A richly decorate vase in the National Archaeological Museum of Paestum, Italy.

Just How Rich Were the Inhabitants of Magna Graecia Really?

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A team of archaeologists excavating in the Italian city of Paestum (Poseidonia), has uncovered the remnants of a palatial structure and indispensable ceramics. Almost 2,500 years ago, Poseidonia was part of Magna Graecia’s (“Great Greece’s”) most significant sanctuaries.

Magna Graecia’s Glorious Past

Magna Graecia was the name given in antiquity by the Romans to the group of Greek colonies which encircled the shores of Southern Italy, in the present-day regions of Campania, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily that were extensively populated by Greek settlers.

The name is not found in any extant author earlier than Polybius, who mentions the cities of Magna Graecia during the time of Pythagoras by using the expression, “the country that was then called Magna Graecia” (Pol. 2.39).  However, many historians believe that the name possibly had arisen already at an early stage of Greek history, probably during a period that the Greek colonies in Italy were at the height of their power and prosperity and before many famous city-states of Greece had reached their peak.

The Greek expansion into Southern Italy began in the 8th century BC and the settlers would bring with them their Hellenic civilization, which was to leave a lasting imprint in Italy, such as in the culture of ancient Rome. Greek colonists founded a number of city states on both coasts of the peninsula from the Bay of Naples and the Gulf of Taranto southwards and all-round the narrow coastal plain of Sicily.

Ancient Greek colonies and their dialect groupings in Southern Italy (Magna Graecia).

Ancient Greek colonies and their dialect groupings in Southern Italy (Magna Graecia). (Public Domain)

In their hey-day these city states, founded by farmers, traders, and craftsmen, represented the “new rich” of the Greek world. Their temples were bigger, their houses more ornate, and their aristocracy lived a life of pampered luxury. Trade between the Italian colonies and their founding cities in mainland Greece prospered, and Magna Graecia became the center for two philosophical groups: Parmenides founded a school at Elea and Pythagoras another at Croton. Croton was also famed to have the finest physicians in the Greek world and was the home of one of the greatest ancient athletes, Milo, who was a six times champion in wrestling at both the Olympic and Pythian games.

Coins from Magna Graecia.

Coins from Magna Graecia. (CC BY SA 2.5)

New Findings at Poseidonia Clearly Show the Affluence of its Greek Founders

Despite many of the Greek inhabitants of Southern Italy getting totally Italianized during the Middle Ages, the immense impact of Greek culture and language has survived to present day. One major example of this is Griko people, an ethnic Greek community of Southern Italy that can be mainly found in regions of Calabria and Apulia.

Another major example would be all the discoveries that have taken place in Southern Italy, with the most recent being a block-built building and the new artifacts in Poseidonia as Greek Reporter recently reported.

Archaeologists excavating a structure which is believed to date from when the settlement of Poseidonia was founded in southern Italy.

Archaeologists excavating a structure which is believed to date from when the settlement of Poseidonia was founded in southern Italy. (Parco Archeologico di Paestum)

Poseidonia was established by Greek colonists from the Gulf of Taranto around 400 BC. The city would later fall under the rule of an indigenous Italic people known as the Lucanians, who changed the city’s name.

The remains of the recently unearthed large structure, which most likely served as either a palace or a very luxurious household, seems to have been constructed within the same time period as the Doric-style temples of the Greek gods Athena, Hera, and Poseidon - for which Poseidonia was best known in antiquity.

Second temple of Hera, also called Neptune temple or Poseidon temple, Paestum (Poseidonia), Campania, Italy.

Second temple of Hera, also called Neptune temple or Poseidon temple, Paestum (Poseidonia), Campania, Italy. (Norbert Nagel/CC BY SA 3.0)

Besides the large building, as New Historian reports, archaeologists have also uncovered a respectable amount of Attic red-figure style pottery – a proficiency invented in Athens after the Greek Dark Age -which influenced the rest of Greece, especially Boeotia, Corinth, the Cyclades, and the Ionian colonies in the east Aegean – along with other luxury objects, which clearly show how rich the city’s Greek founders became catering to the travelers and believers who came to worship at the temples. Other finds include vessels used for cooking, eating, and drinking.

An Attic vase fragment found at the Paestum site in southern Italy. It depicts the Greek god Hermes.

An Attic vase fragment found at the Paestum site in southern Italy. It depicts the Greek god Hermes. (Parco Archeologico di Paestum)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Top Image: A richly decorate vase in the National Archaeological Museum of Paestum, Italy.  Source: CC BY SA 3.0

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