National Geographic : 1994 Nov
ON AN ISLAND not far from the rocks where the mythical Sirens sang, grief overwhelmed the man. His son, a boy of about ten, had died. The year was 720 B.C., and funeral ceremonies had begun on this far-flung outpost of the Greek world. Years earlier the man had left his home in Greece, fired by dreams of a fresh start in a rich land. He had sailed west in a cramped galley, disembarking on this island called Pithekoussai near the Bay of Naples. A rough-and-ready emporium, Pithekoussai teemed with not only Greeks but also Phoenician artisans and adventurers from across the Mediterranean. Labor ers worked as smelters, processing ores from the iron-rich Etruscan lands to the north. Craftsmen shaped the metal into jewelry and other decorative goods to trade back to the Etruscans and nearby Italic peoples. The man had married-perhaps the daughter of an Etruscan trading partner. He prospered. Then tragedy took his son. He ordered a costly cremation, a rite normally reserved for adults. As flames roared around his son's body, the man bade him farewell. He picked up a favorite wine cup, drank deeply, then smashed the cup into the fire. Twenty-seven centuries later I sit in a villa overlooking ancient Pithekoussai, now known as Ischia, talking of this long-ago anguish with Giorgio Buchner, an 80-year old archaeologist. Buchner, who has excavated on the island since 1952, bases his tale of this ancient father on a grave in the valley below the villa. "It is one of the richest graves we have," he says. "We found the boy's bones and this." He opens a box. Inside is the very cup, pieced together again, that Buch ner believes was flung by the grieving father. Three lines of poetry are inscribed across it. "Nestor had a fine i drinking cup," Buchner translates, S"but anyone who drinks from this cup will soon be struck with desire for fair-crowned Aphrodite." Playful verses, they are reminiscent not of a funeral but of the parties called symposia that the father must have once enjoyed. They refer to King Nestor of Homer's Iliad. "These words are among the earli est scraps of writing we know of in the Greek alphabet," says Buchner. "We don't know if the father himself wrote these verses, but they tell us that the people who lived here were cultivated. They knew the Homeric poems per haps at the same time they were being written down." I have come to Pithekoussai in search of such fragments. They represent the begin ning of a great age of Greek emigration and exploration-a westward expansionary movement no less venturesome for ancient times than the settlement of the Americas would be two millennia later. I want to discover who these people were, what made them leave home, and what kind of new world they built. Pithekoussai, founded around 770 B.C., was the first of those Greek settlements. A few decades later, colonies were established on Sicily. More sprouted all along the coast of southern Italy, a region called Magna Graecia, or Great Greece, by Latin historians. The western lands were fertile, and their prosperous soils helped create great cities. On Sicily, Syracuse eventually reached a population that rivaled Athens's in size and power. Likewise, the city of Sybaris grew so rich that its name remains a synonym for voluptuous luxury.