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Magna Grecia, un invito al viaggio

An invitation to voyage

Article Index
An invitation to voyage
Early colony
Colonial Model
Metapontum foundation
Siris colonisation
Sanctuaries and buildings
Rome presence
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Lucania is a land of woods and magic, where mountains and sea blend together in a concert of silences, fragrances and extraordinary colours. It’s an almost completely uncontaminated land, its most intimate and natural secrets unknown to the outside world, with its spectacle of “naturalized civilisation” that manages to preserve the tradition of each single village.

TextWater. The sea waves ploughing since time immemorial. Air. The winds that have always born witness to archaic languages and cultures. Earth. The abundance of a land that has always born fruits. Fire. The symbol of the arrival of a new civilisation. Each of the elements whispers memories of a glorious past:

Magna Grecia.

From the ear of wheat that symbolises the colony of Metapontum up until present day this is an agriculturally based economy whose culture has always relied on its symbols and its land. The region’s Ionic strip of land is where the Greek colonies established themselves, attracted as they were by the natural richness of the inland. A fertile territory, it’s crossed by five streams: Bradano, Basento, Cavone, Agri and Sinni that all run into the waters of the Mediterranean.

Magna Grecia: an invitation for a voyage

During the IV millennium B.C. the Ionic coast of the Basilicata region experienced new social and economic models in the form of the first agricultural societies of the Neolithic age. Villages grew up formed by huts built in wood and vegetal materials covered in a clay plaster.

The Neolithic sites Contrada Petrulla (Policoro), Cetrangolo (Montalbano Jonico), San Salvatore, Pizzica-Pantanello, Saldone, Tavole Palatine (Metaponto-Bernalda) ) are to be found along the initial coastal high ground, near sources of water and land suitable for agriculture. The manufacture of clay vases was dictated by the necessity to contain and preserve the products of agriculture and cattle breeding. They were large recipients used for the conservation of solid foodstuffs such as wheat and barley and liquids like milk and water.

During the Bronze Age the indigenous populations were firmly settled in the internal zones; they occupied the flat high grounds that were at once natural defences and also a place where it was possible to carry out agricultural activity. From up there they could in fact guard the coast line and exploit the course of the rivers as internal communication routes. This particular territorial position favoured contact with the most advanced external areas of the Mediterranean. During this settlement phase some sites played a central role in controlling the territory.

Until the final era of the Bronze Age sites such as Anglona situated in a dominant position on a hill between the Agri and Sinni rivers, or Termitito on one of the terraces to the right of the Cavone river and San Vito di Pisticci held a predominant economic and political role over the other minor settlements. It is thought they had a complex internal organisational structure and that they carried out lively commercial activities. This is confirmed by various finds showing that there was widespread cultivation of olives, vineyards as well as cereals. Metal ornaments and weapons began to circulate in a consistent way at times along with ceramics even from different social cultural fields, geographically far apart from each other.

This situation changed drastically during the final phases of the Bronze Age. A new way of occupying the territory was adopted: the inland settlements were abandoned in favour of the coastal plateaux that, even if they did not guarantee a natural defence, allowed control over the river valleys.

Indeed the settlements were linked topographically because of the great river valleys, those important routes of communication that connected the Ionic coast to the Apulo-Materana area and the Tirrenico-Campana area or to the other areas of the Ionic region. Another important role of this kind was played by the sheep tracks that ran parallel to the coast such as those of the so called Prehistoric Sheep Track that from Taranto reached the Valle del Crati crossing the Tavole Palatine, San Basilio, Acinapura, Cisterna, Murge di Santa Caterina, Montesoprano and Amendolara areas.

In this new phase the indigenous inhabitants on the flat hills of Valle Sorigliano took control, situated as they were between Anglona and Policoro and San Teodoro Incoronata di Pisticci to the right of the River Basento that dominates the valley. Between the end of the 8th and the 7th century B.C. the latter habitation experienced a gradual transformation caused by new commercial contacts and the arrival of Greek elements

Remains of a settlement found near today’s town of Policoro can be traced back to the same period; this case too seems to attest a Greek presence, of the Ionic type, prior to the colonization of Siritide a presence that, in the course of the 7th century would transform into a polis identified as Siris-Polieion.

The installation model of this site was made up of small nuclei of Greek artisans and shopkeepers operating in this indigenous territory who had integrated into the local community. Near this site merchandise of Greek origin was collected and artefacts produced in situ.

The habitations were made up of groups of huts embedded in the ground generally with an elliptical or circular plan with wooden structures covered in clay plaster ( so called Incannucciata ) as we can see in the sites of Incoronata - San Teodoro, of Tursi and of Santa Maria di Anglona. Service ditches were often to be found inside these huts to store the great clay containers (pithoi) used for the conservation of food produce.

