Naples:life,death &
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entry Mar 2003

reek Naples: Two Tales of One City

© by David Taylor

It takes a lot of imagination to imagine the narrow coastal area of Naples as it must have appeared to the first settlers arriving by boat on these shores. The steep hills and narrow valleys running from Posillipo to Piazza Municipio and banking up sharply to Vomero and Capodimonte are still well-defined, though now littered with centuries of building. From these jagged volcanic hills ran storm-fed rivers, along routes which were eventually to become the main thoroughfares of the city. Waters from the east of the city, unable to reach the sea, combined to create vast swamps. All things considered, the topography must have been at once both formidable and yet attractive, offering excellent natural defences to the rear of those early coastal settlers, who would eventually begin to hew a city from the rocky hills.

The coast has changed greatly since then: the sea has made inroads into Posillipo, swallowing up those Roman villas constructed at the foot of the cliffs. Roman brickwork can still be seen at and below water level, whilst other remains of the period are largely obscured by modern building. To the east, the coast has extended into the sea, both through the natural process of silting and through the handiwork of man.

The first settlers

Although the area was once undoubtedly inhabited by primitive cultures and troglodytes (the Greek name for the area was 'the land of the cave dwellers'), there is still uncertainty as to who founded the first colony on the site of present-day Naples. Legend has it that the founding colony was named Falero (Phalerum) after a member of the mythical Argonauts said to be responsible for the first colonization: Neapolis urbs ante Partenope dicta est prius Phalerum -- Naples was first called Parthenope and before that Falero (Claverius).

It is generally accepted, though, that the earliest colonisers were of Greek origins and that the earliest settlements were on the isle of Megaride (the site of Castel dell'Ovo) sometime between the ninth and seventh centuries B.C. Archaeological finds suggest that the early colonisation was undertaken by Rhodeans. The isle of Megaride offered a solid foothold to settlers, being naturally defended by water on three sides and a deep valley to the rear (present-day via Chiaia). There was the additional benefit of the river Sebeto, which once flowed down to the foot of Pizzofalcone, probably spilling into the sea near what is now Piazza Municipio.

This early presence of Rhodeans, and other Greek wanderers made legendary in Classical Greek literature, does not exclude the idea that the city of Parthenope (Neapolitans are still sometimes referred to as 'Parthenopeans') was founded in c. 680 B.C. by colonists from the nearby Greek city of Cuma (image, above). Evidence for this date and origin has been obtained from vases found in the necropolis discovered in via Nicotera. Cuma had been flourishing since the eighth century and, locked in a prolonged power struggle with the Etruscans, they would have been interested in maintaining control of any developments along the coast.

The name Parthenope itself derives from the mythical Parthenope Archeloias, one of the three siren daughters of the river deity, Acheloo. Said to have died of a broken heart after being spurned by Ulysses, her body washed ashore and, according to the Roman historian, Livy, a city was founded on the site of her tomb and took her name. Historians differ as to the possible location of this tomb, although it has been suggested that it may have been somewhere in the area where the San Carlo Theatre now stands.

Ancient Parthenope                       

Parthenope grew on the hill of Pizzofalcone above the isle of Megaride, and developed as a flourishing commercial centre and military port under the Cuman hegemony, which extended over the entire gulf from the seventh to the sixth century, B.C.. The extent of Parthenope's dependency on Cuma became apparent in the mid-sixth century when Cuma came under increasing pressure from the Etruscans, eager to capture ports in the gulf. In 524 B.C., the Etruscans attacked Cuma and, although the attack failed, it signalled a growing Etruscan determination to dominate the area, the pressure of which pushed Parthenope to the commercial margins -- outside the accepted trading routes. Indeed, by this date, there is evidence that the city had slid into decadence and, some argue, had virtually ceased to exist.

The Roman Consul, Catalus, wrote that the Cumans themselves were responsible for destroying Parthenope, presumably because of jealousy of the commercial success and strategic importance of their neighbours. He claims that they then re-established a new city near the original site when, stricken by famine and pestilence, they decided to resurrect the cult of the siren Parthenope to act as their oracle and guide through the crisis.

Whatever the truth of the decline of Parthenope, it appears that around 470 B.C., shortly after the Greeks from Siracuse had conclusively defeated the Etruscans, putting paid to Etruscan hopes of southern expansion and re-establishing Greek domination of the gulf, a new city began to spring up alongside the older Parthenope. This new foundation took the name Neapolis from the Greek for 'new city'; Parthenope became known as Palepoli or 'old city'.

