History of Sybaris, Copia and Thurii

See Sybaris guide for highlights and historic monuments

Below we give a 'brief' history of Sybaris and Thurii, then a history of the more recent town of Terranova di Sibari, followed by a more detailed history and etymology for Sybaris for those who are interested...

Founding of Sybaris

Sybaris was the first and by far the most important of the colonies founded by the Dorians on the coast of southern Italy.

The foundation of the town is traditionally dated to around 720 BC (according to Pseudo-Scimno [III century]) or 708 B.C. (according to Eusebius [III-IV century]), but it is likely that we should really go back to around 750 B.C., since by 700 BC, the Sybarites had established a settlement of about 300,000 inhabitants and an important power base which included, among many other colonies, that of Posidonia (also known as Paestum), a city that lies at the mouth of the Silarus river (today 'Sele'), on the Tyrrhenian coast of Lucania.

Paestum - a Sybaris Colony

In the early seventh century B.C. Posidonia was renowned for its city walls that followed a pentagonal plan, and extended over four miles, interspersed with square towers and four gates: certainly the most magnificent example of fortification that has reached us of all the Greek cities of Southern Italy.

The fame of Posidonia is also, and above all, linked to its three temples: the Temple of Hera (mid-sixth century B.C.), the temple of Ceres-Athens (late sixth century B.C.), and the temple of Poseidon (mid fifth century B.C.).

The name of Sybaris probably derives from the nearby Coscile river called 'Sybaris' or from the 'Source Sybaris' at Bura in Achaea.

The happy condition of economic prosperity and political supremacy at Sybaris aroused the jealousy of the nearby town of Crotone. In fact the arrogance of Sibariti was well known throughout the ancient world - according to Diodorus Siculus (90-27 B.C.), the people of Sybaris were 'slaves of their bellies and lovers of luxury'. It was also said that it took a year to prepare a sumptuous dinner in Sybaris, with vintners, chefs and musicians...

In the early sixth century B.C. on the banks of the 'Traente' river (today Trionto), there was a great battle, and Sybaris was heavily defeated; the city was taken and looted, and also largely destroyed. Apparently, the Crotonians diverted the current of the Crati river and Sybaris was literally washed away.

The identification of the actual site of the city is a subject of controversy among scholars; the opinion which is now generally accepted is that ancient Sybaris had to be placed to the north of the Crati river.

From some ancient statère (gold and silver coins) found in Sybaris they have also identified the emblem of the city as being the bull (probably a symbol of the mighty Crati river). Under the figure of the bull there is a name, Mub or Sub, the letters of which are the initials of Sybaris.

The history of Sybaris continues with Pericles (495-429 B.C.), the great Athenian statesman. After numerous attempts to remake the city, unsuccessful due to the opposition of Croton, the Sybarites found strong support in Pericles. A new town was built in a different location, according to the directions of the oracle, at the source of the 'Thuria', and the city took the name Thurii.

The emergence of Thurii

In later centuries, Thurii became a Roman colony with the name of Copia Thurii ('Abundance'), and then it became a 'Municipium' in 84 B.C. Thurii was an important and wealthy town through the Imperial age and into the early Middle Ages, at which time it was subject to the dominion of the Normans and Byzantines.

However, towards the end of the seventh century A.D. the area of Thurii was abandoned because of environmental conditions.

The entire land area of Sybaris / Thurii was later recovered and restored in the early 1930s and today it is a centre of various tourist attractions of an archaeological, naturalistic and bathing interest.

History and origins of Terranova da Sibari

We must say that the name of Terranova di Sibari is mostly based on a "historical-emotional” idea, because Terranova da Sibari is located on a hill at some distance from the ancient sites of Sybaris, Thurii and Copia.

The meaning of "Terranova da Sibari" is “Thurio Nova [New], ‘arising from’ Sybaris.” It was in the 15th century that the name "Terranova" clearly appeared in the documentation. Ancient "Terranova" was also called by many other names, such as "Terranova del Vallo" and "Terranova di Tarsia":

"Terranova da Sibari, sometimes called ‘Terranova del Vallo’ and ‘di Tarsia’ by some families who ruled it, was built on the ruins of the ancient Thurii, founded by Sybaris, after the destruction of the city(1).

