Exploring Paestum and its Prominent Churches

Founded around 600 BC by Greek Achaeans from Sybaris, Paestum is a major coastal Ancient Greek city perched on the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was built with a sanctuary to Poseidon, which explains the city’s old name Poseidonia. It then became an ideal place to harbor refugees from Sybaris after Croton conquered the latter in 510 BC. This explains why coins of Sybaris made their way to the city. However, it wasn’t until 237 BC that the city became the Roman Paestum. The Romans took over after the Graeco-Italian Poseidonians allied with Pyrrhus and lost in a war against Rome.

PaestumWPDocDownsized8900During Hannibal’s invasion, Paestum remained faithful to Rome, receiving special favors.  As a result, however, despite prospering during the Imperial period, the coastal city started to decline between the 4th and 7th centuries. By the Middle Ages, it was abandoned due to the changes in local land drainage, which caused swampy, malarial conditions. It wasn’t until the 18th century that it regained its importance, which is around the time the cities Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered.

Approximately 120 hectares in area, only 25 hectares have been excavated. Visitors can view the 4,750 x 6 x 15 meters walls as well as the 24 square and round towers along them. However, the best attractions of Paestum are the three temples: The First Temple of Hera, the Second Temple of Hera, and the Temple of Athena.

The First Temple of Hera was built by Greek colonists around 550 BC. Now considered the oldest temple in Paestum, archeologists first believed it to be a Roman Basilica (civil building). Upon discovering inscriptions related to Hera and an altar, the building’s purpose was revealed. As for the second temple, it was built around 460 – 450 BC. It has nothing in common with the first temple due to its columns’ symmetrical style. The columns themselves are different as they have 24 flutes rather than the conventional 20 flutes. Furthermore, the columns are wider despite the smaller spaces for placing them. Interestingly, the second Temple of Hera was also used for worshiping Zues Zeus and another god.

Finally, the Temple of Athena was built around 500 BC at the highest point of the city, a little further away from other temples. Its architecture is very similar to early Doric and Ionic styles, which is probably why it attracted Christians early on. Excavations uncovered three medieval Christian tombs, indicating that the temple was used as a church at one point in time.

However, the temples aren’t the only structures spread across Paestum. Visitors can explore the Santa Venera site, which comprises terracotta offertory statuettes of a female nude wearing the headdress of Syrian and Anatolian goddesses. They can also go through the Roman Forum, which is estimated to have been built on the side of the previous Greek agora. Other structures around are a small Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva as well as an amphitheater featuring the traditional Roman pattern.

In addition to the historical and cultural marvels of Paestum, visitors can also revel in the beautiful shores known for their thin sand and small streams. The white beach is also worth visiting, extending over 14 kilometers and providing views of the maquis near the pinewood.

Also nearby is the National Park of Cilento, one of the biggest of its kind in Italy. Crafted by both God and man, the park allows its visitors to marvel at the fusion of the sea and mountains. There are also numerous undamaged buildings dating back to the Greeks’ colonization period, ensuring the park’s loyalty to past cultural origins.

With so much to offer, Paestum truly is an exquisite tourist spot.



Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.