Old city, new city

That the old city was not destroyed, or that it was later rebuilt, is alluded to by various Roman historians: Pliny and Suetonious touch on the argument and suggest that Parthenope and Neapolis existed side by side, possibly forming a single civitas. That they existed contemporaneously is further confirmed in the literature concerning the military clashes between Rome and Naples: Livy writes (concerning the second Samnite war) that the Roman forces camped between the two urbes to stop them uniting. This suggests a topographical division rather than a political one. There is also some suggestion in these writings of a division in function between the two centres, with the lion's share of commercial activity going to Neapolis, whilst Parthenope remained more rural and closely linked to the Samnite world of the hinterland.

The new city grew in a period when the Greeks from Siracuse had established their influence on the gulf. These Greeks, and those of Cuma, would have brought the weight of the power of Athens to bear upon Neapolis. Doubtlessly, another Greek colony on these coasts would have fitted in well with the plans of Pericles, and Neapolis would, in its turn, have gained commercial and trading advantage as a Greek colony when it came to dealing with the many Greek merchants who were then plying the Mediterranean. The period of maximum Greek-Athenean influence marks the growth in importance of Neapolis, and is also the period of urban planning which, once established, would remain unchanged for more than four centuries.

The form of early Neapolis was heavily influenced by the rivers, valleys, hills and swamps that made the topographical nature of the area convoluted and complex, and combined to separate the coastal area from the hinterland. Waters flowed from Vomero and Capodimonte down Petraio, Via Cacciottoli, il Cavone, Via Salvator Rosa, Santa Teresa al Museo, Via Stella and Via Vergine. The valleys created by these deluvial waters (Via Foria and Via Pessina) created a natural barrier around the coastal area. It was within these boundaries, also formed by the route of the river Sebeto, that the first Neapolis developed.

(The graphic on the left shows the temple of the acropolis at the north-west corner of
Neapolis, the New City founded by the Parthenopians after they moved off the height of
Pizzofalcone. The acropolis looks down to the north over the Sebeto river and the area that would, in 2,000 years be Piazza Cavour.)

Unlike Parthenope, this area offered space for urban development along Greek lines, even if the centre long remained small in relation to its importance. The swamplands hindered communications with the hinterland which, added to an ethnic separation, caused Naples to look to the sea for its livelihood and, furthermore, prevented the development of an extensive ager, an agricultural area at the service of the city.
The design of the city complex was carried out along traditionally Hippodamic lines, i.e. in imitation of the Greek planner/architect, Hippodamus of Miletus, attributed with the laying out of Athens and Rhodes. It would naturally have been difficult for the Greek planners to ignore such nobles antecedents when laying out their new city on a plan of plateai and stenapoi, i.e. a regular grid of intersecting streets.

The outline of the original Neapolis can still be seen in bird's-eye-view as laying between Via Foria, Via Costantinopoli, the Duomo and Piazza San Gaetano. The first residential area was in the vicinity of what is now Via Costantinopoli, and the Acropoli, the centre for religious and political functions, was built during the very first stages of the city's development. The archaeological remains under San Lorenzo Maggiore show the location of the fifth century civic centre, treasury and prison. The city also boasted a theatre, a hippodrome and a stadium. The exact location of the port --life blood of Neapolis -- has never been satisfactorily located. It has even been suggested that the early city did not possess one, but this argument carries little weight as maritime trading would have been the only raison d'être for the fledgling city.

              Excavated Greek walls at Piazza Bellini

The fifth century city, excluding those areas devoted to games and entertainment, had its limits defined by stout walls of locally-hewn tufa blocks (image, left). These walls were further reinforced in the fourth century B.C.. These new sections used a different system of construction involving two parallel lines of inter-linked tufa blocks. Once back-filled, this system gave the city strong, resistant walls in addition to the natural defences previously mentioned. Remains of the original walls found in Piazza Bellini (4th century), Via Mezzocannone, Corso Umberto and Via Duomo allow the route followed by the defences to be traced. They ran north along Via Foria and Piazza Cavour, turned east at San Giovanni a Carbonara and ran towards the sea.

This original Greek centre still remains at the heart of Naples, forming the skeleton on which generations have built but never obliterated, much as the Greek culture, persisting in Naples throughout the era of Roman domination, has left its indelible traces in the physiognomy and language of twentieth century Parthenopeans.

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