In 2015 after spending three days in the Amalfi Coast region, we drove down the length of the Gulf of Salerno to the small town of Agripoli and stayed for another three days in a converted grain silo. It was on a farm or what was officially called an ‘Agriturismo’ place where board and unusual lodging were ours for the next three days as we explored this beautiful coastline. One of the most impressive places we visited was an archaeological site, Paestum, that pre-dated the Roman Empire by 100s of years. Paestum is an ancient city that was settled by Greeks looking to start a colony here, well away from their Greek homeland. The origin of the site is dated to around 550 BCE and covers an area of 120 hectares but only about 25 hectares have been excavated.
Everybody’s model for the perfect surviving Greek temple is the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. However, compared to three of the Greek Temples still surviving on this site, the Parthenon is not only showing her age but the scars of ill treatment over the centuries caused by exploding ammunition stored there and the removal of its ‘Elgin’ marbles by the British. The Greek temples of Paestum are in beautiful shape, particularly when you realise they have survived two and a half thousand years of natural and man-made disasters! The first temples visitors encounter on entry are the two Temples once dedicated to the Greek Goddess Hera. The most southern of the temples was the first to built, starting around 550 BCE. There was once an open air altar in front of the temple so the worshippers could attend rites without entering the actual temple building.
The second Temple to Hera was built around 460-450 BCE. Archaeologists are still not certain whether this temple was also used to worship Poseidon (Neptune?) but certainly in later centuries, the Roman God Zeus was also worshipped here. Again there are the remains of altars outside this temple. There are three rooms in the temple, the central one is where the cult statue was placed.
On the morning of our visit to Paestum, it was a beautiful day for a walk around this archaeological park. Unlike the solid construction of the Temples, the rest of the Paestum site did not survive as well as these huge, solid buildings. Over the life of this city many of the smaller Greek and Roman buildings have suffered the destruction of neighbourly invasions as well as the usual erosion caused by passing time. Paestum as a liveable town was abandoned in the early Middle Ages and even in the 19th century, much of the city was covered by marsh lands. From the start of the 20th century, archaeologists have uncovered around 25 hectares of the site and have been very busy attempting to maintain the uncovered ruins, particularly those from the Roman period such as the Forum that was built in the city around 273 BCE. The image below is of the remains of the Curia or basilica that was built next to the forum.
On the other side of the Forum are the remains of the ‘Comitium’, a circular gathering area (images below right) where Roman courts gathered to elect magistrates as well as an assembly place for citizens to gather on popular occasions.
Nearby to the Comitium is an amphitheatre that was built by the Roman citizens of Paestum around the time of Julius Caesar and Augustus. It was a place for public entertainment, particularly of wild animal shows; apparently the wall around the centre ring was built higher than usual to protect the audience from the animals attempting to escape the arena.
Only about a third of the amphitheatre is uncovered today as the builders of the road running past Paestum did not think much of the ancient Greek and Roman remains that they decided to build the road over.
One of the major features of this third section of Paestum was the ‘Ekklesiasterion’, a theatre for performances as well as a place for meetings of citizens. It was built around 480 BCE by the original Greek colonists of Poseidonia for political assemblies. Even when the city was conquered by the Lucani people, it continued in this role. When Paestum was taken over by the Romans, its role in city life was no longer needed and a ‘sanctuary’ was built over the top of it.
The last major building on the site of Paestum is another Greek Temple believed to be dedicated to Athena. It is at the northern end of the Paestum site and was built around 500 BCE. Early archaeologists who investigated this building believed it was dedicated to the Goddess Ceres, the Roman Goddess of Agriculture. Christian tombs from the medieval period have been found in the floor of this temple showing that it was at one time used as a Christian church.
Our small group was very impressed by our walk around the site of Paestum, particularly to discover the extensive Greek Temples here that were in such superb condition. From the Temple of Athena we didn’t have far to walk to the Museum associated with Paestum and it was here we were able to inspect some of the discoveries over the years at this site that gave a lot of colour and detail to the complex story of this ancient city.