Tour to the archeological site of Elea Velia
The Land of Myth
The ancient city of Elea-Velia, noted in the mid 17th century by Lucas Holstenius was, together with nearby Paestum, the object of interest for many scholars and travellers, like the Danish theologist Mùnter, the Duke of Luynes, Lenormant and Schleuning, who from the 700s onwards explored beyond the usual itinerary of the Grand Tour, undertaking adventurous journeys in search of those mythical places celebrated by Homer in the Odyssea and by Virgil in the Aeneid.
The Mediterranean and, in particular, the coasts of Southern Italy, with their rare and marvellous landscapes, were the backdrop for the adventures of Ulysses and Aeneas, for their fantastic and still relevant story, that of man and his journey into the unknown.
Consecrated forever to myth, these lands, inhabited by a myriad of divinities and fantastic creatures like nymphs, satyrs, sirens and terrible monsters which populated the woods, rivers and seas, still today evoke their glorious past in the popular traditions, in the rituals and place names.
It is, in fact, near to Velia that Aeneas’ helmsman, Palinurus, loses his life by falling into the sea off the promontory by the same name and further north, around the island off Punta Licosa, that the spirit of Leucosia still wanders, the siren enchantress who took her own life following her failed attempt to seduce Ulysses, whilst at Paestum, at the mouth of the river Sele, Jason and his Argonauts, on return from their journey, founded the sanctuary dedicated to the Goddess Hera.
The Foundation of Elea
According to Herodotus, around 540 BC the Ionians in flight from Phocaea, the city of Asia Minor besieged and conquered by the Persians in 545 BC, came in search of political freedom in a new homeland and founded “a city in Enotria” (the land of wine).
The city was first named Hyele after a local spring, then Elea and finally Velia in Roman times.
Before numerous floods had modified considerably the contour of the land, contributing to the withdrawal of the coastline, the promontory where the city’s Acropolis stood stretched far out into the sea between two wide gulfs: to the south the gulf formed by the Fiumarella and to the north the gulf formed by the Palistro which then had its own course, independent from the river Alento.
So the Alento plain we see today was once a wide bay dotted with little islands, according to the descriptions provided by various documentary sources.
The first archaeological digs were begun by Amadeus Maiuri only at the start of the 10th century, digs which have brought to light a mere on fifth of the city area.
Velia was one of the most important centres of the Magna Graecia, famous in ancient times for its School of Medicine and Philosophy and homeland of illustrious men such as Parmenides and Zeno who here laid down the premises for modern philosophy.
The city lay-out
The city walls, alternated by square towers, date back to the 6th century and stretch for about 9 kms, following the morphology of the land and using precise keypoints of the land so as to enhance its defensive attributes, as in the case of the Porta Rosa arch and the Castelluccio tower fortification.
Before the large-scale urban modifications of the classic era transformed the hill of the Acropolis into a place destined exclusively to worship, it was entirely occupied by the ancient urban centre, the primitive nucleus of the city, a part of which has been preserved on the eastern slopes of the Acropolis, the so-called “Polygonal Village”, a settlement characterized by narrow streets and a wide road lined by houses and workshops arranged in tiers.
In around 480 BC an impressive tiered wall was built over this ancient centre on occasion of the new layout for the Acropolis which comprised the creation of a large terrace and the construction, perhaps never finished, of the so-called Athenian temple. Its wide stereobate rests on the foundations of a 6th century sanctuary of which a fair section of wall in “lesbian polygonal” is still visible.
With the realization of the great urban works during the Hellenistic era (3rd century BC) which involved the whole city, the Acropolis’ monumental impact was further enhanced by the construction of the theatre and porticoes.
Moreover, along the entire ridge lined by the city walls, from the Acropolis to the Castelluccio fortified tower, sanctuaries and sacred gathering places grew up one after the other on large terraces, with open altars where sacrifices were made to the gods.
Here divinities such as Athena, Poseidon Asphaleios, Hera, Zeus, Dionysus and Persephone.
The ridge of the Acropolis divided the city into two districts, southern and northern, which were linked by an important artery: the paved road which from Porta Marina South, crossing the port district, came out onto via di Porta Rosa and going beyond Porta Arcaica and Porta Rosa, led to the Northern Quarter as far as Porta Marina North. Close by would have been the river port at the ancient mouth of the Palistro.
The Southern Quarter presents substantial stratifications due to the continual detrital changes caused by violent floods which several times destroyed this part of the city from the 6th centry BC up until the Roman era.
This district presents three blocks (insulae) with dwellings and workshops, one of which is entirely occupied by a grandiose architectural complex from the 1st century BC with cryptoporticus and a hanging garden, perhaps set aside for imperial cult.
The northern edge of the district is dominated by a attractive bath building from the 2nd century BC with mosaiced rooms, in front of which a round pit for offerings or bothros can be found, known as the “Sacred Well”, perhaps dedicated to Eros.
