The ancient city of Laos, Italy

A few years ago a large urban area was found to the south of the plain of the river Lao (=Laino), near Santa Maria del Cedro, which scholars identified as the ancient Laos, which was a city of the Lucanians, later conquered by the Greeks.

Archaeological excavations brought to light the presence of a fortified town dating from the 4th century BC, with a Greek urban layout and many patrician houses, among which the most famous are the so-called "Casa con la rampa" and the "Casa dei Pithoi". According to Strabo [63 BC-24AD] [1] Laos was located to the right of the river Laos, with the river on the boundary between Lucania and Bruttium.

History of ancient Laos

This areas was well known by various ancient historians including Hérodote [484-420 BC], Strabo, and Pliny the Elder [23-79 AD] ( Nat. Hist., III, 72) who called it “sinus ingens terinaeus”). According to contemporary studies, the modern town occupies the low part of the hill, while the ancient habitat occupied the highest part and was circumscribed by a surrounding wall of quadrangular blocks.

According to Galli [10] the colony of Sybaris was located on the Right Bank of the river, probably on the hill called "Foresta" where some important finds have been made. On the Left Bank, therefore, there was the village called Marcellina, which presumably was Lavinium, a name of a Latin “statio” [= a strategic military post] also attested to on the Table of Peutinger under the corrupt form of Lavinium.

The existence of Laos is also well-known thanks to a monetary series and by the famous passage of Hérodote (VI, 21) from which we learn that after 510 BC the Sybarites, after the fall of Sybaris, took refuge in Laos. These elements guarantee the existence of a city called Laos at least as from 510 BC. According to F. Prontera, one of the major scholars of Laos:

"The city ceased to exist at the end of the third century BC, but the village located near the port survived until the Late Imperial Age. A naval port of Laos was certainly 'Kerilloi', in Latin 'Cerillae' or 'Cerelis' the modern ‘Cirella’ about 8 km south of Laos " [11].

Early History of Santa Maria del Cedro

The oldest origins of the current city are linked to the castle of “Abatemarco.” We can date the castle of Abatemarco to the second half of the 13th century; the name of "Castrum Abbatis Marci" [the castle of Abbot Marcus], perhaps refers to a monk named Marcus, Abbot of the monastery of San Giovanni, which was situated on the river of the same name, near Grisolia Cipollina.

This area was rich in monasteries and "kastra" [fortifications] that were later reused by the Normans.

The historical region of Cipolina

Regarding the area of Cipollina, F. A. Scuteri points out that:

"In the northern Calabria the region called Mercurion, located in the area of the Cosentino, was one of the sites of the greatest expression of the monastic phenomenon. At the centre of the area in the valleys of the Lao and the Mercurium is the eponymous "kastron" that preserves, as well as the square tower rebuilt on an earlier foundation, important examples of houses and walls. Not far from the fort there are many natural caves used in later Byzantine age by monks and hermits.

At Cipollina, near Santa Maria del Cedro, are the ruins of a church with a single nave and three apses dating from the 12th century. Near the lesser apse there is a niche and two arrow-slit windows. In most parts of the church, and mainly in the east, a few acoustic vessels (acoustic vessels are nothing more than small achromatic clay amphorae that have a red clay brick) were inserted in the wall [...]

[...] it is possible to propose a comparison with specimens used in the Norman age, and especially with some Sicilian amphorae (XII century), or more generally with artifacts in use between the 10th and 13th century .... " [12].

For the reader's convenience we specify that the acoustic vessels were placed especially in the vaults to improve the acoustics of churches.

In the 13th century the castle was part of the “giustizierato” of the Valley of Acri [the “giustizierato” was an administrative district of the Kingdom of Sicily under the Swabians and Angevins] and in the early 14th century it was under the rule of the Lord Ruggiero di Lauria.

