Sybaris (Greek: polytonic|Σύβαρις) was a celebrated city of
Magna Graeciaon the western shore of the Gulf of Taranto. The wealth of the city in the 6th century BC was such that the Sybarites became synonymous with pleasure and luxury. The modern town of Sibari lies near the ruins of the Greek city; it is a " frazione" of the " comune" of Cassano allo Ionio, in the province of Cosenza.
Sybaris lay a short distance from the sea, between the rivers Crathis (
Crati) and Sybaris ( Coscile). (Strab. vi. p. 263; Diod. xii. 9.) The last of these, from which it derived its name, at the present day falls into the Crati about 5 km from its mouth, but in ancient times undoubtedly pursued an independent course to the sea. Sybaris was apparently the earliest of all the Greek colonies in this part of Italy, being founded, according to the statement of Scymnus Chius, as early as 720 BC. (Scymn. Ch. 360; Clinton, "F. H." vol. i. p. 174.)
The river Sybaris was said to be so named by the Greek colonists from a fountain of that name at Bura in Achaia (Strab. viii. p. 386): it had the property, according to some authors, of making horses shy that drank of its waters. (Pseud. Arist. Mirab. 169; Strab. vi. p. 263.) It is a considerable stream, and has its sources in the Apennines near
Murano, flows beneath Castrovillari, and receives several minor tributary streams before it joins the Crathis.
Sybaris was an
Achaeancolony, and its Oekist (founder) was a citizen of Helicein Achaia; but with the Achaean emigrants were mingled a number of Troezenian citizens. The Achaeans, however, eventually obtained the preponderance, and drove out the Troezenians. (Strab. "l. c."; Arist. "Pol." v. 3.) The Sybarites indeed appear to have sought for an origin in heroic times; and Solinushas a story that the first founder of the city was a son of Oïlean Ajax (Solin. 2. § 10); but this is evidently mere fiction, and the city was, historically speaking, undoubtedly an Achaean colony. It rose rapidly to great prosperity, owing in the first instance to the fertility of the plain in which it was situated. Its citizens also, contrary to the policy of many of the Greek states, freely admitted settlers of other nations to the rights of citizenship, and the vast population of the city is expressly ascribed in great measure to this cause. (Diod. xii. 9.) The statements transmitted to us of the power and opulence of the city, as well as of the luxurious habits of its inhabitants, have indeed a very fabulous aspect, and are without doubt grossly exaggerated, but there is no reason to reject the main fact that Sybaris had in the sixth century BCEattained a degree of wealth and power unprecedented among Greek cities, and which excited the admiration of the rest of the Hellenic world. It is thought that Sybaris may have been the first city to boast an effective, yet primitive, streetlighting system. We are told that the Sybarites ruled over 25 subject cities, and could bring into the field 300,000 of their own citizens (Strab. "l. c."), a statement obviously incredible. The subject cities were probably for the most part Oenotrian towns in the interior, but we know that Sybaris had extended its dominion across the peninsula to the Tyrrhenian Sea, where it had founded the colonies of Poseidonia (Paestum), Laüs(Laus), and Scidrus. The city itself was said to be not less than 50 stadia in circumference, and the horsemen or knights who figured at the religious processions are said to have amounted to 5000 in number (Athen. xii. p. 519), which would prove that these wealthy citizens were more than four times as numerous as at Athens. Smindyrides, a citizen of Sybaris, who was one of the suitors for the daughters of Cleisthenes of Sicyon, is said by Herodotusto have surpassed all other men in refined luxury. (Herod. vi. 127.) It was asserted that on this occasion he carried with him a train of 1000 slaves, including cooks, fishermen, etc. (Atlien. vi. p. 273; Diod. viii. Fr. 19.) It is unnecessary to repeat here the tales that are told by various writers, especially by Athenaeus, concerning the absurd refinements of luxury ascribed to the Sybarites, and which have rendered their very name proverbial. (Athenae. xii. pp. 518-521; Diod. viii. Fr. 18-20; Suda, under polytonic|Συθαριτικαῖς.) They were particularly noted for the splendour of their attire, which was formed of the finest Milesian wool, and this gave rise to extensive commercial relations with Miletus, which produced a close friendship between the two cities. (Timaeus, ap. Athen. xii. p. 519; Herod. vi. 21.) As an instance of their magnificence we are told that Alcimenes of Sybarishad dedicated as a votive offering in the temple of the Lacinian Juno a splendid figured robe, which long afterwards fell into the power of Dionysius of Syracuse, and was sold by him for 120 talents. (Pseud. Arist. Mirab. 96; Athen. xii. p. 541.) Sybaris also minted its own coins.
