A Return to Sybaris

By: Oliver C. Colburn

Originally Published in 1976

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The annals of archaeology are replete with “lost” cities, once-flourishing communities which, for one reason or another, have vanished into history. Some, Troy for exam­ple, and Cretan Knossos as well as Phrygian Gordion have been rediscovered by patient scholars; others remain lost, their very ex­istence a matter of question. But of those whose former reality is unquestioned, none offered a more fascinating challenge than the lost city of Sybaris, which prospered for two centuries, then disappeared in 510 B.C. not to be seen again.

Generally speaking, there are at least seventy Greek and Roman writers who refer to the city of Sybaris on the Gulf of Taranto in southern Italy. These historical sources agree that the city was founded about 720 B.C. by Achean colonists and destroyed in about 510 B.C. by its neighboring city of Croton.

Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century B.C., stated that fifty-eight years after its destruction by the Crotoniates, the remaining Sybarites assisted by colonists from the homeland re-established New Sybaris. Quarrels broke out and the project was abandoned. Several years later (443 B.C.) Pericles, who was at the height of his power in Athens, called for and established a Pan-Hellenic colony and called it Thurii. The location was “not far” from the site of ancient Sybaris.

Thurii prospered as did its predecessor, but like all of the Greek colonies in Magna Graecia was under constant pressure from the local tribes, namely the Lucanians and Bret­tians. In 390 B.C. the Lucanians took Poseidonia, the colony of Sybaris, just across the peninsula, and defeated the Thurians in a memorable battle. Thurii called on Rome for assistance and the Romans, after laying to waste the city and the surrounding territory, established a garrison there in 282 B.C. Further vicissitudes lay ahead, and at the time of the Second Punic War (218-203 B.C.), Thurii made the mistake of siding with Hannibal against Rome. As Hannibal was gradually pushed down the Ionic coast he .gained a measure of revenge by sacking Thurii and taking some 3000 hostages with him on his way to Croton, and eventual embarkation for Africa in 203 B.C. Hannibal had never liked nor trusted the Thurians in spite of his alliance with them.

In 194 B.C., Rome sent a force of some 3500 troops (or colonists) and 600 cavalrymen to re-establish the city under the name of Copia or Copia Thurii. The Roman colony flourished for several centuries and then vanished from sight as did Sybaris and Thurii before it.

The great Plain of Sybaris had been under investigation, archaeologically speaking, for almost a century but it was not until 1960 that a determined effort was made to locate the three “lost cities.” A hasty glance at the vast area to be covered (some 125 km.) convinces one that unusual methods were called for in order to achieve any degree of success. Because the Lerici Foundation of Milan and Rome, and the University Museum were interested in adapting underground search equipment to the needs of archaeology, an arrangement was made with Dr. Giuseppe Foti, the Superintendent of Antiquities in Reggio Calabria, to begin a reconnaissance. This continued for the next eight years with Froelich Rainey as field director for both the Lerici Foundation and the University Museum. Like all other branches of scientific research, archaeology has been influenced by new tools developed since the Second World War. In this new order of technology is the use of magnetometers for the detection of deeply buried ruins as well as remote sensing devices for aerial reconnaissance. Multiband cameras and new, more sensitive film have also proved useful. Helicopters, likewise, were called into use.

For the next five years surveys were conducted on the Plain and an entirely new type of magnetometer was developed and refined by the Museum Applied Science Center and Varian Associates. This period of refinement led eventually to the success of the project. The details were published in an account, The Search for Sybaris, 1960-1965, completing that phase of the investigations on and around the plain of the Crati River. In this same account were detailed the work of the Lerici Foundation and the results of some fifteen hundred drill holes made during that period. The bits of pottery and tiles brought up by the drills were bagged and sent to Rome for examination. In this way it was possible to confirm what the magnetometer “saw” and what to expect from a subsequent test excava­tion.

