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Taranto, il museo archoelogico della Magnia Grecia

The origins of this beautiful Apulian city, looking out onto the Ionian sea, disappear into the mists of time. Historians think that it was founded in 706 B.C., when a group of Spartans landed on the coast of the gulf; though the ancient name Taras may be of Messapian origin. Alongside the historical theories lie a series of mythical ones, whose roots undoubtedly have some distant connection to real events.

These versions of the city's foundation inc- lude the story of Falanto, the Spartan hero, whom the Delphic oracle foretold would found a city on the spot where he had been drenched by a magical shower of rain falling from a clear blue sky. Falanto, the wandering hero of ancient Sparta, landed in Apulia and underwent a series of sometimes painful adventures, which can be found in Homer.

One night, exhausted by his travels, he fell deeply asleep. His wife, contemplating his sleeping face and all their vicissitudes, burst into uncontrollable tears, which drenched her husband's face. Her name was Etra, which in Greek means "a clear sky"; thus, the prophecy was fulfiled and Falanto carried out the will of the gods, founding the new city.

This is not the only myth which surrounds the subject. Another tells the story of a hero with divine blood in his veins, who also embarked on the coast. His name was Taras and he was no other than the son of Neptune, god of the sea. The story has it that, while he was performing a sacrifice in honour of his father on the banks of an Apulian river, a flashing dolphin appeared. The dolphin was a sign from above: a city was to be founded on the site of the apparition. It is for this reason that even in modern times the coat of arms of Taranto contains the image of Taras riding a dolphin. The real facts are that Taranto was an important Greek colony and later became the most important city of Magna Graecia.

The Spartans managed to concentrate a sizeable movement of sea-traffic on the city and built some magnificent buildings and temples. During the city's period of greatest affluence, its population reached 300 thousand and fabulous riches passed between its walls. The surrounding countryside was extremely fertile, the sea bursting with fish, and on the streets of the city lay the great workshops where the purple robes were woven. People from all over the known world crowded the town, intensifying its commerce and endowing it with prosperity.

It seems that modern Taranto occupies only the acropolis of the gigantic city of Magna Graecia. The latter was gradually filled with grandiose monuments: baths, theatres, temples and museums.
Lysippus built a bronze colossus of Hercules which was considered one of the wonders of the world. Governments were elected following the spirit of wisdom nourished by Pythagoras. Schools flourished and art and science were held in great esteem. The most famous ruler of the city was Archytas whose political instincts did not prevent him from being a great mathematician and a formidable general.

But, the slow cancer of luxury began to devour Taranto from within: some historians have written that at the moment when the city was reaching its highest level of prosperity, the collapse of its institutions and power had already begun. A determining factor was its conflict with Rome. The motive for this conflict was provided by Taranto itself, when the public in a crowded theatre threw mud onto the robes of a Roman ambassador.

Hostilities were begun and even the elephants which Pyrrhus, the King of Epirus, an ally of Taranto, sent into battle could not succeed in driving back the soldiers of Rome. Taranto's fate was sealed: the victorious Romans made a clean sweep of the city's riches. Worse fortune was to come when Taranto set itself against Rome once again, as an ally of Hannibal.

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