The so-called Basilica: the oldest temple
The temple of Hera, the so-called Basilica, is the oldest of the three large buildings. It belongs to the first generation of large stone temples and was begun in about 560 BC.
It is the only Greek temple dating to a period of crucial importance to the formation of Greek architecture to have been preserved in such good condition.
The pediments are missing and the layout is not the standard one; the inner part is divided by a row of central columns, as was customary in ancient works of architecture built of wood. This aspect meant that its function remained unclear for a considerable time and it is known as the “Basilica” to this day even though it has been demonstrated that it was a cult building. Archaeological finds and inscriptions suggest that it may have been the temple of Apollo, the deity who also appears on the metopes of the Heraion on the river Sele.
In June 2016 an experimental itinerary was created which removed the architectural barriers, enabling all visitors to enter the temple.
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The three large temples at Paestum were built according to the rules of the Doric order. The Greeks were also familiar with the Ionic order and the Corinthian order.
A Doric temple can be recognised by the capitals at the top of the columns because they are shaped like large bowls: the flatter they are, the older the temple. The capitals of the “Basilica” (c. 550 BC) are the flattest, those on the temple of Athena (c. 500 BC) are less so, while those on the temple of Neptune (c. 460 BC) display the classic features of Doric architecture.
A typical feature of the Doric order is the frieze, placed in the part above the columns, arranged in sculpted or painted panels (“metopes”) with tripartite elements that separate them (“triglyphs”).
The Ionic order can be recognised by the capitals with spiral decoration (“volutes”) while the Corinthian order has capitals decorated with floral motifs.
The earliest known basilicas were built in Rome during the republican period and were used for carrying out business, public meetings and the administration of justice.
The temple of Athena (known as the “Temple of Ceres”)
This is the only temple where we can be certain about the identity of the deity to which it was dedicated: Athena, the goddess of crafts and warfare.
The temple of the patron goddess is situated at the highest point of the city, to the north of the public area which it overlooks. The first generation of colonists constructed a small building in honour of the goddess (known as the “oikos”). In about 500 BC, a monumental temple was built which has been preserved until the cornice of the roof. The inner part (known as “cella”), which is higher than the surrounding colonnade, was accessible through a large antechamber (“pronaos”) decorated with Ionic columns.
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How did a Greek temple work?
To the east of the temple of Athena (on the side towards the modern road), an enormous stone altar can be seen. Animals were sacrificed here as part of the great celebrations held in honour of the goddess, accompanied by various types of music and rituals.
The priestesses and priests were citizens who held these posts for a certain period. There was no priestly caste.
While the cult took place in the open air around the altar, the temple was considered the home of the deity, represented by a statue situated in the cella where she “observed” the sacrifices being made outside.
The “Temple of Neptune”
This is the largest temple at Paestum and is the best preserved. Built in about the mid-fifth century BC, it encapsulates the classic features of Greek temple architecture. The large temple of Zeus was being built during the same period at Olympia in Greece, although it is less well preserved.
The temple is built of enormous blocks held together with simple dowels without the use of mortar: this building technique has enabled the building to withstand earthquakes and other natural calamities.
As is the case for the other temples, the walls of the inner structure or “cella” are now missing due to the reuse of the blocks by the inhabitants during the medieval and modern eras.
The cella was divided into three naves by two high colonnades on two levels which can still be admired. As in the case of other temples, the roof was held up by wooden beams (the slots in the stone blocks can still be seen). The roof tiles and eaves were made of terracotta with elaborate colourful decoration.
During the eighteenth century, it was thought that the largest temple in the city must have been the temple of Poseidon-Neptune, the deity that gave the Greek city its name (Poseidonia).
However, the attribution to Neptune is still a matter of debate. The temple, which was used extensively until the imperial period, may have been dedicated to Hera, the main deity of the city. Considering that a terracotta statue of Zeus was found in the vicinity, another hypothesis is that the temple was dedicated to the most important Greek deity, the husband of Hera and the father of Athena; another hypothesis is that the temple was dedicated to Apollo.
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The fate of the temples after antiquity
The temples of Paestum were transformed from Greek and Roman cult centres into Christian places of worship in late antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.
During the Middle Ages, when the population abandoned the site and retreated to the inland mountainous region, the temples were abandoned.
From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, the temples were “rediscovered” thanks to the works of artists and travellers who popularised the decadent yet striking image of the temples. Clearly, local inhabitants had always been aware of their existence so their “rediscovery” actually refers to the renewed interest in pre-classical Greek architecture.
At the time, the temples of Paestum were considered “the oldest works of architecture outside Egypt”.