BMCR 2022.04.22

Ritorno a Santa Venera: storia del santuario di Afrodite Urania-Venere Iovia di Paestum

, Ritorno a Santa Venera: storia del santuario di Afrodite Urania-Venere Iovia di Paestum. Argonautica, 4. Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2020. Pp. 168. ISBN 9788846759139. €15,00.

Let me acknowledge a special interest. I was co-director with Mario Torelli of work at the site in the 1980s, and co-editor with him of the publication, The Sanctuary of Santa Venera at Paestum I (Rome) 1993).

Excavations were conducted at Santa Venera by a consortium of the University of Perugia, the University of Michigan and the Superintendency of Salerno, Benevento and Avellino, in the 1980s. This book ties together archaeological evidence from that work with material recovered earlier, some of which, including the well-known archaic metope depicting Europa and the Bull, came to light in 1907 when a tomato paste factory was built on part of the site. Other evidence including inscriptions and marble statuettes was found by Pellegrino Sestieri, the Superintendent of Antiquities, when the factory was extended in the 1950s. This fieldwork was carried on in what might generously be called an unsystematic way. More archaeological work in a similar manner took place in the 1960s, under the leadership of Mario Napoli, Sestieri’s successor in the Superintendency. Their depredations, for which Torelli has little sympathy, destroyed much of the stratigraphy of the site. In 1980 at the invitation of Werner Johannowsky, Superintendent of Antiquities, Torelli agreed to undertake more excavation to rectify the calamitous work of previous excavators.

Chapters 1 and 2 deal with preliminaries and explain Torelli’s motives for writing this book. On revisiting in early 2019 his Elogia Tarquiniensia (1975) and discovering there was more to be said he wrote another book. Noting the benefits of reconsidering earlier work, he decided to return to The Sanctuary of Santa Venera at Paestum (1993). Now, he could draw on 3 decades of his own and others’ reflections, fill gaps and correct mistakes; he could draw too on evidence from the sanctuary of Aphrodite at Gravisca where he had directed excavations for over 40 years.

Linking the statuettes and inscriptions more closely to the 1980s discoveries brings the history of the site to life. It follows the merger of Greek with Lucanian (Italic) and then with Roman social and religious practices and expands our understanding of the architecture and the activities that took place here, placing high emphasis on the roles of women. It considers the socio-cultural conditions which developed. It explains rituals that stressed the demonstration of maturity, authorized marriage and guaranteed its acceptability in society. From a tangled mix of concepts, myths, and rites Aphrodite/Venus emerges at Paestum as a goddess of countless gifts and functions, of desire, pleasure, intercourse, fertility and birth, of the rites of marriage and death.

The following summary of Chapters 3- 9 demonstrates how the author has freshly interpreted the history of Santa Venera by bringing together a wider range of literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence to expand our understanding of the sanctuary’s complex history from the early 6th century through the Lucanian occupation to the establishment of the Latin colony and its renewal in late republican and early imperial times.

Among 6th century terracotta votive statuettes representations of a seated goddess are common. Equally significant are 21 figures representing the goddess as standing and nude, an image often associated with Aphrodite’s Phoenician counterpart, Astarte, but rarely encountered in the Greek West. These figures with their eastern associations point persuasively to the impact of orientalism on Poseidonia (Paestum) and to Aphrodite as the tutelary deity at Santa Venera from the start, an identification supported by the conspicuous presence among pottery dedications of pyxides—boxes for cosmetics, jewelry, trinkets.

The first monumentalisation takes place in the early 5th century, the three principal buildings being an Oikos (the naos), a Rectangular Hall and the South Building. The plan of the naos consists of a rectangle with an interior circle of blocks touching 3 of the 4 walls, and a porch (pronaos). The South Building adjacent to the Oikos served to welcome visitors approaching from that direction. To judge from fragments of cooking pots, crockery, and animal and bird bones found in and beneath the battuto floor, one use of the Rectangular Hall was for sacrifice and dining. Renovated in the Roman period specifically to accommodate the loutron nymphikon, it doubtless continued a rite practiced in some form from the first.

Chapter 4 discusses the Lucanian period. The chora was divided among the newcomers. Rural sanctuaries proliferate, attesting the intensity of occupation of the countryside and the sharing of cult places. In the city, Greek artistic forms, methods, and materials continue. The urban sanctuaries and their practices remained much as before, Lucanian architectural forms appearing nonetheless in Greek contexts indicating some level of cultural amalgamation. The Greek language continued in use as the quantity of inscriptions testifies. At Santa Venera, the terracotta dedications—among which female busts and floral thymiateria (for the incense favored by Aphrodite) are new—, loom weights, and miniature drinking cups speak for continued cult activity.

Following the Roman occupation colonists imported from Italic areas swamp the residue of the Greek population. At Santa Venera the deity’s name changes from Aphrodite to Venus, with Iovia, an epithet of Lucanian derivation, added. This prompts discussion in Chapter 5 of several topics: e. g., the Italic religious system, the nomenclature of the gods in Rome, the mirror of Orbetello, the three deities Volupia, Libitina, and Fortuna. Though the deity’s name at Santa Venera in the imperial period is Venus Iovia, the dedicatory inscription on a statuette base of 2nd century BC date found in the 1980s excavations names the deity simply as Venus.

