October 14, 2010

A Passion for Paestum

Ruins of the Temple of Athena at Paestum
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
By Niccolò Graffio
Standing under the early October sun, I watched as the members of our tour group gathered themselves together near our tour guide ‘Pina’. Raising her right arm for emphasis, she proudly spoke. “Are we all together? Good. First of all, let me welcome you to my country. This is the region of Campania!” My God, she was a Meridionist! I knew I was going to like this woman.
Three-quarter view of the Temple of Athena
My friend Giovanni and I had signed up for one of the many tours of the site of Paestum, an ancient temple-city built by our ancestors, the Greeks of the Hellenic Age. The city had been founded by emigrants from the Achaean polis of Sybaris in Magna Graecia (in what is now Calabria) sometime around 600 BC. The Achaeans named it Poseidonia in honor of the god Poseidon.
Heraion II (Temple of Hera and Poseidon)
In spite of this, explained our guide Pina, the city eventually became an important center of the cult of Hera, wife of great Zeus. In fact, of the three temples we saw (Hera, Athena and Poseidon), two were dedicated to the worship of Hera. Poseidon, lord of the seas, earthquakes and horses, was forced to share his temple with the Queen of Olympus!
Votive terracotta figurine of Hera
Pina told us that due to the size of Paestum, we would be unable to view the entire site in one tour, which I found disappointing but understandable. Her in-depth knowledge of the geography and history of the site more than compensated for this. The Greeks, she went on, remained masters of the site until the end of the 5th century BC, when it was conquered by the Lucani, an Italic people who spoke an Oscan tongue. They renamed it Paistom.
Return of the Warrior
Tomb painting from Lucanian period (ca. 375-360 BC)
This Greco-Lucanian colony would thrive until 273 BC, when it would fall into the possession of the Romans after their defeat of Pyrrhus, King of Epirus. The Romans gave the city the name it enjoys today.
Marble statue of Hera, late fifth century BC
Paestum’s fortunes waned along with those of the Roman Empire. Both began to seriously decline in the 4th century AD. Deforestation led to the growth of marshes around the site, which in turn abetted the spread of malaria. The Temple of Athena (remade into a Christian church) in the northern part of the town became the new city center as the southern part was progressively abandoned. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD and the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD, Saracen raids further depleted the site of many of its populace. Paestum was abandoned altogether in the 9th century. It would not be rediscovered until the 18th century, thanks to road construction in the area.
Detail of fictile statue of Zeus or Poseidon (520-510 BC)
Many of the artifacts recovered from Paestum have been put on display at a museum located right next to the site. Giovanni and I had the good fortune to visit it before our trip through Paestum proper. The museum contains a history of the area from Greco-Roman times all the way back to the Upper Paleolithic (50,000 BC). If you, my friends, ever decide to visit Paestum I strongly recommend a stop at the museum!
Prehistoric funerary display
Pina finally brings our group back full circle to the beginning of the tour. Our trip through time has ended. Though I marvel at all I’ve seen and heard, I feel strangely unsatisfied. I leave, knowing one day I shall return. My passion for Paestum had been stoked!
Further reading:
• John Griffiths Pedley: Paestum: Greeks and Romans in Southern Italy, Thames and Hudson, 1990
• Marina Cipriani and Fausto Longo: The Paestum National Archaeological Museum: Its History, Layout and Displays, Pandemos, 2010
• M. Cipriani, E. Greco, F. Longo and A Pontrandolfo: The Lucanians in Pæstum, Fondazione Pæstum, 1996