Paestum history

Paestum – Photo © Suzy Guese
Paestum – Photo © Suzy Guese

Paestum was founded 600 B.C. – some years after Agropoli – by Greeks from Sybaris, which was at that time an important Greek city in Calabria, Paestum was established about 9 kms to the south of the river Sele on a plateau of travertine, which also delivered the building material for the town walls and the temples. The outlines of this plateau correspond to the course of the town walls. The Sele formed a natural border to the area situated in the north, which was at that time controlled by the Etruscans.

The Greek settlers called the city Poseidonia in honor of the Greek sea God Poseidon. In spite of this naming Poseidonia probably was not a city with an important harbor. It was at that time separated from the sea by a shallow fresh water lagoon and could be reached by small ships only. Agropoli, which was situated only 6 kms to the south, was certainly a better choice for a harbor. The important role of Poseidonia was due to its central place in a plain, which was very fertile. Not Poseidon but Hera, the goddess of fertility, became the predominant divinity of Poseidonia.

At the end of the 5th century B.C. Poseidonia passed over to the Lucanians (who formed a local branch of the italic Samnites tribe in this area). Under the Lucanians Poseidonia was called Paistom, In 273 B.C. the Romans took possession of the city. They renamed it to Paestum and Latin became the official language. A lot of new Roman buildings changed the townscape into Roman. In particular the Greek agora was substituted with the Roman forum.

In the 4th century A.D. started the decline and shrinkage of Paestum. Progressive deforestation has led to an increasing spread of the marshes, mainly caused by the waters of the river Salso, which passed the southern town walls. These were optimum conditions for the spreading of malaria. The northern part of Paestum around the temple of Athena became the center of the diminished town. This area was situated far from the Salso in an elevated position.

In the 5th century the small palaeochristian church (Basilica, near the museum) was built. The temple of Athena was probably used as a Christian church as well, because the graves, which were found inside the temple, could only be of Christian origin.
As a result of the numerous attacks of the Saracenes and because it had become a malarious district the last inhabitants left Paestum in the 9th century. They established a new settlement Capaccio (Caput Aquae) on Mount Calpazio above Capo di Fiume. In the 12th century the church of the Madonna del Granato was constructed here. Because of the participation in a conspiracy this settlement (“Capaccio vecchio”) was destroyed in the year 1246 by Frederic II.
Surrounded and buried by swamps caused by the river Sele the city remained hidden and forgotten for about 900 years. Due to new road constructions in 1748 the well preserved temples were rediscovered and excavated.

The oldest and most important sanctuary of the entire region was the Heraion established about 570 B.C. It was not before the 20th century that its fragmentary ruins were discovered 9 km north of Paestum in the proximity of the Sele delta. There are some hints, which attribute its earliest establishment to Jason and the Argonauts.
Only a few years later (about 550 B.C.) the oldest of the three temples of Paestum was built, which was also dedicated to the Greek goddess of fertility Hera (the sister and wife of Zeus). Due to an early mistake it is today known as the so-called Basilica.
The smallest of the three temples, the so-called Ceres temple,    was dedicated to the goddess Athene and was built about 500 B.C.
The Poseidon temple,  (or Neptun temple) is from about 450 B.C. (about the same time the Parthenon in Athens was built). This temple is probably the best preserved doric temple in the world.
Neptun temple and Basilica are standing directly next to each other thus offering a quite impressive panorama.

The small Ekklesiasterion (legislation, election of the judge) was preserved from the Greek period of Paestum because the Romans left it under a mound. The Romans established nearby a larger building (comitium) for similar purposes and proceedings.
The small amphitheatre, which is only half excavated is like nearly all the other buildings (respectively their foundation relics) of Roman origin (1st century   B.C.).
Further excavations around the temples during the last decades uncovered the outlines of the old city inside the town walls. The Roman forum,   is situated on the southern part of the more expanded Greek agora.

With some buildings respectively foundations there are still different interpretations for their original function. The current interpretation becomes difficult because the utilization of the buildings often mutated with the changes from Greek to Lucanian and finally to Roman inhabitants. This may be illustrated by the following examples: The roof, which can be seen in the following photo, belongs to an underground sanctuary (sacellum, hypogaeum), which is enclosed by an additional wall. From its form it can be either a grave or a heroon (an empty grave), as it was customary at that time – e.g. in honours of the founder of the city. In fact this building is from the 6th century B.C.

Another complex, which is interpreted as a gymnasium with swimming pool, some archaeologists assume that the strange stone construction in the pool was a podium for the swimming matches. Others assume that the original gynnasium was transformed after the 3rd century B.C. to a sanctuary of the goddess Fortuna Virilis, at which the stone construction served solemn fertility rites.

The town wall with its 4 gates is 4750 m long. It was built by the Greeks and later fortified by Lucanians and Romans. (As you see there’s a good possibility to take a railroad trip to Paestum).
Many Lucanian graves were found close by the city (the necropoles always lay outside the walls). These graves formed “small houses”. Walls and roofs used to be decorated with skilful frescos. The most famous of these graves is the grave of the “Tuffatore” (diver), which still comes from the Greek (about 480 B.C.). The scene represented on the roof slab symbolizes an almost harmonious transition from life to death. These and further finds also of the older Heraion,    at the Sele delta are shown in the national museum at the excavation grounds.

The excavations and restorations still continue today.

Of course the temples of Paestum are a first-rate tourist attraction. Also German’s most famous poet Goethe visited them in March 1787 just three decades after they were rediscovered and was strongly impressed by them. Besides the temples Paestum has a lot to offer also for less culture-inspired summer guests. There are many 4-star luxury hotels and numerous campgrounds along the long beaches with pine and eucalyptus groves aside. During high season there are many high quality open-air events close to the temples.

Where to stay in Paestum

Hotels, farm stays, B&Bs and apartments: search and make reservations here.