As a confirmation that the name "Terranova da Sibari," has eminently a "historical-emotional” value, we note that at the beginning the village was  called "Terranova", while " da Sibari" was added only in 1864.

The castle (and donjon) of Terranova da Sibari dates from the eleventh century: : "The movement of fortifications was largely advanced during the mid-eleventh century, and the Normans have encountered many ‘castra’ ...The fortified villages are located on the hillsides bordering the mountains , along the coast or river valleys , at an altitude that rarely changes, such as Cassano Cerchiara , Rossano , Tarsa, and Terranova ( di Sibari ) , etc.] (3).

The term "donjon" derives from the Latin ‘dominus’ meaning lord: “The early term of this tower is donjon, a Norman word derived from the Latin ‘dominus’ or ‘lord’. Later English  writers referred to the inner tower as a keep. The word donjon remained in common use when post-Medieval castles were used as prisons, and it became the word ‘dungeon’” (2).

In fact, according to the documentation at our disposal, “Terranova da Sibari” appears in a “focatico” [=hearth tax] in 1447, "among the towns surveyed in 1447, while in 1276 it was absent from the list" (4). Through  the centuries, Terranova was a feud that belonged to different families, such as the Tarsia, the Ruffo, the powerful Sanseverino, and finally the Spinelli, who ruled the town until the abolition of feudalism in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Detailed history of Sybaris, Thurii and Copia

« At a distance of two hundred stadia is Sybaris, founded by the Achæans. It is situated between two rivers, the Crathis and the Sybaris [=modern « Coscile » river]. Its founder was called 'Is' from Helice [= Greek Eλίκη]. In ancient times Sybaris ruled over many tribes and cities, but it went to war against the Crotonians ... who conducted the river over it and submerged it. (Strabo,Geography, VI,1).

So Strabo (60 BC-23 AD) summarized the history of Sybaris , to which we add some other events. In 720 BC, some Achaean colonists came from the region of the Peloponnese and founded Sybaris at the center of the plain, near the sea and between the Crathis and Sybaris rivers (current Crati and Coscile ).

The city developed rapidly and reached several hundred thousand inhabitants, but in 510 BC it was completely destroyed after the war against Kroton. The site was later re-occupied in 444 BC with the foundation of the colony of Thurii, which lasted until 203 BC. Finally, in 194 BC was founded the Roman colony of "Copiae" (etymologically, from the « cornucopia », the symbol of "Abundance") at the same site as Thurii.

The city was inhabited until the first century AD, but later it knew a slow decline that lasted until the fifth-sixth century AD, when the site was abandoned. Archaeological excavations off the left bank of the river Crathis led to the discovery of three layers of occupation, which indicate that the city was inhabited between the 6th and the 1st century BC, with the ancient Sybaris, Thurii and Copia. The remains were observed over a wide area including the “Parco del Cavallo” and the “Casa Bianca” areas closest to the rivers, and the area Stombi located a few kilometres to the northwest.

Thus Sybaris was destroyed and submerged by Kroton. The disappearance of the city and the long search for its archaeological ruins created an aura of mystery about Sybaris, and only at the end of the 1960s was a systematic search of the site of ancient Sybaris carried out.

The history of the ancient city is written mostly in the sediments of the plain of the same name, and the most likely reason for its final disappearance was unfavourable geological processes - according to modern studies, the mysterious disappearance of Sybaris was not due to wars and destruction , but rather to geological events. This was well explained by L.Cucci who writes:

“From the data above described, it appears that the Holocene evolution of the Sybaris Plain is the result of uplift, subsidence and overflooding, each acting with different timing and scale ...Because of the migration of the land-sea boundary, sites that were previously submerged quickly became attractive for human settlement (i.e. stable locations, close to the coast and next to the navigable mouth of a river) about 3000 years ago. But only a few centuries afterwards and because of the same process those same sites were isolated, located inland from the coast and buried several meters beneath the ground. The ancient, wealthy Sybaris was one of these sites” (5).

