Mid-September rolled around and I still hadn’t gone on vacation. Correction: I still hadn’t traveled anywhere. I had maintained a spectacular track record until this year: Jordan in January, 2013; archeological sites in Spain for a month in 2015; three weeks of ancient Greece and then Saint James’s Trail later on in 2017; a brief trip to the U.S. and then a month in Croatia, 2018; Turkey in May and a week on Naxos in September 2019. This year, I was supposed to indulge in a second round of Greek antiquity and then a trip to Botswana to a nature conservancy. Obviously, those plans slowly unraveled. Luckily, I had nurtured the idea of a return trip to Paestum for years… Why not go now?
What is so special about Paestum? Well, it’s near the beach. No, no, no—this blog is about culture, not nature! (But I did spend a day at the beach and it was my favo… Oh, this is strictly about archeology? Okay. I guess…) The archeological area is relatively well preserved—its private buildings, and even more so its public monuments. Your jaw will drop whether you’re standing in front of the iconic “Temple of Neptune” or the downtown property of the plutocrat with an indoor pool. But wait! First a little history, to put the site into context.
Like pioneers in the U.S. moving westward in search of opportunity and land in the 1800s, waves of Greek emigrants left their homeland from the eighth century B.C. onward to found colonies in Sicily and the southern part of the Italian peninsula. These colonies often spawned new colonies, as was the case with Paestum. Well, as was the case with Poseidonia (the God of the Sea’s City). Achaean Greeks from the Peloponnesus founded Sibari (now in the province of Cosenza, Calabria). In their midst was a minority of Doric Greeks who eventually abandoned Sibari to found Poseidonia. Linguistically challenged Romans changed Poseidonia’s name to Paestum after they occupied the territory in 273 B.C. (The site is now in the province of Salerno, just south of Naples.)
The seafaring settlers from Sibari snuggled into a welcoming triangle of fertile land, defined by the Sele River on one hand and defended by a mountain range on the other. Whether to announce their arrival with a boundary marker or to signal the presence of their settlement to other sailors, the ex-Sibari, now Poseidonians, built a Temple to Hera at the mouth of the Sele River. On my third and last day in town, I rented a bike and pedaled out to the site, which the ancient Greek geographer Strabo claims was 50 stadia from the Temples of Paestum. Judging from the way my skinny butt ached after the ride, I would say it was about 7 km away…
Time and flooding had leveled the Temple of Hera on the Sele. Fortunately, however, many of its metopes (the decorations that occur at regular intervals on the frieze of a Doric temple) survived centuries of abuse and abandon, and are now on display at Paestum’s Museum. They show centaurs galore—a favorite theme of Greek artists, patrons, and viewers. In the violent and passionate half-man/half-horse, Greeks saw a metaphor for the uncivilized barbarian chaos that they so disliked. (No wonder many of the scenes on the Parthenon show Centaurs, symbolizing the Persian menace that the Greeks had struggled at length to diffuse.) Other metopes featured Heracles and a handful of his labors. (His place on the temple’s decorative scheme makes sense, after all Heracles means “glory of Hera.” The name is ironic, however, if you consider that he was Zeus’s bastard son and Hera was not particularly in the mood to forgive her husband for his transgressions or his illegitimate child for existing.)
Yet my eye kept going back to two metopes showing tragic scenes of the violence and passion that the Greeks disliked—yet excelled at portraying: Hector slaying Patroclus with a blow to the back and Achilles lurking behind a stylized palm tree, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting Troilus. Before leaving the abandoned site of the Temple of Hera, I offered a prayer to the goddess and sacrificed some trail mix. But I digress…
Back to Poseidonia-Paestum: old school archeologists claim that Poseidonia was originally located the in shadow of the Temple of Hera on the Sele and that the settlers decided to move to Paestum’s current location when they tired of living in a flood plain. Modern research suggests that the original settlement was actually further south, where a town called Agropoli now stands. (Yes, you’re right! If you asked yourself about the town’s name, it does come directly from the ancient Greek acropolis, meaning “hill town.”) I’m partial to the new hypothesis, seeing that Agropoli has yielded older pot sherds than the area around the Temple of Hera on the Sele—pot sherds that date approximately to the arrival of the Doric colonists from Sibari. (Or did the colonists in the Sele River settlement go overboard trying to please their consorts? “Darling, I took the trash out…” Yeah, about 13 kilometers out of town!)
