History of Paestum

See Paestum guide for highlights and historic monuments

Where once the Greek "Poseidonia", the "Paistom" of the Lucanians and "Paestum" of the Romans was founded, we find today "Capaccio," a small town in Campania.

The archaeological site of Paestum-Capaccio is one of the most popular among antique lovers. For this reason, we details some historical information that will help tourists make the most of their "time travel" in the ancient and glorious site of "Poseidonia".

Below the historical guide we also elaborate on the fascinating if rather complicated etymology of Paestum.

Early origins of Paestum

Strabo [60 BC-23 AD] was very specific about the location of Poseidonia:

"After the mouth of the river Silarus [= Sele], we enter the territory of the Lucanians where is located the temple of Hera, built by Jason and near the temple at the distance of five stadia, is located Poseidonia "(Strabo, VI, 1, 1).

Poseidonia was founded by Sybaris, whose inhabitants, called "Sybarites" were skilled sailors. For this reason, they called their new colony "Poseidonia" in honour of "Poseidon", the god of the sea , because he protects them during their travels through the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Thank to the coinage of Paestum, which began in the second half of the sixth century BC, an inscription can even give us the name of the ecista [=founder] of Sybaris:

"FIIM, whose interpretation has sparked a vigorous debate. Among the various assumptions, the more credible was advanced by Mr. Guarducci, who reads it as "IS" (from Elice), the ecista name of Sybaris " (1)

The new city, in a short period of time, became rich and powerful through its trade on the sea. In the following centuries Poseidonia was conquered by the Lucanians and, finally, towards the end of the third century BC, by the Romans. The Romans maintained the old structure of the city, embellishing it with sumptuous palaces, such as the forum and the amphitheatre. The Romans called Poseidonia by the name of "Paestum".

Despite the "Vulgate" saying Paestum "disappeared" after the glories of Roman times, in reality, the city was not lost forever [...] at least on old maps which always cited Paestum, although it was indicated as "Pest" or "Pesti," according to the local vernacular.

This means that the city had not fallen at all, even in Late Antiquity, into a state of neglect , quite the contrary:

"Among the fortified cities annotated on the ancient maps [...] we find "Pesto", that is the ancient "Paestum" in the plain of the river “Sele”. The city is designed in an oval shape, with six towers, walls of great magnitude, many houses, and a church ... Paestum retained its importance in the former imperial sources as a city known for its roses, spread by poets, and for giving its name to the "Sinus Pestanus" (now the Gulf of Sa1erno)...

... Paestum and the Amalfi Coast [...] were well-known places even in Late Antiquity and in the early Middle Ages [...] when scholars referred to Paestum being neglected for the new city called "Caputaquis," that is Capaccio on the hills. But there is no certainty on this "neglect" of Paestum: some scholars believe that the city, the diocese and the Cathedral of “Annunziata”, were never completely deserted" (10).

Capaccio: a new town or a fortified outpost of Paestum?

If the assumption of F. La Greca is accurate, it is possible that there was more than an "desertion" of the city, a military "dislocation", probably to a more defensible place, which was "Capaccio Vecchio" and which was fortified with a castle.

We can therefore assume that "Capaccio Vecchio," was, rather than a "new City" [Italian “Capaccio Nuovo”] with regard to Paestum, so to speak, an “addition" to Paestum. Also note that many old maps denoted "Capaccio Vecchio" south of "Capaccio Nuovo," although its ruins are well known, reflecting the destruction of the old town by Frederick II.

This glaring error, however, may also be apparent and hide some ancient uncertain medieval site. For this reason, according to F. La Greca, "Capaccio Vecchio" was still really Paestum. Thus, Paestum was presumably inhabited until the sixth century AD, because it was only from the fifth century AD that the first changes in the plain of Paestum were experienced, such as:

"the hydro geological instability and the result of slow and continuous changes in the plain ... The deaths caused by malaria and by long periods of belligerence led to its gradual desertion" (12).

Paestum abandoned

The foundation of the Diocese of Paestum dates from the fourth century, and was abandoned in the sixth century: these dates confirm the hypothesis that Paestum was gradually abandoned, because of natural events (certainly caused by bradyseism, changes in the earth surface dure to earthquakes caused by changes in the water table) but especially because of "political" events, which affected the region (13). In fact, A. Maiuri was convinced that:

"bradyseism did not have an important influence on the decline and disappearance of the richest city in the Tyrrhenian coast of Lucania. The disappearance of Paestum was therefore due to the tragic decay and disappearance of the largest historical cities of Magna Graecia, mainly due to political, social and economic causes ... One of the causes of environmental degradation was the passage from smallholding to the so-called "saltus" [large landed estate]: thus the charge of the family firm was replaced by an indistinct landscape, the "saltus", an economy based on a latifundist-monoculture-slave system, typical of the late-Roman age" (14).