After the completion of this five-year period, in 1965, work continued in 1966, seeking the remains of buildings of the Archaic period on the Crati Plain, using the highly sensitive cesium magnetometer and a jeep-mounted drill to test anomalies recorded by the instrument. At this time the cooperative arrangement with the Lerici Foundation was discontinued and the University Museum continued its work through the summer of 1968. Again, during this period, the U.S. Air Force included the Crati Plain with other areas in Italy in an experiment with a new multi-band aerial camera and an infra-red scanning device. The multi-band camera, operating at 12,500 feet, recorded nine different images covering the special range from ultra-violet to infra-red.

A new type of film in the 7000 angstrom range was purchased from Eastman Kodak and turned over to the Aerial Photo Service in Rome. This was used by the Italian Air Force in a second aerial reconnaissance of the whole Plain and surrounding foothills. The overflight was completed in 1968. Unfor­tunately the remains lay too deep to be detected in air photos.

The magnetometer survey and subsequent drilling focused attention on the area north of Parco del Cavallo and a further systematic drilling was carried out there in 1964. An examination of the potsherds and a subse­quent test excavation revealed foundation walls of the archaic period. At this time were found the first Archaic Greek structures in situ so far known on the Crati Plain. This area is now called Stombi. Of interest is the fact that the Archaic structures were found at a depth of just over 4 m.

Another promising area was that of Parco del Cavallo first discovered by Eduardo Galli in 1928 and subsequently explored by Senator Zanotti-Bianco in 1932. At this time, a large Roman building was partially uncovered. The University Museum continued the work in 1962 and deep borings proved that there were three levels of occupation in that section of the Plain—Roman, Classical and Hellenistic Greek—as well as Archaic Greek. Close by this region, during the early years of the campaign, a wall was traced with the magnetometer for a distance of 1300 m. Test excavations at two points along the wall exposed an originally 4th century Greek construction, later rebuilt and heightened by the Romans. The wall ran generally parallel to the River Crati and in the area enclosed, drilling between the area of the wall and the Crati indicated many building foundations, probably Roman. In 1964 the “long wall” was traced for another 700 m. to its termination in the region of Casa Bianca. This may be seen in the aerial view on page 13 as the triangular line that angles toward the excavation at Casa Bianca at the far right.

The third and last of the regions that developed into excavations of considerable size, is that of Casa Bianca, the area nearest the ancient line of the coast. The drill records showed the area to be mainly Roman with a scattering of 4th century Greek pottery and a considerable amount of roof tiles and masonry. The work and the results of the campaign 1965-1968 were summed up by Froelich Rainey in 1969 in the American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 73, No. .3. The map of buried Sybaris, published at that time, based upon magnetometer surveys, drilling and six excavations, is proved to be accurate by the subsequent Italian excavations. The years of work, financed by Orville H. Bullitt and carried out by the University Museum, were a team effort.

From a disturbed stratum in the eastern limits of the Stombi area we have further evidence of a religious cult in the form of a pectoral. Originally half-moon in shape, one half is preserved, plus numerous fragments. Of thin gold leaf decorated with lotus flowers and palmettes, the form is thought to have originated in Asia Minor where the commer­cial routes to South Italy and Etruria began. It does not seem to imitate either Attic or East Greek productions and is probably local. The lotus and palmettes are of a type found in terracotta reliefs and there is some thought that the inspiration for these forms came from Corinth. In any event, the excavators believe it once adorned the robe clothing the statue of a divinity, and came from a room of a cult building. The dating is given as between the last of the 7th and the beginning of the 6th century. The pectoral at present is in the Central Institute of Restoration in Rome.

Among the larger ceramics found in Stombi are a fragment of a calyx crater and the rim and neck of an amphora. Both are of Attic Black Figure and are datable to the 2nd quarter of the 6th century. The crater is decorated in two zones: above, a horseman carrying a javelin accompanied by a hunting dog; below, a frieze of animals. On the amphora is a representation of a battle scene.