We can argue about the Poseidonians relocating to Paestum from Agropoli or the floodplain of the Sele. The temples that they erected in Paestum prove, however, that this was their last move. The oldest temple is the so-called Basilica, which scholars now believe was a Temple to Hera. Sprouting out of the ground to the south of town like the end-all and be-all of overstatements, it dates to 550 B.C. Architecture buffs will remember that classical Greek temples showcased ideal proportions. In the case of the width and length of temples, if the front had “x” number of columns, its side had “x” x 2 + 1. A classical temple might be four columns wide and nine columns long, or six columns wide and thirteen columns long, or eight columns wide and seventeen columns long. (Sorry about all those examples. I was just checking that I could still do simple math.) The so-called Basilica is a tad early for classical proportion: nine columns stand along its front and eighteen along its sides. If you don’t like the clunky effect, too bad. Two thousand five hundred years later, it’s useless fighting with the architect. But relax, because it won’t be easy finding another nearly intact Greek temple as old as this one anywhere else in the world!
Fifty years later (in 500 B.C.), the Poseidonians defined the northern side of their town with the so-called Temple of Ceres, which archeologists now identify as a Temple of Athena. By then Greek architects were doing their homework, and applying the proportions that we associate with Greek temples: it therefore boasts six columns along the front and thirteen along its sides (i.e. the number of columns on the sides equal the number of columns along the front x 2 + 1).
Excavations on the temple grounds in 2019 turned up a bust of a helmeted goddess, strengthening the temple’s association with Athena. But I was most fascinated by the veritable crates of bronze and iron scrap that archeologists turned up during digs in the 1920s, 30s, and 50s (some of which are on display in the Museum). The metal fragments testify that, from the beginning of the sixth century B.C. down to Roman occupation of Paestum, locals dedicated bronze and iron house-hold items, instruments, apparel, and weapons to the goddess of war, military engineering, and craftsmanship. All that was okay. Here’s what tugged at my soul: approximately one-third of the bronze and iron scrap was the identifiable remains of weapons and armor. Another unidentifiable thirty percent of bronze and iron scrap may fall into the same category. The numbers are eloquent: only to the great Temples of Zeus at Olympia, Apollo at Delphi, and Poseidon at Isthmia—all three of which were “panhellenic,” i.e. frequented by any and all of the Greek mainland’s city-states—boast more armor and weapons than have been found at the Temple of Athena at Paestum.
The Poseidonians’ last effort (in circa 450 B.C.) was the knock-out Temple of Neptune (which some scholars now argue may have been dedicated to Apollo). Nietzsche mentions it in his Human, All Too Human (1910, part 145):
“With regard to everything that is perfect we are accustomed to omit the question as to how perfection has been acquired, and we only rejoice in the present as if it had sprung out of the ground by magic. Probably with regard to this matter we are still under the effects of an ancient mythological feeling. It still almost seems to us (in such a Greek temple, for instance, as that of Paestum) as if one morning a god in sport had built his dwelling of such enormous masses…”
When I read the quote at home, before my trip to Paestum, I thought immediately of the Pantheon. The Temple to All Gods imparts a sense of bliss or transcendence—whether you contemplate the sphere hidden in the temple’s architecture or the calming acoustics that transform the senseless roaring of the crowds into a sort of lulling seaside soundtrack. Leaving the Pantheon, I am often gripped by a sense of anxiety: I feel as if I am being birthed out of its geometrically perfect uterus into a chaotic, imperfect world. Sitting in front of the Temple of Neptune, I agreed with Nietzsche: it was so perfect that it was above mortal design. I stared at it at length as the sun rose in the sky, and I grew nostalgic for its early morning rich orange colors. They had faded into a dingy white as the sky faded into a lighter shade of dark blue. But its form was perfect. I read Nietzsche over and over again. I walked around the temple, hoping to see the god who had built such a home for sport. I read scholarly works regarding the temple and recent discoveries. I thanked the Gods that I had traveled to Paestum alone. As I wrote later in a letter to a friend, “I don’t think I could have tolerated anyone’s company in the two hours that I dedicated to the Temple of Neptune, just like I’m certain no one could have stood me for those same two hours.” How perfect was the Temple of Neptune? Perfectly perfect, perhaps because the