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entry September 2010, add - August 2018

Pastoralism, the Lucanians & the Alburni Mounts
Green Pastures on the Flank of the Dove

The Costa Palomba is the south-western flank of the "Alburni Mounts" (here, seen from across the Calore valley). The town on the slope in the center is Castelcivita at 526 meters (c. 1700 feet). The plateau slopes upward to the northwest from about 1100 m. with peaks above 1700 m. (c. 5500 feet). The high flank, dropping off on the left, is directly above the Paestum plain.

The term costa in Italian generally means the same thing as "coast" in English —a stretch of land bordering on the sea. It can, however, also mean "mountain side," or "flank of a mountain." Thus, in the Cilento Hills just a few miles inland from Paestum, the remarkable geological feature uplifted between the Calore river (in the valley in the center of the above photo) and the Sele river (on the other side, not visible in this photo) is called i monti Alburni, the Alburni Mounts, named for the principal height on the plateau, Mount Alburno, visible in the photo (the peak sticking up to the right of center). Costa Palomba is the local name for the south-western flank visible in the photo. (Palomba is dialect for the Italian colomba, dove. Note the similarity to the Spanish, paloma.) Indeed, there is something aerodynamic about the entire massif, as it if it were about to go airborne, to take off. The plateau extends for some distance beyond the photo to the right.

The entire tableland was for many centuries one of the target grazing lands, the end of the road, on the long seasonal migration of shepherds and livestock from the plains in the interior. In Italian, this type of seasonal movement is called transumanza (from Latin for "across the ground"). The area was apparently first used by an early Italic tribe called the Enotrians many centuries before the Greeks arrived to settle the nearby coast at Poseidonia (Paestum) in 600 BC, and then around 700-600 BC by the "transhumant pastoralists" who displaced the Enotrians, the Lucanians. The Lucanians were cousins of the Samnites, who were centered somewhat to the north near Benevento and who became later known as implacable enemies of the Romans. Most of these early Italic tribes had spread from north to south through Italy many centuries earlier as part of the Indo-European expansion. The myths of their expansion involve the so-called "rites of Spring" during which excess population was expelled from the parent group through a ritual of vicarious animal sacrifice; those sent off to seek their own valleys, hills and fortunes would, in turn, later stage their own "rites of Spring" and send off others. Thus, the peninsula filled up with Samnites, Lucanians, Enotrians, Sabines and, of course, Latins — the Romans, who made us forget all the others.

Anthropologists and archaeologists generally divide pastoralism into various kinds. You can have true migratory tribes who tend animals as a way of life and lead a nomadic life-style. In the case of southern Italy, however, pastoralism was of a different kind. These were not simple herders of goats and sheep, constantly on the move and eking out a subsistence-level life. The pastoralists in southern Italy were often from a solid, substantial culture for whom the ownership and migrating of livestock during the transumanza were cultural constructs, part of a much more complex life. The Samnites, for example, also great pastoralists with their own transumanza routes farther north, were a powerful and warlike culture. Moving animals back and forth along migration routes did more than just feed the animals; it gave the owners the opportunity to make themselves physically known in adjacent territory; it gave them the prestige of showing off their wealth of livestock; it let them form unions, make allies and engage in trade using the secondary products of the animals, such as wool and milk; and seasonal migration renewed contact among cousin peoples separated by the centuries—such as the Samnites and Lucanians.

Lucania in c. 600 BC                         

The ancient transumanza moved from the plains of eastern Lucania, crossed the main body of the Apennines into the western hills of the Cilento to enter upon the Alburni plateau at a point about 1100 meters above sea level near the modern town of Sant'Angelo a Fasanella (out of sight on the right in the photo at the top of this entry). There are still traces of a wall around the rocky perimeter of the summit, and near the entrance, there is still a somewhat mysterious rock carving, (photo, below) put in place either by early pastoralists or by later Samnites who moved into the area around 400 BC. Also, numerous ceramic fragments have been found strewn over the plateau; they bear cord decorations, and well as finger impressions and geometric designs that recall the final period of the Bronze Age. The ceramics apparently do not bear any alphabetic inscriptions, which puts them well before the year 700 BC (at which time the first pottery with Greek inscriptions appears at Pithecusa (Ischia). (Whatever inscriptions have been found in Oscan, the language of the Samnites and Lucanians, are from later centuries and are in Greek letters.) Also, at the base of the slopes, there are remains of circular huts set at ground level; they are relatively well preserved and typical of ancient shepherd communities.

