Chapter III - Abruzzo Peoples: the Sabines

«It is not easy to establish the exact geographical location of this people, who occupied part of Latium, part of the present province of Perugia, and part of the Abruzzi.»

From Enrico Abbate's "Guida d'Abruzzo", Rome 1903.

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Roman historian Strabo says:

"The Sabina, situated between the Latini and the Umbri, extends towards the Samnitic mountains, but it is nearer to that part of the Apennines bordering on the Vestini, Peligni and Marsi and elsewhere. The Sabini live in a very narrow land, which covers one thousand stadia in lengtht (125 miles) from the Tiber and the small town of Nomentum, as far as the Vestini".

On the other hand, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Note of Translator: 60 BC - 7 BC, a Greek historian and teacher of rhetoric, whose main work was Roman Antiquities.), quoting more ancient Cato (Note of Translator: Marcus Porcius Cato, 234 BC Tusculum – 149 BC was a Roman statesman.), ascribed to the Sabina region a smaller surface, saying they occupied lands 280 stadia (Note of Translator: it is difficult to establish whisch stadion was used: in ancient Greece, this unit of length was equal to six hundred feet, 177 meters in the attic system and 185 meters in the Alexandria system; in ancient Rome the stadion was 625 feet, equal to 185 meters.) away from the Adriatic and 240 from the Tyrrhenian sea. These two different views can be both valid if we consider that the distance stated by Dionisius was referred to length, while that quoted by Strabo to width; therefore the land of the Sabini was compared to the point of a lance, extended towards the sea between the Tiber and the Teverone rivers.

These are the most certain boundaries of this region, included between the Apennines on the one hand for about a hundred miles, surrounded by Umbria, Picenum, the Vestini and the Marsi, while the Tiber and Aniene were the natural limits on the side of Etruria and Latium. This land therefore began at the junction of the Tiber and Aniene rivers, and followed the right bank of the Aniene as far as Varia (Vicovaro), entering the region of Aequi. The boundary line crossed the Telonio river, or Salto, which divided the Sabini from the Marsi and, following the same side, reached present day Fossa, 8 miles east of Aquila.

Then the Sabine jurisdiction embraced Foruli and Amiternum and, going towards the sea, Falacrine, between Cittareale and Amatrice, and Nursia (Norcia) as far as the Monti Sibillini. On this other side the Sabines bordered Umbria and Picenum. Then the boundary line turned back towards Rome, following the left bank of the Nar river (Nera), leaving however Narni and Otricoli to the Umbri, then followed the Tiber as far as Fidene. But of this wide territory crossed by the Imella, the Fabari, the Allia and the Velino rivers, only the Velino basin was comprised in present Abruzzo Ulteriore II, where today there is the district of Cittaducale and part of the district of Aquila, from the springs of the Velino, in the territory of Cittaducale, as far as the mountain canyons Esta, or Lista. Therefore, in the most ancient times the territory of the Sabines was placed in the north of Abruzzo, where the Apennines were steeper and higher. In this mountainous land, where the highest peaks of the Apennines (Pizzo di Sevo, Terminillo, Maiella) can be found, was the first settlement of the ancient tribes, probably called Aborigines, who gave way to the warlike Sabines.

The Sabines were among the most ancient peoples of Italy, so ancient that Strabo considered them native; and from them many other Italic populations were derived. The Sabines also were an Umbrian tribe; according to some sources they crossed to Italy from the vicinity of the Sabi river in Peonia, Illyria, though others would have liked to consider them as originating from Sparta.

Their national God was Sabo, or Sabino, who was considered their original ancestor. In their wild lands they had so grown in numbers that the history of this population is rich with the names of tribes derived from them, and who drifted apart by way of different migrations. Sacred animals, according to ancient historians, led the young homeless Sabellians in their migrations. In this way the Sabines moved and spread to Latium and nearby lands. Since these tribes were very warlike, they easily subdued nearby populations, until with the rise of Rome, two cities and two rising civilizations melded into one (Albani, Latins ans Sabines) to conquer the world.