Along the road of Porta Rosa, to the left and to the right, two districts are arranged on terraces in a grid pattern, designed according to the urbanistic theories of Hippodamus of Mileto. Here the remains of important public and residential buildings can be found, in particular the Asclepeion – thought to be the seat of the School of Medicine and Philosophy – and a rare example of a bath building from the Hellenistic period, located downstream from the Sacred Spring, the famous stream dedicated to the Nymph Yele.
But the most famous monument of the city and of the whole Magna Graecia is the impressive Porta Rosa, an example of rare beauty and harmony which documents the use of the arch technique by the Greeks.
After its foundation, the city of Elea enjoyed a period of great prosperity, as demonstrated by the great works realized between the 5th and 3rd centuries AC. The city, equipped with efficient ports, which Virgil mentions in the Aeneid, was on important maritime routes between Greece and the colonies along the Mediterranean coast and had dealings with Cuma and Neapolis (Naples), but also with Massalia (Marseille) which like Alalia in Corsica and Ampurias in Spain, was likewise founded by the Phocaeans.
The economic decline of the centres of the south Tyrrhenian began in the 2nd century BC with traffic centering more around the gulf of Naples and north of Ostia. Velia nonetheless maintained a certain volume of traffic which only later diminished when its celebrated ports gradually began to silt up.
In its period of greatest splendour the city, once home to Xenophanes of Colophone, saw the formation of a philosophical and literary circle frequented by illustrious philosophers, the most notable exponents being Parmenides and Zeno who were also born here. Related to the philosophical school of Elea a renowned medical school grew up, active for many centuries, whose principles were passed on in the Middle Ages to the Medical School of Salerno.
Some inscriptions and marble portraits of Elean doctors bear witness to the presence o a ghenos or clan of doctors (Ouliadai) similar to those of Cos (Asklepiadai).
There most probably was an Asklepieon (healing temple) linked to the city’s various bath houses, thanks to which Velia’s notoriety still continued into the Roman era.
In fact, towards the middle of the 1st century AD the cold spa waters of Velia in winter and those of Chiusi and Gubbio in summer replaced the hot waters of Baia and ancient Elea became a famous health and holiday resort where people would come to heal body and spirit.
The city of Velia, which was founded out of a desire for freedom, always maintained this ideal and succeeded, more by means of diplomacy than war, in avoiding occupation either by the Poseidonians or the Lucanians.
In 389 BC Velia was part of the Italiot league, coming to the aid of Caulonia when it was attacked by Dionysus I, the tyran of Siracuse, and was later Rome’s ally during the 1st and 2nd Punic wars (210 BC).
In 88 BC Cicerone, who was staying there with his friend Trebazio, informs us that the women priests who practised the cult of Cerere in Rome came from Neapolis and Velia.
The refined Hellenistic culture must have held much fascination for the Romans: in fact, despite the strong presence of the Roman culture, Velia always conserved its Greek character, both in its traditions and its language (“Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit” the poet Horace said in celebrated verse).
But as for other cites in that period, the curtain slowly came down on Velia; from the early imperial age onwards the city gradually diminished in numbers and importance. Many districts were abandoned; the original urban layout was ignored by the Byzantine centre which grew up on a layer of ruins; the ancient buildings and the walls were robbed of their materials, then used to make hasty constructions, and the marble statues were ground down to make mortar. Nonetheless, Velia remained the most important centre of the Tyrrhenian south of Salerno and like Paestum was a diocesan seat (5th Century AD).
At the time of the barbaric invasions it was attacked by Goths and then Vandals and was occupied by the Byzantines and then the Longobards.
Between the 9th and 10th centuries, a castle stood on the far edge of the promontory, site of Velia’s ancient Acropolis. It dominated the whole area and controlled the ancient port of San Matteo ad duo flumina (between two rivers), at the time still operative.
Around the castle, which represented a valid fortification of that part of Cilento, a fortified hamlet grew up with the church of San Quirino. Its decline coincided with the advent of Norman and Swabian rule.
In Angevin times a round tower on three levels was built. Its keep incorporated the stereobate of the ancient Greek temple; in Aragonese times a crenellated wall was added to the base of the tower. This building, which has reached the present times virtually intact, represents a fine example of 13th century military architecture.
The hamlet of Castellamare still existed around the tower, until in 1458 Ferdinando I gave orders for the city to be evacuated, judging it too vulnerable to pirate raids. Consequently, in 1500 at the time of the King’s general census, just a hundred or so households could be counted.
The gradual process of abandonment was thus accelerated, probably due equally to the unhealthy environment created by the swamps which surrounded the promontory as well as to the pirate threat. To such an extent that in 1648 the tax registers recorded just 12 households and in 1669 the locality was entirely deserted.
Dr Gianluca Astore
Information taken from:
Velia studi e ricerche, G. Greco and F. Krinzinger, Modena 1994
Il Parco Archeologico di Velia, Gianluca Astore and Loredana Chirico, Quaderni di Laurea 2, Electa, Naples 1995