In the early years of the colony a Doric portico was added to the south side of the Rectangular Hall in alignment with the porch of the Oikos, thus integrating the southern façade of two major buildings. Doric column drums and capitals of 6thcentury date have been found across the site, some reused in Roman building. Yet no foundations for a peristyle or distyle in antis temple have been found anywhere. Torelli puts forward an ingenious solution to this puzzle. Excavation in the city has identified the remains of a late 6th century temple beneath the Augustan basilica forense at the south edge of the Forum. In designing the forum Roman planners provided the necessary space by appropriating a strip of land—including the area where the temple stood—from the northern edge of the southern urban sanctuary. Dismantling the 6th century temple (to Aphrodite), they made way for the saepta, the enclosed areas critical to the voting procedures of the Republic. Torelli has suggested that the masonry blocks of the dismantled temple were transferred to the sanctuary at Santa Venera—from one sanctuary of Aphrodite to another—for use in a suitable religiously linked context.

The sanctuary buildings underwent renovation in the Late Republican/Early Imperial period (Chapters 6, 7 and 8) thanks to two priestesses, Sabina and Valeria. Inscriptions from the site reveal their names, and placing them in a narrative of the growing power of local families, among them, the Coccei, one of whom, C. Cocceius Flaccus, married a rich member of the Lucanian elite.  Sabina’s husband’s name was Flaccus. But the cognomen Flaccus appears in other aristocratic families in Paestum, and Sabina’s wealth and social prominence lead Torelli to suggest that her husband may have been C. Flacceius Flaccus, a man of equestrian rank. In any event, an inscription tells us that Sabina rebuilt the aedes of the goddess (the Oikos) a solo “from the ground up”, decorated it with opere tectorio, and replaced the pavimenta and the sedes. A complete renovation.

Sabina’s niece, Valeria, turned her attention to the Rectangular Hall where the interior was redesigned. At the east end a kitchen was installed. Around an internal central courtyard five horseshoe-shaped niches (strongyla) were installed, each employing a reused Doric column drum at its center. All are waterproofed. The indispensable initiatory rite for young women, whether free or slave born, was the loutron nymphikon, the purificatory nuptial bath after which a girl could be said to be clean, fertile, ready for adult life. Hellenistic sculptures and Roman variants, e.g., the standing Aphrodite Anadyomene and the crouching Aphrodite, suggest how the girls (were) bathed. At Santa Venera the girls stood or crouched on the flat surfaces of column drums in the strongyla while water was poured over them. This was a private ceremony; only the mothers, it is thought, were to witness this event. Evidence for earlier versions of the nuptial bath is provided by depictions of the lebes gamikos (a deep bowl supplying water for the bathing/sprinkling) in wedding scenes on 5th and 4th century vases. Thus, an initiatory rite of passage for young women was passed from one culture to another, confirming the conservatism of religious ritual.

Sometime after 100 B. C. a West Wing was added to the sanctuary. The Wing consists of three rectangular rooms, side by side to the north of a West Court. Close by is a space correctly now identified by Torelli as a sacrarium, a small private domestic shrine with an eschara, a statue base and an inscribed dedication to Sabina. Such a sacrarium is usually found in the pars servilis of an elite residence. Another inscription incised on a large flowerpot is a dedication by a centurio Veneris Ioviae named Valerius, and by a slave (name lost) of Venus. This points to the presence of a group of slaves, the property of the goddess, in the sanctuary and opens the question of hierodouleia. To the west of the three rooms two more strongyla appear forming the eastern side of a columned space cut short by the wall of the tomato paste factory. A ritual parallel to the loutron nymphikon of the Rectangular Hall evidently took place here; that performed in the Rectangular Hall for free-born girls, reinforcing their moral and social status, the other for female children of slaves. It is logical for Torelli to conclude that the West Wing was the pars servilis of the sanctuary.

The excavations preparatory to the factory’s extension in 1957 yielded (as reported by the assistente responsible) eight female marble statues, headless, and one seated male, all Roman; marble inscription fragments; some Hellenistic terracotta heads; six marble heads of the “aforementioned” statues; and the ruins of a fountain in which seven of the statues were found. Apparently, then, the sanctuary continued to the south and west with an area of greenery (virecta) including a fountain, a group of statuettes and gardens. Unsurprisingly, five of the statuettes are variants of well-known Aphrodite types. There is also an Artemis, and a female figure with a ring on her left hand (a priestess? Valeria?) The seated male is Hermes. Since seven of the figures were found in the remains of the fountain there is some likelihood they were embellishments of it; the Hermes certainly functioned as the fountainhead. Alternatively, they may represent a company of young women with their leader, the priestess, and Hermes, protector of the rites of passage, waiting to escort them to their adult lives.

Having focused up to this point on the sanctuary itself, the book moves to broader topics in chapters 10-13. These include comparison of cults in the Achaean colonies; the question of the naos at Santa Venera and the “heroon” at Olympia; so-called “sacred prostitution”; Aphrodite Urania’s cosmic iconography; the transmission of cultural conventions from the East to Greece. In a plea for new methods, new questions, and new answers, Torelli urges the current generation of classical archaeologists to move beyond the interpretation of evidence in a narrow gauge to an amalgamation of archaeological evidence with other sources of socio-cultural history. Similarly, he encourages historians to study archaeology’s results more determinedly and with a more open mind.

In the text there are occasional signs of haste with wordy passages and digressions here and there; there is much to grapple with, but nowhere is it impenetrable. Long anticipated, the book is hugely welcome: it owes its existence to the author’s persistent energy, commitment to the lessons of antiquity, rapidity of thought, and profound scholarship.