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Pithecusa - Ancient Ischia

sections: 1. Introduction;    2. Geology;    3. Human Cultures;    4.the name "Pithecusa";    5.Pithecusa;  
 6. the Spread of Literacy;    7. Giorgio Buchner;     8. related entries & bibliography/sources


In 1930, Amedeo Maiuri, the renowned Neapolitan archaeologist, lamented that "Ischia is still completely unknown." He would be pleased to know that a lot of work has since gone into remedying that situation. Excavations and research on the wealth of artifacts uncovered on "Pithecusa" (the ancient Greek name for Ischia) as well as radioactive dating of the mineral deposits on the island
all work done since the 1940s (and still going on)
permit us now to sketch the geological history of the island over the last 150,000 years as well as the history of its human inhabitants over the last 5,000 years.


Seen from above, Ischia is roughly a rectangle at the western entrance to the Gulf of Naples. The four corners are almost exactly at NW, NE, SW and SE. The island has a 34 km (c.21 miles) coastline and a surface area of 46.3 square kilometres (c.18 sq miles). Ischia and her neighbors, Procida and Vivara, are all islands of recent and intense volcanic origin (unlike the other island neighbor, Capri, on the other side of the gulf, which is really a broken-off fragment of the Apennine mountain chain an extension of the Sorrentine peninsula). Ischia consists of Mt. Epomeo (787 meters/2,589 ft., photo, below) surrounded by a number of various types of "volcanic units," (small, extinct or dormant craters), and it is here that recent research has corrected the misconception that Mt. Epomeo is a deeply eroded central volcanic crater. In 1930, the Swiss vulcanologist, Alfred Rittmann, established that the greenish tufa rocks of Epomeo are not the remains of a crater, but the products of a powerful eruption that were thrust up and broken into blocks (called "uplifted horst").

Radioactive dating has shown that the oldest formations on Ischia go back 150,000 years; they are on the eastern and southern edges of the island. About 40,000 years ago there occurred the powerful Campanian eruption and caldera collapse. (That eruption is estimated to have lofted as much as 40 km
3 of ash and pumice into the atmosphere. By way of comparison, one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in recorded history on the Indonesian island of Krakatoa in 1883 sent about 18 km3 of such material into the air). The Campanian cataclysm sank much of the island of Ischia. Between 25,000 and 18,000 years ago, the sunken green tufa and sea mud (clay) deposited on top of it were then thrust up again by the intrusion of molten magma from below, breaking up into many blocks (horst), causing many faults, and creating Mt. Epomeo. (That clay later became important to humans as raw material for pottery manufacture.) The volcanic units around Epomeo continued to be active for some time, and the island as we know it was still being formed through significant lava flows as recently as 5,000 years ago. The last eruption on the island occurred in 1302 AD and caused documented damage to inhabited medieval sites.    ^to top

Human Cultures

The extreme volcanism on the island made the presence of truly early humans unlikely. (Even a Neanderthal is not going to move out to an exploding island.) The oldest evidence of human settlement on Ischia is, thus, from a scant 5500 years ago, the Later Middle Neolithic Period ("Recent Stone Age," for short). Substantial remains were found in the 1960s near the town of Ischia: undecorated as well as painted handmade pottery, terracotta weights for fishing nets, flint and obsidian knife-blades. From somewhat later (c. 1400 BC) there are finds of pottery belonging to the so-called Apennine Culture, widespread in Central Italy and part of southern Italy. That period then runs into the Mycenaean period, that is, a few centuries on either side of the Trojan War
(c. 1200 BC). The Mycenaeans set up trading posts at various points in the Western Mediterranean, including Ischia, but generally did not displace native peoples. Judging from the Iron Age implements of about 1000 BC, the natives on Ischia were Indo-European (IE), probably Oscans, a sister people of the other IE peoples on the Italian mainland, including the Sabines, the Samnites, and the Latini.       ^to top

The name "Pithecusa"
amphora at the Pithecusa museum on Ischia            

These early natives of Ischia produced large terracotta amphora, called pithol, with lug handles, as containers for foodstuffs. They had a characteristic shape, and more of them have been found on Ischia in comparison to other Iron Age sites. This may be the source of Pliny the Elder's claim (Nat. Hist. 111, 6.82) that the pith- in Pithecusa is the same as the one in pithol   thus, Pithecusa, Land of the Big Jugs! A competing etymology says that the pith- is the same as in pithecantropus, thus, "monkey," and traces back to Greek mythology: a race of mischievous little forest creatures called Cercopes were turned into monkeys by Zeus and banished to various volcanic areas, one of which was Ischia. Thus, Pithecusa meant "Isle of the Monkeys." Either way indeed, even in some third or fourth way it is thus likely that the immigrants to Ischia from the Greek island of Euboea settled a place they already knew as "Pithecusa" rather than naming it that, themselves.

