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
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
Copyright 2019 Lee Krystek.
All Rights Reserved.