In the Middle Ages the city was a stronghold of the Angevins and then passed to various feudal lords. In 1414 the estate was purchased by Arturo Pappacoda of Naples, seneschal of King Ladislaus, who was responsible for the statue in olive wood found in the church of San Michele that is annexed to the castle (which is why the castle is called by the local inhabitants "Castello di San Michele").

Detailed history of Santa Maria del Cedro in the Middle Ages

A detailed reconstruction of the history of Santa Maria del Cedro and the castle of Abatemarco is that by G. Celico, who points out that between 1269 and 1270 the castles of Mercury and Abatemarco were under the rule of the Vulcano family, and in 1275 "Aba Marcus" belonged to the “giustizierato” of Val di Crati.

From 1305, with Roger de Loria, Abatemarco was in the hands of that great family, in succession, in 1306, of Ruggerone, son of the former, and, then, by Giacomo de Loria who had the castles of Mercury and Abbatemarco, followed in 1308 by the Carlo and Berengar brothers. Two years later, in 1310, Abbatemarco Castle was ruled by Ascanio de Nomicis, coming again in 1313 in the hands of Bartoleo de Loria.

In the 14th century Tommaso Sanseverino was in the possession of the Abatemarco Castle, which in 1406 was transferred to Bernardo de Oferio, royal chamberlain. In 1414 the fief of Abatemarco, acquired by the Royal Court, was transferred to Arcusio Pappacoda from Naples, together with the estates of Papasidero and Barbicario (Verbicaro). In 1450 Thomas de Loria was Baron of Aieta and Abatemarco.

In 1489 Francesco D'Allitto was lord of Abatemarco and, then, in 1496, the estates of Abatemarco, and Aieta were granted by King Ferrante II of Aragon to Giovanni de Montibus or “Delli Monti.” In 1509 Bertoldo Carafa bought Abatemarco, Aieta and Cirella. Abatemarco then became a fief of the Brancaccio family and more precisely of Scipio, the son of Giovan Tommaso, Lord of Grisolia, between 1511 and 1518.

The feud of Abatemarco belonged in 1525 to Geronimo Pellegrino, and it was again in the hands of Francesco de Loyra. In 1528-1534, Abatemarco was ruled by Giulio Capua, who in 1542 sold it to Raffaele De Mari. In 1548-1549, the feud passed to Pietrantonio Sanseverino, Prince of Bisignano. In 1669 the inhabitants of Abatemarco moved to Cipollina because of the area was prone to flooding [14].

In 1511 the castle became a fief of the Brancaccio family. In the 17th century it was ruled by Angelo Perez de Nueros, who administered the estates of both Abatemarco and Orsomarso, as guardian and kinsman of Antonio Brancati. It was by the will of Andrea Brancati that in the last years of the 17th century the village of Cipollina was built, simply called "Casale" [=Hamlet], which later became a baronial palace.

In the Vatican Archives the existence of Casale is attested at least since the end of the 16th century. Julius III in the bull of August 27, 1551 gave it as prebend to Orsinio Orsini. In the Papal Bull was mentioned an "Abbatia Ruralis S. Jonnis Abbatis Marci, Cassanen dioecesis" [13].

In the early 17th century the Sanseverino family sold the estate of Abatemarco and Orsomarso to the Greco, who was involved in a popular uprising caused by heavy taxation imposed by the King of Naples. In 1668 the estate, which included Grisolia, Abatemarco, Cipollina, Ursomarso and Marcellina passed to Andrea Brancati from Campania.The Brancati family took possession of the estate of Cipollina until the end of feudalism in the early 19th century.

Origins of the name Laos

Regarding the name Laos, scholars’ assumptions are quite different. Some of them connect the name with an Illyrian origin, for which Laos would derive from the root “lavo” [= people] [2]. According to other scholars, the name is related to the term "Lavna", which was the ancient name of the Lucanian city, which at first was only a storage depot, then turned into a colony of Sybaris [3].

