History of Metaponto, Italy


See Metaponto guide for highlights and historic monuments

From the mid-8th century BC the arrival of Greek pottery at the location of Metaponto gives us evidence of wide-ranging trade.

It was from the beginning of the 7th century, however, that the presence of permanent external groups, such as Greek merchants and craftsmen, created the basis for the foundation, at the beginning of the last quarter of the 7th century BC, of the Achaean colony of which  ancient sources spoke.

Early history of Metaponto

The early history of Metaponto was compiled by Strabo (58-25 BC) who followed Antiochus (423 BC) and Ephorus (400-330 BC):

“Then is Metaponto, which is at a distance of 140 stadia from the port of Heraclea (25,9 km). It is said that this city was founded by Greeks, native from Pylos, who, under Nestor, returned from Troy with their ships. It is believed that they were the first to cultivate this land, and for this reason they dedicated in the temple of Apollo in Delphi their entire crop of wheat, shining like gold"

The Achaean origin of the city is demonstrated through a local rite, called 'atoning sacrifice,' offered by the inhabitants of Metaponto in honour of old Neleides. The city was razed to the ground by the Samnites. Antiochus claimed that the site was abandoned and it was later colonized by some Achaeans, sent there by their compatriots of Sybaris."

Herodotus (484-425 BC) also spoke of Metaponto with regard to the legendary 'Aristeas of Proconnesus', who raised an altar to Apollo in Metaponto, to place near it a statue bearing his name.

With regard to the ancient history of the city, we do not know exactly the year of its foundation. Even if it was founded at the beginning of the 7th century BC, as Strabo said, it was destroyed by the Samnites at the beginning of the 6th century BC. The Greek cities of the Ionian coast were very rich, and for this reason they attracted the indigenous peoples of Italic origin.

Following this destruction, the site of Metaponto was deserted and the Sybarites, for fear that it would be occupied by their enemies from Taranto, founded a new colony - under Leucippus. Next Metaponto allied with Alexander the Molossian (370-331 BC) against the Samnites, but he was defeated and killed in Pandosia in the first half of the 4th century BC.

Metaponto in Roman times

In Roman times Metaponto tried to escape the domination of Rome, tightening alliance with Pyrrhus of Ephyrus (318.272 BC) , and then with Hannibal (247-182 BC).

After the defeat of Hannibal at Zama (202 BC), the Romans reduced Metaponto to being one of their colonies, and then it fell more and more into decay, until the destruction wrought by the gladiators of Spartacus (109-71 BC), who rebelled against the Romans, and finally, the city was almost abandoned.

After the Romans

The fall of the ancient city was completed by the looting carried out by the Saracens in 927 AD. Literary sources dating back to late antiquity and the early Middle Ages about Metaponto are scarce and its name appears only in a list of Greek colonies. Other sources from the beginning of the 12th century, providing an indication of Roman roads, cited Metaponto as a "statio" located along the Ionic coast, connecting Taranto with southern Calabria.

Identifying Turiostu with Metaponto

In Peutinger’s Chart the strange name of "Turiostu" appeared instead of the traditional "Metapontum". According to studies by L. Giardino, Turiostu would have been another name for Metaponto, which in the 6th-7th centuries AD had its site near the coast with the name of “Turris Maris” [=Torre di Mare]. Thus Turiostu would come from "Turris Maris" [Torre di Mare].

About the almost sure identification of Turiostu with Metaponto [Turris Maris], L. Giardino writes:

"The name Turiostu has, in my opinion, a very significant meaning. This place name divided in two words: ‘turi-ostu.’ The first name is attested as a corruption of Latin ‘turris’ [...] The second one is not documented, but ‘ostu’ [="ostium" = port, harbor entrance] has clear relationships with the place name of Ostia (= port)...

... This interpretation has more consistency if we record that the village, from the 13th century, replaced Metaponto in the codes, and it was called "Turris Maris", cognate with ‘Turiostu’ [Turris ostium="Turris Maris"]. This linguistic phenomenon is so obvious that it needs no further comment. Under survey, archaeological and name data, I propose the identification of the 'statio' of Turiostu [...] with the late imperial city of Metaponto." [1].

Metaponto, a town with many names...

Some medieval diplomas of the nearby abbey of Montescaglioso attest to the persistence of the Greek name until the 11th century, when it was replaced first by "Civitas Sanctae Trinitatis" and then, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, by "Turris Maris." This last name, with the vulgar form of “Torre a Mare,” is cited in some documents drawn up between the 15th and 18th centuries. (The medieval settlement of “Torre a Mare” was located near the modern railway station.)

In 1099 a place called "Metapontum" was mentioned in a document in which Rodolfo Maccabeo assigned half of his estates to the abbey of S. Michele Montescaglioso. The modern place name “Torre a Mare” appears only in the 13th century AD, while during the 12th century the town was called "Civitas sancte Trinitatis."