Local lore throughout Italy still contains traces of the ancient migrations. There is, for example, a grotto near lake Fucino in the Abruzzi in central Italy said to be the abode of the snake goddess, Angitia; a cult to her grew up in the presence of the many difficulties and fears connected with the transumanza such as the presence of wolves and poisonous snakes that preyed on shepherds and livestock alike. The site became a target for pilgrimages among local farmers and migrant shepherds. The rituals were magical and therapeutic, all aimed not just at cursing the snakes but at the economic and psychological side of the long passage. ("Please get me through this in one piece with some healthy livestock left!")

passage below added August 2018

With the advent of modern zootechnics (the scientific managing of livestock, including handling, breeding, feeding and nutrition, preventive medicine and economics) and the large-scale raising of sheep in place, the transumanza has undergone a sharp reduction, indeed in many places has disappeared entirely. It is however, not a total anachronism. The places where sheep still "move to greener pastures," albeit on a reduced scale in Italy include some Alpine and pre-Alpine regions (foothills) in the Valle d'Aosta, Piemonte, Liguria, the Asiago plateau, Lessinia, Trentino, Alto Adige (South Tyrol) and Carnia, in the Apennine areas of Molise, the Abruzzi (mainly towards the Ager Romanus (literally, "the field of Rome", i.e. the geographical rural area that surrounds the city of Rome), and to the south in parts parts of Puglia and Lazio, and in Sardinia in Villagrande and Arzana. In Sicily, the transumanza still exists in the areas of Madonie and Geraci Siculo. Generally, the third Sunday on May is the day set to "move to the mountain," that is, land that is public in Geraci Siculo is opened to shepherds and their flocks. The herds and flocks spend the entire day wandering through the town to get to where they will "summer over" in the mountains. The image (above, right) shows the major transumanza trails in south-central Italy. The largest one was the NW to SW trail from the Abruzzi to Puglia. This ritual has attracted writers and poets. Gabriele D'Annunzio in his poem The Shepherds writes

«Settembre, andiamo. È tempo di migrare./ Ora in terra d'Abruzzi i miei pastori/lascian gli stazzi e vanno verso il mare:/
scendono all'Adriatico selvaggio/che verde è come i pascoli dei monti. »

It's September, let's go. It's time to move./ The shepherds in the land of the Abruzzi/Leave their folds and go to the sea:/
down to the wild Adriatic,/as green as the mountain meadows.

end of added section

The presence of pastoralists at the high elevation of the Alburni plateau was seasonal, limited to the warm summer months, after which they began the trek back down to the plains in the east. The extent to which they may have left permanent sites in the area is unclear, as is the exact relationship between the inhabitants of these sites and the newcomer Greeks on the coast at Paestum. At a certain point, around 600 BC, we do know that the Greeks were successful in establishing colonies of Magna Grecia at Poseidonia and Elia (Roman Velia), among other places in southern Italy, and that a couple of centuries later, the relationship between the native Lucanians and the coastal Greeks became belligerent. Greek colonists appealed to the "home country" for military help against the Lucanians, now in league with their cousin Samnites. Help arrived in the person of Alexander I of Epirus, an uncle of Alexander the Great. He was partially successful in battles with the Lucanian and Samnite forces at Poseidonia in 332 BC and in places farther south at Heraclea, Terina and Sipontum. He was killed in 331 at Pandosia (modern Mendicino) and the situation between the warring factions settled into somewhat of an equilibrium. Apparently, the Lucanians did manage to settle in at Poseidonia (changing the name to "Phistu," from which we derive the Roman and modern name, Paestum). They did not, on the other hand, take nearby Velia, nor is it clear that they even tried. (In the face of Roman expansion, the Greek-Lucanian-Samnite situation was not completely resolved until after the Fourth Samnite War, commonly called the "Pyrrhic War," from 284-272, and especially the decisive Roman victory over Hannibal in the Second Punic War in 202, which set the stage for a Roman takeover of the entire southern peninsula.)

Modern times have rendered the ancient seasonal migration of livestock obsolete, but the area is still full of local livestock and shepherds. The shepherds still tend their animals the way they have always done.

Other mention of the transumanza here.

Also see Roccagloriosa  &  Towns of the Alburni.

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