S I I A S @ C S I Study Collection for Ancient and Medieval Civilizations
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Magna Graecia:
the Greek cities of South Italy and Sicily

Colonists from the mainland and islands of Greece settled in the areas of Italy below Rome from the 8th century BCE, and the new citizens built great cities with monumental temples, theaters, and other civic buildings. The reasons for this spread of Greeks to distant lands, to Russia and Egypt in addition to Italy, are complex, but may have been caused by the inability of the Greek land mass to sustain a growing population.

These Western Greek cities participated in the Hellenic civilization as fully as cities from Mainland Greece and the Eastern cities. Athletes won victories and had statues set up in their honor at the Panhellenic sanctuaries of Olympia, Isthmia, Nemea, and Delphi. Like other Greek cities, they too erected treasuries at these sanctuaries, which contained their valuable dedications.

The famous bronze Charioteer from Delphi is a dedication by Polyzalos, the Sicilian tyrant of Gela, in honor of a chariot victory in 478 or 474 BCE. Another statue of a charioteer, but in marble, has recently been found at Motya in Sicily. And the famous over life size bronze statues of warriors from Riace found off of the coast of southern Italy may have been intended as victory monuments at Olympia or Delphi.

Painting also flourished in the western cities, and tombs from Paestum (ancient Poseidonia) provide lively painted scenes reminiscent of Etruscan tomb paintings.

Syracuse became the leading city of Magna Graecia in the fifth century BCE, much as Athens led the mainland cities. The dramatist Aeschylus staged his play, Persians at Syracuse under the tyrant Hieron. Syracuse in fact helped to cause the downfall of Athens as a great power, when the ill-fated Athenian expedition to Sicily of 415 led to the total defeat of their once great navy.  


The Greek Cities of Sicily

Syracuse, ancient Siracusa; founded 734 BCE by Corinthians.
Gela; founded in 689 BCE by colonists from Rhodes and Crete.
Selinus; founded ca. 682 BCE by Dorian Greeks; Five doric temples.
Agrigento, ancient Akragas; founded ca. 582 BCE by colonists from the neighboring city of Gela.

The Greek Cities of South Italy

Cumae; founded ca. 750 BCE by colonists from Chalkis, Eretria in Greece and nearby Pithekusai.
Reggio, ancient Rhegion; founded mid-8th century BCE by colonists from Chalkidike, northern Greece.
Taranto, ancient Taras; founded 706 BCE by Spartans.
Naples, ancient Neapolis (new city); founded 650 BCE by colonists from nearby Cumae.
Paestum; founded in the mid 7th century BCE by colonists from nearby Sybaris or Poseidonia.

Read "The Hand of Daedalus" by R. Ross Holloway



These Western Greeks also produced vases similar to those from mainland Greece, but with a livelier sense of decoration. The greatest production occurred from ca. 440 until the late fourth century BCE. The regions of Apulia (Taranto) and Campania (Naples, Paestum) produced many of the finest wares.

The youthful god Eros is one of the most popular images found on these vases, and in fact the SIIAS@CSI Study Collection contains several lekythoi with images of Eros. The other common image on these vases is a standing figure of a man or woman, and there are two of these images on a large skyphos and a smaller one, and a female head, as shown on two examples shown below. Most of these pots and small terracottas in this Collection were acquired in Southern Italy.  


Skyphos: SIIAS A 1987

The vase comes from ancient Magna Graecia, the area which is now southern Italy and Sicily. Long before the Romans came into power, settlers from Greece had colonized these lands and left objects like these amidst their tombs and cities. Although some vases were imported into southern Italy from Greece, many were made locally, in the style of the Greek vases. This vase is called a skyphos, which was a drinking vessel. The seated woman on the vase may represent the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who is often portrayed wearing much jewelry, although it could as well be a mortal woman or bride.  



Lekythos with Eros seated:

Lekythos with Eros flying

A Lekythos is a container for precious oils and perfumes, and the lovely figures depicted on them emphasizes that purpose. Like the skyphos above, these vases were made in the style of Greek vases, but with much more flair and abandonment in the drawing of the figure of Eros. He was the Greek god of love, the son of Aphrodite who he often accompanied. Eros is portrayed as a nude winged youth, almost effeminately decked out with jewelry, and he carries ribbons and gifts or holds a chest for jewelry, perhaps for a bride.  



Vases with Images of a Woman's Head

Kantharos: SIIAS A 1607
Pelike: SIIAS A 1608

These are two other shapes that occur in South Italian vase painting, with another very popular image of a female head with ornate earrings, diadem, and hair covering. Although the figure is thought to be Aphrodite, it may well merely represent a well-to-do woman.  



Epichysis: SIIAS A

Oddly shaped vases based on standard shapes, like this epichysis, a form of an oinochoe or pitcher, were quite popular in the fourth century BCE. It is decorated with white and yellow painted bands of vegetal motifs on a black glaze ground.  



Plastic Vases (animal or human forms)

Deer Head Rhyton: SIIAS A


Cult and ritual vessels in the form of animals or animal heads like this vase were also quite popular. Two other types of vases in this Collection are shown below, an oinochoe in the form of a Seilenos or old Satyr and an oinochoe in the form of a young girl's head.  




Woman's Head