Middle ages in Metaponto

A document dating back to 1119 attestes that the Countess Emma and her son Roger gave to the church of S. Michele Montescaglioso half of the sundry incomes of "Civitas S. Trinitatis". Again in 1119 another document attests that Emma resided at the “castrum Civitas S. Trinitatis.”

On April 3, 1121 Duke William along with Constance and Tancredi, besieged the "Castellum Sancte Trinitatis, which is situated on the Basento river, and was taken on that day".

In 1146 King Roger of Sicily (1095-1154), in two diplomas, confirmed and granted to Raone, the abbot of Montescaglioso half of all the income of Sancte Trinitatis.

In 1197, Constance, Queen of Sicily [1154-1198], confirmed the donation of Roger. Thus this document established officially the change of the city’s name [2].

Origins of the name metaponto

Scholars have found the etymology of Metaponto to be a very difficult question, in part because of the various interpretations of the ancient writers, especially of Strabo. At first glance, things appear pretty simple, and Metaponto would derive from Greek "metà" and "Pontos" [= beyond the sea] [3].

However, the actual history of the etymology of Metaponto is very complex. It seems also that the ancient name of Metaponto was "Alybas,” of which Ulysses spoke in the "Odyssey" (Book XXIV, v. 304), and in which the Greek hero, in a speech to his father Laertes, revealed his identity:

"Thus spoke the wily Ulysses: 'I was born at Alybas, where I live in splendid palaces, and I am the son of Apheidas, son of King Polypemerides".

In fact, as far as we know, "Alybas" means "swamp", and some scholars suggested that it might be the place where it Metaponto was located, between the rivers Bradano and Basento. V. Pareto pointed out that the Greeks of Metapontum and Sybaris, founding in Italy their cities, had to fight against a “monster,” that is "Alybas," the personification of the marsh and of the terrible malaria, which reaped hundreds of victims:

"Lenormant rightly saw in these legends 'a personification of the demon of the malaria, devouring the first men who had settled in those places. The 'monster' personified the struggles that they fought against nature to remove the scourge of the malaria draining the swamp" [4].

About “Alybas,” G. Genovese pointed out that "the daemon Alybas-Lyka, had the appearance of a wolf [= Greek 'Likaon']" [5].

However, contemporary studies believe that Metaponto has its roots in "Metabos," the indigenous name of the city’s founder. "Metabos" would therefore not be a name of Greek origins, but of Italic origin. In fact:

"Metabos was a hero against the Volsci called ‘Metabus’ at Priverno, and also mentioned by Cato (234-149 BC) in his 'Origines'" [6].

Also Stephen of Byzantium (6th century AD) stated that "Metabos" was a "barbarian" name of non-Greek origin [7]. The Greek presence however "overshadowed" the indigenous origins of the name, and, according to some Greek legends, “Metaponton” was founded by a Greek hero named “Metabos,” who among the Greeks was the son of Sisyphus [8].

If "Metabos" is a Greek world, it presumably was of Mycenaean origin:

"In fact, with the name 'Me-ta-pa' were mentioned some Mycenaean cities such as Pylos. From 'Me-ta-pa' would have derived the ethnic name 'Me-ta-pj-s' (= 'Metapioi'), that is 'people of Metapa'. Both "Alybas" [from Greek 'als-alos' (sea)] and "Metabos" seem to refer to the concept of "water", "sea.” According G.B. Pellegrini, it is very difficult "to establish the semantic value of ‘-μέταβο,’ which however, with the “radical element ‘μετ-,’ seems to be (...) the name of a river” [9].

References

1. See L. Giardino, “Metaponto tardo imperiale e ‘Turiostu’: proposta di identificazione in margine a un ‘miliarium’ di Giuliano l’apostata”, in "Studi di antichità", 1982, III, p. 172

2. See G. Bertelli, “L’insediamento medievale di Torre di Mare (Metaponto) e I suoi rapporti con il territorio. Primi dati”, 2001, pp. 1-6

3. See G. pellegrini, “Toponomastica italiana”, Hoepli, 1990, p. 83

4. See V,. Pareto, “Biblioteca di storia economica,” Forni, 1907, p. 325

5. G. Genovese, “Nostoi: tradizione eroiche e modelli mitici nel meridione d'Italia,” Roma, 2009, p. 336

6. See A. Mele, “Culti e miti nella storia di Metaponto”, in “Hesperìa”, “Studi sulla grecità di occidente”, edited by L. Braccesi, Roma, 1996, n. 7, p. 12

7. Mele, p. 12

8. Mele, p. 16

9. See G. Alessio," Metaponto”, in "Atti del Tredicesimo Convegno di Studi sulla Magna Grecia", Taranto, 14 – 19 ottobre 1973, Napoli, Arte Tipografica, 1974, p. 245