Santa Maria Capua Vetere, the city that changed its name after the unification of Italy

by Luca Fortis

There are places in Campania that, despite the considerable historical and artistic importance, are almost completely outside the tourist destinations, one of these is certainly Santa Maria Capua Vetere.

International tourism tends to select a few destinations, which have now become almost iconic or pop. Pompeii, Herculaneum, Capri, the Amalfi Coast, recently Naples. The territories north of the Neapolitan city and in the province of Caserta, they are instead places, if we exclude the Royal Palace of Caserta, still largely out of the loop.

The history of Santa Maria Capua Vetere

When it comes to Santa Maria Capua Vetere, lancient Capua, should not be confused with today's Capua. The Capua Antica was born in the ninth century BC and was an Oscan, Etruscan, Samnite and finally Roman city. His relationship with the Romans was ambiguous. In the fourth century it was probably the largest city of the Italian peninsula and under siege by the Samnites, it asked for help from the Romans. The Roman Senate, which had just signed a non-belligerent pact with the Samnites, refused.

The ambassadors of Capua handed over the entire city to Rome to get out of the impasse, to force it to defend it, Capua thus became Roman. However, the relationship deteriorated when, during the second Punic war, the city allied itself with the Carthaginians by Hannibal who had occupied it. When the Romans regained control of Capua, they did not forgive her for the betrayal and its political importance began to decline, although it remained an important economic center. Here luxury goods such as perfumes, bronzes, ceramics and ointments were produced. The merchants of the city even settled in Delos, Greece.

The Matres Matutae and the ex voto of the mothers

To see the magnificent and enigmatic Matres Matutae and the statues ex voto of mothers, you have to visit the Archaeological Museum of the city. The statues were found in 1800 inside the remains of a temple in Petrara. There was a statue different from the others, without children, who had a pomegranate in his right hand and a dove in his left, both symbols of fertility, according to archaeologists, Mater Matuta was ancient Italic divinity of dawn and birth.

While the mothers holding babies in swaddling clothes were ex voto to obtain the gift of fecundity or to give thanks for having obtained it. They are truly iconic statues, mothers seem to be competing as to which one holds the most children. According to archaeologists they are the most eloquent testimony of the cult with which the ancient Campania honored the mystery of life, considering the birth as a divine event. Chronologically they are found in a period of time that goes from VI BC to II BC

Santa Maria Capua Vetere, la città che cambiò nome dopo l’Unità d’Italia
Mother ex voto, Archaeological Museum of Santa Maria Capua Vetere

The Campanian Amphitheater

The arch of Hadrian instead it was the city gate on the Via Appia: you have to come here to understand how the Roman road system was the backbone of the Roman Empire.

Unfortunately, dell'amphitheater from which the revolt of Spartacus only the foundations remain, but a few hundred meters away, there is another splendid one from the imperial era.

The second largest Roman amphitheater in the Italian peninsula, after the Colosseum, it was built in the 2nd century AD. The very famous were held here gladiator games. The arch keys of the first two orders housed 240 relief busts of divinities, including Jupiter, Juno, Demeter, Diana, Mercury, Minerva, Volturno, Mercury and Mitra. There were also Pan's heads, satyrs and theatrical masks, statues of Venus, Adonis and Cupid and Psyche were then found. The dungeons were splendid where there were all the stage machines and equipment that allowed the gladiatorial show to function and create special effects.

Attached to the theater there is then the Museum of the Gladiators, which deserves to be developed more, perhaps with virtual reality. Surely the city could make better use of the story of Spartacus and his own revolt of 73 BC. to attract tourists and create cultural events. The events of the well-known rebel gladiator took place here, because in the city, as he remembers Suetonius in "De Vitae Caesarum ", there was “a very well-known gladiator school, composed by themselves slaves of great stature and strength, who were trained to give life to bloody shows, where only those who won had the chance to survive ". 

