Inspired by the special exhibition called Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum, I want to show some images which represent how the ancient Greeks succeeded in expanding their territory through Southern Italy.
Paestum, southern Italy
By the seventh century BC general Greek cities were experiencing a number of problems. Over-population and lack of access to trade routes were putting a great deal of pressure on their communities. Accordingly many cities sent out groups of enterprising citizens to build colonial centres. Asia Minor was often chosen because of the eastern trade, but the favourite destination was Southern Italy and Sicily, where fine temples and cities in areas such as Paestum in south-west Italy proudly proclaimed the peoples’ jealously-guarded Greek identity.
Diver’s fresco, Paestum, southern Italy
The Greeks believed in some form of life after death, but they thought that without the physical joys of this world it must necessarily be a sad and dreamy existence. Homer relates that when Odysseus visited the near world he met the ghost of the great warrior Achilles, who told him that he would rather be a slave in a poor man’s hut on earth than a prince in the halls of the dead. Greek delight in physical life has seldom been better expressed than by the decoration of a painted tomb at Paestum showing a diver flying joyously through the air.
Greek Temple of Segesta, Sicily
The temple architects in Greece always sought to observe an aesthetic sense of austere moderation, regarding proportion as more important than size, but the colonial builders had no such inhibitions, and many of their structures are substantially larger than anything in the mother cities. The fifth century temple of Segesta in north-west Sicily was designed as a massive Doric structure; but Sicily, with its rich agricultural lands and easy maritime access, was regarded as one of the most desirable locations of the Mediterranean, and the countless wars over it left the temple unfinished.
Wherever the Greeks went to found colonial cities, they took their culture with them, including their rich and colourful legends, some of which may be distant reflections in folk legend of early migratory movements. The temple complex at Selinunte, furthest west of all the Sicilian Greek cities included dedications to Demeter and Persephone, but one of the early temple metopes features the story of Europa, which tells how Zeus, disguised as a beautiful white bull, kidnaped her. She was carried off to Crete, where she became the mother of the great kings who ruled the island during their lives and became judges of the dead in the next world.