A Tale of Two Colonies


He [Asclepius] turned then toward Leucosia and the rose-beds of mild Paestum.


The dramatic remains of the ancient town of Poseidonia-Paestum, around 80 km (50 miles) southeast of Naples, bear witness to key phases of colonization and conquest in ancient southern Italy, both Greek and Roman. The site is best known for its spectacular temples that demonstrate the vitality of western Greek culture and were important in the 18th-century rediscovery of Greek architecture. Archaeological investigations of recent decades, however, have revealed how, while the temples remained, the town was transformed after conquest and colonization by the Romans in 273 BC.

Greeks had already settled western colonies such as Cumae (southern Italy) and Syracuse (Sicily) by the third quarter of the 7th century BC, but Poseidonia, named after the Greek god of the sea, established c. 600 BC, was part of a second wave of colonization. While an earlier tradition associated the site with Jason and the Argonauts, Aristotle tells us it was founded by refugees from the earlier Greek town of Sybaris in the instep of Italy, driven out by their co-colonists after political conflict. The new town benefited from a well-watered and defensible position on a limestone ridge (later reinforced by strong walls), overlooking a fertile plain with ready access to the sea.

A View of Paestum, 1759, by Antonio Joli, showing the three temples and ancient walls, with the modern village of Capaccio behind. Joli has depicted the Temple of Athena as closer to the other two temples than it actually is to fit them all on his canvas. In reality, much of the ancient town lies between the two sacred areas. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Gift of Mr. Norton Simon M.1979.52.P.

Photo 2012 Norton Simon Art Foundation.

The three grand Doric temples are by far the most vivid evidence of Greek Poseidonia, among the best preserved such temples surviving anywhere. Two of them lie in a sanctuary area probably dedicated to Hera in the south of the city, while the third, of Athena, stands in the northern part of the city. The earlier of the south temples was probably built between around 570 and 520 BC. It measures c. 24.5 × 54.3 m (80 × 178 ft), and faces east, with altars in front. The odd number of columns (nine) across its front is unusual among Greek temples, an asymmetry that continues through the enclosed cella building, with a single row of columns down its centre line. For this reason it is conventionally called the ‘Basilica’, after the (unrelated) later Roman building type. Scholars view this idiosyncrasy variously as an anachronism (reflecting earlier wooden temples, with a central line of posts supporting the roof) or an innovation, perhaps dividing the cella into two for cult statues of Hera and of her consort Zeus. Hera was undoubtedly the main dedicatee of the temple, as almost all the offerings from the southern sanctuary relate to her, including some of the terracotta sculpture used to decorate the temple in lieu of carved stone.

The other south temple is larger (c. 25 × 60 m/82 × 197 ft) and later (perhaps c. 470–460 BC). It runs parallel to its older neighbour, also facing east, but displays characteristics more typical of early classical Doric architecture, with its façade of six columns, somewhat heavy proportions and the early use of sophisticated optical refinements to counter its weighty appearance. Parallels can be drawn with the Temple of Zeus at Olympia in Greece. Like the other temples of Poseidonia, it was made of locally available sandstone and limestone rather than the marble quarried in contemporary Greece. Curiously, it is probably another temple to Hera, since there is little evidence for the worship of other deities (apart from Zeus, as Hera’s consort). Presumably there was a temple of Poseidon somewhere in the colony’s territory, but no clear evidence for it has been found.

The Temple of Athena (traditionally attributed to Ceres) was probably constructed in the 6th century BC, after the earlier temple of Hera. It is smaller than the other two (c. 14.5 × 33 m or 48 × 108 ft), but demonstrates its architects’ willingness to innovate by combining both Doric and Ionic orders, a feature not otherwise seen for another half a century, in Periklean Athens. The main – exterior – order is Doric and shares many features with its earlier sister temple, but the Ionic order is employed inside, just as it was subsequently in the Parthenon at Athens.

Poseidonia also provides unique evidence for Greek architectural sculpture and painting. Excavation of an outlying sanctuary at the mouth of the river Sele, 8.5 km (5 miles) from Poseidonia, produced over 30 relief-sculpted metopes (square or rectangular panels, forming a frieze) from a treasury or small temple. Such metopes became common in later Doric architecture – the Parthenon in Athens, for example – but these are exceptionally early (c. 560 BC), perhaps the earliest surviving, and certainly the first known depicting mythological cycles rather than unrelated scenes. The majority of the scenes are episodes from the life of Hercules, while others relate to the Trojan War. The famous Tomb of the Diver, discovered in 1968 in one of Poseidonia’s cemeteries, is a very rare example of large-scale, figured Greek painting, dating to c. 470 BC.

