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The Hirpini (Latin: Hirpini; Greek: Ἱρπινοί;[1]) were an ancient Samnite people of Southern Italy. While general regarded as having been Samnites, sometimes they are treated as a distinct and independent nation. They inhabited the southern portion of Samnium, in the more extensive sense of that name, roughly the area now known as Irpinia from their name—a mountainous region bordering on Basilicata towards the south, on Apulia to the east, and on Campania towards the west. No marked natural boundary separated them from these neighboring nations, but they occupied the lofty masses and groups of the central Apennines, while the plains on each side, and the lower ranges that bounded them, belonged to their more fortunate neighbors. The mountain basin formed by the three tributaries of the Vulturnus (modern Volturno)—the Tamarus (modern Tamaro), Calor (mod. Calore), and Sabatus (mod. Sabato), which, with their valleys, unite near Beneventum, surrounded on all sides by lofty and rugged ranges of mountains—is the center and heart of their territory. Its more southern portion comprised the upper valley of the Aufidus (modern Ofanto) and the lofty group of mountains where that river takes its rise.


Their name derives, according to ancient writers, from hirpus, the Oscan for wolf; and, in accordance with this derivation, their first ancestors were supposedly guided to their new settlements by a wolf.[2] This tradition implies that the Hirpini were regarded as having migrated, like the other Sabellian races in the south of Italy, from the north, but when this migration occurred is unknown. From their position in the vastnesses of the central Apennines, they were probably there long before they first appear in history.

Affiliations and history[edit]

Map of ancient Samnium from The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1911.

The early history of the Hirpini cannot be separated from that of the Samnites in general. Their name does not once occur in history during the long protracted struggle between the Romans and the Samnite confederacy (the Samnite Wars), though their territory was often the theatre of the war, and several of their cities, especially Maloenton (Roman Maleventum, modern Benevento), are repeatedly mentioned as bearing an important part in the military operations of both powers. Hence, the Hirpini at this time must have formed an integral part of the Samnite league, and were included by the Roman annalists (whose language on such points Livy follows with scrupulous fidelity) under the general name of Samnites, without distinguishing between the several tribes of that people. For the same reason we can't fix the exact period when the Roman's subjugated them, but it must have been before 268 BCE, when the Roman's established their colony at Beneventum,[3] a position that likely was the military key to the possession of their country.

In the Second Punic War, the Hirpini appear as an independent people, acting apart from the rest of the Samnites. Livy expressly uses the name of Samnium in contradistinction to the land of the Hirpini.[4] The latter people was one of those that declared in favour of Hannibal immediately after the battle of Cannae, 216 BCE;[5] but the Roman colony of Beneventum never fell into the hands of the Carthaginian general. As early as the following year, three of the smaller towns of the Hirpini were recovered by the Roman praetor M. Valerius.[6] In 214 BCE, their territory was the scene of the operations of Hanno against Tiberius Gracchus, and again in 212 BCE of those of the same Carthaginian general with a view to the relief of Capua.[7] It was not until 209 BCE, when Hannibal lost all footing in the center of Italy, that the Hirpini submitted to Rome, and gained favourable terms by betraying the Carthaginian garrisons in their towns.[8]

The Hirpini next figure in history in the Social War (90 BC), when they were among the first to take up arms against Rome. In the campaign of the following year, (89 BCE), Sulla took Aeclanum, one of their strongest cities. The blow struck such terror into the rest that they offered submission, and were admitted to favourable terms.[9] Even before this there appears to have been a party in the nation favorable to Rome, as Minatius Magius (the ancestor of the historian Velleius), a native of Aeclanum, was not only himself faithful to the Roman cause, but raised an auxiliary legion among his countrymen to support the Roman generals in Campania.[10] The Hirpini were undoubtedly admitted to the Roman franchise after the war, and their national existence ended. They appear to have suffered less than their neighbours, the Samnites, from the ravages of the war, but considerable portions of their territory were confiscated, and it would seem, from a passage in Cicero, that a large part of it passed into the hands of wealthy Roman nobles.[11]

By the division of Italy under Augustus, the Hirpini were separated from the other Samnites, and placed in the second Region along with Apulia and Calabria, while Samnium itself was included in the fourth Region.[12] The same separation was retained also in the later divisions of Italy under the Roman Empire, according to which Samnium, in the more confined sense, formed a small separate province, while Beneventum and the greater part, if not all other towns of the Hirpini, were included in the province of Campania. The Liber Coloniarum includes all the towns of Samnium, as well as those of the Hirpini, among the "Civitates Campaniae", but this is probably a mistake.[13]

Towns and cities[edit]

National characteristics of the Hirpini cannot be separated from those of other Samnites, nor is it always easy to separate the limits of the Hirpini from those of neighbouring Samnite tribes. More especially, almost exclusively to the Imperial times, when the original distinctions of the tribes were mostly obliterated. Pliny's list of towns in the second region is more than usually obscure, and those of the Hirpini and of Apulia are mixed up together in a most perplexing manner. Towns assigned with certainty to the Hirpini include: Beneventum, Aeclanum, Abellinum, Compsa, Aquilonia, Romulea, Trivicum, Equus Tuticus, and Murgantia.

