The Palatine Tables of Metaponto

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On the right shore of the Bradano river, inside the archaeological area of Metaponto, there are the remains of ancient columns. These seem to overcome the challenges of time, to be immortal with their nice grooves, the elegant Doric capitals. They are called the “Palatine Tables”, heritage of ancient historical events. It is told that, under the shadow of those columns, the famous philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras, teached in his famous School. The stones seem alive: they talk about passed millennia, how we were and how we’ll be.

Palatine Tables
Palatine Tables

The Palatine Tables of Metaponto, many questions

Many are the questions about those nostalgic remains, so elegant to not look like ruins. Firstly, we need to explain their unusual name, Palatine Tables. After, we’re going to reveal what they really were. Certainly, it is a hard word backwards into the history, when all becomes uncertain and often mythical. But, isnt’t this past so fascinating?

Palatine Tables
The road that leads to the Palatine Tables seems so quiet

A name with historical vicissitudes

At least until the end of the 19th century, the inhabitants of the place were not aware of what those ancient ruins were. Rests of a stone building, vestiges of lost ages? From a wrong popular conception, which is romantically intertwined with the legend, the name of Palatine Tables was born. The most ancient memory of those columns dated back to the High Middle Age. There, the emperor Otto II settled with his army, although for a short time [1].

Otto II, from the Registrum Gregorii

In 982, a portion of Southern Italy was subjected to the Saracens invasions, who were located in Sicily. This last was already under the Islamic dominion, with the leading of the emir Abu l-Qasim Ali. The Emperor of the Sacred Roman Empire had decided to go to Italy for driving out the Saracen enemy [2]. Otto II had the help of the Southern Lombard duchies and of the Pope, hoping that Sicily would return Christian. Nonetheless, the army of the Emperor needed to pass through Apulia, Basilicata and Calabria to arrive to Sicily. The regions were governed by the Byzantines. Basilio II opposed the arrival of Otto; then, he commanded his troops to take refuge in the cities and try to resist to the Saxon advance as much as possible. Matera, Taranto and Bari were besieged in 982, but the attempts were unsuccessful.

Mensae

The settlement by the Otto army in Metaponto dates back to that period. In the collective imagination, cause to the fear generated by the sieges, the soldiers of the Emperor appeared as invincible giants. For that time the name “Palatine Tables” was used. The first noun derived from the Latin word mansae, that means table where the meal is consumed, whilst the term palatin referred to the Otto II soldiers; the Paladins were the most important knights, the military élite of the Charlemagne period. In the Chanson de Roland of the Carolingian literary cycle, they embodied the values of the Christian knight who fights against the barbarism of the Saracens.

Then, according to the popular imagine, the remains of the Palatine Tables were the giant shelf where the powerful Otto’s soldiers consumed their meal. This vision had an anthropological and historical relevance. From one side, it allows to understand the fear of the people and the political dynamics that were establishing; from the other side, it anticipates the thematic of another literary cycle, the Breton one, for instance the Knights of the Round Table. Anyway, this is how the Metaponto inhabitants justified the presence of those mysterious and indecipherable ruins.

The little glorious ending of Otto II

The expedition of Otto II was not successfull. A decisive battle among the Saxons and the Saracens took place in Capo Colonna, near Crotone. Here, in the place of the remains of another famous great-Greek temple, that of Hera Lacinia, the future of Southern Italy was decided. During the violent fight, the emir Abu l-Qasim Ali was killed, but the German and Lombard losts were so many to define their defeat. Otto II was obliged to escape with a horse provided by a Jewish. “The flower of the homeland was cut by the iron. The honor of the blonde Germany has fallen”. These are the words written by a chronicler of the time [3].

The archeological evidences

Some archaeological evidences have demonstrated that, in the area where the Palatine Tables are located, there was an inhabited site since the Neolithic. In fact, remains of a preexisting village were found. The fertility of the area, near the Bradano river, allowed the human settlement. In this primitive context the great-Greek residential area was established. Near, there were the colonies of Siris and Heraclea; the Achaean Metapontum was only a few kilometers away. Particularly, from planimetric reconstructions, the place where the Tables were, could be located between the urban and the agricultural areas. Hence, it had the function of a sacred temenos, establishing an ideal and apotropaic boundary between the city and the not anthropized area. Here there was the temple of Greek cult, whose ptèron was for centuries identified as “Palatine Tables”.

The Hera temple

Fifteen columns on the stylobate are the only remains of the Hera temple. The columns had grooves and Doric capitals. The 6th century BC temple originally was a peripteral with 32 columns, 6 of which were on the short sides. There are few traces of the entablature, the tympanum and of the remaining parts, since the local limestone used for the construction had not withstood the test of time. Several testimonies are available about the clay decoration, dating back to the 5th century BC. The archaeological National Museum of Metaponto hosts remains of gargoyles and protomes in polychrome ceramic. They were found during the excavations of 1926 [4].

Palatine Tables
We tried

Interesting revelations derive from the planimetry of the temple. The cell hosting the statue of the divinity, the naos, had posteriorly a special room called adyton. It was reserved to the officiants of the cult for the performances of mystery rites. Anteriorly there was the pronao, whose archaeological traces are still visible.

Remains of columns

Initially it was hypothesized that the temple was dedicated to the divinity Athena. Nonetheless, during the 1926 excavations, some statues representing the goddess Hera were found, as well as a fragment of a jar with an inscription dedicated to her [5]. Here, the Zeus wife was considered the protector divinity of the marriage and the childbirth; of the fertility, often recalled by the representation of the pomegranate. The statue of the divinity, generally chryselephantine, was shown wearing the polos, a cylindrical headdress and emblem of the mother goddess. Then, it is not surprising that near the rural area there was a so powerful remainder to the fertility of the earth.

Palatine Tables and the Pythagorean School

The remains of the Hera temple in Metaponto, known as Palatine Tables, were also called as “Pythagorean School”.  Some historiographical sources refer that the great philosopher and mathematician moved to the great-Greek colony after that his home in Crotone was set on fire, so he was obliged to leave the city. He moved his famous school to Metaponto and, near the Hera temple, he restarted to teach until his death (495 BC).

Porphyry, a Greek philosopher of the 232-305 AC., told that Phytagoras “after having taken refuge in the little temple dedicated to the Muse, stayed there for 40 days without the necessary to live. Other authors affirmed that his friends, who were in the house set on fire, threw themselves into the flames and opened an exit door to their master, forming a sort of fire bridge with their bodies. Escaped from the fire Pythagoras decided to die, for the pain of being deprived of his friends” [6].

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

[1] Basilicata, Calabria, Antonio Canino, Touring Editore, 1980

[2] Jahrbücher des Deutschen Reiches unter Otto II. und Otto III, Karl Uhlirz, Erster Band: Otto II. 973-983, Berlin 1967

[3] Brunonis, S.205

[4] Architettura greca. Storia e monumenti del mondo della polis dalle origini al V secolo, Enzo Lippolis, Monica Liviadotti e Giorgio Rocco, PBM Editori, 2007

[5] Metaponto, Ettore M. De Juliis, Edipuglia, 2001

[6] Vita di Pitagora (ΜΑΛΧΟϒ Η ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΠϒΘΑΓΟΡΟϒ ΒΙΟΣ), Porfirio, traduzione a cura di Stefano Fumagalli, Mimesis Edizioni, Milano, 1996

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