architect knew the rules and yet felt comfortable breaking them. The width / length formula (i.e. the number of columns on the sides of the temple equals the number of columns on the front x 2 + 1) was firmly in place when the temple was built, yet the architect (following some bizarrely sublime intuition) ignored the classic injunction. For whatever reason, he opted for six columns along the front and fourteen columns along the side. He also invested in stunning foundations, as archeology has revealed. Under the sublime mammoth temple lie ten courses of limestone blocks. The crass ancient Roman in me reeled, “Dudes, we do foundation with concrete! You know, easy. You just pour it…” Yet there I was in front on a nearly intact Greek temple. The wooden elements had decayed. Yet the rest of the building still stood. That is a Guinness Book of World Records, if you consider the number of Greek temples that have collapsed and been re-erected in the modern era or that have collapsed over time and are still laying on the ground like vulnerable prey…
The entire site (the temples and a tiny portion of the town) is smallish. (It is much smaller than Ostia, near Rome, for example.) But in my excitement, I overdid things. By shortly after 9:00 a.m. I had walked the 5 km circuit of Paestum’s walls. I then focused on the Temples of Hera and Neptune for over three hours. I’m not sure what happened: I founded myself staring at them, staring at them more, reading about them, teasing out their secrets and finer details, moving around them like a fascinated satellite unable to break free of their gravitational pull. In the end, I was hallucinating. Everywhere I looked, I saw endless rows of columns, parading like the ancient Poseidonians, both adults and children, women and men, hymning their Gods, waving palm leaves…
I moved on to the city: its homes, public spaces, commodious roads. The city (together with artifacts in the Museum) tells a story of cultural, architectural, and artistic integration. Clearly, three nearly intact Greek temples are a tribute to the motherland that the Poseidonians never forgot. Yet their closest neighbors, the Etruscans, soon infiltrated the city. The earliest proof of their cohabitation with Greeks may be the famous Tomb of the Diver, which dates to circa 475 B.C. The underside of the tomb’s lid is the source of the tomb’s conventional name. Yet the artwork on the inside of the tomb shows a common Etruscan theme: a ribald symposium, with stringed instruments and jovial participants who play drinking games (kottobos) and shamelessly brush off pick-up lines to the delight of other guests. It’s as if the Etruscan tomb art of Cerveteri or Tarquinia’s necropoli had been shrunk to occupy a sarcophagus. Was the occupant an Etruscan? Or was it perhaps a Greek, who broke radically with burial traditions?
Poseidonia was later occupied by Lucanians, who strangely felt the need to respect the city they had invaded. Their macho exterior hid a weakness for art. Many of the tombs that have been found dating to after the Lucanian occupation of Poseidonia display Lucanian themes of horse racing and combat. Pleasant pastimes to keep you occupied for all of eternity.
Yet the Lucanians’ days in Paestum were numbered. If you lived on the Italian peninsula, you knew you would find Romans in your backyard one day. And so it was: in 273 B.C., Rome annexed Paestum to its growing territories. The city was slowly overhauled to meet Roman cultural and architectural standards. The citizens of Paestum took the good with the bad. In a major urban overhaul, the old agora’ was turned into a residential area and a part of the sacred perimeter surrounding the temples of Neptune and Hera was refurbished as the Forum. A Roman temple was built there. As I walked by it, I could hear snide comments. The ghosts of the multicultural descendants of the Greek workforce who built three temples as if the Gods had willed them into being, swallowed a laugh, “Innovative, yes, very innovative.” The new Roman magistrate whom they accompanied didn’t even notice. He went on, “And well, of course, we’ll need to put in an amphitheater…” Pointing to a spot nearby, he told his secretary to make a note of the spot. “It could go right there, I deem…”
When I left the Museum around 6:30 p.m., my head was reeling. Next time I’ll dedicate a long half-day to the site and a second, long half-day to the Museum. And there will be a next time! Unlike Rome or other urban areas where treasure-hunting occurred from the 1500s onward, digging in Paestum began, for the most part, in the 1900s. So the archeological site is still relatively virgin—and very unabashed about offering its treasures to archeologists. Inevitably, something new will come out of the ground soon, bringing a small piece of someone’s personal story with it. And I’ll go back to Paestum for that!
At this point, I walked down to the sea and consoled my overwhelmed brain with a glass of Falanghina.