Slowly the colonial model imposed itself; a model that apart from the foundation of a polis lead to the occupation and control of the territory and the expulsion of the indigenous population towards the interior. There followed a clear economic and cultural contrast -accentuated through time- between the occupied coastline intensely occupied by the Greeks (paralìa), and the inlands left to the indigenous population (mesogaia).

The founding of a colony called for good knowledge of the territory and careful logistic organisation. Economic and productive requirements often prompted the colonisers to search for places that had similar climactic characteristics to their native land so they could cultivate the same crops. After thorough research Paleo-botanists have proved the presence of broad beans (Vicia faba), as an important part of their diet grown mainly in domestic vegetable gardens and vetch, (Vicia), maybe as animal fodder

Moreover grapes and barley appeared while the absence of olives is explained, currently, by the small amount of samples available. A short while after the installation of the colony they began to produce grapes, wheat with husks, barley and vetch.

In the second half of the 7th century B.C. Greek settlers coming from Acaia and North Peloponnese founded a new town between the mouth of the Bradano and Basento rivers requested by the Sybarites, who were worried about the possible expansion of the Tarantines in the Ionic Gulf region.

Metapontum was founded approximately in 630 B.C. by Achaean settlers; here they found the very best climatic conditions, ample arable land, fertile and productive earth, rich forests that provided wood, rivers and the possibility of exploiting internal paths of communication as well as maritime ones.

The first constitutive act of a colony consists in defining the urban area and occupying the surrounding territory in a stable way; particular attention was paid to the area destined for cultivation for which they had to define a modality that allowed for the settlers’ sustenance by exploiting the arable land.

The urban space was located in a wide area between the sea and two rivers, the Bradano and the Basento. Two macro-areas were defined with different functions: one was dedicated to public activity while the other to habitation and to craft manufacture.

Then the surrounding territory of the polis (chora) was sub-divided into two principal functional areas: one that included the uncultivated zones destined for collective usage (koinè chora), and the other sub-divided in agricultural property destined for the settlers to inhabit (idìa chora). In its interior significant suburban sanctuaries (ierà chora) were located.

The zone for cultivation was divided into small, regular plots of land where the settlers built their own farms and installed their living areas. More than 1.000 farms that surrounded the city have been identified; farms that provided sustenance not only for the whole local community but also for exportation. The biggest production as mentioned earlier was cereals- wheat and barley in particular- wine and also seasonal fruits. A significant part of their diet was of course provided by meat and milk derivatives from their cattle raising.

The physical delimitation of the colony was defined by the indigenous habitations situated on the nearest hills such as Pisticci, Montescaglioso, Pomarico and Montalbano. The settlers then put into effect a first definition of road axes and carried out drainage of the canals and irrigation.

The designing and realisation of a dense network of canals is still considered to this day one of the most important works that the Greeks carried out not only for its outstanding engineering qualities but also for the immense benefits it brought to the region as a whole. These canals were completely dug out and maintained in such a way as to insure a constant supply of water whilst avoiding erosion and accumulation of waste on its bottom. The entire network was developed from today’s Bernalda to the coast and was so dense that it reached almost to present day Pisticci, with a total length of 1650 Km of dug out canals. Some parts of these had particularly big dimensions and you can admire them still today [one is about 8 metres wide completely dug out of the rock and is rather deep too)

It’s a different story concerning the colonisation of Siris about 650 B.C. It was situated near the mouth of the river Sinni and was taken by Ionic settlers. According to literary tradition this place, that had previously been inhabited by Ionic people, experienced a huge influx of citizens fleeing from Ioni di Colofone. This episode was to characterise the colonial experience in Siris. And in all probability a consistent number of the new settlers arrived with their own social structures along with a defined political organisation. This episode in literary tradition is characterized by its cruelty: the murder of the previous inhabitants by the new settlers. Moreover archaeological findings testify to the extinction in this same period of the indigenous settlement in Anglona; a settlement that at this time represented a strategic point for the control of the valleys along the Sinni and Agri rivers.

The appropriation by a group of Ionic settlers determined a break in an area that had been under Achaean control and there was the Metapontum colony on the one hand and the Sybaris colony on the other. This situation was resolved by force by the Achaean settlers who destroyed Siris and occupied its territory around 570-560 B.C.

In the wake of this destruction the Sybarites in turn contested the territory that lies between the Agri and Sinni rivers with the other Italiot Greek cities in 510 B.C. Finally in 433 B.C. a new colony Herakleia was founded to the right of the river Agri near the coast.