(Later nomenclature: Virgil referred to the island as Arime, saying it was the island mentioned by that name in The Iliad (II, 783). Later, the Romans called it Aenaria, possibly
not from the name of Aeneas, as attractive as that theory sounds, but rather from
the Latin aenum, meaning bronze or metal in general, confirming the flourishing metallurgical activity of the area. Some crazed revisionist etymologists also hold out for a Semitic origin: I-schra, "black island." [The problem with that one is that all the sand on the island is white.] The current name, Ischia, appears for the first time (as iscla, derived from the Latin insula [island] in a letter from Pope Leo III to Charlemagne in 813.)

No matter which version you like, the Euboean Greeks who settled on the hill at the NW corner of the island (now Mt. Vico, above the modern town of Lacco Ameno) did so in c. 770 BC. It does seem strange that Greeks would come this far north to found the "first Greek settlement in Italy," before sites on Sicily such as Syracuse or further up on the mainland at Elea or Paestum, all suitable sites that colonists would have had to pass on the way. Yet, scholars now think the Pithecusa was not a typical polis; that is, not a result of a pattern of colonial expansion to spread Greek city-states beyond the Aegean. There is, in fact, no literary reference to the founding of such a Pithecusan colony. The extreme variety of artifacts on the island is seen as evidence that Pithecusa was an emporion, a port of commerce and trade in advance of the wave of Greek expansion that led to the city-states of Magna Graecia and purposely set in a favorable position for trade with non-Greek peoples in more distant parts of the Mediterranean.              ^to top


Mt. Vico over the modern town of Lacco Ameno         

The acropolis of Pithecusa was on the north-western hill, Mt. Vico, with water on two sides. The necropolis was to the west in the adjacent valley of San Montano. That valley is 500 meters long, 75-150 meters wide and runs SE to NW between the slopes of Monte Vico and the slope of the Zaro lava flow. The valley was used for burials for 1000 years, from the foundation of Pithecusa until the beginning of the third century AD. So far, no graves of an aristocracy have been found; that is, no cremated bones in bronze urns as found at Cuma and back in Eretria (on the island of Euboea, itself). This supports the view that Pithecusa was not a polis but simply a thriving commercial center, all merchants with no aristocratic rulers. (Many of the artifacts found at Pithecusa are, in fact, from burial sites and were not found simply "lying around" beneath the earth, say, near the acropolis.)

Archaeologists have found a great variety of pottery imported from different regions of Greece: Corinth, Euboea, Athens, Rhodes and others yet to be identified. Importantly, Pithecusan pottery is found elsewhere in the Mediterranean, including North Africa, Spain, southern France and the middle east, as well as in many Italian regions: Apulia, Calabria, Sardinia, Etruria, and Latium. Workshops for the working of iron have also been found. Also, the Pithecusans worked gold and silver and minted coins.

The conclusion of all this is that the settlement was home not only to Greeks, but to a mixed population of Greek, Etruscan and Phoenician inhabitants. Because of its fine harbor and location more or less equidistant from the Etruscans, the early Italic tribes of central Italy, the island of Sardinia and Phoenicians from the Middle East and North Africa, the traders of Pithecusa were very successful, at least for a short time. At its peak (around 700 BC) Pithecusa was home to about 10,000 people.

What happened next the decline of Pithecusa and the rise of Cuma is not that clear. Both Strabo and Livy have passages about the Euboean Greeks who founded Pithecusa and nearby Cuma, although it isn't clear from these literary sources which was first. Experts now hold that Pithecusan pottery is the older of the two; thus, the settlement at Pithecusa came before Cuma. This has nothing necessarily to do with the theory that the Pithecusans might have left the island because of volcanic activity and, themselves, founded Cuma, a few miles across the waters on the mainland. That may have happened, but, alternately, Cuma may also have been founded by a separate band of settlers shortly after the year 700 BC. There is not a lot of proof one way or the other. Geologically, nothing seems to have happened that would have forced the Pithecusans to desert the island. They had chosen their site well and were generally spared damage from eruptions as well as from landslide activity from Epomeo. So, one colony founding the second one, or two separate groups founding their respective colonies the jury is out on that one and not likely to return anytime soon.

Whatever the case, with the rise of Cuma, Pithecusa declined in importance and by about the middle of the 600s was no longer an autonomous trading center and had become a dependency of Cuma. The Cumans (and their dependent Pithecusans), were then aided in 474 BC by Hiero I of Syracuse who sent a fleet to help defeat the Etruscans who were threatening Cuma. Hiero occupied Ischia and left behind a garrison to build a fortress that was still in existence in the Middle Ages. (Cumans were themselves later displaced by more settlers and moved a bit further down the coast to found Parthenope, which then begat Neapolis/Naples somewhat later.)

