The Fable of Sybaris

Long ago, more than 2,500 years in the past, the city of Sybaris flourished on the heel of what is now Italy. Situated on a bustling line of Greek trade, Sybaris was where seagoing merchants unloaded their precious cargo for distribution along the Western coast. The customs and tolls from the Greeks’ inexorable enterprise made Sybaris one of the richest towns in the ancient world.

According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, the population of 300,000 enjoyed such wealth that all physical labor was done by slaves. Meanwhile, proper citizens wrapped themselves in costly robes and retired to luxurious homes, where they spent their days consuming all manner of exotic meats, pastries and confections. (This is where the word sybarite comes from: one who devotes her life to epicurean pursuits.) So coddled were the citizens of Sybaris that men whose work was disturbingly loud — such as blacksmiths — were forbidden to work in the city lest they disturb the napping of the blissfully unemployed. Some roads in the most affluent areas, we are told, were covered with awnings to shield citizens from the indignities of rain and Mediterranean sunlight.

It was not unheard of for certain noblemen to possess 1,000 servants.

For amusement, the Sybarites taught their war horses to dance to martial music, like circus animals. Cooks and chefs were celebrities. Not until America of the 20th Century would there be a place with so many millionaires per capita.

Unfortunately, around 500 B.C., Sybaris went to war with its neighbor to the East, Crotona, whose natural harbor between Sicily and the North, proved inconveniently competitive on the trade route. Although the Sybarites marched to battle with more than 250,000 soldiers — many of them mercenaries, for the fine fellows of Sybaris, swaddled in jewels and fat from gluttony couldn’t be bothered to fight and die for their luxurious lifestyle — they were comprehensively slaughtered. For when they approached the enemy, the Crotoniates began to loudly play the tunes to which the Sybarite horses had been trained to dance, throwing the entire force into confusion, allowing incomprehensibly large-scale mass murder, rare in modernity, common in the ancient world.

Sybaris, once the proudest, finest, very greatest community in the Greek empire, was so completely sacked and burned that it disappeared in a day.

Around 75 years later, when a group of esteemed Athenians, including Herodotus, established near the site a new colony called Thurii, not a trace of awnings, robes or luxurious palaces remained.

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1 Response

  1. Chris Zambon says:

    Fascinating history