Beneventum is the most important city in this part of Italy, and is often referred to Samnium. Pliny called it the only Roman colony in Hirpini territory.[14] Aeclanum is a flourishing and important town nearly in the heart of Hirpini territory. Abellinum is on the confines of Campania, and near the sources of the Sabatus. Compsa (modern Conza) is near the head waters of the Aufidus and borders on Lucania. Aquilonia and Romulea are near the frontiers of Apulia, in the southeastern portion of the Hirpinian territory. Trivicum and Equus Tuticus (modern Sant'Eleuterio) also adjoin the Apulian frontiers. Murgantia, near the sources of the Frento, seems to have been the furthest northeast of the Hirpinian towns, if correctly placed at modern Baselice.

In the valley of the Tamarus, north of the territory of Beneventum, were the Ligures Barbiani et Corneliani, a colony of Ligurians transplanted to the heart of these mountain regions in 180 BCE,[15] who continued to exist as a separate community in the days of Pliny.[16] Of the minor towns of the Hirpini, three are mentioned by Livy[17] as retaken by the praetor M. Valerius in 215 BCE; but the names given in the manuscripts,[18] Vescellium, Vercellium, and Sicilinum, are probably corrupt: they are all otherwise unknown, except that the Vescellani are also found in Pliny's list of towns.[19] Ferentinum, mentioned also by Livy (x. 17), in connection with Romulea, is also wholly unknown. Fratulum[20] of which the name is found only in Ptolemy, is equally uncertain. Taurasia mentioned as a town only in the celebrated epitaph of Scipio Barbatus, left its name to the Taurasini Campi not far from Beneventum, and must therefore have been itself situated in that neighborhood. Aletrium, of which the name is found in Pliny[21] has been conjectured to be the modern Calitri, a village in the upper valley of the Aufidus, not far from Compsa (Conza). Of the other obscure names given by the same author, it is impossible (as already observed) to determine which belong to the Hirpini.

Volcanic structures[edit]

The most remarkable natural curiosity in the land of the Hirpini was the valley and lake, or rather pool, of Amsanctus, celebrated by Virgil in a manner that shows its fame to have been widely spread through Italy.[22] It is remarkable as the only trace of volcanic action remaining in the central chain of the Apennines.[23]


The country of the Hirpini, despite its rugged, mountainous character, was traversed by several Roman roads, all of which connected to the Via Appia. The main line of that road went from Capua to Beneventum. There, it branched into two, one to Aeclanum, Romulea, and Aquilonia, Venusia (modern Venosa), and then to Tarentum (modern Taranto). This was the proper Via Appia. The other branch, known from the time of Trajan (who first made it safe for carriages) as the Via Trajana went from Beneventum through Forum Novum (modern Buonalbergo), Equus Tuticus (San Eleuterio), Aecae in Apulia, and then through Herdonea and Canusium (modern Canosa) to Brundusium (modern Brindisi). The course of these roads through Hirpini land has been traced with care by Mommsen.[24]


  1. ^ Polybius; Ἱρπῖνοι, Strabo, Appian.
  2. ^ Strabo v. p. 250; Servius ad Aeneidos xi. 785.
  3. ^ Livy Epit. xv.; Velleius Paterculus i. 14.
  4. ^ Livy xxii. 13, xxiii. 43.
  5. ^ Id. xxii. 61, xxiii. 1.
  6. ^ Id. xxiii. 37.
  7. ^ Id. xxiv. 14-16, xxv. 13, 14.
  8. ^ Id. xxvii. 15.
  9. ^ Appian, B.C. i. 39, 51.
  10. ^ Velleius Paterculus ii. 16.
  11. ^ Cicero De lege agraria iii. 2; August Wilhelm Zumpt, De Coloniis p. 258.)
  12. ^ (Pliny the Elder iii. 11. s. 16, 12. s. 17.
  13. ^ Lib. Col. pp. 229--239; Mommsen, ad Lib. Col. pp. 159,205, 206; Marquardt, Handb. d. Röm. Alterthümer. vol. iii pp. 62, 63.
  14. ^ Plin. iii. 11. s. 16.
  15. ^ Livy xl. 38, 41.
  16. ^ Plin. iii. 11. s. 16; Lib. Col. p. 235.
  17. ^ xxiii. 37.
  18. ^ See Alschefski, ad loc.).
  19. ^ Plin. l. c.
  20. ^ Greek: Φρατούολον, Ptol. iii. 1. § 71.
  21. ^ "Aletrini", iii. 11. s. 16.
  22. ^ Virgil Aen. vii. 563.)
  23. ^ Charles Daubeny on Volcanoes, p. 191.
  24. ^ Topografia degli Irpini, in the Bullettino dell' Inst. Archeol. 1848, pp. 6-13.


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