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Ancient Greek temples at Paestum, Italy

Ancient Greek Temples at Paestum: Hera I, c. 560-530 B.C.E., Archaic Period; Hera II, c. 460 B.C.E., Classical Period; Temple of Minerva, c. 500 B.C.E. Archaic Period. A conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(quick tempo piano music) Voiceover: We're in a small town on the Meditteranean called Paestum. Voiceover: Paestum is the Roman name, the Latin name. Before that, it was Greek, and it was called Poseidonia. The town was named after the God of the Sea, Poseidon. Voiceover: This was a Greek settlement, sometimes called a colony, although it was really an independent small Greek city. Voiceover: And there were lots of these all over the south of Italy in what historians call Magna Graecia, or the greater Greece. Greece had colonies in Italy but also in many other places in the Mediterranean including what is now Turkey. Paestum contains three fabulously preserved ancient Greek Doric temples, two from the archaic period of the sixth century and one from the classical period of the fifth century. The Greeks, over time, adjusted the proportions of the architecture, of the width of the columns and number of columns on the front and side, always in a search for perfection or ideal beauty. Voiceover: The oldest of the three is dedicated to the Goddess Hera, who was the wife of Zeus. This temple, Hera One, has all of the elements that we would expect to see in a Doric temple. It's got massive heavy columns that have no feet. They go directly into the platform of the temple itself, the Stylobate. They rise up with a shallow broad fluting and, and end in a very simple geometric capital. In addition, that temple has a kind of exaggerated entasis. The column isn't straight. It bulges towards the middle and tapers towards the top. In this case it's so exaggerated it makes it seem as if the column is bulging under the weight above. Voiceover: And the capitals also almost seem flattened by the weight of the roof so there's a real sense of horizontality and of weight in the oldest of these temples. Voiceover: The temple is an interesting deviation. The front of it has nine columns across and that's a little bit peculiar. Because it's an odd number, you have to walk around that central column. Voiceover: Greek temples were really meant as houses for the Gods, not the way we think of a temple or a church as a place of worship. The worship would have happened outside of the temple. But in the case of Hera One there's a row of columns right in the middle of the Cella so it's hard to imagine how the cult statue fit inside. Voiceover: Actually, there's a number of different theories about this. Some have suggested that perhaps this was a temple to both Hera and her husband Zeus, in which case perhaps there were two cult statues in the back, but to be honest nobody knows for sure. There is a lovely sense of balance, of proportion of Hera one, of this oldest of the three temples. You've got nine columns in front and on the side you've got 18, so you've got a very neat geometric doubling. Voiceover: And art historians really like to contrast the older Hera One with so-called Hera Two from the classical period, which is very different in it's proportions. It has a much greater sense of verticality, of being more slender, of not being so subsumed under the weight of the roof. It's also, in many ways, better preserved in that we can see the frieze with the triglyphs and metopes and part of the pediment remains. Voiceover: But probably the biggest difference for me between Hera One and the so-called Hera Two is that Hera Two is much closer to what we have come to expect from a Doric temple such as the Parthenon, on the acropolis in Athens. This has six columns in the front so it is symmetrical in the front. There is a gap in the middle that we could walk through. And the side contains 14 columns. This temple, though, has some other kinds of variations. It's got a second colonnade just in back of the first, and then the interior space is defined by an outer wall and then a colonnade that has a second set of columns above it. Voiceover: This seems to be a better solution for supporting the roof than a row of columns down the center that we see in Hera One. Voiceover: So lets spend a moment really looking at Hera Two and looking at the changes that have taken place. The columns have less pronounced entasis. In addition, the flair at the top of the column, at the base of the capital, is not as exaggerated, it's not as wide or as plate-like as it was in Hera One. Voiceover: And as a result, this structure has a greater sense of lift. But one of the things that's often missing from a discussion of both of these temples is the location. All around are even older Greek ruins and Roman ruins. The Romans would conquer this area, would take the entire peninsula of Italy, they would push out the Greeks in the south of Italy and push out the Etruscans in the north. Voiceover: They took this area of Paestum in the third century BCE so that's when this became Roman. Voiceover: So all around these temples are roman houses, roman apartment blocks, there's an amphitheater. Voiceover: These things literally coexisting. When we look at Hera Two, this classical Doric temple, I think it's also useful to think about ancient Greek sculpture that was made at this time like the Doryphoros or some of the images of Gods and Goddesses that we saw today in the museum in Naples or of Greek athletes and heroes. We're at this moment of what was called the Golden Age of Greece, of Periclean Athens, of the invention of Democracy, of humanist philosophy. Voiceover: The culture that at this very moment was inventing the geometry that we still use, was seeking to understand the movements of the heavens, the movement of the human body, was inventing the philosophy that we still struggle with. We're looking at artifacts, at buildings, that were created by a culture that profoundly shaped our world. Voiceover: Both of these temples and the third temple that archaeologists believe was dedicated to Minerva or Athena all have a sense, to me, of rising out of the landscape, of giving form to human aspiration. (fast tempo piano music)