At first the colony was common to the Tarantines and the Thurians, the two major contenders, and was established where Siris had been located. But then Taranto resolved to transfer the settlers to Herakleia and the previous site on the river Sinni was used as a port for the new colony. Results emerging from archaeological excavations have led experts to believe that this territory was occupied with a certain continuity in the period from the Achaean conquest of Siris to the foundation of the new colony.

Herakleia’s real organic urban growth only began from 370B.C. onwards when it became the seat of the Italiota League. From this moment on the colony became ever more active on a cultural and economic level and this is shown in the developments in urban and religious buildings from that period.

It’s possible to identify three sectors that present urban and functional solutions that seem to exploit the morphological characteristics of each site: La collina del Castello, or hill of the Castle, has been identified as an acropolis even if it doesn’t present the typical features of a political and religious centre being characterised by housing nuclei of the isolated furnace- house type. ( this is an element that reveals the contrast between Herakleia and Metapontum where these activities were concentrated in specific districts and not inside the habitations themselves) and a small number of public buildings.

The vallata mediana or median valley on the other hand is rich in water and vegetation therefore unsuitable for housing settlements. It was the area dedicated to public functions and worship and excavations have brought buildings for this purpose to light identifying different places of worship. The third is made up of the terrazza meridionale or the southern terrace; this is the only part of ancient Herakleia occupied by the modern city. It’s a zone that however has the least archaeological documentation. There are however some clues that indicate it may have been where the potter’s quarter was once located.

The two rivers Sinni and Cavone were obvious natural limits to the extension of Herakleia’s chora. An important epigraphic document that provides a vast amount of information about the management and organisation of the cultivation space is to be found in the two tablets known as the Tavole di Eraclea;

The so called Tavole di Heracleia or Heraclea Tablets had a long raised bronze inscription by the citizens reunited in an assembly and is an epigraphic document of extraordinary importance as it’s a minefield of information about aspects of ancient agrarian landscapes.,

The rectangular lots of earth (kleros) were attributed to the settler-citizen so he could become an autonomous head of the family. The addition of new settlers to the polis is reflected in the agrarian landscape that underwent modifications to accommodate new terrains for cultivation (eschatiai), using land that had previously been used for gathering wood or for pasture.

Rural sanctuaries placed in strategic points throughout the chora corresponded to water resources or linked to segments of viability. These places of worship were principally dedicated to female divinities of the agricultural world, referring to concepts of fertility and rebirth such as Artemis, Hera, Demeter and Persephone. There is evidence in the sites of San Biagio, Pantanello, Sant’Angelo Vecchio, Incoronata, of “political” gathering and meditation places, apart from being seats of religious worship.

The farm represented the minimum unit of this system of occupation of the territory. Small, autonomous rural installations are to be found more or less uniformly along the marine terraces and along the river valleys and their tributaries. There is evidence of this from the end of the 7th century B.C. onwards but it became a more widely diffused phenomenon especially in the 4th century B.C. In the central zone these settlements communicated with the urban centre of Metapontum through a network of parallel roads and canals.

The dwellings were generally modest structures with ample space devoted to agricultural production. They were built with unfired bricks on stone skirting boards to protect the walls from the damp of the terrain. The roofs were mainly covered in tiles laid upon wooden trusses. It’s possible that the Greeks who settled in the fertile Metapontum plain brought agricultural models and alimentary habits with them to the West from their homeland. This could have been to recreate a familiar environment while departing from previous local ways of exploiting the land.

Pantanello’s Rural Sanctuary, where archaeological deposits have conserved a vast sample of palaeo-botanical and pollen remains provides wide documentation on this subject. A considerable part of this refers to cereals and it’s been possible to identify four species: spelt, wheat, barley and millet.

The most important cereal for the Greek settlers was barley as is recorded in the aforementioned Tables of Heraclea. This was indicated as payment in kind in exchange for rent of the land. Barley’s value as a means of trade was so strong that it was chosen to stamp the symbol on the coins of Metapontum. Figs, olives and grapes were the three main fruit plants cultivated on the territory of Metapontum by the Greek settlers. Figs were considered sacred fruit and were present in many feast celebrations linked to spring and to agricultural production. Grapevines and scenes of the grape harvest in illustrations of the Greek world are associated with the worship of Dionysus. The god, often represented on big craters or in plastic reproductions shown in processions with maenads and satyrs and in banquet scenes, had many religious feasts dedicated to him, linked to agrarian cycles of vines and to wine production.

