THE FOUNDATION OF THE CITY
Paestum was founded as the city of “Poseidonia” by the Greek colonists who arrived here with their ships from the city of Sybaris in Calabria in about 600 BC.
The area was previously inhabited by indigenous peoples. Relations between them and the Greeks are unclear but we hope to gain more information from the new excavations that are due to be carried out in Paestum and the surrounding area.
In the second half of the 7th century BC, the Greeks settled in a fort on a cliff overlooking the sea, in the present-day town of Agropoli to the south of Paestum. They built a temple to Poseidon there.
In about 600 BC, they moved to the plain and founded Poseidonia-Paestum on the left bank of the river Sele. Right from their arrival, the colonists were concerned with dividing spaces: the residential districts were clearly separated by a broad central zone designed for public functions. The public area was subdivided into three zones: the areas to the north and south were devoted to cult practice and this is where the three majestic Doric temples that can be admired today still stand; the central zone was reserved for political and commercial activities (agora).
The agora, the main square of the Greek city, was the hub of urban activity. The southern side of this open area was chosen in Roman times as the site for the forum.
Two monuments that symbolised the political image of the city were built on the agora. The first, known as a heroon, is a chamber that was partially hewn out of the bedrock in about 520 BC and built in honour of the hero who was the mythical founder of the colony. The building was held in respect by the Lucanians whereas the Romans, on their arrival, built a rectangular enclosure, still visible to this day, and covered it with earth, thereby putting an end to the cult. Some exceptional objects were found inside it and are now kept in the Archaeological Museum.
The second round building is called the ekklesiasterion. It was built in about 480 BC for male citizens who met there to discuss political issues.
CITIZENS AND ARTISANS
Initially each citizen had a house within the city and a plot of land in the countryside. Little is known about the houses dating to the Greek era; indeed, only a few rooms of a house from the fifth century BC have been found.
The rights and responsibilities of citizens included political activity, military service and participation in the religious life of the community. Only adult male citizens could take part in meetings while women and slaves were excluded from all forms of political involvement. The different phases of male and female lives were marked by numerous rites of passage. Under the protection of a deity, the new role of the individual (adolescent/male adult; young woman/married woman) within Greek society was celebrated.
When the community increased in size and became more diversified, the status of artisans gradually improved.
In the sixth and fifth centuries BC the workshops of the potters of Poseidonia made vases for everyday use and for tableware while at the end of the fifth century painted red figure vases began to be produced. Among the more well-known potters from Paestum, a name that stands out is Assteas, who was active between 380 and 350 BC and signed his products. The only example of his vases still in Paestum, painted with the myth of Bellerophon and used to draw and store water (hydria),comes from a chamber tomb in Agropoli.
THE CITY OF THE DEAD
The Greeks buried their dead outside the city walls in necropolises (literally, “cities of the dead”). The tombs and grave goods reflected the social status of the deceased’s family, as well as the expectations and values of the community.
The grave goods from the oldest urban cemeteries of the first colonists from Sybaris (a city in Calabria) often include, in the case of male burials, a “strigil”, a tool used for cleansing the body, and an “alabastron”, a vase containing perfumes: these objects appear to underline the athletic ideals of the Greeks.
In later burials, when Poseidonia was dominated by peoples from inland mountainous regions (the Lucanians), there was an emphasis on the military role of deceased males who were buried with weapons and often with armour (helmet, shield and greaves). The nature of the burials of armed warriors led to the notion of the “return of the warrior”, associated with portrayals of chariot races, boxing and duels which refer to the funeral games held in honour of the deceased.
The Greek colonists initially settled in the fertile plain along the coast; other peoples lived in the mountainous inland regions and their relations with the Greeks alternated between periods of peace and phases of violent conflict.
As soon as they arrived, the Greek colonists affirmed their role as “lords” of a large area and marked the boundaries by building temples that placed their new territory under the protection of the deities: to the north, the temple of Hera near the river Sele separated the side inhabited by the Greeks and the land of the Etruscans. To the south, the temple of Poseidon stands on the promontory of Agropoli. Artemis, the goddess of the wild countryside, was considered to inhabit the hills behind the city.
Further away, there were small country shrines, built near springs or roads, which were designed to unite rural populations in the worship of Hera and especially Demeter, the goddess who gave people the gift of the ear of wheat (another cult site outside the city, in the area of S. Nicola di Albanella, was dedicated to the goddess).
The Greeks did not like living “inland” and therefore chose the fertile plain of Poseidonia as the area for growing cereals; this solution enabled the citizens to deal with important issues being discussed in the city without spending too much time in the countryside. A significant change took place two centuries after the arrival of the first colonists when, following significant social changes, the whole of the countryside around Paestum was chosen as the permanent settlement inhabited by groups whose presence has been identified from the cemeteries.