The Province of Taranto is located in the region of Puglia and was created once Italy became unified but until 1951, it was called the Province of the Ionian. In 1923, the city of Taranto became its capital. Originally called Terra d’Otranto, the city has served an important role since ancient times and has proven to be among the most contested real estate in history. The scorpion on the city’s coat of arms has been used as its emblem for over 1,600 years. The scorpion is shown lying on its back with three lilies, holding the crown of the Principality of Taranto between its claws. It is interesting how this venomous creature became the emblem for the city.
First established in year 706 BC, in the third century BC, Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, looked down on the city from its surrounding hills and noted that its shape was remarkably similar to that of the deadly scorpion. In the centuries that followed, this symbol was also seen as a psychological deterrent to the city’s enemies, viewing the area as being as dangerous as a scorpion. It served as one of the most important ports on the Ionian Sea and numerous wars were fought to gain control of the city. It was a prize sought by both the Romans and the Carthaginians. The Romans conquered the city in 272 BC and was to rule Taranto for the next eight centuries. Hannibal, the famous Carthaginian general, entered the city walls in 212 BC. He was unable to defeat the Romans who held fast in the citadel. Denied the use of the port, Carthage ultimately lost the Second Punic War.
Taranto was one of the final areas held by Rome, but fell victim to the Gothic Wars, as did much of the Italian peninsula. It was later taken by the Lombards, but the city was viewed as such an important port that in 663, Basileus Constans II arrived at Taranto with a fleet and an army and took the city. It was the first time that a Roman Emperor from Constantinople had arrived in Italy with an army. But the reign of the Eastern Roman Empire was to last a mere 25 years. The Lombards reconquered the city and held it for the next two centuries.
In August 927, the Saracens conquered and destroyed the city, leaving it uninhabited. The Eastern Roman Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas, realizing both the importance of the port and a strong military presence in southern Italy, rebuilt the city. However, it was critically wounded again 50 years later by additional attacks by the Saracens. It was then that Holy Roman Emperor Otto II took up the fight against the Saracens. The 11th century was characterized by a bloody struggle between Normans and Romans. It was finally taken by the Normans in 1071, ending the final chapter in Roman rule over Taranto until the unification of Italy.
Taranto became the capital of a Norman principality and during the next 377 years was a powerful, almost completely independent feudal fief of the Kingdom of Sicily. King Ferrante I of Naples united the Principality of Taranto with the Kingdom of Naples, establishing the period of Aragonese rule. In 1570, Admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria of Genoa used Taranto as his port of resupply for his fleet of 49 galleys, before engaging in massive naval battle against the Ottoman Empire at Lepanto.
Today, Taranto is well-known for its Mysteries of the Holy Week celebrations, the most important and well attended event of the city. The Mysteries were begun with two statues in 1765 by Antonio Calo’, a Tarentine nobleman.
Napoleonic rule over Taranto began in 1801. Napoleon placed such importance on the city’s harbor that at its peak there was one soldier for every three residents of Taranto. The city actually prospered during the period. With the fall of Napoleon, southern Italy and Taranto fell under the Bourbon dynasty’s rule, forming the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In 1860, Taranto became part of the temporary government founded by Giuseppe Garibaldi after his conquest of the kingdom. Southern Italy was annexed to the Savoy dynasty’s Kingdom of Piemonte-Sardinia, with the final chapter in the saga occurring in 1861, when the country was unified and Taranto became part of the Kingdom of Italy.
Even with the unification, there was still one more invasion that took place. In September 1943, British forces landed near the port as part of the Allied invasion. Curiously, the code name for the invasion was Operation Slapstick, but as can be seen, there has been little of a comedic nature associated with the historic and highly-valued Ionian Sea port of Taranto.