Three days of Paestum (2)

Yesterday, I wrote a brief overview of the history of the ancient city of Posidonia/Paestum. Today, I want to focus on the museum and on the collection of tomb paintings in particular. Most of these painted tombs date from the Classical period and are part of a tradition that is otherwise unknown in mainland Greece, where the only elaborate tomb architecture is otherwise found in Macedonia. Other painted tombs are encountered, for example, in Anatolia, belonging to the wealthy inhabitants of Lydia and Lycia in particular.

The tombs from Paestum are therefore best understood as a native Italian product with a lot of Greek influence as far as style is concerned, especially as they remind us of the painted tombs used by the Etruscans further north. Most of the tombs from Paestum have a similar structure, being made of four wall slabs and a closing slab for the lid; some tombs have a gabled roof. The painted scenes themselves are often thought to have been executed in a style similar to what we find on Greek painted vases, except that the artists used a larger variety of colours.

The oldest of the painted tombs is the so-called Tomb of the Diver. The wall slabs feature a symposium scene with men reclining on couches and enjoying food and drink (see the picture, above). The closing lid slab shows a pool and a naked man leaping off a stone column with a board into the water. The scene has often been interpreted as showing the deceased jumping into the afterlife, but it might as well represent him just enjoying a good swim as much as he enjoyed a good drink with friends. The owner of the tomb may well have been a native Italian, rather than a Greek – though that is a difference probably more important to modern scholars than it may have been for the people involved, but that’s a different blog post! (There is, by the way, a good article on the identity of the deceased in this tomb available on Academia, which also discusses other tombs in Paestum and environs.)

Most of the decorated tombs date from the fourth century BC. The painted scenes show a variety of different subjects, all of which clearly related to the lifestyles of the aristocracy, with scenes of chariots, horses, fighting, and feasting. These tomb paintings all date from after the Lucanian conquest of Posidonia, yet the subject matter shows that similar interests much have been important to Lucanian elites as much as Greek ones. The grave goods often contain pottery and other material with distinctly native Italian shapes.

The northern slab from Tomb 271 from Paestum, shown above, dates to the first quarter of the fourth century BC. It depicts a duel (left) and a rider (right). The duel is interesting: it features two warriors that each have a spear lodged in their shield. A picture like this reminds us of the Iliad, where battles between warriors often start by each of them throwing a spear and hitting their opponent’s shield, before closing in and continuing the fight. It may well have been inspired by epic descriptions of battle.

A rider on a black horse is depicted on the slab from Tomb 58 from Paestum. Horses in the Greek world were used solely for riding and for warfare, never as ordinary draught animals, and thus were symbols of the rich. The krater – a large mixing vessel for water and wine – show on the right side of the painting is a reference to alcohol consumption, another important element of the elite lifestyle. The tomb dates from ca. 340 BC.

Above is a picture of the southern slab of Tomb 48 from Paestum, dated 340–330 BC. It shows a racing chariot with a team of four horses. Chariots were expensive and chariot races a favourite past time of the rich. Chariot races were already organized by epic heroes in the Iliad and there are hints that such races date back to the Late Bronze Age.

The tomb paintings give us an idea of what life was like in Paestum in the fourth century BC, or at least what the deceased and/or his relatives believed life ought to be. Above is a picture of the northern slab of Tomb 4 from Paestum, which depicts a prothesis scene, i.e. a scene where we see the deceased on a bier (centre), surrounded by some token mourners. A boy at left plays the double flute.

That will do it for today’s post. I have shown you only a few of the remarkable tomb paintings from Paestum and would encourage you to visit the site and the museum yourself. It really is worth the effort. Tomorrow I’ll be posting a new article to discuss the three major monumental Greek temples that can still be admired at Paestum. See you then!

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