Saturday, June 26, 2010


Agropoli is a gorgeous little cliffside town, but I think I’ll let Sandy’s photos (and Fernando’s posted on the blog) tell that story. This is definitely a case of one picture, etc. But Agropoli also has a history that stretches back as far as 2500 years.

Most historians think that Agropoli started as a Greek city, perhaps founded in the seventh century BCE. I should explain that the southern part of Italy was known by the Romans as Magna Graecia, ‘Greater Greece’ because the whole of the coastline, from Tarentum (Taranto) on the heel, along the bottom, the toe of the foot, along the top and then up the shin as far as the kneecap, was settled by Greek colonists, either directly from Greece or from Greek colonies in Italy that had outgrown their infrastructure and colonized in turn, subcolonies, as the archaeologists say. In any case, because of the abundance and fertility of the land, there were probably more Greeks in Southern Italy by the mid-fifth century BCE than there were in mainland Greece. Think of the Irish in America.

A famous Greek settlement, about 6 miles northeast of Agropoli, is Paestum, which was Poseidonia, City of Poseidon, during its Greek heyday. It is nothing short of spectacular: a series of Doric-style temples in an incredible state of preservation, an ecclesia (assembly hall), agora (marketplace) and a substantial residential sector. These are the best preserved Greek ruins in Magna Graecia and among the best in the world.

Now, we know that Poseidonia was founded by Greeks from the city of Sybaris, but no one knows who settled Agropoli, and that’s a bit of a mystery; archaeological evidence suggests that this was an important site. A number of scholars, including Fernando, think it was actually settled by the same people who settled Poseidonia and was in fact part of the same city-state. Agropoli would have been the harbor, citadel, and main urban center, Poseidonia the temple complex. If it sounds a little weird having your commercial district 6 miles from the religious center of your city, that’s actually not that uncommon in the Greek world. Remember your world history class, all classical cities were really city-states (poleis) composed of an urban core (astu), usually along the coast, and the main settlement area (chora) further inland. At Metapontum, for example, a Greek city we hope to see, the temple complex is 9 miles north of the port city. Why didn’t they settle closer to the coast? Simple technology; ancient plows were simple ards which were incapable of turning dense alluvial land, even though it was far more fertile than upland soils.

In any case Poseidonia and Agropoli suffered a series of invasions, first by the native Italic tribes from the interior, the Lucanians, then by the Romans. In 273 BCE Poseidonia was refounded as a Roman colonia, a settlement for Roman veterans who were given land and political status (the Roman equivalent of VA benefits) in exchange for settling down out in the boonies where they could keep an eye on any restless locals. Meanwhile the future Agropoli became the thriving little Roman port of Ercula.

The Roman phase at Paestum is also impressive; the agora became a forum, the ecclesia a comitium, and a number of huge, impressive houses of Roman style went up. Paestum was obviously a prosperous place for some.

Agropoli’s next incarnation was as a Byzantine port in the seventh century CE. It was from these Greek speakers that it received its modern name; the word Agropoli is simply ‘acropolis’, ‘high city’, a fortified citadel on a naturally defensible spot. Over the course of the next 900 years Agropoli was attacked and/or ruled by a number of raiders and invaders, among them Saracens, Bourbons, and Angevins. Through it all it has maintained its equilibrium, and now it is a quaint little town overlooking a spectacular harbor which caters primarily to yachts and sport vessels. The invaders these days are most welcome; instead of swords and spears they carry beach towels...and cash!

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