                     "Nestor's Cup"
Volcanic activity on Ischia started up again in 470 BC and continued. Later, there was so much volcanic activity during Roman rule, that very few Romans settled there. The volcanism is probably why the young Octavian (not-yet Augustus) decided to trade Ischia to the city of Naples in 29 BC for Capri, one-fifth the size. Suetonius, in his Lives of the Caesars, tells of a dried-up old oak suddenly greening back to life the minute Octavian set foot on Capri! The future emperor took that as a good sign and also a good way to unload an exploding island. A bit before that, in the civil and social wars that wracked Rome at the beginning of the first century BC, Cuma and Pithecusa bet on the wrong horse. The right horse, the vindictive general Sulla (138 BC-78 BC), may have destroyed the old acropolis on Mt. Vico. That may be why very few remains of it have been found.   ^to top

The Spread of Literacy

Discovered in 1954, the most famous artifact found on Ischia is Nestor's Cup. It was an import from the island of Rhodes and a burial artifact laid into the tomb of a 12-to-14-year-old adolescent, a grave now numbered as 168. There were 27 vases in the tomb, a rich send-off. Examination of four of them in early Corinthian style puts the burial at about 720 BC. The famous inscription on "Nestor's Cup"...

"This is Nestor's cup, good to drink from. Whoever empties it will be seized by desire for Aphrodite, crowned with beauty."

...reminds us of the role that Pithecusa must have played in the transmission of literacy from Greece to Italy. Much earlier scholarship on the subject, such as Carpenter (1945, below), does not even mention (!) Pithecusa, concentrating almost entirely on the role of Cuma. The author says:

The latest student of the material, Edith Hall Dohan, in her extremely competent and valuable study of Italic Tomb-Groups in the University Museum, came to the conclusion that it was during the period 680-650 B.C. that "foreign influence penetrated deeply into Central Italy"... [and]... Commercial relations between Etruria and Greece had thus lasted almost precisely two centuries, from ca. 680 to 474 B.C. Early in that span of years the Etruscans had learned the Greek alphabetic signs...[and]... Payne reported for Corneto "great quantities, especially early Corinthian" and stated that "Caere and Vulci have probably produced more Corinthian vases than any other Italian sites. [Reference is to Necrocorinthia, a study of Corinthian art in the Archaic Period by H.G.G. Payne, first published in 1931.]

There have been recent important finds of great quantities of Pithecusan pottery bearing Greek inscriptions; also, there is newer archaeological evidence of trade between Pithecusa and Etruria. These discoveries have helped push the date of 680 BC back a bit into the time of the flowering of early literate culture on Ischia and forced us to reevaluate the notion that only Cuma, important as it was, was responsible for the Etruscans learning the Greek alphabet. Also, it bears mentioning to the modern reader that in the period from, say, 700 to 500 BC, there was no single "Greek alphabet" to pass on. Literacy in Greece was still so new that various parts of the Greek homeland developed their own variations of the earlier Phoenician writing system and carried those variants out into Magna Graecia. A list of such variants includes names such as Corinthian, Accadian, and Ionic, and there are even examples of forms of letters reworked by Greek settlers after they settled in Italy. The complexity of deciphering all of those variants and determining influences in the spread of literacy should not be underestimated.        

^to top

Giorgio Buchner

Many of the archaeological discoveries on Ischia since the 1940s have been the result of work done by Giorgio Buchner. He was born in Munich in 1914 and passed away on Ischia in 2005. His German father and Italian mother had acquired property on Ischia and the family moved there before WW II. Buchner studied the classics in Naples and became fascinated by the early history of the area. His graduate thesis in Rome in 1938 was on early human settlements on the Flegrean Islands [Ischia and Procida] from pre-history to the time of the Romans. He started serious work on Ischia in the late 1940s. At the time, though scholars had known of a settlement called Pithecusa, it was more or less considered to have been a secondary Greek stop-over, some sort of a trading post perhaps. Over the years, Buchner was responsible for hundreds of important finds on Ischia, starting with his dramatic discovery of Nestor's Cup.  Buchner changed the way scholars looked at Pithecusa. In 1947, he and vulcanologist, Alfred Rittman, created a small museum for their finds on the island. In 1999, it was officially inaugurated as the Archaeological Museum of Pithecusa in the presence of museum dignitaries from the international community.

related entries:  Ischia (1), Ischia (2), Nestor's Cup, Uncovering the Bronze Age on Procida, The Etruscans in Campania, Geology of the Bay of Naples, Magna Graecia, Ancient Peoples of Italy, Cuma, The Etruscan language, Amina/Picentia, The Epomean Tales, Miscellany (June 2016-new digs).


-The Archaeological Museum of Pithecusa, located in the Villa Arbusto in Lacco Ameno on Ischia.
-Buchner, Giorgio & Gialanella Costanza (1994). Museo archeologico di Pithecusae, Isola d'Ischia. N. 22, nuova serie. Istituto poligrafico e zecca dello stato, libreria dello stato. Rome.
-Carpenter, Rhys (1945). "The Alphabet in Italy" in American Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 49, No. 4 (Oct.-Dec., 1945) pp. 452-464. Pub. Archaeological Institute of America.
-Ridgway, David. (1984). The First Western Greeks. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
-Rittmann, Alfred. (1930) "Geologie der Insel Ischia" in Zeitschrift fűr Vulkanologie, Ergȁnzungsband 6. Berlin.