Since the earliest Roman times the Sabines were a population rich with warriors, famous for their love of battles, harsh spirit and their toughness and resistance. Hardened by work and cultivating their lands, like the Etruscans they could drive a plough and hold a sword. They joined their ancient origin with the veneration of traditional values and the finest institutions. No other people could emulate them in justice, honesty, love for their homeland, parsimony and modesty. Among the ancient, Sabine women were held as models of honesty and prudence.

Valiant and warlike, the Sabines showed their courage in the long wars against the Romans. As Rome increased in power, the long peace with the Sabines was broken. But in Rome they introduced their patriarcal and warlike habits and their religious character was symbolized in King Numa (Note of Translator: Numa Pompilius, 753-673 BC was the legendary second king of Rome.). With the story of the alliance of two cities, a Latin city on the Palatino hill and a Sabine city on the Quirinale and Capitolino, both legend and history show the importance that the mountainous Sabines had in the foundation of Rome.

Ancient stories, such as the rape of the Sabine women, which possibly point to the moment of fusion of the two peoples, the war that broke out between them with the sovereignty divided between Romulus and Titus Tatius, the religious and political laws passed by king Numa, certainly pertain only to the Sabines living in Latium, while those who remained among the mountains of Abruzzo were not included in the early history of Rome. But with the growing of the new state, which became powerful and menacing for its neighbours, at the time of Tullius Hostilius, the Sabines from the mountains of Abruzzo made war to the Romans. They were defeated twice and obliged to a truce, which they broke only to be defeated a third time by king Ancus Martius. They made peace with Rome again, but this friendship lasted only for a short time: before Tarquinius Priscus became the king of Latium, they joined the Etruscans against the Romans. Near Fidene there was a terrible defeat, followed by a six years' truce. Finally they were defeated by Tarquinius the Proud at Ereto and Fidene, and became subjects and tax-payers of the Romans.

When the kings were expelled from Rome(Note of Translator: in 509 BC), and the Sabines saw Rome weakened by the wars with the Etruscans, they set out to wage war again: and the frequent wars created desolation in the Sabine territories. In 404, according to Velleius, they obtained Roman citizenship without suffrage: twenty-two years later, in the same year when a colony from them was sent to Benevento, they obtained full citizenship. But Niebuhr (Note of Translator: Barthold Georg Niebuhr, 1776 – 1831, was Germany's leading historian of Ancient Rome.) is not so sure about this, for thirty years later the two tribes Velina and Quirina were created, comprising the Sabines living around the Velino and Cure; Cicero instead, states that the Sabines were included with the rustic tribe called Sergia, one of the most ancient in Rome. Not all of the Sabine population enioyed Roman citizenship from the start.

Some towns remained prefecturae, and Amiternum and the settlements of the Sabine lands enjoyed the same right, since they offered their alliance to Scipio during the war against Carthago (Note of Translator: the Second Punic War from 218 to 201 BC.), but the Roman dictator was not allowed to enroll soldiers from their tribe. The Sabines did not take part to the social war, which saw only the participation of the Marsi and Samnites who, however, had taken origin from the Sabines. Such was the origin of this famous nation that, since time immemorial, was already civilized, and when obliged to accept the Roman supremacy, did not renounce their pristine simplicity or change their customs, so much so that in the most corrupted periods of Roman history they maintained a reputation of honesty, rude simplicity and manly courage. Horace (Note of Translator: Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65 – 8 BC) was among the main Roman poets. ) said:

Quod si pudica mulier in partem juvet
Domum, atque dulces liberos
Sabina qualis. [Epod. II] (Translation: If then she also, a pious bride looks
after the house and the sweet children,
similar to a Sabine wife

And elsewhere:
Sed rusticorum mascula militum
Proles, Sabellis docta ligonibus
Versare glaebas, et severae
Matris ad arbitrium recisos
Portare fustis... [Lib. III od. 6] (Approximate Translation: Theirs was a hardy soldier-brood, Inured all day the land to till With Sabine spade, then shoulder wood Hewn at a stern old mother's will...)

