Neapolis (Naples) was founded in the eighth century by the Cumans, becoming the cradle of Greek civilization and preserving its costumes until after the Middle Ages. It became the home town of Virgil. It was the host of Isolympic Games as opposed to the Olympic Games from the first century A.D..
The foundation of a core group took place around the ninth century B.C. on the islet of Megaride (now Borgo Marinaro and Castel dell’Ovo) and the nearby coast, in front of Pizzofalcone (also Mount Echia). It was not a real city but a village likely founded the Greeks of Pithecusae (Ischia) who wanted a safe harbor to connect the mainland. This small village was called Parthenope in honor of the homonymous siren, according to legend, she had landed on the islet of Megaride following the heartbreak who had suffered because of Ulysses. Another legend, more credible, says that Parthenope was the beautiful daughter of Eumelo Favelo, one of the Greek leaders who had founded the town. She died during the voyage between Greece and Italy, whose tomb was on the islet of Megaride .
In the second half of the eighth century B.C. the inhabitants of Cuma founded a town on the hill of Pizzofalcone also called Parthenope, joining its with the old center founded by Pithecusian, to expand their power over the whole Campania coast welding. This “polis (town)”, in addition to the old town at the foot of Mount Echia and the islet in front, developed itself from Pizzofalcone, in which probably the agora was located, to the square of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where the acropolis was located, with a urban design that traces the present structure: the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in place of the temple dedicated to Parthenope and the former police barracks in Pizzofalcone in place of the ancient agora.
It was in a very favorable position on a promontory surrounded on three sides by the sea and the fourth side was defended by the ravine towards the current Via Chiaia. At the foot of the hill, where today there are the “giardini della litoranea”, the port of the town was located. Parthenope became an important base to support the Greek ships which intended to reach the most distant colonies from the mother country, located on the coasts of Sardinia and Spain. They were forced to stop to making the necessary supplies.
In the 506 B.C. There were contrasts in the city of Cuma between the tyrant Aristodemus and aristocratic part that caused the expulsion of the same. The hunted aristocrats founded a new city to which they gave the name of Neapolis (new city). It was located about one kilometer to the east of Parthenope, between two rivers. A stream flowed to the west of the city that descended from the hill Arenella, crossed the Cavone, emerging a few meters of the Piazza Dante, to continue for the current Via Monteoliveto, via Medina onto the sea at the Piazza Municipio. Another stream flowed to the east, starting from the hill of Sanità quarter, crossed via Cirillo, via Carbonara, via Maddalena and the Lavinaio (where women washed clothes in the river in ancient times), came out in the sea nearly Piazza del Carmine. In addition, the city was protected to the north by steep hills and to the south by the sea.
Neapolis, ancient name of Naples, replied Cuma in the cult of Demeter and in the division of the city in “Fratie”. The continuous sea contacts with the motherland Greece, in particular with the Evia island, located a few kilometers from Athens and same Athens were the reason for its rapid development. Neapolis surpassed in a few decades Cuma and the same Parthenope, who indeed suffered from this nearby town, with whom he had close relations, but who prevented its economic development.
The aristocrats of the two cities resided in Parthenope. Instead Neapolis represented the economic heart; the two towns were to be considered as a single political entity. In the 466 a.c. Neapolis welcomed the Pithecusians who had left their island because of a violent earthquake. In the following years Oscan people reached the Campania invading Capua and Cuma, causing a migration from these cities to Neapolis. The “new city” was able to better manage relationships with Oscan people avoiding being invaded, giving hospitality and giving some positions in the city government.
From 300 a.c., the presence of Oscan people in the town, lineage Sunni people representing about half of the population, caused continuous contacts with the inhabitants of the Sannio and the presence of a contingent of Sunni soldiers in defense of Oscan people. The other half of the Greek population, tired of the presence of these armed, surrendered to the Romans, making them enter the city, profiting exit from the city of Oscan persons for a religious service in honor of their gods. A pact, named “Foedus Neapolitanum” was later made with the Romans, with which trade relations were developed with Rome.
A curious peculiarity follows this alliance. Roman historians (Strabo, Livy, Lutatius) no longer mentioned the name Parthenope but they called the town with the name Palepolis (old town), considering it an appendix and no longer as the “metropolis” of Neapolis, to the attitude of the deputations of two cities residing in Parthenope, which had proven to not like the alliance with Rome, as opposed to the “princess” of Neapolis, who dealt with Rome in the name of “Palepolis” commercial and military alliances.
Other sources report that Parthenope, no defensive walls, was abandoned by its inhabitants, who took refuge at the Neapolis, well equipped with defensive systems. According to this version of the ancient inhabitants of “Metropolis” were well received by the Neapolitans who built an appendix to the walls on the western side of the town, between Via del Sole (the old street dedicated to the Sun) and via Costantinopoli, area occupied today the so-called “Vecchio Policlinico (old university hospital)”, where Parthenope people found hospitality. This new town area was called Palepolis (old town) because he had replaced the old Parthenope.
