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How the Ancient Greeks Founded Naples in Italy

Ancient coin from Naples depicting head of Parthenope, mythical siren
Ancient Greek coin from Naples depicting the head of Parthenope, mythical siren whose body marked the future site of the city, fourth century BCE. Credit: Wikipedia Commons, cc-by-sa 4.0

The Greeks have a long and fascinating history in some of the most famous cities of Italy. One example is Naples, which is Italy’s third-largest city. The ancient Greeks founded this city well over 2000 years ago, and their influence is still felt there even today. But how did the ancient Greeks end up founding this city all the way over in Italy? We can learn the answer through ancient historical records as well as from archaeology.

The Legend of the Ancient Greeks Founding Naples

The legend of how the ancient Greeks founded Naples starts with the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. The poem Alexandra, which may have been written in c. 200 BCE, records a tradition concerning Naples. It refers to a certain ‘tower of Phalerus’ already existing there in the time of Odysseus. Since Odysseus lived at the time of the Trojan War, this ‘tower’ must be named after a Phalerus who lived before then.

There is only one Phalerus who this could be – the Phalerus who accompanied Jason on his voyage to find the Golden Fleece. Other ancient sources describes this Phalerus as the founder of Gyrton in Thessaly, Phalerum in Athens, and a temple in Cyprus. Therefore, Greek legend clearly associates this Phalerus with the founding of cities. This adds even more support to the conclusion that he was the Phalerus who founded some kind of ‘tower’ in Naples before the time of Odysseus.

Therefore, the reference in Alexandra indicates that Phalerus, an Argonaut, led the ancient Greeks to establish the earliest settlement at Naples.

The Legend of the Foundation of Parthenope

The story of the ancient Greeks founding Naples also involves the legend of Odysseus. On his famous journey home from Troy after the Trojan War, he passed a group of sirens. They tried to use their enchanting singing to get Odysseus and his men to walk overboard and drown. However, Odysseus blocked his men’s ears with wax and then tied himself to his ship’s mast, thus keeping them all safe.

After defeating the sirens, one in particular, named Parthenope, threw herself into the sea in despair at her failure. She drowned, and the waves washed her body ashore at the tower of Phalerus. That location was then named Parthenope in her honor, with a city being built on the site of her grave.

This was not in exactly the same place as the later city of Naples, but it was very nearby, and it is within modern Naples. Parthenope was essentially the precursor to Naples. The two have always been so closely associated that the word ‘Parthenopean’ is a synonym of ‘Neapolitan’ even today.

What Archaeology Reveals About the Ancient Greek Foundation of Naples

Those are the legends, but how well do they match the archaeological facts? Firstly, let us consider the very earliest settlement, supposedly founded by Phalerus, one of the Argonauts. The legend about this location does not reveal where exactly in Naples the ancient Greeks supposedly established it. Nonetheless, in Naples in general, archaeology indicates that the ancient Greeks first settled there in the eighth century BC.

Whether this is actually related to the legend of Phalerus the Argonaut establishing a settlement there or not is up for debate. The archaeological evidence comes from centuries after the traditional era of the Argonauts. Nonetheless, it is possible that they lived later than usually believed.

What about the settlement of Parthenope? Archaeologists have found a Greek necropolis, or cemetery, dating to the early seventh century BC and associated with the hill of Pizzofalcone. This is further evidence that the ancient Greeks were starting settle the area of Naples at that period in history.

How the Ancient Greeks Transformed Parthenope into Naples

This settlement developed into a bustling city over the years. It became a prominent military and trading port. However, its success became its downfall. Cumae, the city from which the settlers of Parthenope primarily came, became jealous of their colony’s success. They did not want it to cause the original city, Cumae, to become abandoned. Therefore, they allegedly decided to destroy Parthenope.

There is little, if any, archaeological evidence for destruction at Parthenope dating to this time. However, whatever really happened, the evidence is clear that another settlement was then established in the Naples area, again by the ancient Greeks of Cumae. They called this city Neapolis, meaning ‘New City’. This eventually evolved into ‘Naples’, the English name for that city today.

The old settlement of Parthenope then started going by the name ‘Palaeopolis’, meaning ‘Old City’. However, it did not disappear completely. It became absorbed into the new settlement, becoming part of Naples.

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