The ancient history of Capena –
Capena has origins in ancient history – traces of habitation go back to prehistoric times, doubtless because of the plentiful supply of caves for shelter, sources of water and rich animal life.
The original settlement of Capena was founded on the site nowadays known as La Civitucola, some three kilometres north of present-day Capena (which was called Leprignano until 1933). Ancient Capena was a thriving town, situated close to the Tiber river and the sanctuary and commercial hub of Lucus Feroniae, from the time of its foundation in the Iron Age to the end of the Roman Empire.
The Capenati were one of the Italic peoples that prospered in Lazio before the advent of Rome. The tribe’s culture had its own original aspects but external influences were also apparent. Its people spoke a quite distinct language allied to Etruscan, which was similar to Latin but with Sabine influences.
The lands of the ancient Capenate tribe were located along the right bank of the Tiber: including the present-day towns of Capena, Fiano, Morlupo, Castelnuovo and Riano.
Their proximity to the Tiber was crucial to their historical development. This major trade route ran from eastern central Adriatic across the Piceno and Sabine Hills to the Tyrrhenian Sea to allow a flourishing economic and cultural trade until the Bronze Age.
Some ancient sources suggest that another religious centre was also located on Monte Soratte on the border with the Falisco area, where Apollo Sorano was worshipped.
From the end of the 7th century to the beginning of the 6th century BC, the Etruscan culture began to prevail over the Capenate culture more and more. This process culminated with the admission of the Capenate people into the confederation of Etruscan peoples.
In the fourth century BC, a legendary ten-year war was waged for the control of this part of the Tiber between the allied Veii, Capenati and Falisci tribes and Rome. The struggle ended in the defeat of the allies c.395 BC and with the fall of Veii at the hand of Furius Camillus.
After the Roman conquest, the entire area was conscripted to the Stellatina tribe and a Federated Municipality was set up in 387 AD. During the Imperial period, part of the area was annexed into the Patrimonium Caesaris and the number of landed estates grew, revealed by the numerous large houses that grew up in the area. The best known of these is Villa dei Volusii.
The unstable imperial authority and inflation drove the nobility out of the city to their country estates. All the large villas of the late Imperial period now began to take on the appearance of what they would later become: a medieval manor with a castle, a central nucleus and a fortified village known as a castrum.
Ancient Capena survived until the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, after which all traces of it were lost. The locality has not been inhabited since then – apart from minor activity during the 14th century AD – and only one Roman structure survives above ground, the monumental ruin known locally as il Castellaccio (shown right), which may have originally been a temple and later a church.
It was not until the pioneering work of Pierluigi Galletti in the mid-18th century that La Civitucola was decisively identified as the site of Capena’s former location. Even then, it took more than a hundred years for other historians to reach a consensus that Galletti had been correct.
Until recently, the site of ancient Capena had never been subjected to systematic excavation. However, in 2006 a geophysical survey documented the presence of substantial buried structures, such as roads, buildings and terraces, across the plateau of the ancient town (an area of approximately nine hectares) and since 2007 Dr Roman Roth – now of the University of Cape Town – has led a series of archaeological projects here, investigating a representative sample of these structures. Dr Roth’s team has stayed at Casa Galilei during its work.
To read more about the Capena Excavation Project, please click here.
Casa Capena thanks Dr Roth for granting permission to use the photographs reproduced on this page.