Sardinian History – The Roman Age

nora 1Before carrying on with the history, what I want to underline is the metaphysical aspect of the account, or rather of Sardinia itself. There is something strange about an ancient people able to carve houses into the granite and build so many thousands of unique stone structures, the nuraghi, like nowhere else in the world. And the Neolithic dolmens, giants’ tombs, sacred pits, etc., all of them prehistoric masterpieces of a silent past. All without any writing, any text, any clear sign of affiliation. A population deep-rooted in an old and large island that stands out thanks to its invisibility, its ability to disappear down into the Mediterranean Sea like the last submarine in a game of Battleship, and absent in the chronicles.

No other populace in the remote past built so much, architecturally innovative and perfect, and spread out across such a large region. And no other civilization is as invisible as the Sardinians. History books speak about the Mesopotamian civilization, and then the Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek, Roman civilizations, etc. Maybe you can find words about Lebanon, Crete or Cyprus, the great story of Carthage, but surely you will not find anything—at least in the unspecialized books—about the Sardinians. Everybody in the world knows about the megalithic monument of Stonehenge, circa 3000 BC, set in another part of the ancient world, in Wiltshire. Nobody knows of the sixty menhirs of Pranu Mutteddu, for example, circa 2500 BC, which lined a path towards the mystery of the death, a tomb dug into a unique monolith transported who knows how from elsewhere. Or the large Domus De Janas (‘the house of the small fairies’) of St. Andrea Priu with corridors and underground temples, 4300 – 3000 BC. Or the Holy Pit of Santa Caterina, of which the precision and the technical solutions used in its construction would be extraordinary even today.

Sardinia seems to transcend the usual laws of history, and scholars are still confused and unable to retrace and precisely situate its historical events. This uncertainty about origins, dates and names, adds a sort of constant invisibility, marks Sardinia like a trade name, an historical curse, who knows, and induces a definite estrangement not only to scholars but to sensitive visitors and researchers too.

This sentiment, like an awareness of something abstruse and recondite, accompanies the best modern Sardinian artists, not only writers like Grazia Deledda and Salvatore Satta, but also sculptors like Francesco Ciusa and painters like Giovanni Ciusa Romagna, Antonio Ballero, Giuseppe Biasi, Stanis Dessy and Carmelo Floris. It is a transversal feeling too that conquers foreign artists who decided to stay in Sardinia, like the Spanish painter Antonio Ortis Echague or the German photographer Marianne Sin-Pfältzer, as if Sardinia were only a metaphysical and not a real place. A state of the soul; a soul of estrangement.

The Romans changed Sardinian history as they did for all the ancient civilizations.

The Romans divided Sardinia from Barbagia—in the same way they created Barbagia, at least giving her a name, a definition and borders. They conquered Sardinia, of course, and built villages and towns and harbours. There are splendid Roman remains along the coasts, like the town of Nora, which deserves an ad hoc visit (see the picture above).

Since a trip from the coasts of Sardinia to Rome took only a day or two, the Romans cultivated grain in the southern plains of Sardinia and grapevines in the hills. And several times, during the centuries, they tried to defeat the population of Barbagia.

In vain.

According to some historians, the fight between the Romans and Barbagia lasted for one thousand years—not battles every day, luckily, but with long pauses. Read the book Passavamo Sulla Terra Leggeri (We Walked on the Earth, Lightly), by Sergio Atzeni, published by Ilisso, which is not a history book but poetically tells about the past populations and their encounters with the foreign invaders or traders, and then their retreat in front of Roman armies up to the gorges of the inner mountains. A people used to dealing with space more than with time, able to measure distances and calculate celestial orbits, to design always-new villages, without considering time and the development of history all around. “Sometimes, history isn’t the kingdom of the truth,” as Atzeni said.

Barbagia never surrendered to the Romans. They kept clear from these people who were never subdued but disdainful, and able to disappear into the abysses of their territory and successfully use the unconventional guerrilla tactics (they were the first to do so in the world) against which the Roman legions were powerless. As I have said in other articles, Tacitus and Titus Livy also wrote about the campaigns in Sardinia led by various consuls. One of the most disastrous military operations took place in 19 BC, when a threatening army, including four thousand Jewish deportees, was completely slaughtered just at the border of Barbagia. It was an incredible military success for the local people, deserving the same fame as Thermopylae—if Barbagia were a real place and not a metaphysical concept and so destined to remain dramatically invisible.

The Romans used a new breed of dogs, called fonnese, to defeat the guerrillas, without result. Eventually, they gave up, considering Barbagia useless and uninteresting. There are no Roman roads, nor, in fact, temples, aqueducts or amphitheatres in Barbagia.

Of course, the Romans didn’t celebrate their defeats. And so that population living maybe two days away from Rome, not more, was not mentioned in the books and erased from history. It is a destiny or a curse, as I have said.

The fall of the Roman Empire didn’t change anything in Sardinia. Barbagia continued to live isolated and secluded, following its own rules and codes, while the rest of Sardinia became the usual prey of the new invaders, the Saracens and the Byzantines who dominated the following centuries.

Now, a short reflection. If you love the study of human history, if you love archaeology, you have a unique stage, a theatre as rich as nowhere else, and right in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea: the perfect place to investigate, to devote time and attention. So you would expect thousands of specialists, professors, and experts. Dedicated universities, erudite researches. Not at all. The modern discovery of Sardinia followed another plot—obviously fitting with its history. The hordes of the new invaders, the tourists, stumbled on enchanting beaches and seas, forgetting the hinterland and Barbagia, and so unconsciously conforming themselves to the actions of the historic swarms from other countries and civilizations. Sardinia is today a number of splendid coasts, in spite of the fact that so many treasures are hidden inland: mankind’s wealth is once again unseen, unrevealed.

Ciriaco Offeddu


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