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Ischia the Island of the Greeks

Excerpt from: Southern Italy: An Archaeological Guide by Margaret Guido

Ischia (Greek Pithekoussai)

This beautiful island was formed, like the Phlegraean Fields, under volcanic conditions which gave rise to the mineral springs and other natural thermal qualities for which it is now famous.


It has suffered from a number of eruptions during its history which began long before the Greeks colonized it:  contacts had already been made with the eastern Mediterranean at least as early as 1400 B.C., for Mycenaean III C sherds have been discovered both in Ischia itself and in the nearby island of Vivara.


Livy wrote that Pithekoussai had been founded by the Euboeans before they founded Cumae, and this may well be true for late Geometric and Protocorinthian pottery has been found in tombs on the Monte di Vico promontory, and San Montano has produced an early VIII century Syrean seal and other finds witnessing trade activities at a very early date with Greece and the Aegean, Syria and Egypt, as well as with the Etruscans and local Italic peoples.


The Euboeans from Eretria and Chalcis, who had probably founded the colony to facilitate the trading of Etruscan metals with the Greek world, were, according to Pliny and Strabo, forced to abandon Ischia after a violent eruption at the end of the VI century onwards, and particularly at the time of Augustus, the island was a favoured place for retirement.

epo.gif (235705 bytes) Mt Epomeo
The following paragraph from, "Summer Islands" by Norman Douglas, is, in my opinion, the most definite declaration that Ischia, not Cumae, is the earliest Greek colony in Italy.


Notes by Giorgio Buchner;  Note #16    Page 127
Douglas had read Julius Beloch, Campanien. Geschichte und Topographie des antiken neapel und seiner Umgebung, second edition, Breslau, 1890 (he mentions his name twice), and has in mind the passage in the chapter on Ischia in which the German historian presents the accounts, few in number and vague, of chance discoveries of several tombs containing fifth century B.C. painted Greek vases, which had taken place in the valley of San Montano in the first half of the nineteenth century (but no mention is made of "marbles"!). Nothing more precise was known at that period about the archaeology of Ischia. Indeed, Amedeo Maiuri, writing in 1930, declared Ischia, "where the Greek colonists first disembarked, before, that is, going on to inhabit the ill of Cuma", to be "completely unexplored? (Aspetti e problemi dellíarcheologia campana", Historia, IV, 1930, p. 54).  Since 1952, the year of Douglasís death, when I first started excavations in the necropolis of San Montano, which continued until 1982 and were extended to the urban dwellings of ancient Pithekoussai, the situation has changed considerably. The Greek colonists who came from the cities of Chalcis and Eretria on the Island of Euboea round about 770 B>C> to settle on the promontory of Monte di Vico are no longer the shadowy figures whose very existence was once uncertain. Their settlement on Ischia was not a short lived affair, as Douglas thought it was, and as indeed it must once have seemed, to judge from the slight references made to it found in surviving ancient literature. Today we know that Pithekoussai was, in the second half of the eighth century B.C., a flourishing "empÚrion", which imported the most varied products from Greece and the near East to sell in turn to the Etruscans and the Latin and Italic populations of Latium and Campania, who thus came into contact for the first time with the more advanced civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean. In addition to their trading activities, the Pithecusans were also metal workers, using raw material imported from Elba and the ore-producing areas of Tuscany, and potters, using the excellent clay found on the island itself. With the development of Cuma, founded several decades later with the collaboration of the Pithecusans, their own city began, after the end of the eighth century B.C., to decline: it lost its autonomy and fell under Cuman domination, yet succeeded in maintaining its character as a Greek town throughout the Hellenistic age. The reader curious to know more about it is advised to read the book written by my collaborator David Ridgway, L'alba della Magna Grecia (Milano, 1984). This contains a clear and comprehensive account of the results of our research and of the problems posed by the excavations at Pithekoussai, which, unknown to us in the past, has now become the main source of our information on the earliest Greek colonization of Italy
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