Notwithstanding these details concerning the wealth and luxury of Sybaris, we are almost wholly without information as to the history of the city until shortly before its fall. Herodotus incidentally refers to the time of Smindyrides (about 580-
560 BC) as the period when Sybaris was at the height of its power. At a later period it seems to have been agitated by political dissensions, with the circumstances of which we are very imperfectly acquainted. It appears that the government had previously been in the hands of an oligarchy, to which such persons as Smindyrides and Alcimenes naturally belonged; but the democratic party, headed by a demagogue named Telys, succeeded in overthrowing their power, and drove a considerable number of the leading citizens into exile. Telys hereupon seems to have raised himself to the position of despot or tyrant of the city. The exiled citizens took refuge at Crotona; but not content with their victory, Telys and his partisans called upon the Crotoniats to surrender the fugitives. This they refused to do, and the Sybarites hereupon declared war on them, and marched upon Crotona with an army said to have amounted to 300,000 men. They were met at the river Traeisby the Crotoniats, whose army did not amount to more than a third of their numbers; notwithstanding which they obtained a complete victory, and put the greater part of the Sybarites to the sword, continuing the pursuit to the very gates of the city, of which they easily made themselves masters, and which they determined to destroy so entirely that it should never again be inhabited. For this purpose they turned the course of the river Crathis, so that it inundated the site of the city and buried the ruins under the deposits that it brought down. (Diod. xii. 9, 10; Strabovi. p. 263; Herod. v. 44; Athenae. xii. p. 521; Scymn. Ch. 337-360.) This catastrophe occurred in 510 BCE, and seems to have been viewed by many of the Greeks as a divine vengeance upon the Sybarites for their pride and arrogance, caused by their excessive prosperity, more especially for the contempt they had shown for the great festival of the Olympic Games, which they are said to have attempted to supplant by attracting the principal artists, athletes, etc., to their own public games. (Scymn. Ch. 350-360; Athen. "l. c.")
It is certain that Sybaris was never restored. The surviving inhabitants took refuge at Laüs and Scidrus, on the shores of the Tyrrhenian sea. An attempt was indeed made, 58 years after the destruction of the city, to establish them anew on the ancient site, but they were quickly driven out by the Crotoniats, and the fugitives afterwards combined with the Athenian colonists in the foundation of
At the present day the site is utterly desolate, and even the exact position of the ancient city cannot be determined. Explorations undertaken by the Italian government in
1879and 1887failed to lead to a precise knowledge of the site. Only two discoveries were made: an extensive necropolis, some 12 km to the west of the confluence of the two rivers, of the end of the first Iron Age, known as that of Torre Mordillo, the contents of which are now preserved at Potenza; a necropolis of about 400 BC– the period of the greatest prosperity of Thurii – consisting of tombs covered by tumuli (locally called "timponi"), in some of which were found fine gold plates with mystic inscriptions in Greek characters; one of these tumuli was over 2.7 m in diameter at the base with a single burial in a sarcophagus in the center.
The whole plain watered by the rivers Coscile and Crati (the ancient Sybaris and Crathis), so renowned in ancient times for its fertility – it is cited as such by
Varro, who tells us that in Sybaritano wheat was said to produce a hundred-fold. (Varr. "R. R." i. 44.) – was for long a desolate swampy tract, pestilential from malaria, and frequented only by vast herds of buffaloes, the usual accompaniment in Southern Italy of all such pestiferous regions. The circumstance mentioned by Strabo that the river Crathis had been turned from its course to inundate the city, is confirmed by the accidental mention in Herodotus of the dry channel of the Crathis (polytonic|παρὰ τὸν ξηρὸν Κρᾶθιν, Herod. v. 44): and this would sufficiently account for the disappearance of all traces of the city. Swinburne indeed tells us that some degraded fragments of aqueducts and tombs were still visible on the peninsula formed by the two rivers, and were pointed out as the ruins of Sybaris, but these, as he justly observes, being built of brick, are probably of Roman times, and have no connection with the ancient city. Keppel Craven, on the other hand, speaks of a wall sometimes visible in the bed of the Crathis when the waters are very low as being the only remaining relic of the ancient Sybaris. (Swinburne's Travels, vol. i. pp. 290--292; Craven's Southern Tour, pp. 217, 218.)
The word Sybaritic has become a byword meaning extreme luxury and a seeking for pleasure and comfort. One story has a Sybarite turning in his bed sleeplessly, because a crumpled rose petal had gotten into it. The best known anecdote of the Sybarites is of their defeat in battle. It is told that to amuse themselves the Sybarite cavalrymen trained their horses to dance to pipe music. Armed with pipes, an invading army from nearby Crotonia assailed the Sybarite cavalry with music. The attacking forces easily passed through the dancing horses and their helpless riders, and conquered the city.
Notes and references
* [http://www.attalus.org/old/athenaeus12a.html The luxury of the Sybarites] - from Book 12 of Athenaeus
* A 2005 scholarly article about the geological changes around Sybaris, which reports evidence of subsidence and repeated alluvial deposition since Greek times, "Geology versus Myth: the Holocene Evolution of the Sybaris Plain" by Luigi Cucci [http://www.earth-prints.org/bitstream/2122/1130/1/13%20Cucci.pdf]
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