Paestum, city forgotten throughout the centuries, later on reborn and still standing to this day. The magnificence of its temples and its walls surround the remains of the citadel, still half submerged under the ground.

The archaeological site of Paestum, based in the city of Capaccio Paestum, in the Campania region and not too far from the river Sele, it is amongst the best preserved sites of the Magna Graecia and become part of the UNESCO heritage in 1998. In ancient times the city was called “Poseidonia” in honour of the Greek God Poseidon. The current name comes from the following domination first Lucan then Roman.

Below: hollow coin from Poseidonia (530-500 BC) with Poseidon and the initials ΠΟΣ (=POS). Picture by Classical Numismatic Group shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

The archaeological find has demonstrated the first human settlements since the Stone Age, organised in small villages spread in the wide area of the site.

Historically the first person mentioning the formation of the city was Strabo. Poseidonia, today Paestum, seems to be born as a trade colony of the city of Sibari, in the plain area along the river Sele from the 7th century BC. The chance to start the commerce with the several Italian populations both by land and sea gave a kick to the first settlements all the way to arrive to the formation of the city of Poseidonia.

The peak for the city was reached due to a series of unfortunate events for the motherland; in the 6th century BC some quarrels between Sibari and other Italian cities led to a heavy migration to the colony of Paestum. There are 3 temples dating back this period: the Cathedral, the Cerere Temple and the Nettuno Temple, today still erect both on the base and the colonnade.

Below: Temple of Athena in Paestum (the Cerere Temple). Picture by Berthold Werner shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

Between the 420 and the 410 BC circa, the Lucans gradually conquered the city, changing its name to Paistom. The prosperity of the city carried on even under the Lucan power, also thanks to the fertile lands and its well solidified commercial networks.

In 273 BC Rome conquered the site and with it it officially became Roman colony, as the new change of name suggests. The inhabitants of Paestum and the nearby people of Velia were amongst the most important suppliers of  ships and sailors of the Roman fleets, even during the Punic wars. This fortified the bond of the city with Rome, by providing safety and prestige.

The city walls of Paestum as we know it today are of Roman origin, even when they were built up over previous more ancient constructions. It is one of the best preserved fortifications in the whole Magna Graecia: it has  length of approximately 4,750 m (15,500 ft), on it it is possible to see the remains of 28 watchtowers with 4 access points to the city placed by following the cardinal points: Porta Marina, Porta Aurea, Porta Sirena and Porta Giustizia.

Below: picture by Oliver-Bonjoch shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

Strabo was already mentioning the problems of a progressive swamping to which the whole city was exposed to due to a watercourse flowing nearby, all the way to under the walls. Today the river is identified as the modern Capodifiume, known natural attraction in the area. The swamping of the city created a centralisation of the habitation on the higher spot, near the Cerere Temple.

The early Christianisation of the city turned the secular cult of Hera in the still going worshipped Madonna del Granato, emblem of fertility, wealth and abundance on the fields. The today’statue of the Madonna resembles the shapes and the posture of the terracotta statues of the ancient Greek Goddess.

The arrangement of Paestum, by now left inhabited and swamped went lost throughout the centuries. The renewed interest and rediscovery of the site had to be waited up until the 1700’s thanks to the researchers and intellectuals of all Europe that inserted Paestum as a destination of the Gran Tour; it was eventually visited by personalities such as Goethe, Nietzsche and Piranesi.

The artist Piranesi realised several incisions showing in a romantic- decadent way the greatness of the geometrical shapes of the majestic temples immerse in the wild and green nature of the territory.

Below: detail of the “Cheater’s Tomb”, rare example of fresco in a Greek sepulcre. Public Domain

One of the most fascinating discoveries from the site is the tomb of a young citizen of  Pestano, called the Cheater’s Tomb. The main slab represents a young man diving off the springboard, probably symbol of the burial as a passage between the living and the dead. Such an artifact, along with many others from the area is preserved and exhibited in the NAtional Archaeologican Museum of Paestum, built as part of the modern city on the remains of the buried rests of the ancient part. This grants the charm of mystery and discover, still alive towards one of the ancient gems of the Magna Graecia.

Rachele Goracci


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