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Magna Graecia

Magna Graecia in the museum collections

The concept of Magna GraeciaEven in the ancient world the term Magna Grecia was used to refer to the regions of southern Italy that were colonised by Greek peoples as early as the mid-eighth century BC. However, the name is not just linked to the definition of a region, but refers to a phase of ancient civilisation that derived from the encounter between indigenous peoples and the Greeks who had brought their own civilisation when they founded colonies. These contacts created a civilisation that led to a flourishing economic and artistic life in the colonised areas. The concept of Magna Graecia was rediscovered by the Flemish scholar H. Goltz who, in 1576, wrote a historical numismatic treatise about Sicily and Magna Graecia, followed by a large number of works regarding historical topography; these focused mainly on tracing the actual locations of many ancient cities, which had often disappeared among marshes and areas afflicted by malaria. Nevertheless, it was not until the reign of Charles III that the new discoveries acquired great importance, both due to the king’s interest in founding the kingdom’s roots in an illustrious past, and the speed with which the news spread throughout cultured circles in Europe, through the presence of numerous travellers who undertook the Grand Tour in the kingdom. The lively cultural atmosphere of the period is reflected by the publication of the tables of Eraclea by Canon Alessio Simmaco, a work which contained a general treatise on Magna Graecia. This atmosphere can also be seen in the rediscovery of the temples of Paestum mentioned by Bourbon soldiers who were building the new roads to Calabria. The fame of the ancient city rapidly spread with the publication of the drawings and the first descriptions (by Paoli, Saint-Non and Piranesi), which also helped to bring the other temples of Magna Graecia and Sicily to the attention of travellers visiting Europe on the Grand Tour.ColonisationColonisation cannot have taken place peacefully, even though tradition has it that there were often good relations between the colonists and the native populations; on the contrary, the fighting between colonists and the local populations must have been extremely bitter. Moreover, the process took place over a long period of two centuries, from the mid-eighth century BC onwards. Cuma is the oldest of the colonies on the coast of Campania, founded by the colonists from Chalcis in the island of Euboea, who were also responsible for the foundation, after 740 BC, of the colonies in the straits, Rhegion (Reggio Calabria) and Zancle (Messina), which would have ensured control of Euboean trade along the Tyrrhenian. Towards the end of the eighth century BC, colonisation began along the Ionian coast. Sybaris, Kroton, and Caulonia were founded by colonists from the Peloponnese, while the Spartans founded Taras (Tarentum) in around 706 BC, while the Locrians founded Locri Epizephirioi. The Sybarites founded Metapontion towards the end of the seventh century BC and Poseidonia - Paestum at the beginning of the sixth century BC, while Elea (modern-day Velia) was founded in the second half of the sixth century BC. Recent finds would seem to date the foundation of Neapolis by the Cumans to between the end of the sixth and the start of the fifth century BC, while Thurii was founded on the site of Sybaris in the fifth century at the wishes of Athens following the destruction of Sybaris at the end of the sixth century BC. During the third century BC, the cities of Magna Graecia were subdued by the Romans, although they still exerted a decisive influence on Rome. Culture in Magna GraeciaDuring their history, the colonies, which soon loosened their ties with their mother cities, reached their own economic and cultural independence, giving rise to sophisticated achievements in various fields of art, philosophy, medicine, mathematics and the sciences. Famous philosophers and mathematicians included Pythagoras, who was linked to the cities of Lokri and Metapontion, or Parmenides, the most illustrious representative of the school of philosophy of Elea. Magna Graecia, with its immense cultural achievements, such as the medical school of Kroton, the school of philosophy of Elea, Pythagorism and Orphism, played a fundamental role in the complex process of Hellenisation of Rome; after its conquest, the culture of Magna Graecia had an even greater influence on Rome, causing profound, far-reaching changes. The level of sophistication reached by local architecture can be appreciated in the splendid temples of Paestum. The extraordinary vases found at Taranto and Reggio, which were the main centres of artistic production in metal-working, provide evidence of the rich imagination of western-Greek engravers. Another important aspect was the production of pottery vases. There were numerous workshops of painted pottery which were active between the fifth and third centuries BC. Although they were influenced by Greek pottery, they created different styles in different regions. There were also significant developments in gold jewellery; Tarentum (Taranto), in particular, was renowned for its jewellery, both due to the refined workmanship and wide variety of types, and the extraordinary wealth of technical and stylistic solutions. Its coinage was also of extraordinary quality: the coins minted in southern Italy are considered amongst the most beautiful made in antiquity.

Further information
Thematics data

I Greci in Occidente 1996; Magna Grecia 1996; De Caro 1999; Borriello, Rubino 2003.