofore impossible depth with all the advantages of modern technology.
“It is an exceptional find for Pompeii because it throws light on the pre-Roman city about which we know so very little,” said Massimo Osanna, the archaeological superintendent of Pompeii. […]
The woman was buried with a series of clay jars, or amphora, which come from other regions of Italy revealing the extent of trade between the Samnites at Pompeii and other areas across the Italian peninsula. The contents of the jars will be analyzed in the weeks to come – but are thought to contain cosmetics, wine and food.
“The burial objects will show us much about the role of women in Samnite society and can provide us with a useful social insight,” Osanna told reporters.
The extraordinary events of its demise and preservation have ensured that Pompeii is thought of exclusively as a Roman city, but in fact only fell under Roman control when it was conquered by the dictator Sulla in 89 B.C. Pompeii was founded around the 7th century B.C. by the Oscans, a central Italic tribe. In the 6th century it was conquered by the Etruscans and in the 5th century by the Samnites. Rome’s influence over Pompeii came at the turn the 3th century B.C. after the Third Samnite War (298-290 B.C.) when the city was forced to accept status as a socium, an associate, of the Roman Republic. The status afforded them political autonomy — it could retain its ancient Oscan language and govern itself — but compelled military alliance.
For two centuries they took it, but when a series of Roman military defeats caused wholesale slaughter of Italian troops and when my namesake, the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus, was assassinated for his efforts in securing Roman citizenship for all of the Italian allied peoples, the Italian socii revolted against Rome in 91 B.C. and Pompeii joined its Italian cousins in the rebellion. Two years later Sulla besieged the city and in 80 B.C. he seeded it with his veterans and made it an official Roman colony.
The tomb dates to the decades just before the Second Samnite War and the humiliating Roman defeat at the Battle of the Caudine Forks (321 B.C.), which was so humiliating there wasn’t even a battle. The Samnites tricked the Roman commanders, co-consuls Titus Veturius Calvinus and Spurius Postumius Albinus, into deploying their army to the relief of the city of Lucera which 10 shepherds had told them was under siege by the forces of Samnite general Gaius Pontius. The shepherds were actually Pontius’ men and Lucera was not besieged by anyone. The Romans took a short cut through the Caudine Forks, a mountain pass that could only be accessed by two very narrow gorges. The Samnites cut off the entrance to the second gorge and when the Romans turned around, they found the Samnites had blocked the first gorge too. With unclimbable mountain cliffs on either side, the Roman army was well and truly screwed and everyone knew it.
To get anyone out alive, Calvinus and Albinus had to surrender unconditionally and the entire army was forced to pass “under the yoke,” (each man had to bow and walk under an ox yoke), the ultimate degradation for ancient soldiers. The consuls then signed a peace treaty that basically gave the Samnites everything they wanted and returned to Rome utterly humiliated. They had to hand in their symbols of office and resign. They even offered their persons to the Samnites to do whatever they wanted with, but Gaius Pontius refused because he thought it was a stratagem to get him to violate the terms of the treaty and render it null and void. Which it probably was.
Excavations are ongoing and archaeologists hope to find other Samnite-era graves around the newly discovered one. Where there’s one tomb, there are often more, but the odds of finding another grave miraculously unharmed by the Allied bomb that fell on this very spot are slim.