Battle of Sybaris - 511 to 510 B.C.

Sybaris a colony in southern Italy was founded by the Greeks in 720 B.C. Noted for its trade this lead to her great influence with the city of Miletus. As an instance of their magnificence we are told that Alcimenes of Sybaris had dedicated as a votive offering in the temple of the Lacinian Juno a splendid figured robe, which long afterwards fell into the power of Dionysius of Syracuse, and was sold by him for 120 talents. (Pseud. Arist. Mirab. 96; Athen. xii. p. 541.) Sybaris also minted its own coins.

Notwithstanding these details concerning the wealth and luxury of Sybaris, we are almost wholly without information as to the history of the city until shortly before its fall. Herodotus incidentally refers to the time of Smindyrides (about 580-560 B.C.) as the period when Sybaris was at the height of its power. At a later period it seems to have been agitated by political dissensions, with the circumstances of which we are very imperfectly acquainted. It appears that the government had previously been in the hands of an oligarchy, to which such persons as Smindyrides and Alcimenes naturally belonged; but the democratic party, headed by a demagogue named Telys, succeeded in overthrowing their power, and drove a considerable number of the leading citizens into exile. Telys hereupon seems to have raised himself to the position of despot or tyrant of the city. The exiled citizens took refuge at Crotona; but not content with their victory, Telys and his partisans called upon the Crotoniats to surrender the fugitives. This they refused to do, and the Sybarites hereupon declared war on them, and marched upon Crotona with an army said to have amounted to 300,000 men. They were met at the river Traeis by the Crotoniats, whose army did not amount to more than a third of their numbers; notwithstanding which they obtained a complete victory, and put the greater part of the Sybarites to the sword, continuing the pursuit to the very gates of the city, of which they easily made themselves masters, and which they determined to destroy so entirely that it should never again be inhabited. For this purpose they turned the course of the river Crathis, so that it inundated the site of the city and buried the ruins under the deposits that it brought down. (Diod. xii. 9, 10; Strabo vi. p. 263; Herod. v. 44; Athenae. xii. p. 521; Scymn. Ch. 337-360.) This catastrophe occurred in 510 B.C., and seems to have been viewed by many of the Greeks as a divine vengeance upon the Sybarites for their pride and arrogance, caused by their excessive prosperity, more especially for the contempt they had shown for the great festival of the Olympic Games, which they are said to have attempted to supplant by attracting the principal artists, athletes, etc., to their own public games. (Scymn. Ch. 350-360; Athen. l. c.)

The Milesians having heard of the defeat of Sybaris shaved their heads and wept; they were mourning not only lost friends, but fat lost profits.

It is certain that Sybaris was never restored. The surviving inhabitants took refuge at Laüs and Scidrus, on the shores of the Tyrrhenian sea. An attempt was indeed made, 58 years after the destruction of the city, to establish them anew on the ancient site, but they were quickly driven out by the Crotoniats, and the fugitives afterwards combined with the Athenian colonists in the foundation of Thurii.

At the present day the site is utterly desolate, and even the exact position of the ancient city cannot be determined. Explorations undertaken by the Italian government in 1879 and 1887 failed to lead to a precise knowledge of the site. Only two discoveries were made: an extensive necropolis, some 12 km to the west of the confluence of the two rivers, of the end of the first Iron age, known as that of Torre Mordillo, the contents of which are now preserved at Potenza; a necropolis of about 400 BC – the period of the greatest prosperity of Thurii – consisting of tombs covered by tumuli (locally called timponi), in some of which were found fine gold plates with mystic inscriptions in Greek characters; one of these tumuli was over 2.7 m in diameter at the base with a single burial in a sarcophagus in the center.

The circumstance mentioned by Strabo that the river Crathis had been turned from its course to inundate the city, is confirmed by the accidental mention in Herodotus of the dry channel of the Crathis ( Herod. v. 44): and this would sufficiently account for the disappearance of all traces of the city. Swinburne indeed tells us that some degraded fragments of aqueducts and tombs were still visible on the peninsula formed by the two rivers, and were pointed out as the ruins of Sybaris, but these, as he justly observes, being built of brick, are probably of Roman times, and have no connection with the ancient city. Keppel Craven, on the other hand, speaks of a wall sometimes visible in the bed of the Crathis when the waters are very low as being the only remaining relic of the ancient Sybaris. (Swinburne's Travels, vol. i. pp. 290--292; Craven's Southern Tour, pp. 217, 218.)

The river Sybaris was said to be so named by the Greek colonists from a fountain of that name at Bura in Achaia (Strab. viii. p. 386): it had the property, according to some authors, of making horses shy that drank of its waters. (Pseud. Arist. Mirab. 169; Strab. vi. p. 263.)




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