NO EARLY CLASSICAL site in southern Italy can vie with Paestum. But in some ways we feeler closer to the world of the Greek settlers and their contemporaries in lesser places
the Lucanian city walls near Roccagloriosa, high above the Gulf of Policastro, for example; or Velia, the Greek Elea, on the Tyrrhenian coast.
Elea was founded about 540 BC by colonists from Phocea who had been driven from Corsica by an alliance between Carthaginians and Etruscans.
A port of some consequence as the scale of the walls show the city was open not only to trade but also to ideas.
Xenophon of Colophon in Ionia is said to have settled at Elea,
founding the Eleatic school of philosophy which was carried on by his follower Parmenides and then in turn by Zeno,
whom Aristotle regarded as the inventor of dialectic and was eventually murdered by the local tyrant. Under Rome of which it became an ally in about 272 BC,
Velia became a summer resort, where Cicero stayed and Horace was advised to take a cure.
Too much of the low-lying land on the Campanian coast has been ‘developed’, but happily Velia has been largely spared.
The shoreline has receded, so the small acropolis, crowned now by the ruin of a modest Angevin fortress, that extends from a higher ridge, is now some way inland. The original town was on the southern flank of the ridge,
but in the fifth century BC this was considerably extended southwards and on the north side of the ridge: it was protected by walls running from a high point of the ridge,
the Castelloccio, enclosing a roughly triangular area bisected by the substantial wall that descends the ridge towards the acropolis.
In the Roman era, the inhabitants of Velia naturally aspired to the necessary appurtenances of a Roman town: the excavators have exhumed a bath complex and other public buildings in the centre of the town near the South Marine Gate.
A path leads up to the so-called Porta Rossa which is the outstanding monument of the town. The great late-fourth-century BC arch in beautifully graded bossed blocks was appended to an earlier gate below the city wall on the ridge and served as the major thoroughfare between the northern and southern parts of the city.
Its survival must be partly due to the handsome relieving arch above the opening.
Velia’s charm owes much to its position between the rough hills and the shore, and the abundance of wild flowers.
To search out every exposed building and follow the lines of the walls would take many hours.
But if time is pressing, after inspecting the Porta Rossa from the north side, make downwards for the acropolis hill.
Beside the circular medieval tower are the remnants of the podium of what must have been a fine and nobly placed Ionic temple.
A little way below this is the eroded theatre,
Hellenistic in date, aligned on the coast to the south-east: the stage building was inevitably altered to meet Roman specifications. Further down are the remains of a few early domestic buildings in polygonal masonry.