In this sense, the name would be in relation with an Aegean-Anatolian origin, with the meaning of "stone" [4]. However, the hypothesis that the actual meaning of Laos was "border" is also interesting; in fact, it was stressed that:

"the river Lao had over time the function of a natural border between various ethnic groups. On the other hand, the same geographer Strabo pointed out that on the side of the Tyrrhenian Sea the boundary between Lucania and Brettii was given by the river Laos" [5].

Also interesting is the oldest etymology, handed down to us by Strabo:

"The best etymology of Laos was mentioned by Strabo and could be 'Dragon', which must be identified with the 'genius loci' [the protective spirit] of the river Laos" [6].

Among all these etymologies, perhaps the most plausible is that which identifies the term Laos with "people," as in "a people living in a Kora" [the territory outside the walls]. According to linguistic studies by O. Montevecchi, the term "laos" is one of the most ancient of existing ones, and it does not seem to be of Indo-European origin:

"No doubt that the term 'laos', of obscure and controversial etymology, not an Indo-European name, was in use among the Greeks from the Mycenaean age ... " [7].

Already in the Homeric poems the term had the meaning of 'people', "population", but the meaning of "stone" is a false etymology, in connection with the myth of Deucalion [8]. However, in the past, doubts were raised about the origin of the Greek term Laos:

"It would be necessary to study the etymology of the name Lao, Laino, because instead of Greek origin, it may be a Oscan term , as evidenced by many Oscan names [The Oscans were Campanian tribes] (Vibius, Comius, Statius, Opsidius) found on the coins of Laos" [9].

Origins of the name Grisolia Cipollina

In the Middle Ages the town was also known as "Grisolia Cipollina." According to some scholars, the term "Grisolia" derives from the Greek "chrousolea" or from the Latin "Chrisena" [= gold] with a possible reference to soil fertility. "Cipollina", on the other hand, would derive from the Greek "Cis-polis", with the meaning of "settlement located on this side of the big city": the "big city" would Laos.

Origins of the name Santa Maria del Cedro

Santa Maria del Cedro in 1955 was called "Santa Maria", in honour of Our Lady, while the term “Cedro” [=Citron] was added in 1968, with reference to the intense cultivation of citron trees practiced in the area.

See also the Santa Maria del Cedro visitor guide.


1. Strabo [63 BC-24AD] (VI, I, I, 253)

2. See“Lavinium ...: Topografia generale, fonti e storia delle ricerche”, edited by F. Castagnoli”, 1972, Vol. I, p. 13

3. See "Klearchos", 1970, p. 100

4. See F. Castagnoli, p. 13

5. See“Storia della Calabria”, edited by G. Cingari, 1987, p. 229

6. See "Rivista Storica Italiana," 1894, p. 360

7. See O.Montevecchi," Laos ... ", in" Scripta Selecta ", Milan, 1998, p. 402 ff.

8. O. Montevecchi, p. 403

9. See" Proceedings of the Royal Academy of physical and mathematical sciences of Naples ", 1899, p. 28

10. See “Notizie degli Scavi”, 1932

11. See F. Prontera, “La Magna Grecia e il mare: Studi di storia marittima”, Istituto per la Storia e l'Archeologia della Magna Grecia, 1996, p. 183

12. See F .A. Scuteri, “Vasi acustici nelle chiese bizantine della Calabria”, edited by G. Volpe-P. Favia, “V Congresso Nazionale di Archeologia Medievale” (Foggia), Firenze, 2009, pp. 757-760

13. See R. Tortorelli, , "Contributo al Codice Diplomatico dell’Abbazia di San Giovanni in Fiore (1211-1502)", in “Storiadelmondo” n. 44, 15 gennaio 2007, Parte I, p. 19

14. See G. Celico, “Il feudo di Abatemarco e il casale di Mercurio in Calabria Citra”, in “Studi e Fonti Documentarie della Società Genealogica Italiana”