Sunday, December 17, 2017


The Sybarites, My Spiritual Forebears

Rose Macaulay (1881-1958), Pleasure of Ruins (1953; rpt. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1984), pp. 213-216:
Further south, where the glories of Graecia toll like drowned bells all round the Tarentum Gulf, from Taranto to Croton and beyond, visible ruins are few, and enthusiasm is apt to encounter, except for or two eye-catches such as Metapontum, a chill and discouraging void. To enjoy the ruins of Sybaris, for instance, destroyed and drowned two thousand four hundred and sixty years ago, now buried deep in rich river mud, requires not only imagination but a little knowledge of what Sybaris was like when it was to be seen. That opulent ancient city, once the capital of Magna Graecia, once so happy in its vast prosperity and elegance, was destroyed by its rival Croton, and drowned by the diversion of the river Cratis over its razed temples and courts, theatres, streets and baths, and lies fathoms deep beneath the marshy plain, sunk without trace. Archaeologists take pleasure in looking for its site; ordinary people gaze with admiration at the great curve of the gulf scooped from the Ionian sea, beneath Italy's heel and toe, where the Greeks set their chain of cities twenty-six centuries ago — Tarentum, Metapontum, Siris, Locri, Croton, Ciro, Sybaris, carrying eastward from Cumae on the Mediterraaean coast the plantations of their culture. The new cities they set among rivers, in an alluvial plain, the circle of steep forested Calabrian mountains at their back; down to the shore runs a carpet of bright flowers. There, between the Cratis and the Sybaris, the Achaeans built Sybaris in the eighth century B.C., and the circuit of its walls was fifty stades; there, in the sixth, its enemies the Crotonians assaulted and drowned it utterly. No trace of its ruins remains above ground; no one is certain of the site. We know nothing of ruined Sybaris; all the records art of the city in its rich florescence, that scented, delicate hot-house bloom of luxury. It is on this Sybaris that we muse as we stand above the sunk city preserved in river mud, the city whose broken temples must resemble those of her daughter city, Paestum; her marble baths and great fora perhaps surpass any others in beauty. The sense of grandiose ruin is sharpened by the dreams we have of those who inhabited there; those Sybaritish Achaean Greeks, the envy and derision of their neighbours, a legend down the centuries that followed their dispersal, with their exquisite meals, their silken garments, their prolonged matutinal slumbers that must not be disturbed by cocks, their horses that caprioled and dtaced to music, their wanton pleasure-seeking that has made of them for twenty-six centuries a legend, "those prodigious prodigals and mad Sybaritical spendthrifts", as Robert Burton sourly called them — imagining those sunk and viewless ruins of their city, we can see them still, strolling languidly about their wrecked streets, carefully shaded from the sun, followed by pet dwarfs and leading costly little dogs from Malta, saying to their friends, "You must dine with me a year from to-day" (so great an occasion was a Sybarite dinner), turning away their eyes in distaste (or even swooning) if they saw a labourer at work, going to the baths leading slaves in chains, in order to punish them if the water should prove too hot or too little perfumed, lying on beds of rose petals, complaining in anguish if any were crumpled, discussing new and exquisite sauces for fish (for in this matter of sauces they were excessively ingenious, bestowing especial rewards on those who invented anything recherché, such as roe pickled in brine and soaked in oil and sweet wine, which was, it seems, something like anchovy sauce), crowning with gold crowns those who were judged to have given the most sumptuous public dinners. Reclining on the turf so far above the lost city, we can almost see those marble-pillared arcades and courts where elegant Sybarites drank together (women, too, for this happy and admirable people practised sex equality in pleasure, shocking their less advanced neighbours such as the sour puritan Pythagorean citizens of Croton who barbarously destroyed them in the end.) There the magnificent city lies, wrecked and drowned, but safe from quarrying, protected these thousands of years by river mud and earth, as Pompeii and Herculaneum by ashes and lava; its fallen columns lying lovely and intact, its buildings worthy of the greatest and richest city of Greater Greece; its temples were perhaps as huge as Selinunte, huger than Paestum. A complete civilisation lies beneath our feet as we tread the marshy ground through which the Cratis winds. What sculptures, lavish in beauty, decorate this city; what baths, what plumbing, what heating, what beds! None of those hard bedsteads used by those of Herculaneum; the beds of the Sybarites would have, we may be sure, beneath the withered rose petals (potpourri by now) admirable springs. When Sybarites visited Sparta, the hard benches they had to sit on at meals, and the frugal food, caused them to exclaim that they no longer wondered at the courage of these people in battle, for what regret could attend the leaving of so harsh a life, so different from that of Sybaris, where, lapped in rose-leaves and silken sheets, Sybarites lay late in exquisite chambers?

Seventy years ago M. Lenormant uttered an impassioned plea for bringing Sybaris to light. He believed that he knew its site; only it lay so deep. Its discovery, he thought, would be more rewarding than that of any other city. Were it dug up and set in order, a unique way of life would rise before our envious and applauding eyes; it would be the most titillating of ruin pleasures. And sprouting, no doubt, with that lush vegetable and aqutceous life, water weeds and deep moss (since the Cratis mud is of a teeming fertility) which, to romantic eyes, adds beauty to the bare bones of noble ruins. It would need much scraping.

But Sybaris lies too deep. To reach it would be too costly. Shallow digging and drilling has produced no results. Unless someone should put up a fabulous sum, the kind of sum only put up in these days for the manufacture of deadly weapons and military expeditions, we shall not see the first Sybaris. Nor the second, built sixty years later out of its ruins, for the Crotonians, who had sworn delenda est Sybaris, destroyed this almost at once. The third, built on higher ground, round the spring Thurii, with strong defending walls, which became a Roman colony and was wiped out of history by Saracens, has left a few fragments of wall and aqueduct, a buried necropolis, and a spring. The site of the fourth and last Sybaris, founded by Sybarites who fled from Thurii, having made themselves odious to the other Thurians, was found lately near Castiglione, three miles from the Trionto valley. There is a large acropolis partly surrounded by a strong wall of huge squared blocks. There is a grotto which probably led to an underground aqueduct; fragments of a Doric capital, many tiles, and some shards of black pottery. It seems that we must accept this precipitous, wood-grown rock as all that is left of the last Sybaris. But did the Sybarites in their fourth city, after so much destruction, exile, quarrelling, and resettlement, lead still the happy life which has famous? Are we to picture them, on and around this rocky acropolis, still at it, during the century before the new city was destroyed by the barbarian Brutti from the interior and no more known? We may not know: all we see is a barren mountainy country, where Sybarites, forlornly expatriate ghosts, seem to wander, murmuring of rich sauces, far from home. So that all our Sybaritish ruin pleasure is in the ecstatic contemplation of the unseen, in wistful meditation on beauty wrecked and perished from our view and lying far below our feet.
"Unless someone should put up a fabulous sum ... we shall not see the first Sybaris" — I call upon you, Bill Gates, to stop wasting your money on the Borrioboola-Gha venture, and to spend it instead on a truly worthwhile goal, the recovery of ancient Sybaris.

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