Temple of Poseidon, Paestum

 The Romans called it Paestum, but it was founded as Poseidinia by the Greeks in the 7th century BC. It is a well preserved site and known for its art and architecture that shows how the cultures that thrived there blended together.

1) Who You Will Meet in Paestum

Paestum’s inhabitants correlate with the city’s three key cultural periods. First, from the 7th century BC to the 4th, Paestum was a Sybarite Greek colony. During the 4th century BC it was conquered by the Lucanians who controlled much of Magna Graecia at that time. Finally Paestum was Roman from 273 BC until the fall of the Empire.

Sybarite Greeks were Achaean colonists who lived luxurious lives filled with public banquets and festivals. They were hospitable hosts and granted citizenship to foreigners. They were on friendly terms with the northern Etruscans who were also a presence in Archaic Paestum.[1]

The Lucanians were not identifiable by any one language or culture, but were at best a group of tribes from the north west of Magna Graecia. Little is known about them other than they spoke Oscan and controlled the middle half of Magna Graecia. Near the end of the Lucanians’ rule however, it is known that they at once both favored Roman loyalty and rebelled against Roman rule.[2]

The Romans took Paestum from the Lucanians after the tribes’ last rebellion and rebuilt much of the city in the Roman style. The populace however was still largely Lucanian though they adopted a very Roman lifestyle. The city was known for being fiercely loyal to Rome and supplied soldiers as well as build ships for Rome’s war efforts.[2]

Fun Fact: The “Tomb of the Diver”, dated between 470 and 460 BC, depicts the blending of Greek and Etruscan culture. It is a typical Greek tomb, with typical Greek scenes, but they are painted on the inward facing panels of the tomb like Etruscan tombs![3]

The Diver

2) How You’ll Get There

No matter when you visit Paestum it is likely, if you are coming from Greece, that you will travel by boat. The Alburni Mountains make traveling across Magna Graecia, and at one time Lucania, difficult. The Calore and Sele rivers provide access to Paestum from the north and the southwest.[4]

Paestum is also close to the Gulf of Salerno. The Romans frequented the coast and Paestum was once known for supplying ships to the Roman fleet.

At all times Paestum was a key player in the trade network of Southern Italy. The Sybarites agricultural economy made them a profitable trade partner. Later the Romans bolstered Paestum’s failing economy and turned it around. At both times travel to Paestum onboard or with trading vessels was very much a possibility.

Fun Fact: Paestum was built on a plain that over time, given the large number of rivers around it, became a marsh. That is why it was abandoned and also why it had not been abused since the middle ages when archaeologists discovered it in the 1900’s.

3) Why You Would Go There

During the Archaic period when the Sybarites ruled Paestum the only reasons you would visit Paestum were to live there or to trade. The lack of ostentatious gifts and decoration at Paestum’s temples is evidence enough that it was not a religious destination.[5] However if you were an architect or a student in that field Paestum would be a destination of choice, because it saw many innovations introduced into Greek temple architecture.[6]

Temple of Athena, Paestum -

Temple of Athena, Paestum –

There is however, one time in the Archaic period when you would go to Paestum out of necessity (almost). Around 510 B.C. Croton destroyed Sybaris. It is believed and very likely that some Sybarites moved to Paestum, although many survivors attempted to rebuild Sybaris.

Little is known about Lucanian Paestum, and it is likely you would travel there for the trade or to start a new life (the Lucanians were conquerors and no doubt displaced lots of people).

Fun Fact: The Sybarites were do disliked by many Greeks that other cities were glad to hear about Sybaris’ destruction. True to form, the Sybarites didn’t like other Greeks much either.[7]

4) What Was Paestum Like?

At first, Paestum was just an agricultural colony. In the 6th century B.C. however it became a monumental city was at least three temples within its “sacred zone”. No doubt it was a majestic city, with its massive Doric temples. However, during the off season it is thought that laborers lived within the city so it may have been crowded.[8]

Etruscans also frequented Paestum thus making it a cultural melting pot for Magna Graecia.

Theatre Ruins, Paestum-

Theatre Ruins, Paestum-

After the fall of Sybaris (and perhaps because of that event) Paestum underwent a period of renewal. New monuments were constructed and a sense of importance (no doubt, because Sybaris had fallen) overwhelmed the city.[9]

During Lucanian times Paestum was racked with violence from revolts and then finally from the Romans taking it (possibly by force). This period of Roman reconolization and renovation was doubtlessly unpleasant, because the Romans did their best to wipe away Paestum’s “Greekness”.

Paestum was fiercely loyal to Rome during its time in the Empire. It was a military way station and ship building center at multiple points in its history.[10]

Fun Fact: Paestum may have created a fictional city founder, but they made a remarkable shrine to him (or her, for that matter). The Romans buried it when they took over the city a few hundred years later.[11]

5) Sources

Brown, Donald Freeman. “In Search of Sybaris: 1962.” Expedition (1963): 41.

Mitchell, Richard E. “Paestum in a Roman Context.” Journal of Aesthetic Education (1985): 39-48.

Neer, Richard T. Greek Art and Archaeology, c. 2500- c.150 BCE. New York: Thomas & Hudson Inc, 2012.

The Geography of Strabo II (Horace Leonard Jones, Ph. D., LL. D. trans.). Massacheusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983.

The Geography of Strabo III (Horace Leonard Jones, Ph. D., LL. D. trans.). Massacheusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983.


[1] Brown took most of his information from other sources, but highlighted the key elements of Sybarite life and their friendship with the Etruscans.40-41.

[2]Mitchell delves deeper into the military history of Paestum and the wars in which it was involved. 42.

[2]Neer covers in greater detail the Romans’ reconstructions and their motivations. 263.

[3]Neer is the latest source to claim the tomb is Etruscan. Only one, much older source said otherwise. 262.

[4] Neer and others point out that the Sele River marked the Etruscan boundary. It is my assumption that travel between the two territories was likely reasonable given Sybarite and Etruscan familiarity. 254.

[5] Neer goes into greater detail about the decorations found in Paestum’s temples. 257.

[6] Neer mentions that the Temple of Hera was one of the first temples to feature entasis. 256-257.

[7] Brown mentions a humorous story about a Sybarite’s trip to Sparta. 41.

[8] Neer cites the sparseness of rural habitation as evidence. 255.

[9] Neer goes into greater depth about the monuments and art that was created during this period of, “reaffirming its ‘“Greekness”’.” 259-262.

[10] Again, Mitchell has more to say about Paestum’s involvement in Roman’s wars than can be said here. 42.

[11] Neer covers the known theories concerning Paestum’s founding hero and the Roman’s motives for burying his or her shrine. 260, 263.

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