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Pithecusa - Ancient Ischia
The name "Pithecusa"
amphora at the Pithecusa museum on Ischia
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 —
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
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 —
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
The Spread of Literacy
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
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:
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.
entries: Ischia (1), Ischia (2), Nestor's Cup, Uncovering the Bronze
Age on Procida, The
Etruscans in Campania, Geology of the Bay of
Peoples of Italy, Cuma,
The Epomean Tales,
-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.