In September 1934, a farmer was tending to his fields in the municipality of Capestrano, in the Abruzzo region of Italy, when his tools came across fragments of stone that would soon reveal themselves to be part of a grand sculpture. After notifying the authorities, archaeological excavations began, uncovering one of the masterpieces of pre-Roman antiquity sculpture in Italy.

The site turned out to be a vast funerary necropolis belonging to the Italic people of the Vestini Cismontani, one of the most important Picene tribes in the central region of Abruzzo before Romanization.

It was immediately transported to the National Museum of Rome for study and examined by the eminent archaeologist Giuseppe Moretti, who instantly deemed it one of the most significant pieces of Etruscan and pre-Roman Italy.

Dating back to around 550 B.C., at the beginning of the Iron Age in the region, the peculiar sculpture depicts a standing warrior in a martial posture with exaggeratedly wide hips (leading some researchers to suggest it might represent a woman). It stands about 2.5 meters tall, carved from local white limestone, bordered and supported by two pillars with engraved spears, one of which bears an inscription.

The warrior is armed, wearing sandals and a Etruscan mitra. Adorning the chest is a cardiophylax, a protective pectoral formed by two identical disks strapped to the chest. A harness encircles the torso, holding a sword with antennae and a dagger. The right hand holds a small axe, while the neck and arms are adorned with necklaces and bracelets. On the head rests a wide-brimmed helmet (which more resembles a shield) that originally had a crest of which only traces remain.

Some experts believe that the figure’s face is concealed behind a kind of ritual mask, suggesting the statue’s funerary nature.

It was named the Warrior of Capestrano, believed to represent a warrior of the Vestini Cismontani people, whose capital was located in Aufinum, just 20 kilometers from the discovery site.

The Vestini occupied an extensive territory south of the Gran Sasso massif, between present-day Abruzzo and Lazio. Their presence in the area dates back to the Bronze Age, eventually dominating much of central Abruzzo.

The sculpture’s style bears notable similarities to other Iron Age works, such as the Celtic Warrior of Hirschlanden or the Sardinian Nuragic sculptures of the Mont’e Prama giants, indicating intense cultural exchanges in central and southern Italy at the time. Moreover, the sculpture simultaneously exhibits Etruscan, Italic, Celtic, and Greco-Archaic styles, although it has its own specific characteristics.

The dedicatory inscription on the right pillar is in Southern Picene, one of the earliest written texts in this language. It has a length of 98 centimeters, without spaces between letters, with 33 characters read from right to left and from bottom to top:

ma kuprí koram Aninis raki Nevíi Pomp(uleo)íi (Aninis made this statue of King Nevius Pompuledius)

After decades of linguistic analysis, the inscription was deciphered in 2010 as a dedication from the sculptor to the represented character, identifying him as the powerful Vestini king Nevius Pompuledius or, equivalently, the legendary Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome after Romulus, who reigned from 753 to 674 B.C.

Nevius would have been the governor or monarch of the oppidum of Aufinum, and therefore, the work paid tribute to a figure of political and historical importance for the Vestini and the Romans. Its creation falls within the historical context of the last period of the Roman monarchy and the integration of the Vestini into Roman citizenship.

The Vestini slowly adopted the Latin language but retained their local identity until being fully assimilated by Rome around the 1st century B.C. Their legacy only persisted in the toponymy and Abruzzese culture, and in a handful of inscriptions.

Other findings in the necropolis provide additional information. In a pit near the warrior’s grave, a female torso carved in stone was found, possibly representing the deceased’s wife. Various objects of Etruscan and Italic bronze and ceramics were also recovered.

Furthermore, archaeological surveys in the area in subsequent decades have unearthed nearly a hundred new tombs corresponding to the Vestini necropolis, in an approximately rectangular shape.

The monumental tomb, likely belonging to Nevius, which contained the warrior sculpture, was delimited by large stone slabs and slightly separated from the rest of the funerary area, suggesting it served as a marker for the burial complex, in line with the privileged status of its occupant.

Currently, the statue of the Warrior of Capestrano is housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Abruzzo in the town of Chieti, following a complex history of studies and interpretations.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 14, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en El Guerrero de Capestrano, la extraña escultura de la Edad del Hierro que representa al segundo rey de Roma


Joe Basile, The Capestrano Warrior and Related Monuments of the Seventh to Fifth Centuries B.C. (Revue des archéologues et historiens d’art de Louvain) | Giuseppe Moretti, Il guerriero îtalico de Capestrano (Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, tome 16, fasc. 1-2, 1937. pp. 338-339) | Adriano La Regina, Il guerriero di Capestrano e le iscrizioni paleosabelliche (en «Pinna Vestinorum e il popolo dei Vestini», L’Erma di Bretschneider: Roma 2011, 230-273) | Wikipedia

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