Sardinia is one of the most enchanting Italian islands, with its rugged and mountainous territory, its beaches of fine white sand, its unspoilt nature and its countless secrets, which every year attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world, eager to explore and discover this ancient land surrounded by an emerald sea, in the centre of the Mediterranean.
Sardinian culture has ancient origins and has been achieved over centuries full of events, discoveries, architectural and artistic experimentation. The succession of numerous peoples, such as the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians and the Romans, has made this island a sponge of different and fascinating knowledge, which has made it an important source of interest for archaeologists and art historians today.
The name Sardinia derives from the Latin toponym Sardinia, whose origins are a bit uncertain. According to some scholars it is linked to Sardò, a Greek name belonging to a legendary woman who appears in Plato’s famous three-part dialogue, the Timeo. A second theory takes into consideration the texts of Sallust, a well-known historian and Roman senator of the Republican period. These recount the vicissitudes of Sardus, son of Hercules, who arrived in Sardinia from Libya together with a group of settlers.
At a historical level, it is ascertained that the toponym Sardinia was present long before the Roman conquest, as attested by the stele of Nora, dating back to Phoenician times. Found in 1773 near the Church of Sant’Efisio, in Pula, this block of sandstone is currently kept in the National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari, the most important archaeological museum on the island. Open to the public, this space offers a fascinating itinerary on four floors, the first of which explores the cultures that have inhabited Sardinia.
About these, let’s deepen together the history of the people who lived, conquered and transformed this wonderful territory.
Although in the last century archaeologists have re-evaluated the period before the first human settlements on the island, this article aims to investigate only some culturally relevant periods and not the complete chronology of Sardinia’s history. After this premise, we can begin to talk about the fascinating Nuragic civilization.
Developed from the Bronze Age onwards, it presented a complex society divided into different social classes, each with its own specific skills. The majority of the population was defined as plebs and consisted of shepherds, farmers, craftsmen and small traders. Then there were the warriors and the large landowners, who belonged to the noble class; finally, there was the group of priests, who dealt with religion, rituals, magic and medicine.
The Nuragic civilization supplanted or transformed previous cultures by bringing new cults, architectures and technologies. Many scholars believe that it was not external populations that brought about the change, but the Sardinians themselves. The introduction of bronze greatly benefited the people who inhabited Sardinia, as this island was rich in mines. This allowed the enrichment of the Sardinian people thanks to a flourishing trade that developed in the Mediterranean area. The first architectures that gave the name to the civilization also began to be built. In fact, the few sources and the lack of written testimonies of these people did not give way to discover the name by which they were called. The definition “nuragic” is instead linked to their traditional structure, the nuraghe, still present today in visible and visitable complexes.
At an architectural level the nuraghe was preceded by the protonuraghi, irregular buildings of stocky appearance, no more than 10 metres high, inside which there was a circular environment, which can also be found in the nuraghe, plus various corridors and cells. Their terrace was probably the most functional area used as a living area.
The “tholos” nuraghe, on the other hand, is Sardinia’s most popular architecture (6,500 to date). They have a particular cone shape, similar to a tower, composed of boulders of various sizes placed without cement links. They have superimposed chambers inside them. Finally, there is a third type of nuraghe, which was a complex version of the “tholos” one, with the main tower and other architectural elements added later.
The architectural complexes of the Nuragic civilization are certainly an attraction for those who love history and archaeology but also for the simple tourist, who will be enchanted by their ancient beauty.
History Of Sardinia: What To Visit
Among the places to visit to discover and observe closely these particular buildings, it is worth mentioning the Nuragic village Su Nuraxi, located in the municipality of Barumini. The archaeological site is really important, so much so that it is a World Heritage Site, recognized by UNESCO in 1997. It is a real village developed around a central nuraghe more than 18 metres high. The settlement, composed of about fifty circular huts, was found between 1950 and 1957 thanks to the excavations directed by the archaeologist Giovanni Lilliu. On Nuraxi it is well preserved and it is essential to visit it to observe in person what has left the Nuragic civilization.
Another nuraghe in good condition that you can see is the Nuraghe Losa, which is located in the municipality of Abbasanta. It is composed of a donjon and a trilobed bastion and, according to the sources, it had a funerary function. The settlement that surrounds the building has been only partially excavated but this place surrounded by uncontaminated nature will surely remain in your heart. Currently, the management is entrusted to the Paleotur cooperative, which also takes care of the Ethnographic Museum of Abbasanta, an interesting space that offers a cross-section of Sardinian daily life between 1500 and 1600.
Another nuraghe to visit is the Nuraghe Santa Barbara. Located in an area that offers spectacular views, especially at sunset, it owes its name to the remains of a country church dedicated to the Saint. The Nuragic construction is of a complex type and is about 15 metres high. Around the nuraghe, there is an inhabited centre that has survived even in Roman times and the early Middle Ages. If you want to see this site you have to go to the territory of Macomer, a fascinating town that has always been a crossroads between the north and the south of the island.
The Phoenicians, The Carthaginians And The Roman Conquest
Between the 9th and 8th centuries, various Mediterranean populations began to frequent and carry out exchanges with Sardinia. The Nuragic civilisation was transformed and new forms of complex and interesting social organisation were created, which became apparent with the progressive abandonment of prehistoric towers and the internalisation of new expressions of leadership, such as that of the optimistic. Around 750 B.C., the Phoenicians were among the first to consolidate important integrations, not only commercial but also political and military, with the Sardinian population, as demonstrated by the colonies Nora, Tharros, Othoca and Sulci.
