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Paestum - The Roman Colony

If the Lucanians didn't change Poseidonia profoundly, the Romans did. They even changed its name, from Poseidonia to Paestum.

Poseidonia had been on friendly terms with Rome during the Third Samnite War (298-290 BCE), but during the war between Pyrrhus and Rome (280-275 BCE) the Lucanians sided with Pyrrhus, and after his defeat Roman retaliation was swift. As part of this revenge Poseidonia became a Latin colony with the name Paestum in 273 BCE.

View of the Forum from the Amphitheatre
View of the Forum from the Amphitheatre

Exactly how the Romans took over Poseidonia is not known, but the result was devastating. Apparently it included a change of population, at least partially, when Latin colonists took over the city and its hinterland. What happened to the Greek and Lucanian citizens is unknown, but it is likely that at least a part of them were killed or enslaved to make room for the newcomers.

Paestum, therefore, was really a new city. Except for the physical surroundings there was almost no continuity with the Greek and Lucanian city of Poseidonia.

Rome created Latin colonies throughout the Italian peninsula, and they had an important role in the diffusion of Roman political culture. The colonies were created with replicas of the political, social and religious institutions of Rome itself, which was a major change compared to the Greek past.

As a consequence of these changes the old agora was abandoned and the ancient meeting place of the city council, the bouleuterion, was filled in and disappeared. New spaces for public administration, politics and worship were created nearby.

Roman colonies generally follow a common city plan. The four city gates are connected by two straight roads, the E.-W. decumanus maximus and the N.-S. cardo maximus, dividing the city into four parts, and the Forum, which was the political, social and religious centre of the city, was located near the compitum, the intersection of the two main roads.

The main N.-S. road in Poseidonia was paved and became the cardo maximus of Paestum. The E.-W. road has only been excavated just around the compitum, but it is likely that there was a previous road there too, which was enlarged and paved the Romans to make it the decumanus maximus.

The Roman Forum was placed in the N.-E. corner of the compitum, where it covers a part of the ancient Heraion, and apparently an older, smaller temple was demolished to make room for the Forum, which indicates that some customs and beliefs of the citizens of Poseidonia weren't kept in high esteem by the new citizens of Paestum.

All the most important buildings of a Latin colony were placed around the square of the Forum. On the N. side is a new italic temple and the Comitium, which was the meeting place of the city council. On the S. side were a large hall, which might have been the curia, the meeting hall of the city senate, or a basilica, which is a public hall for legal proceedings, business deals and other similar activities. Besides the curia/basilica was the macellum, the food market of the town. The short W. end housed the lararium and possibly other public offices. The E. end of the Forum is buried under a modern road.

The Romans also built an amphitheatre, just NE. of the Forum. Only half of it is visible, the rest is under the modern road. N. of the Forum, on the cardo maximus, a gymnasium was build. It features a huge pool with a structure inside of unknown purpose.

The Underground Shrine
The Underground Shrine

Though the Romans forcibly changed the town to suit their purposes, even if it included tearing down ancient temples, they didn't try to eradicate the Greek past of Paestum. The two great Temples of Hera, the Temple of Athena, the underground shrine and the sanctuary of Aphrodite outside the S. gate continued to be used and maintained.

Aerial photographs of the large parts of the town that has not been excavated, show a very regular system of roads and insulae. Such a system was typical in Roman colonies, so it is likely that the Romans reordered the entire city plan, but very little is known about the pre-Roman plan.

The ruins that are visible today are almost all of the Roman period, the three great temples and the underground shrine being the few exceptions.

The role of Paestum in regional trade suffered a decline in the Roman period. The trade between the cities of Greek origin to the S. and the cities of Latin and Etruscan origin to the N. traditionally passed through Paestum, but when the Via Popilia was constructed further inland in 133 BCE, the bulk of the N.-S. trace bypassed Paestum.

The economy of the city came to rely ever more on the agricultural produce of the surrounding plain and wood from the forests on the hills inland.

Each Latin colony had to provide material and manpower to the Roman war-machine, and the contribution of Paestum was ships, seamen and grain. Paestum remained a steadfast ally of Rome, and even in the times of Hannibal Paestum's support for Rome was unwavering. At one occation the city even offered Rome the gold from the temples, which was, however, politely declined by the Roman senate.

Paestum became a quiet backwater. Life continued for centuries to come as it did in many Roman provincial towns, but Paestum wasn't an important regional power anymore.

This article has been split into 8 separate sections. Use the menu below to jump to another section.

  1. Introduction
  2. Poseidonia - The Greek City
  3. The Lucanian Conquest
  4. Paestum - The Roman Colony
  5. Decline and Disappearance
  6. Rediscovery of the City
  7. Literature and links
  8. Photographs

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Copyright © 2005 René Seindal, last changed 2005-06-04

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