In conclusion, the fate of Paestum was marked by human errors, such as the failure to control the rivers, the hydrological impact of mountain deforestation and the continuous influx of flood debris that blocked the flow of water to the sea.

Early christianity in Paestum

The affirmation of Christianity in Paestum was precocious. Pietro Ebner said that "St. Paul, during his journey from Reggio to Pozzuoli, erected the Diocese of Velia and Bussento (=Policastro), while S. Peter founded the diocese of Paestum."

The diocese, which was created in the late fourth century AD, survived until the sixth century AD, when it was transferred to Agropoli, under the protection of the Byzantines, where the bishops of Paestum took refuge to escape the massacres of the Lombards led by Zotone (571-590 AD), who was the first Duke of Benevento and fiercely opposed to Christianity.

The seat of the bishop remained in Agropoli until the 9th century, when the city was attacked by the Saracens, and the Bishop moved to Capaccio Vecchio, although he still called himself "Bishop of Paestum" [Pestanus Episcopus] (15).

Capaccio - Paestum after the Middle Ages

A crucial moment in the history of Capaccio was established by the siege and destruction of the castle, known as "Castro Capuacio" in 1246 by the emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), who besieged the small town in which a group of nobles barricaded themselves after failure of the conspiracy that had plotted against him.

In the early 13th century the castle and the estate belonged to the Sanseverino, who were involved in the plot and thus deprived of the county, of which, however, they came back into possession, as is shown by documents dating from the 16th century.

In the second half of the 16th century Capaccio belonged to the Crown, which sold the city to Cesare d'Avalos d'Aragona (1536-1614). Capaccio was then a stronghold of the Doria d'Angri, who received the title of Counts of Capaccio and ruled the town until the early 19th century, with constant disputes about the feudal rights and civic uses of the local population.

The Napoleonic period, which on the one hand had marked the "rediscovery" and also the "fortune" of Paestum among the French public, also marked the "end" of the feudal power the Doria d'Angri over Capaccio, at least from a strictly legal point.

Indeed, one of the most important elements of the advent of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in Italy was the "end of feudalism." However, although Marcantonio Doria (1765-1837) was forced to accept the Napoleonic laws, in effect they caused him "not high loss of earnings" (16).

The years that followed the Restoration and the Risorgimento leading to the unification of Italy (1861) overlap with those of the area of Salerno, on which Capaccio had depended since Napoleonic times.

Etymology of Paestum

We must say that the diatribes on the etymology of Paestum began not only a fierce linguistic debate, but they where all new interpretations about the history of the "Greek" Poseidonia.

Many scholars of the 19th century spoke of the " Greek arrogance", in the sense that they claimed to have founded cities, which, on the contrary, other peoples had founded. This would be the case of Poseidonia-Paestum. According to A.S. Mazzocchi, the etymology of Paestum would be "Pesitan" [= the Phoenician god of the sea]:

“Mazzocchi fancifully traces the etymology of Paestum to a Phoenician god of the sea supposedly called Pesitan” (2).

According to this etymology, Mazzocchi said that when the Sybarites founded Posidonia, there was a more ancient village founded by the Phoenicians. Indeed, Mazzocchi had realized a truth that has been largely confirmed by contemporary studies, only he was wrong to attribute it to the Phoenicians.

The first inhabitants of Paestum were not the Phoenicians, but Italic peoples (Osci, Enotri) and the Etruscan presence was strong. Studies by F. Astone confirmed a significant Etruscan presence in Paestum, and he noted that the famous "Tomb of the Diver" repeated a model already present in some Etruscan tombs (3).

However, to clarify the very complex situation of the colony of Paestum, we can say that the site has been inhabited since prehistoric times by people such as the Enotri, the Osci and the Etruscans, and what the Etruscans called this city is not known (perhaps "Pa-i-to" [see below]).

Later, the region was conquered by Sybaris, which founded Posidonia and by the Lucanians, who called it "Paistom." Then came the Romans, who called it "Paestum".

Note that according to recent studies, Poseidon, "Paistom" - "Paestum" do not match perfectly, but they were "neighbouring cities":

The Roman city of "Paestum” was located inside (but we could say "near") the ancient Greek Poseidonia and the Lucan "Paistom". According to some scholars, it is very likely that "Paistom" comes from the Greek, through an intermediate form, “Pasiton”, with the transformation of “Pasit” to “Paist” (4)

The etymology of "Paistom"- "Paestum" is very uncertain. Carlo Battisti suggested a pre-Latin root of Mediterranean origin, with the meaning of "rock" (5). Although having a Mediterranean root, Poseidonia has always been a "Greek" city, raised next to different populations (the Enotri, the Etruscans and the Lucanians), but this has never overruled the substantial "Greekness" of the city. F. La Greca observes:

"The name 'Paestum' has ancient Mediterranean origins, but until to the Latin colony of 273 BC, the name of the city continued to be Poseidonia" (6).

