Ancient Greece in Italy

Centuries before the Romans took over, Italy’s southern coast was home to many Greek colonies. The remains of one of those colonies, Paestum, include three beautiful, nearly intact Doric temples that we were eager to see.

The remains of Paestum sit in wide, flat, quiet countryside in the middle of nowhere. The walls of the old city are still intact, but only a fraction of the space inside has been excavated. The rest is given over to shops, a few cafes, a museum, and fields of artichokes and hay. (The latter is grown to feed water buffalo, whose milk is used to make the buffalo mozzarella that this area is famous for.) When you get off the train at the tiny Paestum station a kilometer from the ruins, all you hear is the wind, carrying the fresh scents of mown grass and cow dung.

The 6th century BC Temple of Hera and the 5th century Temple of Poseidon (now thought to have been a temple to Apollo)

The three surviving temples, from the 6th and 5th centuries BC, are impressive in their serene bulk. It’s strange to think that instead of the tan stone we see now, they would have been plastered and painted in gaudy colors. A fragment in the site’s museum helps you imagine how they might have looked. The museum contains lots of wonderful artifacts, from fish hooks to big bronze two-handled jugs. The highlight, though, is a rare Greek tomb painting of a symposium scene.

Drinkers recline on couches, a young man plays the flute while his companion listens, a serving boy draws wine from a jug, a group straggles home after the party. Some of those images were familiar from the covers of Chris’s Greek textbooks, but we hadn’t known they were in Paestum. How great to see them close up!

A rare Greek painting (of a drinking party) from the inside of a tomb

The museum keeps being expanded as new artifacts are dug up. The day we were in Paestum, we spied on a workman excavating a fenced-off part of the site. As we watched, he dug meticulously with his trowel, pulled something from the ground, and scraped it off. We recognized it from examples in the museum: It was a loom weight—a small, tapered, clay block about 3 inches long and 1 inch wide with a hole in one end, which was tied to the warp strings of a loom so they would hang taut.

That little object had just been brought to light after 2,000 or 2,500 years, right before our eyes. So, in addition to all the grand ruins, we got to watch a tiny piece of history.

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