Origins of the name Sybaris

According to G. Pugliese Carratelli, the name Sybaris, "is a pre-Hellenic name and it was in Achaia, where a source was so named near Bura, from which the settlers took it to Italy, giving this name to the city that they found" (6).

However, the etymology of Sybaris is a very complex problem. An interesting interpretation is that of M. Bernal, who wrote that in the ancient world there was a monster called "Sybaris":

"from the Afro-asiatic root 'labi', «Lion, wild-cat, hyena» [...] equated with another man-eating monster called 'Lamia' [...] Sybaris was, of course, the name of a city in Lucania, famous for its luxury [...] It can also be seen in the synonym to Sybaris, 'poikilos', 'many coloured luxurious'. It seems more likely that Sybaris was named after its luxury rather than the other way around (7).

At this point it would seem that M. Bernal is right, because there is a legendary account of the origin of the name Sybaris referred to the female monster called 'Lamia'. Lamia-Sybaris was a young woman who had two sons by Zeus, who were killed by the jealous Hera, wife of Zeus. From that moment Lamia became a vengeful monster that killed children. Lamia was eventually killed, and in the place where he died was born a spring, which was called Sybaris:

"Later the name Sybaris was given to one of the rivers that surrounded the city of Sybaris, and" the origin of the infernal monster suggests the hypothesis that in ancient times the waters of this river were unhealthy. Then the river lost these negative characteristics, and indeed was exalted like a river whose waters made fertile its valley (8).

There is however the fact that the suggested etymology refers to the name of the source Sybaris at Crisa, "the source which has nothing to do with the Sybaris in southern Italy" and with the source Sybaris in Achaia at Bura (9). In fact, these assumptions are rather vague, as they give an "unique" etymology for a city that bore a name, Sybaris, located in various geographic areas.

Is there anyway to ask "from where" the Achaeans led by the oecist "Is" have derived the name of the city. One hypothesis altogether credible and accepted today by various scholars suggest that the name refers to the same name of oecist "Is." C. Morgan-J. Hall observed that “An ancient commentator notes an eponymous founder, and it has been suggested that Strabo's reading is a corruption of “Sibar[IS]” (10).

 Thus, the name of 'Is' should be "integrated" with "Sybar (IS). This is possible but very uncertain, especially since this passage of the geographical work of Strabo has always been the subject of a wide variety of assumptions and philological corrections. However, more recent studies suggest other presumably more convincing hypotheses. At the outset we note that today all critics agree on the pre-Hellenic root of Sybaris. In this sense C. De Simone writes:

"A last remark concerns the name of Sybaris. We must keep in mind that there are several Sybaris, even in Greece. The best etymological interpretation (supported by a very remarkable series of onomasiological comparisons) is that of Krahe, who derives the name of the city from ''su(bh)-ori'-'su-bh-ero' [= Zusammenfluss (confluence)]: the output of this etymology is that this name cannot be of Hellenic origin (11).

In fact, Krahe stressed that «The city should be named (as often) simply by the river or appointed as a place with or on the river.The general meaning of "on the river " or "with the river" would include the appearance of the name Sybaris] (12).

Finally, Sybaris means “the city located on the river,” or rather “on two rivers,” that is the Sybaris and Crathis rivers. But why the oecist 'Is' elected the Sybaris river and not the Crathis? Simply because “Is” was a native of Helice, devoted to the worship of the "bull", a symbol of power. Indeed, we could say that Is was the “bull-man” who founded Sybaris. And Sybaris, as demonstrated by its most ancient coins, was devoted to the bull. A scholar of the nineteenth century, noted:

“I begin by observation that the bulls are frequently named by poets as 'elikes' ... and the bull was defined with the epithet of 'elix' …The Achaean founders of Sybaris came from various places but mainly from Bura and Helice. Indeed Strabo tells us that the oecist of the colony was in fact from Helice noting that an 'Elike-is' was to be considered for founder of Sybaris … The “bull-helix” is the "speaker icon" of the Achaeans who went to found the ancient city” (13).