The Phoenicians, who came from a land unsuitable for agriculture, were immediately attracted by the fertility of Sardinia and did not waste time setting up and founding the above-mentioned colonies to be used as seaports of call. Over time these sites became real cities and even smaller centres such as Cornus and Neapolis were built.
There are no certain proofs but most probably the relations between the Phoenicians and the native population were peaceful, also because the colonies were not in territorial contrast with the Nuragic villages and, on the contrary, the commercial exchange favoured both sides.
The archaeological excavations and historical sources have brought to light the great advantages that the people of navigators from Phoenicia have given to the Nuragic civilization. The Sardinians knew the cultivation of the olive tree and learned to exploit the mineral resources of their land, such as iron and gold. Of particular importance was the religious development, influenced by oriental traditions, which led to the construction of good temples throughout the territory.
Unfortunately, the good relations between the two cultures deteriorated with time, perhaps due to the progressive power of the new colonies, now too cumbersome, and the Phoenicians, frightened by the wariness of the Nuragic communities, asked Carthage for help. This is only a theory because, according to the opinions of some scholars, the Carthaginian invasion was simply linked to the desire for expansionism, which was hindered by the Phoenician colonies in Sardinia.
The sixth century B.C., coinciding with the arrival of the Carthaginians, marks the interruption of a complex cultural and urban development formed by the union of Phoenician and Nuragic traditions. After years of conflict, the Carthaginian generals Amilcare and Asdrubale finally managed to conquer the island. From this moment on, a profound renewal was carried out, in which the richest settlements assumed a fundamental value, becoming the political and social centre of the population: the Punic cities.
From the Punic period, there are now mostly written Roman certificates, because in 509 B.C. an important treaty had been stipulated between the Carthaginians and the Romans, which allowed the latter to trade with Sardinia. In this period the Phoenician-style urban development continued and the sanctuaries already present on the island, the so-called tophets, continue to be the most important places of worship. The form of government was transformed and adapted to that of the Carthaginian centres, with two judges at the top, called Suffete or Sufiti, in office for a year and flanked by the assembly of the elders and the people.
As far as the military structure is concerned, the remains of fortified settlements are still visible today, confirming the presence of soldiers’ organisations. On an economic level, the currency was introduced and a wide commercial network was created which led Tharros to be the richest Sardinian city on the island.
The transition from Carthaginian to Roman rule took place due to an internal conflict. The first Roman-Carthaginian war ended and after the revolt of the Punic mercenaries on the island, in 238 B.C. the Romans occupied Sardinia. Consul Tiberio Sempronio Gracco took care of the operations in the territory and was received almost peacefully in the Carthaginian strongholds, including the ancient Phoenician colonies that did not appreciate the Carthaginian government. Of course, there are two sides to the coin and later many Sardinians turned against the Romans, but without success.
In the period of the Roman conquest, no particular novelties were introduced and private estates were distributed among the Roman gens and partly left to the Sardinian-Punic people. Also, a public latifundium was established for the collection of cereals destined for Rome. In the mountainous areas, there are still the Barbaricini, that is to say, those autochthonous people who, during the Carthaginian invasion, fled to the margins, living off sheep farming and community use of the land.
Seven centuries of Roman domination contribute to make Sardinia a place with a new culture, language and religion. Nowadays it is possible to see ruins of this period, some well preserved and present all over the island.
What Historical Sites In Sardinia Should I Visit?
Many of the still existing municipalities are of Roman origin. Among them, Cagliari (once Carales), Nora, Tharros and Nuragos preserve ancient and well visible memories. Worth mentioning is the Roman Amphitheatre of Cagliari, a spectacular site half excavated in the rock which in ancient times hosted gladiator and animal fights, as well as executions. It could host about 10,000 spectators and the south façade of the building, now disappeared, was over 20 metres high.
Another important monument is Villa di Tigellio, also located in Cagliari, composed of the ruins of three well-preserved buildings. Two of these present interesting artistic elements, such as the valuable floor mosaics inside the “painted tablinum house” and the decorations of the “stucco house”.
Finally, it is impossible not to mention the archaeological area of the Treasure Museum of Sant’Eustalia, discovered in 1990 and consisting of a paved road dating back to Roman times and environments from the Republican period.
Moving away from Cagliari you can frequently encounter other Roman remains, such as the beautiful Porto Torres Bridge, set on seven arches and 135 metres long. It was used until 1980 (a demonstration of the great technical ability of the Romans), although in 1900 the original paving was covered with asphalt. Today it has been restored and it is possible to visit it.
In addition to urban remains, such as aqueducts and forums, which dot the various municipalities of the island, it is also possible to find a symbol of Romans, namely the thermal baths, located in Fordongianus. Still today there are the springs from which the thermal waters flow, which can reach very high temperatures, about 54°.
Sardinia is an island rich in history and tradition and this article has deepened only a small part of its fascinating culture. The possibility of still being able to visit prehistoric buildings and the settlements of the most famous civilizations makes this place unforgettable and magical