Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria Ariana (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in the Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Magna Graecia, the forgotten Greek legacy

Many, many years ago I travelled to southern Italy off season to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum. Unfortunately my lodging address was much further away than what the travel brochure made me believe and I wound up way south of Salerno. This is how I discovered the existence of sites like Paestum and Velia, once part of Magna Graecia. Till then I had not heard of Magna Graecia and I had no idea what it actually meant for when we talk about Greece, we automatically think of mainland Greece and Athens in particular but not of any colonies or overseas settlements.

That trip was my very first encounter with Greek civilization, even if it had been adapted and reshaped by the Romans. In those days before internet, before color TV and few books with colored pictures, my perception of Pompeii and Herculaneum was based on lots of imagination but I was over the moon to be able to investigate these places by myself. It was February, a time no tourist in his right mind would venture to those parts of Italy and I remember that only seven cars were parked outside Pompeii. In short, I was not disturbed or hampered by any crowd, meaning that conditions were right to get a true feeling of these antique remains.  I found the same emptiness in Herculaneum where I thought I still could inhale the smell of the burnt wooden beam that have survived, much unlike Pompeii. The Archaeological Museum of Naples war nearly empty, making me feel lost till I came face to face with Alexander on the famous mosaic from the Villa of the Faun. It felt like a private audience with Alexander the Great, an unforgettable experience!

This was my very first “archaeological” trip and I learnt many precious lessons for the future. The very first lesson was that I should prepare a trip, inquire locally about what to see and what the opening hours are. Second lesson: get all the information you can about a museum before going there as I spent several hours in Naples before reaching those rooms with Alexander and other precious objects I really wanted to see. Third lesson: do your homework. Since then, I did all that and never had to regret missing anything major.

As I said, I was staying much too far away, actually a good two-hours drive from Salerno over winding local though beautiful roads. But there was an advantage to this unfortunate situation for I was close to the ancient sites of Elea (modern Velia) and Poseidona (modern Paestum). This was my introduction to Magna Graecia. Life takes strange twists at times …

It was here that I heard for the first time how an impressive number of Greek colonies were founded all around the Mediterranean. For various reasons often including famine or overpopulation at home but also frictions and competition between the rising city-states, induced many Greeks between the eighth and fourth century BC to emigrated in search of new opportunities overseas. After all, the Greeks were always seeking business opportunities and perfectly understood the advantage of  establishing good trade relations with foreign countries. Settlements varied widely from the Black Sea, including Crimea, and Asia Minor to North Africa and the Iberian and Italic peninsulas. One of the most flourishing area was to become known as Magna Graecia or Great Greece, i.e. the coastal region of southern Italy which generally also includes Sicily, heavily colonized by the Greeks during the 8th and 7th century BC.

Basically there were two types of  colonies like those that existed as an independent city-state and the widely spread trading-colonies. We have to thank these Greek colonies for spreading Hellenistic culture as most cities around the Mediterranean somehow have Greek roots.

Paestum was my first city to visit and it looked familiar right away since I discovered it was the setting of the well-known Sissi II movie in which the Empress of Austria, who according to history went to Greece to recover from tuberculosis, is walking among these very temples! I have not returned there since but in those days the only buildings standing were the three temples: the Temple of Ceres, the Temple of Poseidon (Neptune) and the Basilica. Beside that the main roads had been exposed with the Decumanus exiting the city at the Porta Marina in the West and the Porta Sirena in the East, while the Cardo linked the Porta Aura in the North to the Porta Giudizia in the South – all gates clearly visible in the still standing city walls. The central Forum and part of the Amphitheater had been excavated, but that was about all.

I was very impressed by the compact and sturdy Basilica or possible Temple of Hera which counted an unusual nine columns in its façade while all temples basically have an even number of columns (another thing I learnt). For this reason the temple has only one row of columns running in the middle of the cella. Striking is that in this Basilica built around 500 BC the optical correction of the columns was apparently not yet known and looking carefully we clearly see how the columns seem to lean inwards.

