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The Ancient Greeks had a bit of a different approach to colonisation than the Ancient Romans. The Romans used armies and politics to claim new land, gradually expanding their empire around the world.
The Greeks, on the other hand, were relatively happy to just the rule the city-states they already had and form relationships with other ones in the region. They saw the expansion of their empire not in terms of land, but in terms of wealth and knowledge.
Yet, during the peak of the Ancient Greek civilisation, its citizens set out to form dozens of new colonies around the Mediterranean. This wasn’t part of a grand expansionist policy… so why were these Ancient Greek colonies formed?
Well, it was generally one of two main reasons.
The first was that some people needed to flee their homes in Greece and create a new community to live in. This was usually because of a political disagreement or a similar kind of conflict – a coup attempt gone wrong, for example, or a falling out of favour with the ruler.
The second was for economic opportunities. People from Greece who saw the potential profit in trade would establish new commercial centres in foreign countries to make the most of this.
One of these new colonies was in modern day Italy, not far from where Naples now is. It was called Poseidonia by these Ancient Greek colonisers, although the name was lated changed by the Romans to Paestum (which it is still called today).
It’s thought the founders of Paestum came from a city called Sybaris, which was in what is now the southern Italian region of Calabria.
Pasetum was probably founded around 600 BC but it’s unclear if it was for economic reasons or if the original citizens were refugees.
The archaeological evidence does show that the city grew quickly, with roads and public buildings, coins, and art.
And, of course, Paestum had one of the most important elements of a urban centre of that period – temples.
Paestum Greek temples
Like other Greek colonies, the settlers built impressive temples dedicated to the ancient gods. What makes the ones at Paestum so special is that they still exist in extremely good condition.
In fact, the temples at Paestum are almost the best preserved Ancient Greek temples in the world – and that includes in Greece itself!
One of the main reasons I would recommend visiting Paestum from Naples is to see these temples. They have been designated as a World Heritage Site and, even in a region with a lot of remarkable sights, Paestum holds its own (even if it doesn’t have nearly the same number of tourists as places like Pompeii or Mount Vesuvius).
There are three main temples that you’ll find at Paestum.
First Temple of Hera at Paestum
This is the oldest of the three temples and was probably built around 550 BC. It was dedicated to Hera, the goddess of women, marriage, family, and childbirth.
The architecture is actually a bit unusual because it’s wider than normal and has a different amount of columns than you would normally find in Greek temples from this period.
You can walk inside it and get a sense of the scale as you stand amongst the columns, which have a very strong curve in their design. If you look closely, you can even see a few traces of the original paint.
Second Temple of Hera at Paestum
Adjacent is a second temple dedicated to Hera, this one built around 450 BC. There is, however, a bit of confusion about whether the temple was also dedicated to Poseidon, and some experts call it ‘The Temple of Poseidon at Paestum’.
It’s a large temple and you can walk inside this one too. The different rows of columns form beautiful lines of sight as you move throughout the central area.
Temple of Athena
At the other end of the site, you’ll find the Temple of Athena. It was built in 500 BC and is the smallest of the three temples here at Paestum. The architecture is described by experts as ‘transitional’, meaning it shows influences of both the Ionic and early Doric styles.
You can’t go inside this temple but it is a peaceful part of the city and a nice spot to have a rest. By the time I get here, I’ve walked through the remains of the old city and I’m ready for a rest. Seats in the shade of large trees offer the perfect opportunity.
My impressions of Paestum
I tend not to do too much research before coming to World Heritage Sites. I’ll do some reading to understand the significance of the site and know what particular highlights to look out for – but I don’t want to hear other people’s opinions or reviews.
I like to make up my own mind without any preconceived ideas.
I was expecting the Paestum temples to be a bit underwhelming. In fact, I originally had a plan to catch a return train about 90 minutes after I arrived – but in the end I stayed for many more hours.
There is a combination of two general things that I thought made Paestum an enjoyable visit.
The first was the excellent state of preservation that the temples are in. You’re never going to find something that’s 2500 years old in a perfect condition, but these come the closest you’ll find around the world (certainly better than more famous places like the Acropolis or Aphrodisias).
And the second is the access that you get to the structures. I love that you can walk up into the two largest temples, stand in the middle, or slide between the columns. You can really appreciate the way it as constructed and the delicate design balances
Another pleasant surprise is the Paestum Museum that’s near the entrance to the site. The museum has displays with excellent explanations of the history of the site and a very good collection of artefacts that have been found during excavations.
Although there’s lots to see in the museum, the most important part is the ‘Tomb of the Diver’.
It is an incredible painted tomb that is from the Ancient Greek period and dated around 470 BC (there are other painted tombs in the area, but they are from much later).
It is called the ‘Tomb of the Diver’ because of the painted ceiling of the tomb that shows a young man diving into water, a symbol of passing into the afterlife. But one of the other fascinating parts are the painted scenes on the walls of the tombs that show social scenes and homosexual lovers.
If you’re going to Paestum, make sure you give yourself enough time to see the museum properly (I would suggest an hour).
Although I enjoyed walking around the site by myself, there is not much information on display. You would certainly benefit from having a guide and there are some options that might suit you:
If you would prefer to visit Paestum independently, I’ve got some information below to help you plan your day.
On the first and third Mondays of each month, the museum closes at 13:40.
The last admission is 40 minutes before closing time.
Entry is free for under 18s.
And I would suggest using Naples as a base to explore Paestum and some of the other great historical sites in the region. If you need accommodation, I’ve got some great suggestions:
There are a few very good cheap hotels in good locations in Naples. I would recommend either Hotel Casablanca near the train station or Hotel Europeo Napoli in the historic centre.
For something with a bit more style, I would recommend either the historic NapoliMia Hotel de Charme or the more modern Palazzo d'Auria ApartHotel.
And if you're looking for a bit of luxury, two great options are the Palazzao Alabardieri or the Grand Hotel Vesuvio, which has a wonderful view.