BMCR 2005.04.56

The Greek Cities of Magna Graecia and Sicily. Translated by ‘Translate-a-Book’

, , , The Greek cities of Magna Graecia and Sicily. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 288 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 27 cm. ISBN 0892367512. $39.95.

The Greek cities in southern Italy and Sicily tend to get short shrift in survey courses of classical history. Syracuse impinges on the curriculum because it defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War and Dionysios the Elder is usually mentioned, but the cities of Magna Graecia are passed over swiftly if they are touched on at all. Part of the reason is the lack of an accessible, good up-to-date book that surveys the cities of the western Greeks and summarizes current archaeological research in the region. The Greek Cities of Magna Graecia and Sicily meets a real need. The text is sound and the photography superb. The one flaw is the translation into English from the Italian original.1 The flyleaf credits it to ‘Translate-a-Book’ in Oxford, and ‘Translate-a-Book’ has done an uneven job, as if several translators were assigned different sections to do, and no one checked the whole manuscript for consistency. However the translation detracts very little from the reader’s enjoyment of the book. The book begins with an introduction which is a survey of Greek settlement in Magna Graecia and Sicily. It begins with Pithekoussai, modern Ischia, where the Greeks founded a settlement in the mid-eighth century B.C. Cumae was founded a little later on the mainland and after Cumae, there comes a flood of colonies. Chalcidian (rendered as ‘Kalchedian’ by ‘Translate-a-Book’) colonists founded Zankle (Messina) around 730 B.C., and shortly afterwards Rhegion (Reggio Calabria). Naxos in Sicily was founded about the same time, and around 733 B.C., Corinth founded Syracuse. Towards the end of the eighth century B.C., colonial expeditions from Achaia, south of the Gulf of Corinth, founded Sybaris and Kroton. Kolophon in Asia Minor which was conquered by the Lydian king Gyges in the mid-seventh century, founded Siris on the Gulf of Tarentum (690-680 B.C.), and Crete and Rhodes founded Gela in Sicily in 688 B.C.

By the 680s, the colonies themselves started to send out daughter colonies. Megara Hyblaia, founded by Megara shortly after Syracuse’s foundation, in turn founded Selinus, which brought the Greeks to the edge of Carthage’s sphere of influence. Sybaris founded Metapontion about 630 B.C. with help from Corinth and a generation later, founded Poseidonia, Roman Paestum, without Corinthian help. In 540 B.C., Phokaians from Asia Minor, rather than submit to the Persians, sailed to Italy and founded Elea, Roman Velia, and in 531 B.C., Samians, fleeing the tyranny of Polycrates of Samos, founded Dikaiarcheia, Roman Puteoli. The Panhellenic foundation of Thurii in 444-443 B.C. is as good a date as any to mark the end of this wave of colonization in Magna Graecia and Sicily.

The motivation that drove the movement must have been diverse. That conclusion seems clear from this brief survey. The earliest colony on Ischia seems to have been a trading post, though even there good farmland was important for all the colonies had to grow their own food. Adventure, a new start in life and flight from oppression at home all played a role. The name “Dikaiarcheia” (Rule of Justice) is evidence that utopian ideals motivated some of the colonists. But religion also played a role, for the oikists who led the colonial expeditions were invested with sacral authority by Delphi, and it was probably they who laid out the temenoi for the gods in the new foundation.2 The result was that the cult of the Olympian gods spread to new lands, and one may suspect that this diffusion was not only the result but to some extent a motive for the colonial movement. At any rate, the colonists built temples; once they prospered they built some of the largest temples in the Greek world. Their temples advertised the rule of the Olympians in an alien land where — at least in Magna Graecia—the natives were often unfriendly and expansionist, particularly once they began to feel the pressure of their own increasing population.