Thus at Stombi, probably on the northern periphery of the city, we have some fragmen­tary evidence of the opulence legendary of Sybaris, which has been described in so much detail by many of the ancient writers.


The excavation located about 2 km. south of Stombi was first opened to an extent of 200 x 150 m. The superpositioning of the habitation levels spoken of in literary sources is demonstrated here by the archaeological evidence in a non-controversial manner.

The principal monument of the uppermost or Roman level is a building, semicircular in construction, and from the evidence, erected in the middle of the 1st century B.C. The nature of the building in this first phase, whether a monument or a meeting place, is uncertain. However, about a century later, it was transformed into a theater, with the addition to the original plan of a scene building, three apsis and a cavea. In front of the theater at the south there was a rectangular square or piazza, ornamented with two circular foun­tains. The area seems to be datable to the 2nd century A.D. and encroaches on the roads of the earlier city of Thurii. To the east and the west are habitation levels that were occupied by Rome for some eight centuries; that is, from the 2nd century B.C. to the 6th century A.D. Underneath this, in turn, is the urban network of roads, streets and alleys of the Athenian colony of Thurii represented by the cobbled areas on the plan. In the aerial photograph the Roman complex is shown built over Thurii whose streets are shown by the dotted lines. The measurements, appropriately enough, are in Attic feet, one half inch shorter than ours.

When the colonists committed by Pericles to found a new city arrived in 443 B.C., they were accompanied by a certain Hippodamus of Miletus, a Greek architect and town planner. He was chiefly celebrated for his association with the introduction into European Greece and Italy of the gridiron plan in laying out cities. He remodelled the Athenian port of Piraeus at about the same period that he de­signed Thurii which was laid out in almost a square. In part, it covered Sybaris which also ran lengthwise north and south behind the coastal dunes, from the Stombi area southward. Space here will not permit discus­sion of the various measurements of the roads, modules or “blocks” of houses, nor a discus­sion of the drainage system. They are however, available to the serious student of Greek architecture and city planning. As yet we have no remains of public buildings at Thurii, with the exception of a Doric capital datable to the end of the 5th century and an Ionic capital of a century later. These were found in the scene area of the Roman theater, along with fragments of Attic black glazed ware and Red Figure ware, prompting deeper probes to try to locate the buildings from which they came. The certainty of archaic structures, again at lower levels, was also indicated by the discovery of re-used archaic blocks in the foundations of the semicircular building as well as pottery similar to that found at Stombi. Another line of archaic blocks, about 11 m. long was excavated just below a sterile stratum deposited by the inundation that destroyed Sybaris in 510 B.C. The presence of these blocks, different in size from the above-mentioned, suggested the possi­bility of terracing.

The archaeological evidence from the author’s excavation at Torre del Mordillo, some 17 km. to the west, is that the Romans took Thurii by storm in the waning years of the 3rd century. At that time they were pursuing Hannibal and driving him from Italian soil. If the treatment they afforded the city of Capua in the year 194 B.C. is any criterion, they showed the Thurians no mercy and murdered or dispersed all those whom Hannibal had left behind. Excavations in Parco del Cavallo indicated that when the Roman colonists arrived they simply moved in and utilized the network of roadways and housing. Over the succeeding years they modified the housing to suit their own needs and adorned some of them with porticoes as well as frecoes and mosaics.

In the foundations of the Roman theater numerous blocks of an archaic building, no doubt a temple, were located. As may be seen in the photograph they are of various dimen­sions and came from various parts of the ancient building such as the Euthynteria or leveling course of the temple platform and certainly from the cella itself. The cella would be the enclosed chamber or sanctuary of the temple. Some of the blocks most certainly came from the pediment which is the triangular termination of a ridged roof. The triangular wall in turn is called the tympanum. On some blocks appear archaic letters, some upside down, indicating that the stones were not in their original position. These letters had served as a guide for the Sybarite stone masons and had been placed there on orders from the temple architects. Above and on each side may be seen the remains of Roman buttressing. Another photograph shows some of the frieze blocks with the figures chiseled off, placed between other blocks of the archaic building. One is visible, but two more are in the shadow.

