History of ancient Buxentum

The old town of “Buxentum” (nowadays called “Policastro Bussentino”) is located on a hill near an old castle and on the right bank of the river Bussento, which has the same name as the city. The ancient Greek and Latin authors knew the town as "Pixunte".

According to the most reliable studies, the settlement was founded by Mikythos, tyrant of Rhegion in 471-470 BC. According to A. La Greca, the foundation of Buxentum was not accidental, but was part of the projects of the tyrants of Reggio, such as Mikythos who aimed to expand to the north towards the Magna Graecia and the Tyrrhenian Sea, in an area that was inhabited by the indigenous Enotrian population that had already absorbed many elements of the Greek culture.

It was felt that the area had been occupied by the Lucanians towards the end of the fifth century BC, forcing the inhabitants to flee. In fact, the ancient sources did not speak of this city, whose life, however, continued with the name of Buxentum.

However, the city, despite the Greek root to its name (etymology below), seems to be of pre-Greek origin and with Mediterranean origins:

"Policastro was the ancient Pyxus-Buxentum, and in ancient times was an Enotrian and Pelasgian town, as evidenced by the massive ruins of its walls, and later was a Greek and Roman colony. Policastro shows ruins of an ancient mud-brick fortification of the sixth century BC, and coins related to a native Enotrian settlement. According to the in-depth studies by A. La Greca, the only Greek colony attested by old sources in the Gulf of Policastro is Pissunte, the Greek Pyxous, the Roman Buxentum and today Policastro Bussentino.

Buxentum in Roman times

In Roman times the area of the Gulf of Policastro was surrounded by populations subject to Rome, with the obligation to provide troops. This is clear from a passage in Silius Italicus, who, in his epic poem about the Second Punic War, mentioned the allied troops from Lucania, in particular the youth of Bussento ("Buxentia pubes"), armed with strong clave without zest.

The Romanization of the area was completed in time, with cities, settlements, houses, roads, bridges and structures, and there are many archaeological remains from Roman times, such as the Roman bridge of Rofrano, in "opus quadratum". The land was confiscated from the Lucanian rebels after the war against Hannibal (247-183 BC), and was assigned to some farmers.

According to Livy, the foundation took place in several stages. At first, in 197 BC the foundation of some colonies took place, each with three hundred families. Almost certainly the town of Bussento was due to Sempronius Longus (260-210 BC), belonging to the same family as Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (consul 238 BC), who during the war against Hannibal had fought in Lucania, and had developed links of friendship with the notables of the region.

The colony of Buxentum was then abandoned, perhaps because its citizens had not received Roman citizenship. According to A. La Greca, many scholars have explained this defection as a sign of decadence, economic crisis, and poverty of the area, which would have forced the settlers to leave. However, we witness a constant productive wealth of the territory and its importance as a maritime port. It seems more correct to interpret the defection pf the population as an attempt to obtain Roman citizenship by Latin farmers who settled in Bussento almost as a military camp.

Policastro was mentioned by Strabo (64 BC-25 AD), Diodorus Siculus (90-27 BC) and Livius (59-17 BC), who wrote about the foundation of the Roman colony in 194 BC, then strengthened in 186 BC.

In imperial times the city was cited by many geographers, while other sources attest that Buxentum, in Roman times, became a "municipium" ruled by magistrates called "duoviri", and it was added to the "tribus Pomptina", with a Forum and a “macellum” (market).

Buxentum knew a significant development in the Augustan Age, and during half of the first century AD, with an expansion of the urban area, public buildings, the construction of a "Macellum" or covered market, and a series of dedicatory inscriptions for the Imperial family. As a whole, the city showed many signs of vitality, as an important administrative and trade centre connected to the port. Ancient sources about Buxentum are rare but they speak of an important town that also became a bishopric.

The town was still mentioned in the 6th century AD by Stephanus of Byzantium when it was already a flourishing bishopric, in 501 AD with Bishop Rustico and in 592 with Bishop Agnello. Bishop Rustico participated in the Roman synods of 501 and 502, and another bishop of Bussento, named Sabbatius, came to the council in 649.

Bussento and other cities in the Gulf of Policastro were also listed in the ancient itineraries, particularly on the coastal routes along the Tyrrhenian Sea from Reggio to Rome. These itineraries, dating back to the Roman Empire, and then rewritten by medieval authors, cited the name of many smaller towns. Anonimo Ravennate (7th century AD) mentioned many coastal towns such as Blandas, Cessernia and Buxentum. The same names were also mentioned in the twelfth century by Guido Pisano [A. La Greca].

History of 'modern' Policastro Bussentino

The current small town appears around the Norman castle (built on the site of a 6th century byzantine fortress) in the 11th century under Norman rule, and it was also mentioned by the great Arab geographer Al Idrisi in the 12th century as a large and populous fortified town.

From the 13th to the 15th century, Bussento was alternately a feudal domain of the Sanseverino, Ruffo, Grimaldi, Petrucci, and Carafa families. But the gradual silting up of its port and the subsequent destruction to which it was subjected - in 1320 (by Corrado Doria), in 1543 (by the pirate Khair-el-Din, known as Barbarossa) and in 1552 (by Dragut Pasha) sanctioned its final decline and its reduction to a small village [3].

Origins of the name Buxentum

According to etymology, the name derives from the root "pixous", meaning "box-wood", a very hard and durable wood that grew in the area of Policastro. From the Greek "pixous" and from the Latin "buxus" came the various names of the city, which was called “Pixus”, “Pituntia”, “Pixunte,” “Pissunte” and “Bux[i]entum” (Italian Bussento).The name "Buxentum" would be the Latinization of the Greek name.

The etymology that derives the name of the city from boxwood seems likely because, as A. La Greca writes:

"According to Silius Italicus [28-103 AD], during the Second Punic War [218-202 BC], the soldiers of Pixus "fought armed with box-wood sticks. The boxwood "is an evergreen plant of the box family, from 2 to 4 meters high, long-lived (lives up to 600 years), with several uses, attested by many ancient sources. In gardening it was used to shape hedges, writing in large letters the names of the owners. In medicine it was used for the properties of the bark and leaves. (diuretic, depurative, antiseptic, febrifugal, sweat). It was then used as a substitute for hops in beer. The box is a very dense and heavy wood, resistant to fire, and is crushproof, so was used for cooking utensils and weapons." [1]

However, there are scholars who believe that the exact etymology is "mouth", as the town is located on the right side of the river Bussento, which has the same name as the city. In this sense, G. Semeraro wrote that the etymology which refers to the concept of "box-wood" is basically wrong, because the root "poux" means "mouth.":

"[...] the root 'poux' is a word that means 'mouth', from the Akkadian word 'pu', 'paum', in Latin 'mouth'" [2].

We need to emphasize that the majority of scholars argues for the hypothesis of the derivation of Buxentum from box-wood.

Origins of the name Policastro

The second place name, "Policastro", is of medieval origin, and means "fortified city” [from polis = city and castrum = fortress, castle].

See also the travel guide for Policastro Bussentino


1. See A. La Greca, “Appunti di Storia del Cilento”, 1997, p. 96 and F. La Greca, “L'area del golfo di Policastro in epoca greco-romana”, in “Temi per una storia di Torraca, Centro di Promozione Culturale per il Cilento, Acciaroli, 2010, pp. 19 ff.

2. See G. Semeraro," The origins of European culture ", Olschki, 1994, Part I, p. 244

3. See C. B. Trillmich, “Pyxous-Buxentum”, in “Mélanges de l'Ecole française de Rome. Antiquité - Année 1988 - Volume 100 - Numéro 2 – pp. 701-729”