So, according to ktisis or foundation myth, the 'bull' was the founder of the city, that is “ELIX”, namely “EL-I [C] S”, i.e. the oecist that Strabo called “OIS” or “IS.”

In fact, the name of the city was presumably also chosen according to the local place names of which were custodians the peoples of Indo-European origin that already lived in those places, the Oenotrians [ etymologically “producers and consumers of wine”], who probably knew this site as the “place between the waters” or “between two rivers,” that the Achaeans called Sybaris and Crathis.

Notes on the downfall of Sybaris

The two rivers that gave rise to Sybaris also marked its end. According to tradition, in fact, the city was destroyed by Kroton, which diverted the course of the Crathis within the city, putting an end to it. But in reality, as has been amply demonstrated by geological studies, the area of Sybaris was subject to catastrophic natural events that were the real cause of its abandonment. These events acted an upheaval of such magnitude that even today scientists are questioning about the site of Sybaris and its real position between the two rivers.

Contemporary studies have shed new light on Thurii, related to which P. G. Guzzo said that several years ago in the “Parco del Cavallo” scholars had proposed to identify the sites of Thurii and Copia. In the surface layers artifacts were discovered dating from the fourth to the fifth century AD, such as fragments of oil lamps, both in red clay factory in Africa, both in less purified clays, probably of local factory, and fragments of amphorae belonging to the class called ‘spatheion’, both whole and fragmented.

Moreover, coins were found covering the entire fourth century and the beginning of the next: in addition to isolated pieces, was found a closet, made up of 23 small bronzes not all legible. Those identified were attributed by Constantine the Great (272-337 AD) to Arcadius (377-408 AD).

Development of Thurii

The knowledge about the urban development processes of the Classical and Hellenistic city of Thurii seem to decrease substantially at the beginning of the third century AD, although the city kept the ancient orthogonal planning, designed by Hippodamus and progressively implemented until the beginning of the fourth century BC.

In fact, the urban layout of Thurii was designed by Hippodamus of Miletus , who operated a rational organization of urban spaces .The scheme involved an articulation with urban main roads [“plateiai”] and secondary orthogonal roads [“stenopoi”]. The main changes in the internal road back to the first half of the first century AD, and were probably caused by changes in the course of the river Crathis.

The narrowing of the urban area was marked at the beginning of the third century AD by the construction of a defensive wall, which partially preserves the orientation of the main roads of Thurii.

By starting with the history of the ancient buildings of the area investigated within the “Parco del Cavallo”, scholars have been able to verify the progressive widening of the mainland, evidently because of the alluvial deposits transported by the Crathis and Sybaris rivers. But it seems almost certain that these alluvial deposits did not cause swamps and the constructive attitude of the works until the third century AD seemed solid. The swamps of the coastal plain were a more recent phenomenon, that is, when the rivers reduced the area particularly prone to flooding disasters.

Despite the understandable remakes and adaptations, Thurii continued to be inhabited even in the early centuries AD and, without intermission, during the Hellenistic period. The materials used were bricks and stones, many of which are reused by ancient public buildings. Archaeological evidence shows beyond any doubt that the end of Thurii and its subsequent abandonment happened around the fifth century AD, but it seems that the inhabitants planned and implemented it without the urgency or disorder of a calamitous event.

For the lack of useful building blocks, as well as objects of any kind, and the absolute absence of metal objects, the impression is that the inhabitants have to seek the recovery of everything that could be useful to them in the new home they had chosen. Moreover, it seems that the persistence of the Thurii name is due to the vitality of the Italiot substrate, for which during three generations after the abandonment of the city it was still recognizable, reviving some memories of a glorious past” (14).

Roman occupation of Copia

With regard to Copia, the Archaeological Museum of Terranova da Sibari boasts the so-called "Roman Room", devoted to the period of the Roman occupation of the territory of Sybaris. In fact, in 193 BC, the Romans settled a military colony, changing the name of the city, and calling the new colony "Copia" [Etymologically = Abundance], for the abundance and fertility of its soil.