After the introduction, the authors continue, site by site. First come the foundations on the Gulf of Naples: Pithekoussai, Cumae, Partenope and Naples. Then they move southwards to Poseidonia (Roman Paestum), Elea, Lokroi Epizephyrioi, Kroton, Sybaris and its refoundation, Thurii, Siris and Herakleia, Metapontion, and Taras (Tarentum). The Sicilian foundations follow: Naxos, Tauromenion, Leontinoi and Katane, Messina and Mylai, the islands of Lipara, Tyndaris, Megara Hyblaia, Syracuse, Helorus, Akrai (Palazzolo Acreide), Kasmenai, Gela, Kamarina, Morgantina, Akragas, Selinus, Herakleia Minoa, and finally Segesta which was not a Greek colony but is included anyway. There is no effort at consistency in the place names; they are sometimes given in transliterated Greek, sometimes they are Latinized and sometimes they are Italianate. Elea is Latinized as Velia, Lokroi Epizephyrioi has a Greek ending, Kroton and Metapontion remain Greek while Tyndaris is given its modern name of Tindari, and Akrai is simply ‘Acre’. Syracuse is an anglicized form, but it is hallowed by usage and must be forgiven. It is not merely place names that are inconsistent; the same lack of uniformity is to be found in the rendering of all proper names in this book. Consistency appeals to small minds and so I shall not press the point, but I think that ‘Translate-a-Book’ could have done better.

The chapter on Pithekoussai and Cumae is brief but sound and up-to-date. There is a good picture of the Rhodian cup from the cemeteries at the foot of Monte Vico, which dates to ca. 730 B.C., and bears the inscription ‘I am the goblet of Nestor, fine to drink from, but whoever drinks from this goblet will instantly be seized by desire for the well-crowned Aphrodite.’ This is not merely one of our earliest examples of Greek writing, but it dates (probably) from a time when Homer’s Iliad was being written down. It assumes not only a widespread knowledge of the epic cycle, which is not unexpected, but also that this cup’s owner, or at least whoever used it, was familiar with the Iliad, and also could command the new technology of writing. At least I think it was new, pace Martin Bernal.

Cumae is the first Greek colony on the mainland, which archaeological evidence dates no later than 730-720 B.C. An earlier date of ca. 750 B.C. is not disproved. In 421 B.C., the native Campanians conquered the city. Cumae was where the Cumaean Sibyl gave her prophecies and the late Amedeo Maiuri thought he had found the Sibyl’s cave, a long gallery cut into the rock which, when I last saw it, was identified fearlessly as the Sibyl’s Grotto. Luca Cerchiai who wrote the section on the settlements around the Gulf of Naples, dates the present appearance of the gallery much later. It began in the fourth to third centuries B.C. as a covered passageway for troops climbing to the upper defenses of the acropolis, and only much later, in the Roman period, was its floor lowered and the gallery transformed into a covered walkway.

The overview of Poseidonia (Paestum) presents the latest conclusions about the three well-preserved Doric temples there. The ‘Basilica’ is still attributed to Hera, and the ‘Temple of Ceres’ in the northern sanctuary is still attributed to Athena, but the fifth-century temple which is popularly known as the Tempio di Nettuno is now attributed to Apollo rather than Hera. The attribution is based on a series of stone stelai found in the southern sanctuary, as well as a similar coupling of the two deities at Metopontion. The attribution is not beyond doubt.

Lokroi Epizephyrioi is an interesting site for two reasons. One is the discovery there, about 100 metres downhill from the sixth-century temple of Zeus, of a stone box containing thirty-nine inscribed bronze tablets. They were part of the temple archives, dating from late fourth and early third centuries B.C., and they are important evidence for the role of temples in the economic life of the Greek cities. They record loans to the city of Lokroi Epizephyrioi. The other is the remains of a fifth-century sanctuary which Luca Cerchiai thinks was dedicated to Aphrodite — the earlier attribution was to Persephone. It yielded the sculptures known as the Ludovisi and Boston thrones. In the center of its cella was found a tank (not a ‘well’) lined with slabs of limestone. One recent hypothesis suggests that the Ludovisi throne was part of the parapet surrounding this tank where, presumably, some sort of baptismal rite took place commemorating the birth of Aphrodite.

Enough of ancient Sybaris has survived its destruction by Kroton to show that it covered an enormous area. Houses were found that date from the final destruction; they were rectangular with one large room and two small ones, and they were empty of all contents as if their inhabitants had stripped them when they were forced to evacuate the city. The territory of Thurii was smaller than that of Sybaris and significantly, the coastal plain and surrounding hill slopes were occupied by farms in the fourth and third centuries B.C., while the frontier facing the interior was fortified. We find this process taking place in all the Greek colonies in southern Italy, and it is mute evidence that the interior, where the native Italian tribes lived, was growing unfriendly. Siris, founded by Kolophon in Asia Minor, lost its independence about 570 B.C. and was integrated into the orbit of Sybaris.But it interests historians of the Persian Wars, for Herodotus reports that on the eve of the Battle of Salamis, Themistocles told the anti-Persian coalition that the Athenians could transfer their city to Siris which was ‘ours from ancient times’ (Hdt. 8.62). Sybaris had been destroyed twenty years earlier and the refoundation of Siris probably seemed to be a viable project in 480 B.C, and Athens could have followed the example of Kolophon which founded Siris under threat from the Lydians.