Bits and fragments were recovered in the fill and are parts of bodies both human and animal that represented some sort of pagean­try. Traces of coloring in blue, red and yellow indicate that the frieze must have indeed been spectacular.

The people of the island of Siphnos, rich in gold and silver mines, dedicated a Treasury at Delphi, datable to 530 B.C., with a similar frieze. Another comparison has been made to one on the archaic temple at Samos because of the superpositioning of blocks and the con­tinuation of the figures from one block to the one below.

Also salvaged were precious bits of the entablature of the temple both architectural and decorative. These include mouldings, bits of triglyphs carefully wrought, showing strong Ionian influence. Lack of space prevents us from elucidating the finer details such as the unusual form of the triglyph frieze which stood below the figured pediment. However, we may say without doubt that this is the famed Hera Temple of Sybaris datable by the evidence to about 530 B.C.

It would be superfluous ‘to exult over the importance of the discovery of an Ionic sculptured frieze. It is enough to record that it is the first to be found in the West and is among the oldest in the Greek world. The architec­tural remnants are currently undergoing restoration either in Rome or at the National Museum in Reggio Calabria. One is not surprised that the ambitious Sybarites, in continual contact with the eastern Mediterra­nean, adopted and accepted the mode and expressions of Ionic taste. Unfortunately it would seem that less than a generation after its completion, the city and its beautiful works of art fell prey to the forces of nature and was destroyed by some catastrophic force, perhaps a tidal wave. It is the considered opinion of the excavators that it was nature and not man (the Crotoniates) that destroyed Sybaris.

The archaeological evidence points to a more leisurely departure than one which would be necessitated by war and conquest. It would seem that the inhabitants at least had the opportunity to pick and choose what possessions they wished to take with them, leaving behind only those broken articles which could not be mended. This excludes the votive deposits in the cult places where whole pots were left. The story of the conquest by the Crotoniates, led by the famed Olympic athlete Milo, seems to have been merely boastfulness over the conclusion of a murderous trade rivalry with the demise of Sybaris. This trade rivalry was old at the time of the Sybaris­Crotonia conflict. In the 8th century, Chalcis and Eretria were the two main cities on the island of Euboea, just off the coast of Attica. They were great manufacturing and trading cities as well as colonizers, Chalcis in par­ticular being famous for its pottery. Eretria established a half-way station at Corcyra (modern Corfu) and Chalcis founded a colony at Cumae in southern Italy as early as 760 B.C. and slightly later colonized Naples, Pompeii and Rhegium (modern Reggio Calabria). They became involved in a conflict over a fertile area known as the Lelantine Plain. This enabled Corinth to seize the opportunity to expand her own trade. In doing so she encouraged colonization by people like the Achaeans in such places as Sybaris, Metapontum and Crotonia. Corinth wrested Corcyra and Syracuse from the Eretrians and Chalcidians in 733 B.C. With the establishment of Sybaris, Corinth now had an active companion in the lucrative trade with the Etruscans as well as the colonies in Sicily. Sybaris quickly es­tablished towns and cities, fanning out to the opposite side of the peninsula, to establish ports and trading posts. She apparently soon subdued the local inhabitants but assimilated and absorbed into her own culture metal workers and other artisans. Thus we must speak of the Sybarites not only as luxury loving people living an indolent life, but as active tradesmen and manufacturers serving as a vital link between the East and the West, transporting and diffusing not only imported goods but those of their own manufacture. This applies to metalware as well as ceramics and statuettes. Products of an active mining industry must also be taken into considera­tion.

The rare graffiti give certain reference to the Achaean language of the city, while the different fabrics found, briefly examined, assure the character of the commerce. It is noteworthy that in the first season alone (1969) over 15,000 items were catalogued and recorded so that many years of study lie ahead.