The middle temple dedicated to Poseidon (or maybe also to Hera) was built about one hundred years later and the optical corrections in the architecture of this edifice have been carried out to perfection. Time wise it corresponds to the construction of the Parthenon in Athens when the purity of proportions reached its peak. No wonder that this Temple of Poseidon steals the show in every way! A curious oddity used in only few temples is the two rows of superposed columns inside the cella, the place where the god resides. These columns are especially slender and elegant and seem to make the temple feel very light. Greeks in antiquity would laugh at our admiration for these ruins which they would have torn down without mercy, but they have not seen how the color of the travertine stone turns to golden as the material aged and hardened over the centuries. It is now a most wonderful spectacle to watch how sun and shadows play with the ocher-colored colonnades set against a steel-blue sky.

The Temple of Ceres on the other hand is more austere, probably because like for the Basilica, the construction material comes from a different quarry than for the Temple of Poseidon. Smaller than the two other temples, it stands a little to aside and has the oddity of counting 6x13 columns instead of the normal proportion of 6x12. There are exceptions to every rule, even when it comes to building temples, it seems.

Poseidonia was founded early in the sixth century BC by Acheans and by the end of the fifth century the city was conquered by the Lucanians who more or less followed the customs of the early settlers. In 273 BC, however, after siding with Pyrrhus against Rome and sharing his defeat, it became a Roman city under the name of Paestum. It continued to flourished till the fourth century AD, at which time decline set it and by the Middle-Ages Paestum was entirely abandoned.

The story of Elea is slightly different. It was founded by Greeks from Phocaea who fled Asia Minor around 538-535 BC after a siege by the Persians. As opposed to Paestum, Elea was not conquered by the Lucanians but fell to Rome at the same time in 273 BC. More important is probably that it was the home of the Eleatic School founded by the philosopher Parmenides at the beginning of the fifth century BC that included Zeno of Elea and Melissus of Samos – maybe even Xenophanes but that is not proven.

The very location of Velia as I saw it was quite striking. The light was still gentle and the skies were pale blue as they generally are in spring. The landscape was very green for the valleys were filled olive trees, fig trees and vines which the Greek had introduced. The mimosa was blooming and the small mountain oranges were ripe for picking. In a distant the snow capped mountains of the Apennines kept watch over these lands, unchanged over the centuries. What a choice place to found a city!

High on the Acropolis of Elea stood an Ionic temple of which only the crepidoma remains and a few stubs of columns as most of the material has been reused in the construction of the medieval tower that stands on top of it, commanding the view from afar. To reach the Acropolis, I remember walking over a most beautiful Greek road made of cobblestones with intermittent horizontal slabs to keep them in place and flanked on each side by a deep gutter (4th-3rd century BC). This road ends at the Porta Rosa a magnificent example of a vaulted gate built by the Greeks and the only one of its kind to be found in Magna Graecia.

In the lower part of Elea, the Porta Marina was the eye-catcher. In antiquity Elea was an active port that has as is often the case been silted up and now lies much further inland. The surprise was to find this southern city gate flooded after recent rainfall making it look like a gate to the sea. The five kilometers long city walls were built in the sixth century BC and two centuries later they were reinforced with sturdy towers to defend Elea against a possible attack by the Lucanians. Explanations were non-existing but I managed to locate some Roman Bath which turned out to be built by Emperor Hadrian. There was also a vast Roman residence and other unidentified remains. Looking for pictures of Elea on the internet I’m surprised to see that a Roman theater and an Asclepion have been excavated but I see no traces of the aqueduct that I discovered there, partially running underground and covered by two slabs of stones in between the cisterns that used to filter the water before reaching the lower city. Well, enough to be intrigued and high-time for me to return and see it all for myself.

In any case, my visit to Paestum has set in motion my life-long love for and understanding of Greek art. First in the Classical Period but mostly during the following Hellenistic era a degree of perfection was reached that was never surpassed in later centuries by any civilization. We are blessed that in spite of time and repeated wars so many of the buildings, statues, pots, jewelry, and other remains have come to us. The many temples in Magna Graecia tend to give us the impression that the colonizers were even more Greek than the Greeks themselves!


  1. Forgotten Greek legacy??
    I assure you that we do not have forgotten nothing.

    1. It is obvious from your comment (and from your name) that you are writing from Magna Graecia. As I travelled through the area repeatedly after the above “discovery”, I have indeed noticed that this Greek legacy is still very much alive. You have every reason to be proud of this rich and unique ancestry.
      My experience with the wider public, however, is that hardly 5% of them ever heard of Magna Graecia and it is based on these encounters that I spoke of “forgotten Greek legacy”.
      Thank you for your comment. It is heartwarming!