Published: 13 May 2015The Tavola Strozzi, 14723, attributed to Franceso Roselli; view of Naples depicting the Aragonese fleet re-entering the port on July 12, 1465 Photograph: DeAgostini/SuperStock
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In the seventh century BC, before there was a new city called Naples, there was an old city on more or less the same site called Parthenope. Both were Greek, both founded by Greeks who were occupying many other coastal parts of southern Italy at the time. Exactly which Greeks and when? That is a question which still exercises scholars, including Lorenzo Miletti at the beginning of this book. Were these occupiers invaders or colonists? As a general rule of historiography Romans invade and Greeks colonize, but any distinction made by the locals has not survived. The story of one of the Western worlds oldest continuously occupied cities begins with Parthenope.
The city name was a part of that first occupying process. Parthenope was one of the local Sirens who in Book XII of the Odyssey, and many variant versions of the story, sang songs to lure the Greek hero Odysseus to his doom, not anticipating that he would block the seductive sound by filling his sailors ears with wax. In shame at her poor defensive performance she hurled herself from her cliff, a katapontismos that made her tomb a fine foundation stone for a new Greek city. All occupiers wanted their own link to the Trojan War, known to all Greeks as part of their defining narrative of themselves. Parthenope was perfect and her name, though lasting only a hundred years or so on the ground, has long resounded through literature and scholarship, and as far as this fascinating collection of essays in OUPs series, Classical Presences.
As a general rule of historiography Romans invade and Greeks colonize
The first Greeks of Parthenope probably came from the island of Euboea, via an earlier colony at nearby Cumae 15 miles to the West. The founders of Naples may have come from Cumae too, supplemented by reinforcements from Athens and elsewhere back home. These Greeks of Neapolis, the new city, called their predecessor Palaeopolis, the old city, gradually spreading their influence over what was to become one of the most desired and magical parts of the Graeco-Roman world. Underground, through soft volcanic rock, ran rivers and tunnels to Hades. Above ground there was the most clement weather in the country, never too hot, never too cold, perfect for every purpose, as its promoters never missed a chance to say.
One of those purposes was Epicurean philosophy, a serious leisure pursuit in which clever Greeks could teach busy Romans calmness and the perils of fearing death. The poet Virgil, born in Mantua and revered in Rome as the first bard of empire, retired to Naples as his philosophical sunshine home. The Neapolitans devotedly returned the compliment and made him their mascot. Virgil set some of his greatest patriotic scenes in and around Cumae. He called Naples Parthenope and Parthenope was the destination of his ashes, as described on his tomb.
A hundred years later, Naples was home to another fine poet, a born-and-bred Neapolitan, not merely a retiree, although it took a further 1,500 years for the possibilities of this difference to be exploited. Publius Papinius Statius was of a Greek family himself, a successful performer of his poems but much less secure in his life at Rome. His very varied works, still extraordinary and rewarding to read, included luminous descriptions of objects and landscapes, some of the most pertinent for the Neapolitans of his day being his verse evocations of local sites in shorter pieces called the Silvae.
One of his subjects was the house of a wealthy Epicurean, Pollius Felix, which, according to a scruffy signpost today, barely a few hundred yards from the busy centre of Sorrento, still survives in ruined state. The weather at Polliuss place was uniquely clement. Anyone who ever says very clement for the time of year owes something to Statius. Anyone who wants to sense a rare literary connection of past and present can take the second poem in the second book of Silvae and stand on the site. Here can be seen that place where, in the spirit of his age, benign nature was made so satisfyingly more benign by man, where the windows had their incomparable views of Ischia and Vesuvius, where green marble once imitated grass. There were many such villas on the bay where the remembering of Parthenope began.
The different reception of Virgil and Statius in later centuries is a central theme of Jessica Hughes and Claudio Buongiovannis book. Virgils place in Parthenope was paraded from the moment of his death, though not perhaps in the way he might most have wished. He became much more than a poet. The author of the Aeneid was variously the citys owner, its founder, a wizard, a magician tunnel-maker, a worker of miracles and, when Christianity sensed a rival, a worker of Christian miracles. Virgils talismanic powers were appreciated even during the sixth-century Gothic occupation when they were conspicuously failing to deliver. On tourist trips during French rule of the city in the 1340s, Petrarch was properly sceptical of Virgils wizardry in any respect except words. But this lesson from the greatest humanist of his day did not stem Robert of Anjous pride in his magic sites. Just as all Greeks of Naples needed to know the story of Odysseus in order to know themselves, so their successors needed Virgil, and not just the ones who could read a long and complex Latin poem.
Virgils place in Parthenope was paraded from the moment of his death, though not perhaps in the way he might most have wished
Statius, meanwhile, almost entirely disappeared. Boccaccios Neapolitan works, as has been argued by Giancarlo Alfano, show some small awareness. Other testimonies during the Angevin period are rare. More secure with intellectuals than with the populace at large, the reputation of the poet of the Silvae even became merged with another Statius, a Gallic speechifier from Toulouse, a confusion continued by Dante.
In around 1418, however, the humanist Poggio Bracciolini found a manuscript of the Silvae, probably near Lake Constance during the church Council there. In the overall history of Europe the return to light of Pollius Felixs villa prospectus was less significant than that of Lucretius De Rerum Natura, discovered by the same man at about the same time. But in Naples a genuinely local author, still a poet and not a magician priest, soon became useful nonetheless.
As Giancarlo Abbamonte argues, the fall of the French Angevins in 1442 and their replacement by the Spanish Aragonese made a decisive difference to the reputation of the two Parthenopeans. After eight years of war, Alfonso the Magnanimous had finally made good military use of the magic tunnels under Napless walls. In victory he was looking to promote his new citys modernity, its local pride and, not least, his own royal court. Statius, as well as a vivid describer of garden statuary and swimming pools, was a flagrant flatterer of his patrons, an art in which Virgil could be seen as disappointingly subtle. Statius was a proud Parthenopean, a promoter of Napless origins in Euboea, and when the Aragonese, too, fell from power, his exiled supporters extended his fame throughout the courts of Renaissance Europe.
This stimulating story of Parthenopes city is taken on to the present day in three parts and sixteen chapters. These range through the study of the Temple of the Dioscuri, now part of a church, to early city guidebooks, from the construction of the Metro to the Camorra- controlled rubbish collectors strike in 2009. There is nothing about Pompeii or Herculaneum, which is something of a relief.
Peter Stothard is Editor of the TLS. His books include On the Spartacus Road: A spectacular journey through ancient Italy, 2010, and Alexandria: The last nights of Cleopatra, 2013.