Several centuries before they founded the city of Neapolis, Greek sailors, presumably the Euboeans who first landed at Cuma, made their way to Megaride. A tiny island just 2 km southwest of Centro Storico, today it is home to the oldest castle in Naples, Castel dell’Ovo and is known as Borgo Marinari, a treasured spot popular for its seafront bars, restaurants and spectacular vistas.
Part of the Greek’s expansion into southern Italy in the 8th and 7th centuries BC, they built a small settlement and military and commercial ports at sea level. Above Megaride, on Pizzofalcone hill, they erected an Acropolis and a Necropolis. They named the settlement Parthenope, in honour of the Greek Siren whose tomb they believed had been venerated there.
According to legend, Parthenope lived in the Tyrrhenian Sea with her sisters Ligeia and Leucosia. The daughters of Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, and the River God Achelous, the sirens were portrayed on Greek vases as birds with human faces. The Roman poet Ovid tells us in his Metamorphoses that the sirens were companions to Zeus’ daughter Persephone. When she was abducted by Hades, the sirens begged for wings to search for her. Demeter granted their wish, giving them sticks for legs, wings, and yet letting them retain their female faces and human voices. Interestingly, the Italian word sirena does not mean siren or bird, but mermaid.
These siren sisters, creatures of the sea, haunted the shores of Campania. Their voices were weapons of seduction that lured unsuspecting sailors to their deaths. Eventually, of course, word got around and one savvy sailor, Ulysses, devised a plan to withstand their seduction. Parthenope was so devastated that she leapt into the sea and drowned. Her body washed ashore on Megaride, where it is said that Greek sailors found her and buried her.
First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross-piece half way up the mast, and they must lash the rope’s ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster. Homer, The Odyssey
Legends aside, by the 6th century BC, Partenope was a thriving military and trade port. Just a century later however, the Greeks had built a new city, named aptly enough, “new city” or Neapolis. Parthenope became known as Paleopolis, or the old city, eventually lost its importance and faded away. Lost but not forgotten; even today you will hear Neapolitans refer to themselves as Partenopeans.
Nothing remains of the settlement of Partenope, either at Megaride or on the promontory of Pizzofalcone. The few modest ruins extant on Pizzofalcone are those of the 1st century BC Villa di Licinio Lucollo. However, evidence of the Partenopean necropolis was uncovered in 1949. Confirming both the existence of that earliest city and its Cumaen origins, it was found during the renovations of a building located at Via G. Nicotera, 10 that was damaged during WWII. It was quickly covered over, but the artefacts found there were given over to the National Archaeological Museum. They are on display as part of the Napoli Antica collection, on the first floor, rooms CXVIII-CXX.