Puglia has an ancient past, where several populations and traditions have left their mark during the centuries.
Archaeological studies testify in fact a distant prehistory, confirming that the area of Salento was inhabited early in the Middle Palaeolithic, about 80,000 years ago. Other archaeological excavations have brought to light various evidences of human presence, such as the Man of Altamura (a form of Neanderthal man) and the skeleton of a woman who was pregnant at the time of death, found in the caves of Agnano, near Ostuni, and dated to be about 25,000 years old.
A fossils of dinosaur footprints has also been found in the Park of Alta Murgia. Others remains of prehistoric era are the Menhir, large monolithic erected individually or in groups, and the Dolmen, ancient megalithic monuments consisting of a cell made of large blocks of stones, and used as worship places or collective burial.
During the 4th millennium BC the region was inhabited from different civilizations coming from the Balkans region of Illyria and Epirus: the Dauni occupied the Gargano area, the Messapians occupied the Salento sub-region and the Peucetians occupied the area around Taranto. All these populations were dedicated to sheep farming and agriculture and for several centuries shared the land with the Greeks, strongly resisting to their attacks on the Ionian side where the powerful city of Taranto, capital of the splendid civilization of Magna Graecia, had been founded.
The Roman Conquest
On the other side, these populations had to endure for a long time the attack of the Romans, who have long recognized the strategic position of the region and the importance of the port of Brindisi as the perfect way to conquer the Balkans and Greece.
During the 3rd century BC they had to succumb to the power of the Romans and by the 270 BC the whole region was unified to the great Roman Empire. Puglia was thus submitted to the laws and customs of Romans but this soon gave the region a great commercial and cultural importance.
The Romans built the Appia Road, the first “highway” in the Southern Italy, which, passing from Taranto and Oria would end in front of the Brindisi’s port, and the Traiana Road, which also departed from Brindisi and joined the Roman city of Troy and the Roman city of Herdonia.
Brindisi soon became the largest Roman port on the Adriatic coast of Puglia and made a natural bridge to the East. Fishing and trade became the main economic activities of the region which also became a flourishing area for production of wheat and olive oil. Rome also brought Christianity and a number of bishoprics were instituted between the 4th and 5th century.
The Byzantine Domination
During the 6th century the Roman Empire splits into two and Puglia witnessed the continue alternation of the Byzantines’, Goths’ and Lombards’ supremacy. Eventually the Salento was controlled by the Byzantines and the North of the region ruled by the Lombards.
During the first half of the 6th century, the Lombards continued their invasion, descending slowly to the South of the region, so that the Salento peninsula soon became a borderland between the Lombards and the Byzantines. In 757 they finally reached a truce and divided the control of the land.
Between the 9th and 10th century the region was at the center of the fight between the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire and was inhabited by various populations including several Jewish communities (Oria was house to the oldest Jewish community in Europe). It was eventually recaptured by the Byzantines. Bari was declared the capital and the city became a major center of political, military and commercial Eastern Roman Empire in Italy.
The Normans Domination
The year 1000 saw a strong economic development, cities became bigger and more populated, first great cathedrals were built and people, helped by the Normans, began an uprising against the Byzantines. At the end of the 11th century Roberto il Guiscardo conquered Bari and Brindisi and from that time the region was ruled by the Normans. In 1087 the statue of St. Nicholas was stolen from Constantinople and brought to Bari, this event marked the beginning of the cult of the saint in the Western world. Under the Norman rule Puglia had a strong economic and cultural development and numerous castles and cathedrals were built.
The Swabian dynasty and the Kindom of Italy
In 1220, Frederick II the Swabian dynasty came to power and ruled the region for 30 years. With the new emperor to power, Puglia met one of the best periods of development and progress, witnessed by the numerous architectural, in particular castles, which were built in those years.
At the death of the emperor his son Manfred took the power, however, he was soon ousted by Charles of Anjou in 1266 following the defeat of the Battle of Benevento. The region began a period of decline with many dynasties that succeeded to power: the French Angevin family and the Aragons from Spain, which ruled the region for two centuries. Puglia lost its splendor and life conditions worsened, the main economic activities returned to be agriculture and sheep farming. Only at the end of the 18th with the Bourbons and Napoleon, conditions returned to improve, thanks to the further development of ports, intensification of roads and the abolition of feudalism.
In 1861, with the fall of the Kingdom of Sicily and the unification of Italy, the foreign domination eventually ended in the region and Puglia joined the newly united Italy.