It seems certain that a Corinthian environ­ment existed for all of the 7th century but with some participation by East Greece. In the second half of this century there began an interest in Attic products, documented by sporadic finds of amphorae of a type which also appears in Etruria in tomb finds of the same period.

The most prosperous period of Sybaris seems to have been from the last of the 7th century to the middle of the 6th. In 540 she formed an alliance with Croton and Metapon­turn to destroy another Greek colony, namely Siris, located between Metapontum and her own territory. Siris had come to prosper in the lucrative trade with the western colonies and thus had to be eliminated by the Alliance. At the same time an arrangement was made with Sardinia to prevent interference with the northern sea routes to Tuscany. In order to protect herself on the southern flank, a treaty was signed with the Serdaens, presumably a local tribe living in and around modern Cosenza. Toward the end of the century the Sybarites are said to have dominated four tribes and twenty-five towns.

However, the great Phoenician city of Carthage in North Africa was now coming to power. From about 600 B.C. it was clear that rival claims to control the great islands must lead to war between Etruscans, Carthaginians and Greeks. The westward thrust of the Greeks was crushed by the Etruscan and Carthaginian fleets at Alaia in Corsica in 535 B.C. Carthage gradually established its influence in Corsica and Sardinia. Etruscan power gradually weakened as did that of Sybaris whose economic power seems to have almost collapsed in the last quarter of the 6th century.

To return to the excavations at Parco del Cavallo, deeper probes were made beneath the Roman theater, unearthing a series of rooms which gave a complete stratification, and revealed the history of the city through its pottery. The presence of many cups and votive offerings leads to the speculation that this area was devoted to the priests of the cult of Hera. Among the finds were fragments of a finely done Attic Black Figure amphora, datable to 540-530 B.C., with a representation of a warrior or hero driving a quadriga, leaving perhaps for battle. Only two other examples of this theme as presented have been located, one an amphora at Monaco, the other, an oinochoe at Palermo. Perhaps the most exciting find in Level E, the amphora was found in association with some fragments of the finest pottery Athens had to offer in this period, again reflecting the opulence of Sybaris.

For trade connections other than Athens, we present fragments of a cup of the Thapsos type, 750-725 B.C., a portion of a Rhodian oinochoe of ca 700 B.C. and a sherd of a cup from Naucratis (Egypt) datable to the 7th century. The chronology of the pottery recovered at Parco del Cavallo should be as follows:

Cup of Thapsos: middle of 8th century

Proto-Corinthian skyphoi and pyxides: 7th century

Corinthian alabastron: ca 600

Corinthian plate: ca 570

Attic amphora and cups: 550-530

Laconian cups: 550-530

Attic cups and oinochoi: 520-510

Here there is a break due to the inundation of the archaic city, to be picked up again, as follows, with the founding of Thurii:

Attic black glazed and Red Figure: 440

Tarantine pinax: 440

Proto-italiote crater: 420

The cup from Thapsos cannot be dated later than 725 B.C. which leaves a slight gap between it and the founding of Sybaris in 720. The founding of Thurii in 443 is thus con­firmed by the archaeological evidence.


The port area of Sybaris, Thurii and possibly Copia Thurii (early in its history) lies at the eastern end of one of the Hippodamean roads. An aerial photograph shows the begin­ning of the road at far left where it meets the large north-south road. It passes in front of the theater complex and through a Roman block of housing to meet the so-called Long Wall angling down from top center at Casa Bianca, far right. The Long Wall extension as mentioned previously was traced over a number of seasons by the geomagnetic instruments of the University Museum. The function and dating of the wall has been a point of controversy but it can now be reasonably stated that it was the enclosing wall of Copia Thurii and is datable to around the end of the 2nd century A.D. The intersection of the wall and the Hippodamean road is about in the center of the excavation, originally some 70 x 55 m. and subsequently enlarged. The main archaeological edifice has been termed a naval slipway. The photograph shown here places the wall and the slipway in proper perspective. The Long Wall, covered by awnings for protection, is at the left and the slipway at center. A modern version of the same type of slipway may be seen at Taranto.

