Remains of the port facilities of Sybaris
|Location||Sibari, Province of Cosenza, Calabria, Italy|
|Builder||Achaean and Troezenian colonists|
|Periods||Archaic Greece to Classical Greece|
|Management||Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Calabria|
The city was founded in 720 BC by Achaean and Troezenian settlers. Sybaris amassed great wealth thanks to its fertile land and busy port. Its inhabitants became famous among the Greeks for their hedonism, feasts, and excesses, to the extent that "sybarite" and "sybaritic" have become bywords for opulent luxury and outrageous pleasure seeking.
In 510 BC the city was conquered by its neighbor Kroton and its population was driven out. Two attempts to reoccupy the city failed around 476 BC and in 448 BC when the remaining Sybarites were again expelled by the Krotoniates. With the help of other Greek settlers the Sybarites finally succeeded when they founded Thurii in 446/445 BC, a new colony close to the site of Sybaris.
The ruins of the Sybaris became forgotten as they were buried by sediment from the Crati river over time. The ruins were discovered again and excavated in the 1960s. Today they can be found southeast of Sibari, a frazione in the comune of Cassano allo Ionio in the Province of Cosenza, Calabria region, Italy.
- 1 Geography
- 2 History
- 3 The site today
- 4 Use as byword for luxury
- 5 Notable People
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 Sources
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Strabo and Diodorus Siculus write that the city was situated close to the sea and lay between the Crathis and Sybaris rivers (from which the city derives its name). Most modern research places the city on a coastal ridge near a wetland lagoon. In the present the rivers are known as the Crati and Coscile. Today the Coscile feeds into the Crati about five kilometers from its mouth, which then passes just south of the archaeological site of the city. When Sybaris was still populated the Coscile pursued a direct course into the Gulf of Taranto, probably at a short distance to the north. The city lay on a plain that was renowned for its fertility.
Foundation in 720 BC
Sybaris was founded in 720 BC according to Pseudo-Scymnus. Strabo mentions it was an Achaean colony and that its oekist (founder) was Is of Helice, a city in Achaea. Aristotle writes the Achaeans were accompanied by a number of Troezenian citizens, but they were eventually expelled by the more numerous Achaeans. According to legend the city was founded by Sagaris, the son of Oïlean Ajax.
The authenticity of the name of the oekist is uncertain. Strabo is the only source for the name of the oekist, which might be a corruption of [Sagar]is or [Sybar]is. Further complicating the issue is the appearance of the letters Wiis on coins of Poseidonia.i[›] This has been interpreted as a confirmation of Strabo's account because Poseidonia is thought to be a colony of Sybaris.
Prosperity in the 7th and 6th century BC
By the 6th century BC Sybaris had amassed great wealth and a huge population as a result of the rich farming land nearby and its policy of admitting settlers of other nations to its citizenry, a practice shunned by other Greek colonies. During this period the wealth and power of Sybaris was greatly envied and admired by the rest of the Hellenic world. It minted its own coinage and pioneered the concept of intellectual property. According to Athenaeus the latter notion was developed to ensure that cooks could exclusively profit from their signature dishes for a whole year.
Sybaris was also a dominant power in the region. Strabo writes that the Sybarites ruled over 25 subject cities and could bring into the field 300,000 of their citizens (probably an exaggeration). The walls of the city itself had a circumference of fifty stadia, which is equivalent to an area of approximately five square kilometers. Most of the subject cities were probably Oenotrian towns in the interior. In the second half of the seventh century BC the Sybarites apparently took over the sanctuary of Athena on the Timpone della Motta from the Oenotrians. They celebrated large festivals regularly on this hill, which was located 15 kilometers to the northwest of their city. Sybaris also extended its dominion across the peninsula to the Tyrrhenian Sea, where it founded the colonies of Poseidonia (Paestum), Laüs (Laus), and Scidrus. It is said by Athenaeus that 5000 knights attended its religious processions, which would mean that their number was four times greater than at Athens.