Rome began to make its presence felt at the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. In 280 B.C., in Herakleia’s territory, a battle was waged between the Roman troops and Pyrrhus. The latter triumphed even at the cost of losing many men. In the end the war swung in the Roman’s favour and Pyrrhus and his men were finally defeated. In the second century B.C. following the outcome of the Hannibalic War, the economic and demographic situation was undergoing big transformations. Metapontum ceased to exist as an autonomous community and probably became governed as part of a Roman praefectura. The settlement continued to be frequented exclusively inside the fortified area known as the Castrum, while the rest of the city showed signs of complete abandonment. A significant part of the agricultural territory was confiscated and turned into a publicus romanus or property of the Roman State. Large agricultural complexes appeared in Termitito, Montalbano and in Pizzica-Pantanello. The way of living and working the land changed substantially as previously the land had been populated in a more diffuse way. The old system of land division developed in the colonial period that required the presence of numerous peasants residing on plots of land which they owned and managed in a family style was abandoned. Small and medium sized Greek farms were replaced by rustic villas sometimes of considerable size, with a pars domestica, or owners residence and a pars rustica, destined for different productive activities connected to agriculture and breeding.

Even Metapontum was to lose its name and in its place was given the toponym Turris Ostium (that corresponds to the medieval denomination of Sea Tower) and thus the port feature of the town was identifiable.

Herakleia however passed over to the Roman’s side and in this way had the possibility of stipulating an alliance with Rome that was favourable to it; an alliance that it would maintain in the future preferring it to Roman citizenship; and so even if it lost its role as centre of the Italiota League it continued to expand and manage its own territory and economy. The Social War between 91 and 89 B.C. marked the beginning of a widespread crisis that affected the entire territory for a long period. In the period between the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D. in the Augustan period, the territory around Metapontum appeared to show signs of a partial revival with the construction of villas and large farms along with certain interventions of public buildings inside the Castro area.

Different from other urban contexts like Grumentum and Venosa, Metapontum, and Heraclea never played a significant political or economic role in Imperial Roman times. The crisis that had begun with the Social War was in many aspects slow and irreversible.

Furnaces and workshops were to be found near the farms that took care of the production of crafts and agricultural activity.

The impoverishment of productive resources along with the spread of malaria provoked the reduction in the number and size of the settlements and sometimes , their complete disappearance. The habitation nuclei moved to more elevated positions reinventing their settlement model “on top of the rocks”. The defensive function of this location had already been exploited in this area in the Bronze age and in the early Iron age namely before the first Greek colonization in the 8th century. B.C. The economy remained weak and the only real source of survival was from agricultural and pastoral activity.

With the arrival of the Lombardi and the Byzantines the economic and settlement fractionation didn’t slow down but rather was reinforced by the defensive and administrative requirements of the territory that determined a “closely meshed” topographical organisation with the creation of a fortified town, castra, castles and towers.With the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 46 A.D. the Basilicata region went through serious social and economic crisis. Sacked and looted by the Barbaric hordes it only showed signs of a gradual revival from the 6th century onwards with the diffusion of monasticism in the Greek Byzantine mould.

The geomorphologic and water characteristics of the coastal plain together with the neglect of the territory and construction of large estates caused progressive deterioration of the environment over the centuries. The climate changed as well as the vegetation. The cultivation of cereal was often replaced by pasture and malaria became widespread. This situation rendered the plain uninhabitable until the land was reclaimed by modern man. It became vitally important to drain the terrain and especially to eliminate the causes that had provoked the swamps and the desertion.

In the Metapontum region in 1951 a policy of expropriation and land assignment was established where farms with the first farmhouses became a widespread and significant phenomenon of the new landscape that was being created. .


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  • De Siena A., Giardino L., Herakleia e Metaponto. Trasformazioni urbanistiche e produzione agricola tra tarda repubblica e primo impero: i nuovi dati archeologici, in 'L'Italie méridionale et le ravitaillement en blé de Rome et de centres urbaines des débuts de la Republique jusqu'au Haut Empire', Actes du colloque international de Naples 1991, Napoli-Roma 1994, pp. 197-211.
  • V. Barberis, Le fattorie della chóra metapontina. Note sui culti, in “Deputazione di Storia Patria della Lucania” (a cura di), “Bollettino storico della Basilicata”, Venosa 1995
  • D. Adamesteanu, Le suddivisioni di terra nel metapontino, in M. I. Finley, “Problèmes de la terre en Grèce ancienne”, Paris 1973
  • D. Adamesteanu, Metaponto, Napoli 1973
  • G. Cetorelli Schivo, Cibi e sapori nella società romana
  • De Siena A., Il territorio di Metaponto, in "Problemi della 'chora' coloniale dall'Occidente al Mar Nero", in Atti XL ConvegnoTaranto, Napoli 2001, pp. 757-769.
  • De Siena A., Metaponto, Archeologia di una colonia greca, Taranto 2001

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