Benevento History 101

A powerful Sannite town inhabited since the 7th century B.C., the original community was soundly defeated by the Romans in 275 B.C., after fierce opposition. The Roman Empire established a colony and changed the town's name from the original Malies, or Maloenton -- which in Latin sounded like a bad omen -- to Beneventum. Taken by the Goths at the decline of the Western Roman Empire, it was rescued by the Byzantines, who then relinquished it in turn to the Longobards. Finally, Benevento was absorbed into the state of the Church of Rome in the 16th century and remained relatively peaceful until it was almost completely destroyed by the earthquake of 1688. The city's archbishop -- who, in later years, was to become Pope Benedetto XIII -- rebuilt the city and supported its cultural and spiritual development. The reborn Benevento enjoyed a new period of prosperity until World War II, when the town was heavily bombarded by the United States in 1943 -- 65% of it, including important monuments, was destroyed, and 2,000 people were killed. The town has since recovered and become a lively and pleasant provincial town with an interesting hinterland.

The Witches of Benevento

Legend has it that Benevento is a land of witches and has been for thousands of years. The origins of the legend lie with the Egyptian cult of Isis -- goddess of magic and mystery among other things -- which found fertile ground in Benevento during the Roman era. The cult remained an important force here even after the cult was replaced by Christianity in other parts of Italy. When the Longobards from Central Europe took the town in A.D. 571, they imported their own religion, a nature cult based on the adoration of the god Wothan and his sacred walnut tree. They elected an old walnut near the Ponte Leproso as the town's sacred tree. (The Ponte Leproso was a bridge built by the Romans over the Sabato River at the Via Appia's entrance to Benevento; the bridge is still in use today, and you can see it by taking a short walk west of the Teatro Romano.) Around this walnut tree -- known as the Noce di Benevento -- the Longobards held their nocturnal open-air rituals which, combined with knowledge of the cult of Isis and the vivid imagination of the locals, gave rise to the witchcraft legend.

The Longobards were converted to the Catholic religion by Saint Barbato, the town's bishop, in the 7th century A.D., and the bishop had the tree cut down. The dances stopped; yet, some say, the witches remained, and can still be seen dancing by the site on certain nights.

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