The Sabines governed their towns more with their austere customs than with institutions, more with ethics than laws, and they loved the simple countryside life better than the chaotic, easy town life; for these reasons their towns were few in number and small in size. The greater part of the population was dispersed into villages and boroughs built on mountain tops. According to the scanty memories left by ancient historians and geographers and with the evidence of usual travel routes, the small towns and villages of the Sabines in Abruzzo were the following.

First of all, a short distance from the left bank of the Aterno, in the eastern end of the region, they had Amiternum, one of the most ancient cities in Italy, where now the village of San Vittorino rises. A short distance from Amiternum there was Foruli, at the beginning of the Via Claudia Nuova and where now is Civitatomassa. Two miles from Foruli, in the vicinity of the Imella river, there was another Sabine town, mentioned by Virgil (Note of Translator: Publius Vergilius Maro, 70 BC – 19 BC, a celebrated Roman poet of the Augustan period.) under the name of Casperia, and by Silius Italicus as Casperula; but other sources located that settlement outside our boundaries, and exactly at Aspra, on the bank of the Aia river between Tivoli and Terni; others in the plain called Presenzano and still others, maybe with more reason, at Crespiola or Crispiola, a short distance from L'Aquila.

Near Amiternum they had a village called Testrina or Cestrina, where Cato said was the ancestral capital of this people, which has been identified in the territory of a castle at Vigliano, a place called Le Cisterne, 10 miles from Interocrea and 3 from Foruli. A very ancient borough was also Interocrea, present Antrodoco. A market place for the Sabines was Forum Decii, situated where now is Santa Croce, about 4 miles from Bacugno.

Another Sabine vicum, acknowledgedly famous as Emperor Vespasianus' birthplace, was Falacrine (Civitareale). Two miles north-east from Accumoli they had another village called Cose, and nearer to Accumoli another village called Badio. Another important town was Tiora, famous with nearby Matiena for an ancient oracle of Mars, which rose where now we can find Teora. In the present valley of Sant'Anatolia there was the ancient town of Lista, once capital of the Aborigines, later occupied by the Sabines, a town which others identify instead as Lisciano; and Cotilia, whose foundation goes back to the most ancient of times in Italy, a little far away from present Cittaducale and not far from Paterno, in a place that is still today called Cotilia.

Apart from the described cities ant towns, there were surely more inhabited settlements in Abruzzo whose names never reached us. Borghetto, a small place near Antrodoco, was certainly a place inhabited by the Sabines, as shown by ancient epigraphs found there. Especially at Amatrice there are still remains of walls, a fortress, a covered street which led to the Castellano stream. This borough was believed to coincide with the Sabine town called Scaptia, but Plinius, at the time when this town was already in ruin, said it was in Latium.

We shall finish now citing the mountains known to the Sabines, first of all Mons Fiscellus, which Plinius placed at the springs of the Nar river (Nera), which is still today called Fiscello, in the municipalities of Leonessa, Labbro, Morro and Piediluco, where this mountain join the chain of the Tetrici mountains, the "montes Gurgures" at Poggio Bustone, between Reate (i.e. Rieti)) and Leonessa, and where the sheep migrated to the pastures of Apulia: the mons Severus described by Virgil:

"Qui Tetricae horrentes rupes, montemque Severum
Casperiam colunt" [Aeneid, VIII Book]
(Translation: who inhabit Casperia, the dismal rocks of Tetrici and mount Severum)

and identified with the mountains of Cantalice, now Cima di Monte, monte Corno and Tilia, which join mount Fiscello being divided only by a valley, and finally mons Tetricus, the wild mountain, which might be present Terminillo."