The presence of man inside the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park has been ascertained from the Upper Palaeolithic Age. It was confirmed by the discovery of stone tools at Campo Imperatore (Fonte della Macina) and in the famous Cave at Male di Assergi.
There is little evidence of occupation of these mountains during the Neolithic period (6th-4th millennium BC). The Bronze Age (4th-3rd millennium BC), however, shows increasing use of the Park, not only for pasture and hunting, but also as places of burial: this is shown by the discovery of a necropolis at Assergi inside a gravel pit.
During the Middle Bronze Age (1,700-1,350 BC), there is a profound change. The settlements gradually move higher, giving preference to the highlands of valley bottoms or to previously occupied plains.
The Iron Age (1st millennium BC) shows an increase in the number of villages in the main areas, featuring fortifications and ditches surrounding the villages, and a network of roads begins to develop to connect the settlements with their respective burial areas lower down.
From the 6th century onwards, the territory was inhabited by the Sabelli, who later became known as Sabines in the north-west and Vestini in the middle and lower Aterno valley. Rome did not fail to attempt to expand and in 290 BC, M. Curio Dentato conquered the Sabine Amiternum and a large part of the Vestini area. The Roman conquest did not, however, lead to a true urbanisation, so that the population continued to live in their previous villages and the urban layout was irregular: the area featured vici in easily accessible places and oppida along the mountain slopes or on the plain.
Only in the Late Republic, following the Social War (91-89 BC) and at the beginning of the Empire did the municipia appear, even though they did not substantially modify the layout of the settlements. In fact, they were mainly public and religious structures, intended for the inhabitants, who continued to live in their primitive villages: a sort of “town without inhabitants” (examples include Amiternum and Forum Novum). The road system was extended during this period and included not only main routes, but also a network of sheep tracks and an extensive labyrinth of minor paths for local use, inherited from the pre-Roman period. The main arteries included the Via Caecilia, crossing the Park from north to south, and the Via Claudia Nova, which runs round the south of the Park. The territories included in the Augustan Regio IV became part of the province of Flaminia et Picenum during the Diocletian era, only to be absorbed by the province of Valeria at the end of the 4th century AD.
In Late Antiquity, the villages fell apart and were slowly abandoned and although they did not disappear completely, they became smaller.
During the Middle Ages, following the Longobard rule and the early Carolingian period, there were profound changes with scattered settlements, confirmed by the widespread numbers of buildings of worship owned by the monks, documented from the 8th century onwards. Even though the data available does not allow us to define the territories of the dioceses or any gastaldates, the documentation from the end of the 8th to the mid 9th century, on the other hand, reveals the important role of towns, such as Amiterno and Civitas Marsicana (today’s San Benedetto dei Marsi), surrounded by the properties of Longobard families and taxed lands. The road network also developed in this period and not only did this follow the previous Roman arteries, it also included a network of roads that acted as the boundaries of the great abbeys and which, in some cases, allowed people across the mountainous passes and river valleys.
During the Carolingian period, riches were distributed amongst the monasteries and nobility, penalising the town authorities and local communities. The land distribution led to conflicts, such as those between the rural community of today’s valley of Tirino (part of the diocese of Valva at the time) and the powerful Benedictine abbey of San Vincenzo al Volturno.
The mid 12th century saw the area subjugated by the Normans and at the same time the borders with the lands of the Church were established. The area was fortified particularly on the mountain slopes, and villages with a rural economy were established in the foothills.
In the modern era, the entire area continues to preserve a marginal frontier aspect, due to the numerous changes in power determined by the alternating rules of Anjou, Aragon and Bourbon. Throughout all these years, the role of the towns became stronger with the addition of fortifications, churches and noble palaces. The result today is that this area is dotted with extremely fascinating, well-preserved villages, 5 of which have been nominated amongst the most beautiful villages in Italy (Amatrice, Castel del Monte, Castelli, Civitella del Tronto, Santo Stefano di Sessanio).