1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tarentum (Italy)

TARENTUM (Gr. τάρας), a Greek city of southern Italy (mod. Taranto, q.v.), situated on the N. coast of the gulf of the same name, on a rocky islet at the entrance to the only secure harbour in it. It was a Spartan colony founded about the close of the 8th century B.C. (Jerome gives the date 708) to relieve the parent state of a part of its population which did not possess, but claimed to enjoy, full civic rights. Legend represents these Partheniae (so they are called) as Spartans with a stain on their birth, but the accounts are neither clear nor consistent, and the facts that underlie them have not been cleared up. The Greeks were not the first settlers on the peninsula: excavations have brought to light signs of a pre-Hellenic settlement. To the Greeks Taras was a mythical hero, son of Neptune, and he is sometimes confounded with the oecist (official founder) of the colony, Phalanthus. Situated in a fertile district, especially famous for olives and sheep, with an admirable harbour, great fisheries and prosperous manufactures of wool, purple[1] and pottery, Tarentum grew in power and wealth and extended its domain inland. Even a great defeat by the natives in 473 B.C., when more Greeks fell than in any battle known to Herodotus, did not break its prosperity, though it led to a change of government from aristocracy to democracy. A feud with the Thurians for the district of the Siris was settled in 432 by the joint foundation of Heraclea, which, however, was regarded as a Tarentine colony. In the 4th century Tarentum was the first city of Magna Graecia, and its wealth and artistic culture at this time are amply attested by its rich and splendid coins; the gold pieces in particular (mainly later than 360) are perhaps the most beautiful ever struck by Greeks (see Numismatics). In the second half of the century Tarentum was in constant war with the Lucanians, and did not hold its ground without the aid of Spartan and Epirote condottieri. Then followed war with Rome (281) in consequence of the injudicious attack of the mob on the Roman fleet in the harbour of Tarentum and on the Roman garrison at Thurii, the expedition of Pyrrhus, whom Tarentum summoned to its aid, and at length, in 272, the surrender of the city by its Epirote garrison. Tarentum retained nominal liberty as an ally of Rome. In the Second Punic War it went over to Hannibal in 212, and suffered severely when it was retaken and plundered by Fabius (209), who sold thirty thousand citizens as slaves. After this it fell into decay, but revived again after receiving a colony in 123 B.C., which received the name of Neptunia. In the time of Augustus it was essentially Greek and a favourite place of resort (Horace, Od., iii. 5, 53), but it declined afterwards. Belisarius ordered it to be re-fortified, but it was soon taken by Totila, who made it his treasure store. After his defeat by Narses, it was sold to the Byzantine Empire by its Gothic governor.

One of the most interesting discoveries of recent years has been that of a terramara on the so-called Scoglio del Tonno on the N.W. of the town, which in its type and in the character of the objects found there, is exactly identical with the terremare of the Po valley. It seems, however, to be an isolated colony, and not to prove a parallel development in north and south Italy (T. E. Peet in Papers of the British School at Rome, iv., 1907, 285). Almost the only relic of any building of the Greek city is a part of a Doric temple on the island—which the modern town occupies—two fluted columns, with a lower diameter of 6½ ft., and a height of 28 ft., and some fragments of the entablature, belonging probably to the beginning of the 6th century B.C., so that this is one of the earliest extant Doric temples. The condition of the site was, however, different in ancient times; the rock occupied by the modern town was, it is true, the citadel, but was connected with the land to the west by an isthmus, which was only cut through by Ferdinand I. of Aragon; and it was also a good deal less extensive. The line of the walls which defended the city on the east (land) side has been traced, and a few remains of well-cut blocks, with Greek masons' marks, still exist. In the centre of the Agora was the huge bronze Zeus by Lysippus, and facing on to it the Ποικίλή, or painted portico, with pictorial representations of the life of Phalanthus, and the foundation of the city, and the museum. There was also a fine gymnasium and other buildings mentioned by classical writers. Strabo’s description of the site (vi. 3, 1) is a good one. Of all these structures no traces remain. The Roman amphitheatre, on the other hand, and remains of Roman baths by the seashore, have been found; the former perhaps occupies the site of the ancient theatre, in which the Roman ambassador was received in 281 B.C.

Three fine mosaics of the Roman period were found in the remains of a house in 1899, and transported to the museum (A. Avena, Monumenti dell' Italia Meridionale, Naples, 1903, 239). A fine silver jug and drinking-horn, found in Tarentum in 1889 (now in Triest) are illustrated by A. Puschi and F. Winter in Jahreshefte des Österr. Arch. Instituts, v. (1902) 112. Other silver vessels found in 1896 are in the important local museum (G. Patroni in Notizie degli scavi, 1896, 376), and at Bari (M. Mayer, ibid., 1896, 547). All seem to belong to the 4th century B.C. To the N.W. of the town along the Massafia road, neolithic tombs and a fine Greek hypogaeum in masonry were discovered in 1900.  (T. As.) 

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  1. Large heaps of the shells of the murex, or purple-yielding mussel, were visible on the shore before the extension of the arsenal.