Probably there were Mycenaean influences. In fact, A. Pugliese Carratelli wrote that the territory of Paestum had Rhodian-Argive origins dating back to the Mycenaean period (7). In addition, with a very effective metaphor, F. Ribezzo had written the name "Paestum" is a linguistic "wreck", a name found in the sixth century BC by colonists from Sybaris as referring to the Cretan name "Phaistos" [Greek 'Φαιστος'] " (8). F. Ribezzo was essentially correct, because, from a linguistic point of view, important relationships have been identified between "Paestum" and "Φαιστος" in Crete.

According to C. Gallavotti, "Φαιστος” was read as “Paestum” in the West:

"This is why we write ( I will say more : we transliterate ) the name of Poseidon with 'po -se- da -o' , but the name of Phaistos (which in the West is Paestum ) is rendered with ' pa -ito - ' .There may be exceptions [...] but we have no writings in which are certainly eliminated two sounds or two consecutive consonants"] (9).

Etymology of Capaccio

Regarding the etymology of Capaccio, normally derived from “Caputaquis”, F. La Greca adds:

"It is fascinating to think that this site is the "same city as Paestum ": in the “De Mirabilibus auscultationibus” a work attributed to Aristotle (384-322 BC) [...] the river near Paestum was called “Kakèppan” or “Kapan” (Greek). The name of the river could be "migrated" from the river to the city during the Byzantine period, and “Caputaquis” seems a late reconstruction due to local scholars (11).



1) G. L. Mangeri, “La monetazione di Posidonia-Paestum...”, in “Bollettino di Numismatica”, n. 46-47, (2006), p. 7)."

2) G. Ceserani, “Italy's Lost Greece: Magna Graecia and the Making of Modern Archaeology”, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 62.

3) F. Astone, “Alle origini del toponimo 'Cilento': la fondazione di Poseidonia ...”, in “Annali Storici di Principato Citra”, X, I, 2012, p. 30 et seq.).

4) L. Manino, “Architettura etrusca in relazione col mondo mediterraneo e transalpino”,Giappichelli, 1986, p. 80.

5) C. Battisti, “Il tipo (Pescopagnano) nella toponomastica dell'Italia centro-meridionale e il nome di 'Paestum'”, in “Italia dialettale”, 1961, p. 135.

6) F. la Greca, “Poseidonia-Paestum fra IV e V secolo BC: popoli, politica, cultura”, in “ Annali Storici di Principato Citra”, 2008, p. 41 note 161.

7) G. Pugliese Carratelli, “Prime fasi della colonizzazione greca in Italia ...”, in “Atti del primo concegno di studi sulla Magna Grecia”, 1962, pp. 157-1.

8) F. Ribezzo, “Carattere eteroglotto dei toponimi sicani”, in “Revue internationale d'onomastique”, 1949, p. 19.

9) C. Gallavotti, “Quelques remarques de morphologie”, in “Proceedings of the Cambridge Colloquium on Mycenaean Studies”, edited by L.R. Palmer-J. Chadwick, Cambridge University Press, 1966, p. 183.

10) F. La Greca, “Paestum e il suo territorio nella cartografia storica medievale e moderna”, in “Annali Storici Principato Citra”, 2012, pp. 45-95.

11) F. La Greca, “Ricerche di Storia antica ...”, in “Annali Storici Principato Citra”, 2011, pp. 14-15.

12) S. Siniscalchi, “La 'Destra Sele' tra passato e presente ...”, in “Studi e ricerche socio-territoriali”, Napoli, 2012, n. 2, p. 83).

13) On the transfer of the Diocese of Paestum See P. Cantalupo, “I limiti territoriali della diocesi di Capaccio nel XIII secolo”, in “Annali Cilentani”, !989, n. 1, p. 7.

14) I. Talia, “Ambiente, uomini, città nell'organizzazione territoriale del Mezzogiorno”, Napoli, Liguori, 2007, p. 47.

15) P. Ebner, “Chiesa, baroni e popolo nel Cilento”, Roma, 1982, Vol. I, pp. 13 et seq., and P. Cantalupo, “I limiti territoriali della diocesi di Capaccio nel XIII secolo”, p. 7

16) A. Lepre, “Azienda feudale e azienda agraria nel mezzogiotno continentale”, in “Problemi di storia delle campagne meridionali nell'età moderna e contemporanea”, edited by A. Mussafra, Bari, 1981, p. 37.