When I woke up this morning I had a ‘memory’ on Facebook from two years ago today with the following pictures
Two years ago today we were flying into Naples, driving past Vesuvius to the Amalfi coast (I left the last one in just to remind myself of the stunning view from our hotel restaurant.
We hired a car – tip for next time to get one with a little more ummpphh, driving onto motorways with your foot flat on the floor of a car that does 0 – 60 in, well you would need a callendar not a speedometer is not for the feint hearted. Of course we went to Pompeii and Herculaneum but, in this entry, I want to talk about a less trod path to a site predating both Pompeii and Herculaneum, outstanding in the fact it was virtually deserted and yet hugely impressive – Paestum or Poseidonia if you prefer pre-Roman.
Before we get there I just want to share an experience on the drive there. We left our hotel in Vietri Sul Mare (at the Salerno end of the Amalfi) at 10.30, there were two roads to chose from and we decided on the road that, according to the map, hugs the coastline. We thought it would give lovely views and there is nothing like the tang of sea air. BUT what we didn’t realise that there was virtually unbroken Pine woods between the road and sea – so not a glimpse the whole trip. There were, however, groups of people clustered at the side of the road every couple of hundred yards or so. Personally I thought they were waiting for a bus or a coach and, every now and then, in the rear mirror, I would see a car stop, they would all rush over, one would get in and drive off. I said to Mrs “aren’t the drivers friendly here, I’ve seen several being picked up and given lifts” which is when she filled me in on their real ‘job’ – yes they were prostitutes. All I can say I must have lead a sheltered existance – I really had no idea. It was only 11 in the morning as well (not sure what that’s got to do with it but to me it was a bit strange, ho hum).
Anyway, Paestum. My experience of the place was limited from my undergrad days basically as an example of sixth century BCE temples of Magna Graecia and the tomb paintings of ‘The Diver’.
We parked the car in a little used car park and walked down a deserted road towards the entrance. Suddenly we caught a glimpse of the the Temples of Hera and Neptune (or Apollo – there is an ongoing dispute over who they were actually dedicated to), They literally take your breath away. I have experienced this twice before, on a tourist bus in Rome when turning a corner and suddenly the Colosseum was there and felt close enough to touch and driving down the A303 to the West Country and cresting a hill Stonehenge appears, squat, primeaval and mystical.
Impressive though they are today, in the sixth century they must have been a truely awe inspiring sight, not to mention an unmistakable expression of power, wealth and divine favour.
It is only when you get up close and personal do you get an idea of the sheer scale of these temples and the engineering feat and effort that building that must have taken place.
Some distance away from these two temples is the third no less impressive, The Temple of Athena, built on the highest point of the town. Again, a sense of scale and the sheer enormity can be gathered by those people in front of it.
The view from the Temple of Athena towards the other two temples gives some idea of the extent of the site. The excavations cover an impressive 65 acres although this is only a fifth of the 300 acres the town originally covered.
There are numerous archaeological features which have been excavated, as always some imagination needs to be employed although there are a good number of information boards. There is a large central area which was the Forum and thought to be on the site of the original Agora, To the north east of the Forum there is the Amphitheatre, although only half remains after a road was built in the 1930s for which the civil engineer was imprisoned for the destruction of a historic site. There are also the remains of the columns leading along the main street and the old city walls.
Of particular interest, to me anyway, was the evidence of ‘Romanisation’ to use a contentious word. Near the amphitheatre and on the edge of the Agora is a circular ekklesiasterion where debates were held in pre-Roman times. What struck me was the small size of the debating area which would suggest this was more of a council debating area rather than a general citizen area. Certainly we can thank the Romans for simply filling in the site as they had no use for it thus preserving the structure to be dicsovered two and a quarter thousand years later.
Whilst the excavated archaelogical site is undeniably impressive, equal importance should be attached to visiting the museum. The variey and quality of the fifth century ceramics and artefacts is breathtaking.
However, there are two exhibits that are worth visiting in their own right: The Sele metopes and the tomb paintings.
A couple of miles from Paestum a temple complex, alas now all but lost, was discovered at the mouth of the river Sele. However, about 70 sixth century Archaic metope relief panels from the temples were recovered: 38 depicting various scenes of Heracles and the rest of running women. These have now been imaginatively displayed at the correct height on a ‘temple’ at the centre of the museum. It is now possible to both view them as they were intended from the ground as well as an elevated walkway so that they can be inspected at close range.
The other ‘must see’ are the extensive examples of tomb paintings. There was one in particular I was keen to see in the flesh. Anyone who has competed the Open University modules A219 (now A229 I believe) or A340 will be familiar with ‘The Diver’. Dating from the first half of the fifth centure BCE it was discovered in 1968 in a small necropolis south of the town walls. What is unusal, and exciting, is that of the thousands of Greek tombs dating between 700-400 BCE this is the only one depicting human figures. It is intruiging to speculate why that should be and the significance of the scene. Although it is displayed ‘flat’ neverthess, having seen the tomb in pictures during my studies, I must confess it was one of those ‘breathless moments’ when I walked through a doorway and caught my first glimpse.
What I was not prepared for, because of my naivity that I thought the Diver was the only one, were the staggering number of other tomb paintings that were on display. Although they were from a later date, the fourth century BCE Lucanian period prior to their allegience to Rome in 298 BCE, they are nevertheless equally fascinating with a wide range of scenes, mainly equestrian. This is but a few examples – they are beautiful and I make no apologies for the number!
Well, that is a taste of Paestum – it takes a little effort to get there but so worth it. There is plenty more to see than I have posted here but a word of advice, it was upper 30s degrees although felt more and there is precious little shade so pick your time to visit. On the positive side, there are very few people.
I hope you have enjoyed and, for me? I am looking forward to getting back out there when the restrictions are lifted – maybe next year?