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The Layered History of Puglia, Italy

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

The history of Puglia is multilayered and complex. The region has been tossed about from one invader to the next, from about 270 BC until the unification of Italy in the late 1800s. Most articles you find on the topic are frankly boring to read and heavy with names of random invaders you’ve never heard of, making it difficult to grasp the overall concept of where Puglia’s been and how it relates to the culture you’ll experience there today.

Below, I attempt to break things down so you can understand the context of the amazing architecture you’ll see, the food you’ll eat, and the people you’ll meet on your adventure in southern Italy!

red boat in a small bay with fort in polignano a mare italy

Part 1: The Beginning of Puglia

Puglia begins in the 1st millennium BC with the Italic and Illyic peoples (that’s those prehistoric guys who lived in tribes throughout Eurasia). Then history really kicks up- when the exiled Spartan soldiers from Greece settle along the coast in the 8th century BC where they start the major city of Taranto, among other coastal settlements (hence a Greek-like atmosphere you may experience when you visit).

As Romans gain more power, the Spartans start to get worried. Indeed, Romans take over in 272 BC and eventually complete the Via Appia (that’s the road connecting the south to Rome) about 80 years later- they move fast!

local man in monopoli italy points out architectural details on a church

In this bit of history, Romans focus on colonizing the region and producing massive amounts of wheat, olive oil, and wine to sustain the growing empire. The seaports of Brindisi and Bari pop up, and things are going great. That is, until the fall of Rome. After that, Puglia gets invaded by “barbarian” tribes (which is fairly easy because Puglia is surrounded by water and difficult to protect).

There were the Goths (those Germanic guys from northern European areas like modern-day Sweden), the Lombards (those other Germanic guys from southern Scandinavia), and the Saracens (those tribal guys from Arabia), among others who tried to take over Puglia.


Part 2: Normans Know Best

The Normans (those guys from northern France) conquer in the 11th century and things start to chill out. The economy does really well and Norman architecture makes its debut. The style at this time is Romanesque (think cathedrals with big rose windows and arches) but because of the influence of the previous Lombard and Byzantine rulers in Puglia, an interesting blend develops which combines elements of Romanesque, Byzantine, and Arabic styles- mirroring the harmony of these different peoples living together in Puglia during this period.

This is a big part of what makes Puglia so special and different from other parts of Italy, which you’ll notice right away. This multicultural blend also shows up in Pugliese cuisine in really interesting ways (read more about that here).