A journey into the past in Paestum

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Visiting the Archaeological Park of Paestum means travelling back in history. The site contains, as in a gap of a universe suspended in time, millennia of extraordinary history, which can be reached along its stony paths. From prehistory to the Greek Poseidonia, from the Lucanian dominion to the Roman Paestum and up to our days, the charm of the place has remained uninterrupted over the centuries. It witnessed human civilization from the beginning: there are many artifacts that testify to the presence of settlements during the Bronze Age, the Neolithic or even the Paleolithic.

 

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Finally unaware whether we were walking on rocks or ruins we were able to recognize some squared oblong bedrocks, which we had already noticed from a distance, like temples that had survived and memories of a city that used to be magnificent [Johann Wolfgang von Goethe]

 

The etymology of the name “Paestum”

Many of the objects found on the site are now kept at the National Archaeological Museum of Paestum (photo below) and represent a historical testimony of almost priceless value.

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The first colonizers to establish a real urban settlement were the Greeks in a period prior to 625 BC, as some archaeological findings would suggest. The historian Strabone reports [1] of a city called Poseidonia, probably founded by the inhabitants of nearby Sibari. The name of the new polis was given in honor of the sea god Poseidon, to whom the inhabitants demanded protection. Between 560 BC and the 440 BC Poseidonia experienced the period of maximum splendor, during which the most imposing buildings were built, some of which can still be admired. These include the Temples of Athena, Neptune and Hera and part of the Agora, such as the Ekklesiasterion.

 

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The temples of Paestum

Today it is possible to admire three temples inside the archaeological area of Paestum. They represent a rare example of Greek buildings still in good condition. The constructions, in Doric style with double columns, once would have been richly decorated, both externally and internally. The bright colours of the colonnade and the tympanum served to honour a divinity placed inside the temple. It, in the features of a huge statue, “observed” through the columns the rituals that were performed daily on the numerous altars located across the area.

 

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Temple of Athena

 

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The Temple of Neptune, exterior

 

Interior of the Temple of Neptune

 

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The Temple of Hera

 

The Agora

A large portion of the archaeological site is occupied by the ancient Greek Agora, the main square of the polis. Here you can still see the Ekklesiasterion, a circular-stepped building made from rock (like the Greek theaters) in which the most important political decisions of Poseidonia were taken.

 

 

The Tomb of the Diver

An extraordinary find discovered near Paestum in 1968, allowed to write an important page of history of the art of Greek painting. This is the Tomb of the Diver, which represents a real mystery of antiquity.

The Tomb of the Diver represents, in fact, the only existing example of figurative painting of the Magna Grecia, with the exception of vases. Technique used is the fresco and the subject represented is still unknown.

 

 

The cover slab of the burial presents a man in the act of throwing himself from the top of a column towards the sea. Here is the denomination of the “diver”. The exceptional discovery immediately brought into focus various mysteries: who was the diver? Why was his tomb painted internally? But more importantly, what message wants to tell us the enigmatic cover plate of the tomb?

 

 

Hypothesis on the Tomb of the Diver

Most scholars agree on a univocal interpretation. The representation on the Tomb of the Diver, which has Etruscan stylistic influences, shows the passage from life to death. The man launches himself from a tall column, depicting the boundary of the World (the Pillars of Hercules) towards the unknown, the sea, the afterlife. Even in its figurative meaning, the burial has exceptional features: only from Plato on, in fact, the Greeks began to acquire forms of spirituality linked to the soul. The man of the Tomb of the Diver was certainly a precursor to this. But who was he? A credible hypothesis suggests that he was an important initiate to the mystery cults.

 

Paestum from the Romans to our days

Poseidonia passed under the Lucanian dominion in about 410 BC, becoming Paistom until 273 BC, when it was conquered by the Romans. These finally changed the name of the settlement to today’s Paestum. The Romans contributed to the expansion of the urban center, preserving great respect for the existing buildings, as for the small Temple of Zeus.

 

The Romans preserved the small Greek temple of Zeus

 

Furthermore, the walls surrounding the archaeological area date back to this period.

 

 

During the period of Roman domination a large theatre was built, located near the ancient Forum.

 

The entrance to the Roman large theatre.

 

“Roman” room of the National Archaeological Museum of Paestum

 

Following the period of Roman domination the area of Paestum became marshy. This, although it prevented development and habitability, allowed the intact conservation of the site. This, in fact, due to unhealthy air and malaria, was almost forgotten for long centuries, until reaching our days.

 

 

Samuele Corrente Naso

 

NOTES

[1] Strabone, V 4, 13