The city that we now call Naples began life in the seventh century BC, when Euboean colonists from the town of Cumae founded a small settlement on the rocky headland of Pizzofalcone. This settlement was christened ‘Parthenope’ after the mythical siren whose corpse had supposedly been discovered there, but it soon became known as Palaepolis (‘Old City’), after a Neapolis (‘New City’) was founded close by. These twin cities – both of which are now absorbed into the fabric of modern Naples – were home to some of the most beguiling mythological and historical characters in classical antiquity. Here are just six of them.
Originally this half-bird creature roamed the Campanian coast with her siren sisters, chanting melodies that were sweet – but deadly. Homer tells us that any sailor who came too near to the sirens would “never again be welcomed home by his wife and children”, and describes the piles of bones covered in rotting flesh that decorated the sirens’ lair. Odysseus managed to escape this fate by stuffing his crew members’ ears with wax. He left his own ears unplugged but tied himself to the ship’s mast, which enabled him to hear the song but resist the seduction. Parthenope was distraught and threw herself in the sea. When her drowned body washed up on the shore, some Greek sailors built her a tomb which became the focus for commemorative games and a mysterious torch race.
After antiquity, Parthenope was hailed as a protectress and symbol of Naples. One sixteenth-century fountain shows her standing in the crater of Vesuvius, holding her breasts in her hands as two streams of water spurt out of her nipples to quench the volcano’s superheated flow. A more gruesome image is found in Curzio Malaparte’s 1949 novel La Pelle (‘The Skin’), by which time it had become customary to represent the sirens as mermaids. In the film adaptation of the novel, we see the small, childlike body of what appears to be a siren served up at a banquet for some contemptuous foreign dignitaries – a clear allegory for the city’s decline during and after the Second World War (and enough to put you off fish forever).
The Roman poet Virgil was buried in Naples, making the city an eternal place of pilgrimage for other poets and artists. Petrarch, Dante, and Mozart are some of the more famous tourists to have visited the site of Virgil’s tomb on the hill of Posilippo, although it’s unlikely that this modest columbarium tomb really contains the great poet’s body (this was simply wishful thinking on the part of Petrarch). Another set of medieval stories turned Virgil into a sorcerer, whose masterpiece was an egg with the power to keep Naples safe for as long as its shell stayed intact. This egg was hidden inside the Castle that still bears its name – the ‘Castel dell’Ovo’, on the tiny island of Megaride across from Via Parthenope on the mainland.
Lucius Cocceius Auctus
Lucius Cocceius Auctus was an Augustan architect renowned for building two enormous tunnels through the Neapolitan subsoil, known today as the Crypta Neapolitana and the Grotta di Seiano. The geographer, Strabo, thought that Cocceius must have taken inspiration from ancient stories of the Cimmerri, a mythical race of people said to live underground in a network of tunnels around the nearby Lake Avernus. Whatever his source, Cocceius’ subterranean creations soon became central to Naples’ urban identity and would themselves go on to inspire some highly atmospheric literary descriptions – as well as a set of colourful medieval legends.
Tiberius Julius Tarsos
The Roman freedman Tiberius Julius Tarsos built a temple to the Dioscuri in the centre of Naples; today, you can still see two of its Corinthian columns built into the facade of the church of S. Paolo Maggiore. Originally these columns supported a magnificent pediment filled with sculptures of mythical and historical figures including Artemis, Apollo, and perhaps also a personification of the local Sebethos river. Legend has it that St Peter himself made these sculptures fall from the pediment when he passed through Naples on his way to Rome, and what Peter didn’t manage to destroy, a seventeenth-century earthquake unfortunately finished off for him. Luckily, we still have drawings made by Renaissance artists and antiquarians which preserve details of this great monument, including the large marble inscription from the front of the facade naming Tarsos and the gods to whom the temple was dedicated.
No list of great Neapolitans could leave out the early Christian martyr Saint Janarius (San Gennaro in Italian), or the two vials of his dried blood which still liquefy miraculously three times a year. San Gennaro is said to have been put to death in Pozzuoli in 305AD, in the final year of the Diocletianic Persecutions. He and some fellow Christians were beheaded inside the Solfatara crater, which was already a place redolent with ancient mythological associations (Strabo described it as the ‘Forum of Hephaestus’). Like Parthenope and Virgil before him, Gennaro was swiftly adopted as the city’s patron and protector, and – again like Parthenope – he was also seen to combat the fires of Vesuvius with one of his bodily fluids. This time though, it wasn’t the quenching nature of breast-milk, but the ‘sympathetic magic’ of erupting red blood which stopped the flow of volcanic materials.
Romulus Augustulus was the last Roman Emperor, and he made Naples great(er) by ending his life there. He’d been exiled to the city at some point during the later fifth century, and imprisoned on Megaride in the very castle that would later become home to Virgil’s legendary egg. In hindsight, the body of Romulus Augustulus had its own talismanic quality – for just as the fate of Naples was linked to the fragile egg, the death of Romulus signalled the end of the whole Roman imperial lineage. Even more mysterious is the fact that his body vanished without a trace, and that no monument (other than the castle itself) survives to commemorate him. But then, perhaps that’s the perfect way to end an Empire?
Headline image: Napoli da Corso Vittorio Emanuele by IlSistemone. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.