Sybaris was at its height during the time of Smindyrides (c. 580–560 BC), a prominent citizen who is claimed by Herodotus to have surpassed all other men in refined luxury. He was the wealthiest suitor for the daughters of Cleisthenes of Sicyon and was accompanied by a train of 1000 slaves on this occasion. Athenaeus provides many examples of the opulent wealth for which Sybaris was famous in this period. In particular they were renowned for the splendour of their attire, which was made from the finest Milesian wool, and as such developed extensive commercial relations and a close friendship with Miletus. Another example of Sybaritic luxury is found in the story of Alcimenes of Sybaris, who gave a splendid figured robe as a votive offering to the temple of Lacinian Hera. Much later the robe fell into the possession of Dionysius of Syracuse and was sold by him for 120 talents.
Justin tells of a monetary and commercial league that Sybaris had formed with Metapontum and Kroton towards the middle of the sixth century. Soon the league transformed into an alliance of Achaean colonies against the other Greeks. This resulted in the destruction of Ionian colony Siris, which was a rival of Metapontum and Sybaris.
Defeat by Kroton in 510/09 BC
Diodorus Siculus writes that the oligarchic government of the city was overthrown in 510/09 BC by a popular leader named Telys (Herodotus describes him as a tyrant). He persuaded the Sybarites to exile the 500 richest citizens and confiscate their wealth. The exiled citizens took refuge at the altars of Kroton. Telys demanded the Krotoniates return the exiles under threat of war. The Krotoniates were inclined to surrender the exiles to avoid war, but Pythagoras convinced them to protect the suppliants. As a consequence the Sybarites marched upon the Krotoniates, who were led by Milo. Even though they were greatly outnumbered, the Krotoniates won the battle and took no prisoners, killing most of the Sybarites. After their victory they plundered and razed Sybaris.
Walter Burkert questions the veracity of the account given by Diodorus Siculus. It would have been illogical for Telys to banish his opponents first and then to demand their return. He argues that the elements of the story resemble fictional tragedies. The version of Herodotus is more brief and doesn't involve Pythagoras, but does claim that the Krotoniates received help from Dorieus. Strabo claims that the Krotoniates diverted the course of the river Crathis to submerge Sybaris.
The Crati transports coarse sand and pebbles in its channel. If Strabo's claim is true, that material would have been deposited as sediment above the city when the river submerged it. An analysis of core samples taken from the site did not find such river deposits directly above the former city. The burial of Sybaris about 2500 years ago more likely resulted from natural processes such as fluvial overbank alluviation. Future retrieval of additional cores and facies analysis will eventually confirm or discredit Strabo's account.
Continued struggle with Kroton
After its destruction the surviving inhabitants took refuge at their colonies Laüs and Scidrus. It is assumed some also fled to Poseidonia, because in the early fifth century Poseidonia's coins adopted the Achaean weight standard and the bull seen on Sybarite coins. A. J. Graham thinks it was plausible that the number of refugees was large enough for some kind of synoecism to have occurred between the Poseidonians and the Sybarites, possibly in the form of a sympolity. Sybaris was not completely destroyed as Diodorus and Strabo claimed, but became a dependent "ally" of Kroton. "Alliance" coins show the tripod symbol of Kroton on one side and the bull symbol of Sybaris on the other side. Literary evidence from Aristoxenus attests of Pythagoreans who apparently moved to Sybaris after its subjugation by Kroton.
Diodorus Siculus mentions that Kroton besieged Sybaris again in 476 BC. The Sybarites appealed to the tyrant Hiero I of Syracuse for help. Hiero put his brother Polyzelos in command of an army to relieve the Sybarites, expecting that he would be killed by the Krotoniates. Polyzelos suspected this, refused to lead the campaign and took refuge with the tyrant Theron of Acragas. Diodorus makes no further mention of Hiero's plan to relieve Sybaris, indicating that the Sybarites were defeated again. However, according to Timaeus and two scholia Polyzelos was successful in relieving the siege of Sybaris and fled to Acragas later when he was accused of plotting revolution.
Regardless of the results of the siege of 476 BC, it seems the Sybarites had to leave their city at some point between that year and 452/1 BC. Diodorus writes that the Sybarites refounded their city at its former site in 452/1 BC under the leadership of a Thessalian. It is thought that Poseidonia had a major share in this because the coins of the new city have a great resemblance to those of Poseidonia. Possibly a treaty of friendship between Sybaris, its allies and the Serdaioi (an unknown people) dates to this new foundation, because Poseidonia was the guarantor of this treaty. Ultimately the Sybarites were again driven off by the Krotoniates from their new city in 446/5 BC.
