Ancient History & Civilisation


Twenty miles north of Elea lay the city of Poseidonia—the Roman Paestum—founded by colonists from Sybaris as the main Italian terminus of Milesian trade. Today one reaches it by a pleasant ride from Naples through Salerno. Suddenly, by the roadside, amid a deserted field, three temples appear, majestic even in their desolation. For the river, by blocking its own mouth here with centuries of silt, has long since turned this once healthy valley into a swamp, and even the reckless race that tills the slopes of Vesuvius has fled in despair from these malarial plains. Fragments of the ancient walls remain; but better preserved, as if by solitude, are the shrines that the Greeks raised, in modest limestone but almost perfect form, to the gods of the corn and the sea. The oldest of the buildings, lately called the “Basilica,” was more likely a temple to Poseidon; men who owed their living to the fruit and commerce of the Mediterranean dedicated it to him towards the middle of this amazing sixth century B.C., which created great art, literature, and philosophy from Italy to Shantung. The inner as well as the outer colonnades remain, and attest the columnar passion of the Greeks. The following generation built a smaller temple, also Dorically simple and strong; we call it the “temple of Ceres,” but we do not know what god sniffed the savor of its offerings. A yet later generation, just before or after the Persian War,55 erected the greatest and best-proportioned of the three temples, probably also to Poseidon—fittingly enough, since from its porticoes one gazes into the inviting face of the treacherous sea. Again almost everything is columns: a powerful and complete Doric peristyle without, and, within, a two-storied colonnade that once upheld a roof. Here is one of the most impressive sights in Italy; it seems incredible that this temple, better preserved than anything built by the Romans, was the work of Greeks almost five centuries before Christ. We can imagine something of the beauty and vitality of a community that had both the resources and the taste to raise such centers for its religious life; and then we can conjure up less inadequately the splendor of richer and vaster cities like Miletus, Samos, Ephesus, Crotona, Sybaris, and Syracuse.

Slightly north of where Naples stands today adventurers from Chalcis, Eretria, Euboean Cyme, and Graia founded, about 750, the great port of Cumae, oldest of Greek towns in the West. Taking the products of eastern Greece and selling them in central Italy, Cumae rapidly acquired wealth, colonized and controlled Rhegium, obtained command of the Straits of Messina, and excluded from them, or subjected to heavy tolls, the vessels of cities not leagued with it in trade.56 Spreading southward, the Cumaeans founded Dicaearchia—which became the Roman port of Puteoli (Pozzuoli)—and Neapolis, or New City, our Naples. From these colonies Greek ideas as well as goods passed into the crude young city of Rome, and northward into Etruria. At Cumae the Romans picked up several Greek gods—Apollo and Heracles especially—and bought for more than they were worth the scrolls in which the Cumaean Sibyl—the aged priestess of Apollo—had foretold the future of Rome.

Near the beginning of the sixth century the Phocaeans of Ionia landed on the southern shore of France, founded Massalia (Marseilles), and carried Greek products up the Rhone and its branches as far as Aries and Nîmes. They made friends and wives of the natives, introduced the olive and the vine as gifts to France, and so familiarized southern Gaul with Greek civilization that Rome found it easy to spread its kindred culture there in Caesar’s time. Ranging along the coast to the east, the Phocaeans established Antipolis (Antibes), Nicaea (Nice), and Monoecus (Monaco). Westward they ventured into Spain and built the towns of Rhodae (Rosas), Emporium (Ampurias), Hemeroscopium, and Maenaca (near Malaga). The Greeks in Spain flourished for a while by exploiting the silver mines of Tartessus; but in 535 the Carthaginians and Etruscans combined their forces to destroy the Phocaean fleet, and from that time Greek power in the western Mediterranean waned.

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