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Spartans, Twice-Removed

There’s a scene in the movie Patton that’s takes place on a low, desolate, Tunisian hill overlooking a raw plain. The only sounds are an eerie rustle of wind and echoes from distant trumpets. George C. Scott’s character stands against the skyline and recalls the last, fateful battle when Rome crushed its mortal enemy, Carthage, and then ground the city to dust, sewing the land with salt.

It’s a typically phony Hollywood scene in a typically phony Hollywood setting that doesn’t resemble Carthage at all. But the feel of it is powerful.

On an early summer day, with only my bride, me and the wind there to touch the past, the ruins of ancient Eraklea’s acropolis evoked much of that same feeling.

That may be because, under the visible ruins was another, much older, city: Siris, a great and powerful rival for other Greeks along the southern Italian coast. Siris was so powerful that it took the combined forces of three other cities to bring it down: Croton, Metaponto and Sybaris.

By 530 BC, they had wiped Siris from the earth. But, it’s lands, watered by the river Sinni, were still rich and fertile. And, there was another city rising in the east, Taras.

Eraklea was founded on the site of dead Siris a hundred years later, just before the Peloponnesian War. It was a colony of Taras (modern Taranto). And, Taras was itself a colony of Sparta, founded about 300 years earlier (c. 700 BC).

A couple hundred years after its founding, Eraklea became a Roman ally in 278. But, when Hannibal showed up with his elephants in 218 to slap Rome around, Erakleans injudiciously chose his side. Oopsie Doopsie.

Those unwise Erakleans’ descendants became officially Roman after another hundred years or so, in 89 BC.

Seven hundred years later, as with nearly all Classical cities on that coast, Arab pirates forced the people back up into the rugged hills for another five hundred years. Those pesky guys did love collecting an infidel slave or three whenever possible. Then, after the Normans took control, new towns began to spring up elsewhere. No one returned to the ancient sites until modern era archaeologists arrived.

The acropolis of Siris-Eraklea lies just west of the river. It’s a 70 foot high, flat mound about half a mile long and 1/8th of a mile wide. There are extensive ruins, but few stand taller than knee-high. And, even this much exposure is thanks to the archaeologists’ careful work. You can look across the entire artificial plateau in any direction. So can the wind.

Except for a couple small projects, no one has dug on the acropolis in several decades. The grasses grow waist-high in places. And, though folks from the museum below do mow the main streets now and then, it feels as old as it is.

If you know that the ghosts of dead Siris lie just below everything you see, that ‘Patton’ connection can take hold, especially when the breeze sighs and swirls in random eddies across the yellow grass, then skitters off into the distance.

Hardly anyone goes up there now, or stays for long, except die-hard archaeo-geeks like us. But, the little tri-fold flyer shows the layout clearly, and you can learn a lot about the ancients’ ability to deliver running water in and out. Strolling around, it also seems pretty easy to get a feel for who lived where and why.

And, now and then, when the breeze rolls a pebble, you will turn to check who’s not there.

The spirits of Siris really are that close.

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  1. December 29, 2011 at 12:13 pm

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