According to studies of G. P. Guzzo, until to 89 BC the city minted coins with the image of the cornucopia on the reverse (15).

The history of Copia, also called "Copia-Thurii," continued until the sixth century AD, and the city was also a bishopric until at least 680 AD: "The episcopate of Thurii (at the mouth of the river Crathis) is documented with certainty at the end of the fifth century AD, but we do not have documentation after 680 and maybe it was transferred to Rossano (16).

It 's very likely that the end of Copia-Thurii is to be related to the incursions of the Lombards, who conquered Kroton, but also to the impoverishment of the center and to the unhealthy marshes which decreed the definitive abandonment of the city. From that period the ancient and glorious territory of Sybaris was characterized by the absence of cities, "and most likely it was characterized by a settlement of scattered houses", until the Normans founded the castle of “Terranova” from where the "New Thurii" arose (17).

See our Sybaris travel guide for visitor details

Works Cited

1) P. Battaini, G.B. Magrini, G. Vaccari, P. Gribaudi, “La Nuova Italia: dizionario amministrativo, statistico, industriale, commerciale”, "1908, p. 421.

2) R. A. Johnston, “All Things Medieval: An Encyclopedia of the Medieval World …”, 2011, p. 93.

3) G. Noyé, « Structures féodales et féodalisme dans l'Occident méditerranéen (Xe-XIIIe siècles) », Publications de l'École française de Rome, in « Actes du colloque de Rome (10-13 octobre 1978) », 1980, p. 611.

4) G. Caridi, “Popoli e terre di Calabria nel Mezzogiorno moderno”, Rubbettino, 2001, p. 58.

5) L. Cucci, « Geology versus Myth. The Holocene evolution of the Sybaris Plain », in « Annals of Geophysics », Vol. 40, 2005, pp. 1030-1031.

6) G. Pugliese Carratelli, "Megale Hellas," 1983, p. 33.

7) M. Bernal," Black Athena [The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization], Rutgers University Press, 2006, Vol. III, p. 369.

8) F. Mazza, "Castrovillari ...", Rubbettino, 2003, p. 42.

9) G. De Sanctis, “Scritti minori” , Rome, 1966, Vol. I, p. 27.

10) C. Morgan-J. Hall, “Achaian 'Poleis' and Achaian Colonisation”, in “Introduction to an Inventory of 'Poleis'”, edited by M.H. Hansen, 1996, p. 204.

11) C. De Simone, “A proposito di Choni ed Enotri”, in “Il mondo enotrio tra VI e V secolo a.C.”, Loffredo, 2001, Vol. I, p. 206.

12) H. Krahe, “Die Ortsnamen des Antiken Lukanien und Bruttierlandes“, in „Zeitschrift für namenforschung“, Oldenbourg, 1943, p. 136.

13) C. Cavedoni, “Medaglie di Sibari”, in “Bullettino archeologico Napolitano”, 1858, n. 147, p. 178.

14) P.G. Guzzo, “Tracce archeologiche dal IV al VII sec. d. C. nell'attuale provincia di Cosenza”, in “Mélanges de l'Ecole française de Rome. Moyen-Age, Temps modernes”, 1979, Volume 91, pp. 22-23.

15) G.P. Guzzo, “Copia”, in “Bibliografia topografica della colonizzazione greca in Italia meridionale e nelle isole tirreniche” , 1987 V, p. 339.

16) “Storia del Mezzogiorno”, edited by G. Galasso and R. Romeo, Rome, 1986, Vol. IV, p. 85.

17) See also G. Roma, “Sulle tracce del ‘limes’ longobardo in Calabria”, in “Mélanges de l'Ecole française de Rome. Moyen-Age”, 1998, Vol. 110, pp. 21-22.

18) C. Carlino, “La scuola di Monteleone ," Rubbettino, 2001, p. 66.

19) C. Belmonte, “Doctrina picta. I frati minori dell’Osservanza di Santa Maria delle Grazie a Terranova da Sibari”, in “L’Immacolata nei rapporti tra Italia e Spagna”, Rome, 2008, pp. 99 ff.