To tell the whole story of Spartacus here would be impossible, but his personal story and that of the slave revolt was certainly one of the most important in the whole West.

Santa Maria Capua Vetere, la città che cambiò nome dopo l’Unità d’Italia
Amphitheater of Santa Maria Capua Vetere
Santa Maria Capua Vetere, la città che cambiò nome dopo l’Unità d’Italia
Amphitheater of Santa Maria Capua Vetere
Santa Maria Capua Vetere, la città che cambiò nome dopo l’Unità d’Italia
Amphitheater of Santa Maria Capua Vetere

The mithraeum

TO Santa Maria Capua Vetere one cannot fail to visit the splendid and perfectly preserved mithraeum. It is believed to be the oldest in the West and one of the most important. Historians say that the solar cult of Indo-Persian origin it enters Campania through slaves and merchants who arrived in Pozzuoli from the port of Delos.

In the Roman Empire the new religion takes on mystical characteristics and makes proselytes especially among soldiers, slaves and gladiators and this explains the particular diffusion in Capua, not surprisingly Miter it is also depicted in the keystones of the arches of the Amphitheater. Discovered in the 1920s under a turret building, the hypogeum evokes the cave in which Mitra was born and imprisons the bull.

You enter from a small and dark corridor and suddenly the splendid hall opens up. The gaze is immediately captured byfresco of Mithras sacrificing the bull at the back of the room. On the sides there are the seats for the faithful, the room is covered by a starry vault that in ancient times must have sparkled with glass paste gems, while the floor is in earthenware and marble.

In the central fresco in which he sacrifices the bull, Mithras is dressed in oriental-style clothes, with a red cloak which, opening, shows the celestial vault. Scholars point out that everything in the image recalls that Mithras is a cosmic deity. From the wound of the bull gushes the blood that generates life and all beneficial plants.

The grain is generated from the tail and the grape vine is born from the blood that is licked by a dog. Ahriman, the god of evil, sends a snake and a scorpion that grips his genitals, to block fertility.

On the other walls there are splendid frescoes, among which one stands out with rare scenes of initiation into the mystery cult of Mithras. The path of purification it involved very violent tests of courage and strength, in which the initiate was naked, blindfolded, with his hands tied and on his knees. Each rank achieved was related to the protection of a planet. There are some signs that indicate that the place of worship was closed in the 4th century, in particular, the archaeologists have found some marks left intentionally on the figure of Mithras, from whom a pendant that wore around his neck was torn and part of his face was disfigured.

Santa Maria Capua Vetere, la città che cambiò nome dopo l’Unità d’Italia
The mithraeum of Santa Maria Capua Vetere

Santa Maria Capua Vetere, la città che cambiò nome dopo l’Unità d’Italia
The mithraeum of Santa Maria Capua Vetere

The end of the city: Radelchi I and the Berber Kalfun

The history of ancient Capua ended in 841 AD, when in the beautiful half of a succession fight to the Benevento duchy, Radelchi I, hired a band of North African Saracens commanded by the Berber Kalfun, which later became the first of the three Islamic emirs who ruled Bari, in the short period in which the Apulian city became a Muslim emirate.


Werner Johannowsky, Archaic period materials from Campania, Capua Sessa Aurunca, Cales, Calatia, Naples, 1983

Werner Johannosky, Ancient Capua, photographs by Marialba Russo, Naples, Banco di Napoli, 1989

Angela Palmenteri, On a figured arch key of the Campanian Amphitheater, Naples Most Noble. Journal of Arts, Philology and History, LXVII, 2010

Lorenzo Quillici, Municipalities of Brezza, Capua, San Prisco. L'Erma di Bretschneider, 2002, Isbn 978-88-8265-315-6


Become a supporter!

We have decided to remove advertisements from the website to ensure maximum enjoyment of our stories. However, we need financial support to keep our editorial activities alive: join the supporters of our platform, for you many advantages and preview videos!

Leave a comment

error: NOTICE: You can't copy the content!