Oldest Recorded History in Molise
Situated on a rocky crest rising between the Carpino and the Sordo rivers, the Italian province of Isernia in the Molise region has one of the oldest recorded histories in Italy. The area of Isernia was settled at least 700,000 years ago and the nearby site known as La Pineta has been cited in Science magazine as the most ancient site where traces of use of fire by humans have been found.
The plan of Isernia still reflects the ancient layout of the Roman town, with a central wide street called the cardo maximus still represented by Corso Marcelli, and side streets at right angles on both sides.
The area was founded three centuries before the birth of Christ by the Samnites, a warrior tribe of original Italian people that ruled the Abruzzi-Molise region of Italy.
The first recorded mention of the area occurs in 295 BCE, at which time it had already fallen into the hands of the Romans. Its name, Aesernia, most likely derives from the Roman word aeser, meaning “water.”
Aesernia became a key communication center between southern Italy and the inner Appennine Regions. This colony is again mentioned in 209 BCE as one of the eighteen which remained faithful to Rome at the most trying period of the Second Punic War. During the war the city adhered to the Roman cause, and was gallantly defended against the Samnite general Vettius Scato, by Marcus Claudius Marcellus. Yet after a long protracted siege, it was compelled by famine to surrender in 90 BCE.
Aesernia was once again restored to glory when it nearly became a colony of Julius Caesar, and again of Augustus. Although it never officially enjoyed the rank of a colony, it appears from inscriptions to have been a municipal town of some importance in the time of Trajan and the Antonines. To this period belong the remains of an aqueduct and a fine Roman bridge, still visible to this day.
As if it was plagued from the start, Isernia suffered destruction numerous times in history, as it was destroyed by the Saracens in 800, sacked by the Count of Molise in 1199, and set on fire in 1223 by the soldiers of Frederick II. It was not until 1519 that it was freed from feudal servitude by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and became a city in the Kingdom of Naples.
Mother Nature has also taken a toll on Isernia, as earthquakes in 847, 1349, 1456 and 1805 caused massive devastation. Ruin fell upon Isernia once again on the morning of September 10, 1943, during World War II, when bombs were launched over a crowded town on market day causing thousands of deaths.
Although having suffered repeated destruction, Isernia preserves a large number of historical remains that are worth a visit. The famous Fontana Fraterna, the town’s main symbol, was built in the 13th century and is made up of stone’s slabs from ruined Roman monuments. The monument is dedicated to Pope Celestine V, a native son.
Some other sites of interest are the Palazzo San Francesco, a monumental Gothic construction that now houses the Town Hall, and the Museo Santa Maria delle Monache, on the site of the former Romanesque Convent of Santa Maria Assunta, where prehistoric remains of Paleolithic origin are conserved. The remains were discovered in the neighboring town of La Pineta, an archaeological site of international importance that bears the remains of an ancient Paleolithic settlement from more than 730,000 years ago. The site contains thousands of bones and stone tools and was discovered in 1979 by an amateur naturalist. The site was clearly created by humans, but its purpose is still unknown.
Isernia boasts the important shrine of the Santuario della Madonna Addolorata di Castelpetroso, now standing on the site where, in 1888, the Virgin Mary reputedly appeared to two milkmaids. In the Neo-Gothic style, it is made up of seven chapels, representing the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin, that surround the Sanctuary’s centerpiece, a 177-foot high dome.