THE EOLIAN ISLANDS: HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY FROM NEOLITHIC TIMES TO THE ROMAN AGE
The most ancient human settlements on the Eolian islands date back to the closing centuries of the 5th millennium BC, to the Middle Neolithic period, and can be found on the plateau of Castellaro Vecchio on Lipari and at Rinicedda on Salina.
The population of the islands at this early stage was largely made up of people from Sicily and the growth in population throughout the Middle and Late Neolithic period was due mainly to the exceptional development of the obsidian industry and trade. This ‘volcanic glass’, which came from the large lava flow of Lami-Pomiciazzo, was greatly sought after and exported all over the western Mediterranean, before the age of metals, in order to make light cutting instruments of considerable quality.
From the second stage of the Eolian Neolithic period the history and characteristics of the human settlements over the centuries have been reconstructed thanks to the intensive research carried out on all the islands by Luigi Bernabò Brea and Madeleine Cavalier.
The archaeological remains of the castle Rock on Lipari present a stratagraphical series, with a maximum thickness of almost twelve metres, preserved over the centuries by the gradual accumulation of volcanic ash transported by the northerly winds.
During the Late Neolithic period, in the closing centuries of the 4th millennium and early 3rd millennium BC, the culture of Diana developed, taking its name from the area of Lipari where the most important settlement of the period stood. Other settlements grew up on the Castle Rock and on the plateau, as well as on the smaller islands, as evidence of an increase in population due to the economic well-being created by the obsidian trade at its height.
The arrival of the age of metals (early Eneolithic period) marked the beginning of a long period of recession for the Eolian islands, a period that lasted for the rest of the Eneolithic age until the closing centuries of the 3rd millennium BC, because of the considerable decline of and eventual to the obsidian trade. The economic and demographic crisis in the Eneolithic age came to an end towards the end of the 3rd millennium BC with the start of the Bronze Age, when the culture of Capo Graziano was born and began to develop. This culture had various phases that lasted the whole Early Bronze age, from the 21st-20th century BC until about 1430 BC, and saw settlements set up on all the islands in the archipelago, except for Vulcano.
As has been clearly demonstrated by Bernabò Brea and Cavalier, various aspects of this culture, such as the way in which the oval huts were built and numerous vase shapes and decorations, are very similar to those found in the cultures of the late Protoelladic (III) and of the early Mesoelladic on mainland Greece (Argolide, Beozia etc.).
The same researchers recognise the bearers of the culture of Capo Graziano as ‘those Eolians to whom a large number of legends refer’, the most famous of which is the one in the Odyssey that speaks of Aeolus, the god of winds. The presence of proto-Greek ethnic groups in the Eolian islands is certainly connected to control of a very important shipping route in the Mediterranean world, certainly used for the metal trade but also for trade in other important economic resources, such as slaves.
The settlements of the earlier period, between the end of the 3rd millennium and the beginning of the second, were laid out in an ‘open’ position, without any kind of defensive or strategic characteristics, such as the large village of Piano del Porto on Filicudi. Probably around the 19th century BC, for defensive reasons that are still unclear, but presumably because of some kind of threat of attack or invasion from the sea, the settlements move onto high points difficult to conquer and in positions that dominate the coastline, as can be seen from the villages of Montagnola di Capo Graziano on Filicudi and Lipari Castle. From the 16th century BC onwards the continuous contacts with the Aegean are demonstrated by the presence of numerous fragments of decorated Mycenaean pottery, which can also be found in abundance in the levels of the later Milazzese culture.
The Middle Bronze Age in the Eolian islands is represented by the Milazzese culture, between 1430 and 1270 BC, named after the settlement of oval huts on the promontory of the same name on Panarea. This culture was probably founded by people from eastern Sicily, as is documented by the great similarities between the shapes and decorations of local pottery and those of the Sicilian culture of Thaspos.
During the early 13th century BC, probably in about 1270 BC, the Eolian settlements of the Milazzese culture were violently destroyed. Only Lipari Castle seems to have been a settlement in the Late Bronze Age, the other islands seemingly being uninhabited. An early phase, the so-called Ausonio I, as is testified by a settlement of oval and round huts, survived until the closing decades of the 12th century BC. This culture was generated by settlers from mainland Italy, as is shown by various pottery shapes similar to those of the late-Appennine cultural phase.
This archaeological evidence thus explains the legend according to which Liparo, son of King Auson, came here and gave his name to the island.
The settlement of Ausonio I underwent violent destruction towards the end of the 12th century BC. It was substituted by that of Ausonio II, which had larger huts with sloping roofs supported by wooden poles set into the drystone walls. Towards the end of the 10th century BC also came to a sudden violent end, as is shown by the uniform layer of fire. Archaeological research has so far shown no trace of settlements on Lipari or the other islands over the following three centuries, however, if Diodorus Siculus is to be believed, Lipari was inhabited by a few hundred natives when the Greek colony of Lipàra, one of the last in Sicily, was founded during the 50th Olimpiad (580-576 BC) by inhabitants of Cnido, a Doric city in Asia Minor, along with a group from the island of Rhodes. In the early stages of the settlement and development of the colony the people of Lipari applied a kind of ‘collective management’, working the land collectively and even communal refectories.
The Castle Rock was the site of the acropolis of the city, where (along with the nearby civita hill) the main religious and public buildings were to be found, including the ‘Sanctuary of Aeolus’, which had a large deep votive well full of offerings, the ‘bothros’.
A short time after the foundation of the colony the town expanded westwards, on the plateau below, where it was surrounded and protected by two fortifications built with local lava stone: the first one was built around the end of the 6th century BC in a polygon shape, the second, further to the west, was composed of two imposing stone walls and was constructed in the 4th century BC.
A long stretch of the latter with a square tower can be seen in the Archaeological Park of contrada Diana.
Due to its strategic and privileged geographical position the ancient history of Lipari is characterised by rivalry and conflicts, with varying fortunes, with the Etruscans for control of the lower Tyrrheanian Sea. The Etruscan threat ended definitively after the defeat they suffered in the battle of Cuma, in 474 BC, at the hands of Hieron, tyrant of Syracuse.
From that moment on and for more than two hundred years, until the 3rd century BC, Lipàra enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity, shown by the variety and richness of many tombs in the necropolis (the tombs are situated over a wide area of contrada Diana, in the western part of the modern town).
In 397 BC Lipàra was besieged and occupied by the Carthaginians. The political situation remained quite stable because of the friendly relations with Syracuse until the attack made by the tyrant Agathocles in 303 BC.
The final period of prosperity enjoyed by Lipàra was during the first Punic War, which broke out in 264 BC between Carthage and Rome.
Lipàra was an ally of the Carthaginians and the island had become their naval base in 269 BC. During the war, in 252-251 BC, Lipari was destroyed and conquered by the Romans, losing its freedom once and for all.