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main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry Dec 2011

Who were the Sybarites?



Maybe you, yourself, are a Sybarite!—that is, a person devoted to luxury and pleasure, yea, even unto wanton excess! Thus, maybe you're having too much of a good time right now to read the rest of this. If that is the case, then go in peace, or as they used to say in Sybaris: Why don't you have another glass of wine before you go? It's piped in directly from the vineyard. Or enjoy another bath and massage. Or go back to sleep; it's not even noon yet! Or take my wife. Please.*

For the rest of you, Sybaris, the eponym for all that was luxurious, decadent and good, was a city of ancient Magna Graecia in southern Italy. It was located on the very bottom, the sole, of the boot of Italy. It was not far from the modern Italian town of Sibari in the province of Cosenza, on the western shore of the gulf of Taranto at the point where the sole takes a sharp turn to the southeast and heads for the toe. The old city and new town are near both the Sybaris and Crati rivers and a stone's throw from a splendid beach on the Ionian Sea. The French archaeologist François Lenormant (1837-1883) said of the area:
"I don't believe there is a lovelier place in the world than the plain where Sybaris stood. All things beautiful come together: the laughing greenery of southern Italy, the vastness of the most majestic Alpine landscapes, the sun and the sea of Greece."

For many centuries, of course, most of the great centers of Italian Magna Graecia remained wispy figments from our past—Cuma, Poseidonia, Elea, etc. Between the early 1700s and the mid-1900s, however, they yielded to archaeology. Yet Sybaris was a hold-out. It was mentioned by Strabo, Herodotus, Athenaeus and dozens of other writers of ancient Greece and Rome as a powerful city, yet one of opulence and luxury, founded in 720 BC, making it one of the oldest Greek settlements in Italy, about as old as Pithecusa (Ischia) and Cuma much farther north. Sybaris was eventually destroyed by the neighboring Greek City of Croton in 510. And yet for centuries there was no trace of it. Maybe it really was a figment!—a mythical prototype of later Land of Cocayne fairy-tales. After all, how could there ever really have been a place where, according to Athenaeus, they forbade blacksmiths, carpenters and crowing cocks because the noise disturbed their slumber? Or where wine was piped from the vineyards directly into homes? Or where they walked on canopied paths so as to be sheltered from the sun? Or where they amused themselves by teaching their horses to dance to flute music? They all wore fine clothes and are said to have got tired out just from watching their servants work!

But, rejoice! It really existed! Archaeology finally came through in the 1960s in the form of a team from the University of Pennsylvania led by Froehlich Rainey, in collaboration with the Lerice Foundation of Rome (specializing, from their self-description, in "new non-invasive methods and investigation strategies aimed at the understanding and protection of the cultural heritage"). By 1969, Rainey was able to proclaim:
...that the ruins have been located on the Sybaris plain about two kilometers inland and on both banks of the present course of the Creti river extending in a north-south line for about three kilometers. In the southern section of this zone there are three levels of occupation: archaic Greek (Sybaris), 5th and 4th century Greek (Thurii) and Roman (Thurii Copiae). In the northern section there is only one level and that one is archaic Greek.   [More on Thurii, below.]
and also:
The location of the ruins of Sybaris deeply buried on a sedimentary plain and below sea level because of the subsidence of the plain since the city was founded certainly explains why Sybaris, unlike its neighbors, had not been found. It is a strange and fascinating coincidence that Helice, the mother city of Sybaris on the Gulf of Corinth, also disappeared beneath the sea. That city still remains to be discovered.
Rainey wrote that in 1969, and it is poignant in a way. The original Greek settlers of Sybaris were from the region of Achaea in the northern Peloponnese. (The Aecheans were one of the four major tribes into which the inhabitants of Classical Greece were divided; the other three were the Ionians, Dorians and Aeolians). The Sybarites' parent city in Achaea was Helice, doomed by a cataclysmic earthquake to sink into the Gulf of Corinth in one day in the winter of 373 BC. It, too, remained an enigma for many centuries, until rediscovered by archaeologists in 2001. That certainly would have pleased Rainey, who passed away in 1992.

By the 6th century BC Sybaris had become a large and wealthy city—and a powerful one, capable of fielding a large army and ruling over a mini-empire of 20 or 30 towns in the immediate area. Sybaris also founded colonies of her own, such as Poseidonia (Paestum) over on the Tyrrhenian Sea and carried on extensive trade with the Etruscans. Political turmoil then led to a war with nearby Croton, which Sybaris lost. The forces of Croton were said to have diverted the nearby Carthis (Crati) river such as to flood Sybaris and even to have confused the horses of the Sybarites on the battlefield by playing flutes! (That's the story and I hope it's true! That's what you get for teaching your horses to dance.) So, around 510 BC, Sybaris ceased to exist.

The Sybarites were dispersed, but some years later returned with the help of allies from Greece, primarily Athenians, to set up the new city of Thurii, adjacent to their old Sybaris. (Today, both sites are included in the same Sibari Archaeological Park.) Thurii thrived for a while in the 400s BC. and had a very mixed population from many parts of Mother Greece. The Sybarites among them—who had overcome their self-indulgence long enough to send a 300,000-man army into battle against Croton!—never again rose to prominence.

sources:

* I know, I know. Thank you, Henny Youngman. ^back up

-Athenaeus. Book 12 of The Deipnosophists—The Banquet of the Learned. The whole book is on-line here. (It's a fun read!)
-Lenormant, François. La Grande Grèce, Paris, A. Levy, 1881.
-Rainey, Froehlich. "The Location of Archaic Greek Sybaris" in the American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Jul., 1969), pp. 261-273.  
-Rainey, Froehlich. "The Search for Sybaris" in Expedition Magazine (Journal of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), Winter 1969.



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