A group of vases found on the north edge of the circular structure on the plan are datable to an epoch prior to the end of the 4th century. A change in the hydraulic conditions caused by the receding of the coast line in the 1st century A.D. brought some alterations in nearby structures and probably the abandon­ment of the port area. There is some thought and evidence that at one time there was a man-made canal connecting the Coscile and Crati Rivers for bringing the boats to the slipway.

A photo of the external north side of the Long Wall shows it to be in part constructed with pieces and blocks of older monumental buildings. In the foreground are some blocks used indifferently as covers for poor tombs in the declining years of the Roman era, datable by a coin of the Roman Emperor, Gordian I, to A.D. 238.

The use of this section as a burial place is further evidence of the Long Wall being the enclosure of Copia Thurii. By the same token, no trace of the Thurian and Sybarite walls has been found, which leads us to believe we must search further to the north for the Greek necropolis.

Since returning from Italy in June of this year, I have received a message from a member of the Committee to the effect that the fortification wall of Thurii has been found and that much more material has been unearthed at Casa Bianca. So, our knowledge of Sybaris grows on almost a daily basis, and what tremendous progress has been made since the days of the early 1960’s when Fro Rainey first cabled me to “come on over and help us find Sybaris.”

Today, the once malarial Plain, now a rich agricultural area, drained and irrigated, is soon to be an industrial region with a new harbor, an oil refinery, a chemical plant and other associated industries.

Therefore, in 1968, the Minister of Public Instruction named, on the advice of the Superior Council of Antiquity, a commission of experts, archaeologists, historians and hydrologists, who, flanked by a council of superintendents, studied and put forward a program of collaboration. The Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, Bank of the South, an organiza­tion, public and private, concerned with the development of South Italy, had already granted some funds not as yet utilized. Its Tourist Service furnished a gross financing of something over a million and a half dollars, and operations were initiated in 1969.

A series of metallic pipes, drills, well points, drains and irrigation ditches, as well as large suction pumps, was assembled and mobilized. Unusual procedures were indeed necessary since the archaic remains at Parco del Cavallo were over seven meters deep and those at Stombi some four and a half meters. Some experience had been gained by the hydrologists in the excavation of the Temple of Apollo at Metapontum, buried under water in a terrain similar to ours.


The most northerly of the major excavated areas, it lies just north of the Stombi canal and between the beds of the ancient Crati and Coscile Rivers. The area opened originally measured (Ca) 120 x 60 m. and was subsequent­ly enlarged. The buildings, almost square, were generally oriented on the same axis with foundations of worn river stones, and each had two or more rooms. The most interesting of these was building (F), at one time roofed with curious polygonal, polychrome tiles, Of in­terest also are two archaic wells.

The numerous statuettes and miniature votive vases unearthed lead the excavators to believe that this general area was occupied by potters and coroplasts as well as other craftsmen connected with a religious com­munity. The presence of wells and three pottery kilns helps to confirm this postulation. Perhaps in these very kilns were fired two statuettes of Athena holding a bouncing goat in each hand, possibly copies of a cult statue. We have the words of Herodotus as testimony for the existence of a temple of Athena Krathia located on the ancient bed of the Crati near Sybaris. Herodotus is said to have emigrated to Magna Craecia with the Thurian colonists and thus had on-site knowledge of the temple. From this very temple may have come the archaic, finely done, white limestone anta capitals which can be dated to the first ten years of the 6th century.

Cite This Article

Colburn, Oliver C.. "A Return to Sybaris." Expedition Magazine 18, no. 2 (January, 1976): -. Accessed February 25, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/a-return-to-sybaris/

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