The Greek settlement of Partenope was just part of the broader colonization of Southern Italy by the Greeks during the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. Driven from their own lands by overcrowding and famine, the harshness of their own terrain, and the desire to create new trade routes, the Greeks set out in search of better shores. Heading east into the Ionian Sea and across the Straits of Messina into the Thyrrenian Sea, they founded colonies all over the area that roughly corresponds to the boot of Italy. From as far north as Cumae to as far south as Sicily and the Aeolian Islands, and around the boot to Bari, these colonies became known as Magna Graecia – the Latin for Greater Greece. Around the Thyrrenian Sea the Greek colonies included among others Pithecusa (Ischia), Velia, Poseidonia (Paestum), Cumae, Partenope, and later Neapolis (Naples).
With its mild climate, natural beauty, excellent sea ports, and abundance of fertile volcanic soil in the Campanian fields, the Greeks found the area around the Bay of Naples particularly suited to their needs. The perfect location to establish military and commercial trade ports like the settlement of Partenope. At the same time however, these blessings would also be the region’s curse and would put Naples directly at the center of competing interests for nearly 3000 years. The first battles for control of Partenope would foretell the future, one of colonizers and conquerors who would vie for control of Naples and the fertile Campanian fields well into the 19th century CE.
The early battles pitted the Greeks from Cumae against the Etruscans. An indigenous civilization, the Etruscans had major strongholds in the Po Valley and Tuscany, Latium – the area around Rome, and in the “hinterlands” of Campania where their Campanian capital was at Capua. Both seeking to expand their territories around the Bay of Naples, the Etruscans would defeat the Cumaens in a battle for the terriroty in 525 BCE. But with the aid of the Syracusians, the Cumeans defeated the Etruscans in 474 BCE and regained control of the region. Free to continue their expansion, the Cumeans quickly established a new city just east of Partenope in 470 BCE. They called it Neapolis from the Greek “Nea” for new and “polis” for “city-state” or the New City. Partenope thus became the “old city” or Paleopolis.
Thanks to an influx of Greeks from Athens, Pithecusa and Chalcis, Neapolis grew quickly and by 450 BCE it had well surpassed Partenope, which was eventually abandoned. A major maritime center between the eastern and western Mediterranean, Neapolis became one of the richest in the Mediterranean and an important center of the Hellenistic culture that was spreading throughout Magna Graecia. Modernizing the entire region, the Greeks introduced new technologies, literacy, art, architecture, philosophy, and urban planning principles that were much more advanced than those of the Etruscans and Italic peoples.
Their legacy included two schools of philosophy in Magna Graecia, the Heliatic – medicine and the Pythagorean – mathematics. They introduced their alphabet to the Etruscans and Italic peoples. They imported grapes and olives. And, they built some of the most monumental structures in history. Though not as plentiful as the remains from the Roman period that would follow, traces of these can be found all over the Campania region today. Perhaps the best preserved examples are Paestum’s Temple of Athena, Temple of Neptune or Poseidonion and its Basilica. One only need to look to Paestum to imagine how Naples may have looked at its inception.
In Naples, the most important example of Magna Graecia by far is the urban layout of the city, which still exists today. Owed to the Greek Hippodamus of Miletos, the father of urban planning, the city was laid out in a grid pattern, with east-west oriented streets intersected at right angles by north-south oriented streets, not unlike we see today in major cities such as New York. Known as platelai by the Greeks and decumanus by the Romans, Naples’ east-west streets were 15 meters wide and correspond to today’s Via Anticaglia – the Decumano Superiore, Via dei Tribunali – the Decumano Maggiore, and Via San Biagio ai Librai – the Decumano Inferiore. The stenopoi or cardines were around 3 meters wide and correspond to the alleys that transverse Via Anticaglia, Via dei Tribunali, and Via San Biagio ai Librai. One of the best preserved examples of a Hippodamus plan in the Mediterranean, it is the foundation upon which all other Neapolitan civilizations have developed. But unlike in Rome where the remains of its ancient civilizations are cordoned off, in Naples they have been incorporated into the fabric of the city, something that makes Naples highly unique. And it is due in part to this stratification and in part to the Hippodamus Plan, that in 1995 the Historic Center of Naples became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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Battle for control of Naples and the Campania region would wage on and soon the Greek city of Naples would fall to the Romans.