Visitors to one of Italy’s premiere destinations, the Amalfi Coast, are no doubt aware of the extraordinary ruins located just up the coast in Pompeii. Fewer visitors are aware of far older ruins to the south, located in the province of Salerno, known as Paestum. It is the home to one of Europe’s most glorious archaeological zones. Deemed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the site includes three of the world’s best-preserved ancient Greek temples, as well as an engrossing museum filled with millennia-old frescoes, ceramics and artifacts
Paestum or Poseidonia as the city was originally named, in honor of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, was founded in the 6th century BC by Greek settlers and fell under Roman control in 273 BC. Decline later set in following the demise of the Roman Empire. Savage raids by the Saracens and periodic outbreaks of malaria forced the steadily dwindling population to abandon the city in the early Middle Ages and it was left undisturbed and largely forgotten until the 18th century.
The archeological site offers visitors a vivid glimpse of the grandeur and sophistication of the area’s past life. Paestum was a major ancient Greek city on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea in Magna Graecia, southern Italy. The ruins are famous for their three ancient Greek temples in the Doric order, dating from about 560 to 450 BC, which are in a very good state of preservation. The city walls and amphitheater are largely intact and the bottom of the walls of many other structures remain, as well as paved roads.
Today, the remains of Paestum are found within the town of Capaccio in the Province of Salerno, in the region of Campania. The modern town, directly to the south of the archaeological site, is a popular seaside resort, with long sandy beaches that are a perfect reason to blend relaxation with some truly fascinating history.
Paestum itself was forgotten to time and became an abandoned wilderness frequented by gangs that would ambush and rob travelers who ventured into the forests. Things changed with the 18th century’s rediscovery of the temples by road-builders. Local inhabitants had always been aware of their existence, so their “rediscovery” actually refers to the renewed interest in pre-classical Greek architecture. But it was the fascination in antiquities and the visits by those on the Grand Tour who revived the area.
Most of the vanished city of Paestum is hidden under agricultural land. The ancient city walls, constructed with massive stone blocks, encircle a large area of countryside, much of it unexcavated. Right in the middle is the archaeological zone covering the heart of the ancient city. The most dramatic areas, which led to the site’s re-discovery, are the three Doric temples. Roofless, but still standing, these are among the greatest archaeological monuments in Italy. The smallest of the three, standing on a small rise, was dedicated to Athena, though it is also known as the Temple of Ceres. This is the only temple where we can be certain about the identity of the deity to which it was dedicated: Athena, the goddess of crafts and warfare. Built around 500 BC, the monumental temple is preserved up to the cornice of the roof. The inner part is higher than the surrounding colonnade and was accessible through a large ante-chamber decorated with Ionic columns.
The oldest of the buildings, the Temple of Hera, is at the far end of the site. Also called “the Basilica,” archeologists believe its construction was begun around 560 BC. The pediments are missing and the layout is not the standard one; the inner part is divided by a row of central columns, as was customary in ancient works of architecture built of wood. This aspect meant that its function remained unclear for a considerable time. Archaeological finds and inscriptions suggest that it may have been the Temple of Apollo.
Not far away is the most imposing and well-preserved, the Temple of Poseidon for the Greeks, later to be the Temple of Neptune for the Romans. It is one of the finest surviving examples of a Greek temple. A huge and dramatic building, it is surrounded by steps and a colonnade of majestic dimensions. The ruin has no roof, but the pediments and ornamentation give a good idea of how the building would have looked. Built in about 450 BC, it reveals the classic features of Greek temple architecture. It is built of enormous blocks held together with simple dowels, without the use of mortar. This building technique has enabled the structure to withstand earthquakes and other natural calamities for over 2,500 years. As is the case with the other temples, the walls of the inner structures are now missing, due to the re-use of the blocks by the inhabitants during the medieval and modern eras.
The interior was divided into three naves by two high colonnades on two levels, which can still be viewed. As in the case of other temples, the roof was held up by wooden beams; the slots in the stone blocks can still be seen. The roof tiles and eaves were made of terracotta with elaborate and colorful decorations.
The temples of Paestum were transformed into Roman temples and eventually into Christian places of worship. In the latter part of the 18th century, the temples of Paestum were thought to be the oldest works of architecture outside of Egypt. However, Paestum is not all about its temples. The extensive area includes civic buildings, a Roman forum, amphitheater, paved roadways and ruins of residential buildings. Visitors can pick their way through areas for picturesque views and sprawling, half-uncovered Roman and Greek remains. The most intriguing spot is the ‘Heroon,’ which was likely a symbolic tomb for a city’s founder and mythical hero. Inside a stone chamber dating to the 6th century BC, archaeologists found offerings including large, beautiful vases containing honey which are now displayed in the museum.
The museum at Paestum is just opposite the archaeological site. Exhibition rooms extend over several floors and house sections of pediment, decoration and sculptures. The museum also contains paintings and items from tombs in and around Paestum. The most famous of these is the fresco from the ‘Tomb of the Diver,’ a remarkable oddity. This is the only extant wall-painting from a Greek tomb and shows a simple image of a solitary man diving into water. A side trip to Paestum is certainly one to include for anyone visiting the area.