Paestum

 

The southern part of Italy was, as you may know, actually more Greek than Italian – it is in fact also known as the Magna Grecia (‘larger Greece’). Traces of the Ellenic culture are apparent in several archeological sites, but nowhere better than in Paestum, a few kilometers from the city of Salerno. Founded as Poseidonia, in honor of the Greek god of seas, Paestum was a rather average urban center which around the year 510 b.C. was blessed by the immigration from the nearby city of Sybari, whose rich population had to escape.

The influx of money allowed Paestum to flourish until about 440 b.C.. Subsequently it was invaded multiple times, changing affiliation to various empires until it was annexed to the Roman empire and became an important naval ally. Unfortunately the city was built next to the Salso river, which gradually flooded the area with noxious calcareous water that forced the population to abandon the town. The next centuries were relatively uneventful. Sometimes new invaders or the nearby towns reached Paestum to steal construction materials from it, but with time the location was even forgotten, until it was rediscovered in the 1700s from its description in classical writings. By that time however the chalky waters of Salso had dried up, leaving everything encased in an uniform crust from which very few details of the former urban center could be discerned.

The first archeological digs began in early Twentieth century, uncovering about 20 hectares of precious remains. Over 100 hectares are still completely covered, but since they lie on private land many decades could still pass before any development. What’s available today is however a real wonder for history buffs, as many features are among the best preserved in the world from that era.

Most of the findings are obviously quite unremarkable: rubbles, roads, columns, city doors and necropolis. Others are however splendid. The most striking of them are three large Doric temples reminding of Athen’s Acropolis. While they are the subject of countless photographs, no less important are an amphitheater, the Agora (main square), a pool and the bouleouterion, where the city held its councils.
Additionally, Paestum houses a museum featuring unique artifacts from the digs. The most remarkable of them are the perfectly preserved frescoes from nearby tombs, unparalleled in their integrity anywhere else in the world. Finally, contemporary Paestum has something to offer too being one of the nicest sandy beaches in Italy, ideally visited by boat.