Thucydides reports that Naxos was the oldest of the Greek colonies in Sicily, and pottery finds date to 740-730 B.C., which supports Thucydides to this extent: Naxos was a very early settlement. Pottery found at Megara Hyblaia and Syracuse is equally early, if not earlier. This is mostly imported pottery, however, and its time of manufacture can be dated but not the time that it was brought into Sicily by the early colonists. So Naxos may have been the first by a nose, but it was part of a general movement of colonists into Sicily. There was some connection with the island of Naxos in the Cyclades, for a seventh-century B.C. marble stele has recently been found with a dedication to the goddess Enyo in characters resembling the Naxian alphabet, but the connection was not economic, for no imports from the island of Naxos have been found in the Sicilian Naxos. Naxos was destroyed by Dionysius I of Syracuse in 403 B.C. but Naxian survivors and their descendants refounded Tauromenium, one of the most photogenic sites in Sicily, in 358 B.C. It was originally founded in 396 B.C. by the Sicels with Carthagenian support. A splendid photograph of the theater at Tauromenium is included in this book, but the brief section on the theater does not do it justice, partly, I suppose, because what we see nowadays belongs to the Roman reconstruction.

Akragas (Agrigento) is a photographer’s delight and this book does not disappoint. The same can be said for Selinus with its magnificent ruined temples and little-known history. The entry on Syracuse, by Fausto Longo, is the fullest treatment of any site on Sicily, for we are relatively well-informed about its history. The fifth-century temple of Athena which now, with the necessary modifications, serves as the Syracuse cathedral, was described by Cicero in his Verrine Orations, and so we know that at one time there was, on the façade, a statue of Athena with a golden shield that glinted in the sun and served as a landmark for sailors. Beside the Temple of Athena were found the remains of a sixth-century unfinished Ionic temple, which seems to have been intended as a smaller version of the great Ionic temples of Asia Minor.

The last site in Sicily to be included is Segesta, with a magnificent photograph of its unfinished temple taken from the slope of Monte Barbaro where the urban settlement once stood. The unfinished temple is mute evidence of Segesta’s ambitions in the third quarter of the fifth century B.C. It was Segesta that provided the motive for the disastrous Syracusan expedition of Athens, and after the Athenian defeat, she appealed to Carthage. Probably we can thank Segesta for the destruction of the temples at Selinus by the Carthaginians, unless we can attribute their destruction to a localized earthquake, which is a remote possibility. The book ends with an up-to-date bibliography and a glossary of terms which will be useful for students enrolled in survey archaeology courses.

The translation from the Italian leaves something to be desired, but otherwise, this book is a useful, succinct account of Magna Graecia and Greek Sicily, accompanied by splendid photographs.


1. Citta della Magna Grecia e della Sicilia, Venice: Arsenale Editrice, 2002.

2. The active role of Apollo’s oracle at Delphi provides some basis for this suspicion, though no other oracle was involved in the colonial movement — not, at least, enough to leave much trace in the historical tradition. Delphi invested an oikist with a mission sanctioned by Apollo. Hdt. 5.45.1 reports a tradition of the Sybarites that the Spartan oikist Dorieus came to grief because he failed to follow the instructions given him by Delphi. For the role of religion in the colonial movement, see Irad Malkin, Religion and Colonization in Ancient Greece, Leiden, Brill, 1987, pp. 17-91. W. G. Forrest, ‘Colonization and the Rise of Delphi,’ Historia 6 (1957), pp. 160-175 is also suggestive. The cults of the Greek poleis did not seek to make converts among non-Greeks, nor did Greek cults generally though Orphism in southern Italy may be an exception. Yet planting temples for Greek gods in foreign lands was a mark of divine imperialism, even though they lacked what modern Christian congregations would call ‘outreach’.