Already in the 300 B.C. Neapolis had assumed the urban structure still present in the historic center of the city. It had four “decumani” (roads crossing the city from east to west). The “Decumano superiore”, farther north, which today is called Via Anticaglia for the presence of ancient ruins, now completely hidden by the buildings that face the street; This is still a slight curvature of the road where the great amphitheater had placed, to-day completely covered by a block which presents the round shape of the original greek-Roman building, in whose courtyard are visible the ruins belonging to the ancient amphitheater. The “decumano maggiore” currently called via Tribunali, for the presence of the court (in the seat of the ancient “Vicaria” court) that has worked until a few years ago, and which still hosts representative rooms of the court. At the center of the decumanus, between the current Piazza San Gaetano and the intersection with Via Duomo, was the forum of the town. The “decumano inferiore” is recognizable in via Spaccanapoli, which bisects the old town. The fourth decumanus is only partially recognizable between Via S. Marcellino and Via Arte della Lana having been covered by later construction.
In 280 B.C. Neapolis was attacked by Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, who wanted to take possession of it to have a basis for the subsequent advance towards North, during his expedition to Italy against the Romans. The resistance of Neapolis gave time to Rome to reorganize their defenses up to Capua. Pyrrhic was forced to take refuge in Sicily despite his victories, then leaving Italy, for heavy losses of soldiers had in the fighting against the Romans, hence the saying “Pyrrhic victory“.
Later Neapolis sided with the Romans when Rome was engaged in the Punic wars, in opposition to Capua which was allied with the Carthaginians of Hannibal. This fidelity to Rome favored the town at the expense of Capua, making it the most important city in Campania, promoted to Roman municipality.
In the first century B.C. and in the first century A.D. Neapolis, with its surroundings, turned itself into a holiday resort for wealthy Romans. Between Pizzofalcone and the island of Megaride the magnificent villa of Lucullus was built while Pollio built his villa at the foot of the hill Pausylipon (Posillipo), at a place now called Gaiola. It was also dug a cave (named Sejanus cave) that connected the villa with the Campi Flegrei, it can be visited today from the entrance to the “discesa Coroglio”.
The town became a center of reference for the Greek culture, so as to be appointed by the Emperor Augustus, who was an admirer of that civilization, “the guardian of Greek culture“. In 42 B.C. the school of Filodemo and Sirone was attended by Virgil during his stay in Neapolis. In 2 A.D. the Temple of Isolimpici games was built, games which took place in Neapolis as opposed to the Olympic games held in Olympia. The remains of the temple were found during excavations of Nicola Amore Square Station of Line 1 of the Naples underground.
In 79 A.D. there was the terrible eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, also bringing serious damage to Neapolis. Vesuvius until then was not considered a volcano, having lost the memory of its ancient eruptions, but a friendly mountain, on whose slopes were growing vegetable gardens and vineyards that produced a popular wine in the town. A dramatic eyewitness testimony of the tragedy was that of Pliny the Younger, who from his villa in Misenum could observe the eruption in all its violence, describing it in a letter to his friend Tacitus.
At the end of the first century A.D. The Cristianity began to spread in the town. The new religion was facilitated by the presence of a large Jewish colony in Neapolis who passed to the new creed. The first bishop was Aspreno who was appointed by the St. Peter. One of the first Christian churches were “San Pietro ad Aram”, where it seems that St. Peter said Mass. With Emperor Diocletian there were persecutions of the Christians, which continued until the time of Emperor Constantine. During the reign of Constantine several churches were built including San Giovanni Maggiore and San Gregorio Armeno still exist today. The bishop of Benevento San Gennaro, who was martyred by decapitation in 305 A.D., was elected patron Saint of Naples. The blood of San Gennaro, collected from some of the faithful, is preserved in a glass case in the Cathedral of Naples. Every year its liquefaction miraculously occurs.
In 476 A.D. the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustus was imprisoned by Odoacer in Naples, inside the fortified villa of Lucullus, which was later transformed into Castel dell’Ovo.
(Top picture: Sirena Parthenope – D.G.U. 1831 – vol. IV 2 Flickr British Library.)
A. D’Ambrosio: Storia di Napoli, Nuova E.V. Napoli 1993
Bartolomeo Capasso: Napoli greco-romana, Napoli, 1905
Gino Doria, Storia di una capitale. Napoli dalle origini al 1860., Ricciardi, 1975
Vittorio Gleijeses, La storia di Napoli dalle origini ai nostri giorni, Napoli, 1977