Foundation of Thurii and Sybaris on the Traeis
What happened next is again uncertain. According to Diodorus the Sybarites requested Sparta and Athens to help them with founding a new colony. With the help of Athens and some other cities in the Peloponnese they founded the city of Thurii not far from the site of Sybaris. Soon a conflict arose between the Sybarites and the other colonists of Thurii over the privileges the Sybarites enjoyed. Practically all of the Sybarites were killed by the other colonists, who were more numerous and powerful. Some of the Sybarites managed to flee and founded Sybaris on the Traeis shortly after 444 BC.
While Diodorus identifies only one expedition for the foundation of Thurii, modern scholarship identifies two expeditions on the basis of numismatic evidence. In 446/5 BC Athens sent its expedition to refound Sybaris. In 444/3 BC the Athenians turned the city into a new foundation in which they were the dominant force after the Sybarites were driven out. The name was changed to Thurii and the city received a new democratic constitution which made provisions for ten tribes, but which did not include the Sybarites.
Legacy in the ancient world
The destruction of Sybaris was seen by some ancient writers as divine vengeance upon the Sybarites for their pride, arrogance, and excessive luxury. According to Athenaeus the oracle of Delphi foretold the Sybarites that war and internal conflict awaited them if they would honor man more than the gods. Later in his work he cites Phylarchus, who wrote that the Sybarites invoked the anger of Hera when they murdered thirty ambassadors from Kroton and left them unburied. He also cites Herakleides who attributes the divine wrath to the murder of supporters of Telys on the altars of the gods. Herakleides also mentions that the Sybarites attempted to supplant the Olympic Games by attracting the athletes to their own public games with greater prizes. Claudius Aelianus attributes the fall of Sybaris to its luxury and the murder of a lutenist at the altar of Hera.
Vanessa Gorman gives no credence to these accounts because grave sins followed by divine retribution were stock elements of fictional stories at the time. Furthermore, she and Robert J. Gorman point to Athenaeus as the origin of the embellished accounts rather than the historians he cited. He would have altered details of the original accounts to fit his argument that luxury leads to catastrophe. This was called tryphé and was a common view in his time, at the turn of the 2nd century AD. Peter Green likewise argues that these accounts are most likely the inventions of moralists. He points out the vast natural wealth of the city was the more likely reason it was attacked by Kroton.
The site today
The earliest archaeological exploration in the last quarter of the 19th century failed to find the location of Sybaris. Finding the location was difficult because the site had been buried over time by more than four meters of alluvial sediment from the Crati delta. The location of the city was found only after an massive core drilling project had been undertaken from the early to mid-1960s. The archaeological site is located about 2.5 kilometers west of the present Gulf of Taranto coastline. The excavations were difficult because the human structures lay below groundwater level. It was found that the later cities of Thurii and Copia were built partially above Sybaris. An archaeological museum was built near the site.
Use as byword for luxury
The city and its inhabitants were well known in Antiquity for their excessive luxury. An illustrative anecdote concerning their defeat by Kroton is given by Athenaeus. He relates that to amuse themselves the Sybarite cavalrymen trained their horses to dance to pipe music. Armed with pipes, an invading army from nearby Kroton assailed the Sybarite cavalry with music. The attacking forces easily passed through the dancing horses and their helpless riders, and conquered the city. This association transferred to the English language, in which the words "sybarite" and "sybaritic" have become bywords for opulent luxury and outrageous pleasure seeking. One story, mentioned in Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, has a Sybarite sleeping on a bed of rose petals, but unable to get to sleep because one of the petals was folded over.
^ i: The Greek text on the coins contains the archaic letter digamma. This letter is transliterated as "W" in English, but resembles the English letter "F", which is the reason why the text is also transliterated as Fiis. By about the eighth century BC, the letter digamma had disappeared in many Greek dialects, so Wiis would become Is because the two i's would be run together.
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