Paestum: Greek Temples that Somehow Survived into Modern Italy

In southern Italy, just a few miles south from famous and dramatic Amafi Coast, lays the ruins of three Greek Temples. Visited by few sightseers, even today, they are perhaps the best preserved Doric Style Temples in the world and well worth a trip off the beaten Italian tourist track.

One of my favorite movies when I was kid was the 1963 film, "Jason and the Argonaunts" an adventure film associated with the great visual effects wizard, Ray Harryhausen. I'm not alone in my praise for this movie either. At the 1992 Academy Awards, Tom Hanks, the host, declared ""Some people say 'Casablanca' or 'Citizen Kane'. I say 'Jason and the Argonauts' is the greatest film ever made" as he presented Harryhausen with the Gordon E Sawyer award for lifetime technical achievement.

What does this have to do with some ruins in Italy? Well, some of the scenes from the film were actually filmed on the on remains of these ancient temples. Just one more quirky story in their 3,000 year old history.

While planning a visit to Italy I became aware of this little visited site about 50 miles south of the City of Naples and immediately I wanted to add it to the list of places we intended to visit in Campania. Since we were staying in the popular seaside resort of Sorrento and depending on public transportation, however, the day trip required some careful planning. Taking a bus along the beautiful Amafi Coast would seem the most direct way, but the length of time the trip would take, especially, if we made any stops at the picturesque towns along the way, would be prohibitive. Instead we decided the best course was to take the narrow gauge Circumvesuviana train all the way into Naples, then hop a south bound train down the coast to the Paestum, the town where the temple reside. With a little careful timing the trip took just less than three hours.

Getting off the train at Paestum, it was a short, pleasant walk down a rural Italian road to the temples. In addition to the archeological ruins located there, a large, imposing museum building, constructed during the Mussolini fascist era, houses artifacts from the site.

The history of the ruins at Paestum go back to around 650 B.C., when a colony was founded her by a group of Greeks who had been expelled from the city of Sybaris some 100 miles away along the Ionian Sea. The settlers named their town Poseidonia after their most important god, Poseidon. It thought that at first the town was originally located nearer to the coast. This is where the temple to Poseidon was probably built. At some point, however, the colonists decided to move back from the coast to a higher location where the ruins are located.

Around 550 BC, the colonist constructed the first of the three temples that still stand today. Dedicated to the god Hera, it was first though by early archeologists to be the town hall instead of a temple because it by then it had no pediment (the portion at the end of the temple that formed upside down "V" under the angled roof.

The proportions of this temple are not considered ideal and probably because it such an early effort. Generally it's a bit too wide and low, for its length. A row of columns runs down the middle of the structure, an area that was normally open.

The columns of this temple are significantly cigar shaped tapering as they get toward the roof. The Greeks believed that this technique, called entasis, may have been done to correct an optical illusion of concavity that might appear if the columns were actually straight. In the newer temples the entasis of the columns seem less pronounced, however, as if the technique was falling out of favor.

The colonists tried again with another temple built around 500 B.C. This one was dedicated to the goddess of wisdom and virtue, Athena (though it would be misidentified as the temple of Temple of Ceres in the eighteen century, and is still referred to that way).

The new temple has less entasis and you can also see the remains of porch just in front of the Cella (or inter-sanctuary). The earlier temple didn't have this feature.

The third temple known as the Temple of Neptune (also a misnomer) was built around 450BC. Eighteen Century archeologists originally it was thought to be a temple to Poseidon (or his Roman counterpart, Neptune) but it was actually a second temple dedicated to Hera. It is probably the best preserved example of a Doric temple in the world. It's pediment is largely intact. In addition to a porch in front of the Cella, there is also one in the back of the temple too. It is believed that the temple was also used to worship Zeus (Hera husband) and another unknown Greek god.

The community thrived until it was conquered by the Lucanians around 390 B.C.. A little more than 100 years later, in 273 B.C., the Roman move in and made many changes and additions to the city. But mostly left the Greek temples alone (The Romans could be a bit superstitious about messing with other peoples temples, sometimes). The town thrived through most of the Roman era and even into Christian times (there is some evidence that the Temple of Athena served as a church for a while), but was abandoned by the middle ages when swampy conditions and raiding Saracen pirates made a more defendable location to the south more attractive. The site became overgrown and forgotten until the eighteen century when it was rediscovered.

It quite amazing that these three temple have stood for over two millennia relatively unscaved. A major battle of WW II, Operation Avalanche, the allied amphibious assault on the beach of Salerno occurred here and photos show soldiers working amid the ancient columns.

I found the site at Paestum to be one of the favorite parts of my Italian journey. The site, unlike Pompeii or the Roman Forum, is uncrowded and gives you a chance to walk through the ruins and more easily commune with the ghosts of the people who once lived and worship here.

And of course, I found the temples also spoke to my interest in film as those scenes from the classic Ray Harryhausen movie , Jason and the Argonauts, were filmed here (amazingly they allowed the film crew to climb all over the 1st Temple of Hera).

If you have a change the trip from Naples or Sorrento is well worth the time and money. See a little bit of Greece in Italy.

Copyright 2019 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.


Related Links

Nasca Lines

Ringing Rocks


Mystery Hill

Devil's Tower

Grove of Monsters



Odd Archeology