The Tomb of the Diver, probably c. 470 BC, is a very rare example of classical Greek figured tomb painting. Limestone slabs made up the four walls of the tomb, with symposium scenes painted in fresco on the inside. A fifth slab forming the lid features the scene that gives the tomb its name – a young man diving into water. The symposium was a distinctively Greek drinking party, with the revellers reclining and drinking and playing the lyre.

Andrea Baguzzi/akg-images.

Relatively little is known of civic and domestic life in Poseidonia, as most of the public buildings and houses were built over during the process of establishing the later colony. However, its agora (the marketplace and civic centre) lay in the northern part of the city, and one of its political structures (a stepped circular area where the colony’s council or assembly met) has been discovered and excavated.

The archaic (6th century BC) south temple, probably dedicated to Hera, with its unusual façade of nine columns. This view also displays some of the main features of the archaic Doric architectural order, with its stylobate (platform) of three low steps, bulging columns and the seemingly squashed profiles of the capitals.

© Perseomedusa/

The north temple, probably dedicated to Athena, is also 6th century BC, but the somewhat straighter taper of the columns and the more upright profiles of the capitals are generally taken as a sign of a slightly later date. The even number of columns is more typical than the odd number of its southern counterpart.

© Adam Eastland/

In around 400 BC, like other coastal Greek colonies, Poseidonia came under the control of indigenous peoples from the inland spine of Italy. These Lucanians had relatively little impact on the fabric of the city. Temples and civic buildings remained in use, as did the Greek language, although inscriptions in Oscan (an Italian language) are also known. However, the relatively homogeneous and modest tombs of the Greek period were replaced by more differentiated burials, some of which include lavish paintings and grave goods, especially arms and armour. A Lucanian aristocracy may have replaced a more egalitarian social and political system that had characterized the Greek colony.

Roman expansion into southern Italy and the conquest of Poseidonia had a much more profound impact on the city. The establishment of a new ‘Latin’ colony of Roman and allied settlers in 273 BC saw a dramatic and thorough transformation of the site’s fabric, reflecting undoubted social and political dislocation, with original occupants dispossessed and a new constitution established, modelled on that of Rome. The town was now known as Paestum. While the great Greek temples remained through the Roman period, much of the city was laid out afresh, on a new grid-plan. The Greek council-chamber was destroyed and buried, and a new civic focus, a Roman-style forum, was constructed in the centre of the town, superseding the agora. This forum developed with an ensemble of typically Roman public buildings, stamping a new cultural and political identity on the city. They included a senate house and a meeting-place for the assembly (comitium) modelled, like the constitution, on those at Rome; a Roman-style temple; a civic basilica for administration and law courts; and, eventually, at the east end of the forum, that most quintessentially Roman of structures – an amphitheatre. The excavated houses of Roman Paestum are modest, but their atrium and peristyle plan echoes those familiar from Pompeii.

Clearly the settlers of Paestum identified strongly with their mother-city of Rome. Their loyalty was exemplary in the crisis of the Second Punic War (218–201 BC), when Hannibal’s army dominated southern Italy and many Roman allies defected. Livy tells us that envoys from Paestum offered gold bowls (probably offerings from their temples) in the aftermath of the disaster at Cannae and that the colony was singled out for thanks for its service, including the provision of ships for the Roman fleet. However, Paestum seems to have become something of a backwater in later Roman centuries, by-passed by major road and sea routes.

The city still functioned in the 4th century AD, but in the 5th–7th centuries, settlement concentrated in the higher part of the city, near the Temple of Athena, by now a Christian church, the seat of a bishop. But by the 9th century, malarial marshes around the site (caused by the very springs that had once attracted Greek settlers) and the threat of Arab pirates led to the relocation of the bishop, and most of the population, to the higher, inland site of Capaccio, some 8 km (5 miles) to the east. By the 17th century, Paestum was described as marshy and hostile. Nevertheless, the grandeur of the temples remained. Despite the relative inaccessibility of their location, by the mid-18th century, as excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii were at an early stage, scholars from all over Europe came to record and study them, and the temples of Poseidonia played a central role in the rediscovery of Greek architecture and the emergence of the new discipline of archaeology.

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