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Ch. 6: The Table of the Paladins

For two or three days a roaring north wind whitened the sea with foam; it kept the sky clear, and from morning to night there was magnificent sunshine, but, none the less, one suffered a good deal from cold. The streets were barer than ever; only in the old town, where high, close walls afforded a good deal of shelter, was there a semblance of active life. But even here most of the shops seemed to have little, if any, business; frequently I saw the tradesman asleep in a chair, at any hour of daylight. Indeed, it must be very difficult to make the day pass at Taranto. I noticed that, as one goes southward in Italy, the later do ordinary people dine; appetite comes slowly in this climate. Between colazione at midday and pranzo at eight, or even half-past, what an abysm of time! Of course, the Tarantine never reads; the only bookshop I could discover made a poorer display than even that at Cosenza--it was not truly a bookseller's at all, but a fancy stationer's. How the women spend their lives one may vainly conjecture. Only on Sunday did I see a few of them about the street; they walked to and from Mass, with eyes on the ground, and all the better-dressed of them wore black.

When the weather fell calm again, and there was pleasure in walking, I chanced upon a trace of the old civilization which interested me more than objects ranged in a museum. Rambling eastward along the outer shore, in the wilderness which begins as soon as the town has disappeared, I came to a spot as uninviting as could be imagined, great mounds of dry rubbish, evidently deposited here by the dust-carts of Taranto; luckily, I continued my walk beyond this obstacle, and after a while became aware that I had entered upon a road--a short piece of well-marked road, which began and ended in the mere waste. A moment's examination, and I saw that it was no modern by-way. The track was clean-cut in living rock, its smooth, hard surface lined with two parallel ruts nearly a foot deep; it extended for some twenty yards without a break, and further on I discovered less perfect bits. Here, manifestly, was the seaside approach to Tarentum, to Taras, perhaps to the Phoenician city which came before them. Ages must have passed since vehicles used this way; the modern high road is at some distance inland, and one sees at a glance that this witness of ancient traffic has remained by Time's sufferance in a desert region. Wonderful was the preservation of the surface: the angles at the sides, where the road had been cut down a little below the rock-level, were sharp and clean as if carved yesterday, and the profound ruts, worn, perhaps, before Rome had come to her power, showed the grinding of wheels with strange distinctness. From this point there is an admirable view of Taranto, the sea, and the mountains behind.

Of the ancient town there remains hardly anything worthy of being called a ruin. Near the shore, however, one can see a few remnants of a theatre--perhaps that theatre where the Tarentines were sitting when they saw Roman galleys, in scorn of treaty, sailing up the Gulf.

My last evenings were brightened by very beautiful sunsets; one in particular remains with me; I watched it for an hour or more from the terrace-road of the island town. An exquisite after-glow seemed as if it would never pass away. Above thin, grey clouds stretching along the horizon a purple flush melted insensibly into the dark blue of the zenith. Eastward the sky was piled with lurid rack, sullen-tinted folds edged with the hue of sulphur. The sea had a strange aspect, curved tracts of pale blue lying motionless upon a dark expanse rippled by the wind. Below me, as I leaned on the sea-wall, a fisherman's boat crept duskily along the rocks, a splash of oars soft-sounding in the stillness. I looked to the far Calabrian hills, now scarce distinguishable from horizon cloud, and wondered what chances might await me in the unknown scenes of my further travel.

The long shore of the Ionian Sea suggested many a halting-place. Best of all, I should have liked to swing a wallet on my shoulder and make the whole journey on foot; but this for many reasons was impossible. I could only mark points of the railway where some sort of food or lodging might be hoped for, and the first of these stoppages was Metaponto.

Official time-bills of the month marked a train for Metaponto at 4.56 A.M., and this I decided to take, as it seemed probable that I might find a stay of some hours sufficient, and so be able to resume my journey before night. I asked the waiter to call me at a quarter to four. In the middle of the night (as it seemed to me) I was aroused by a knocking, and the waiter's voice called to me that, if I wished to leave early for Metaponto, I had better get up at once, as the departure of the train had been changed to 4.15--it was now half-past three. There ensued an argument, sustained, on my side, rather by the desire to stay in bed this cold morning than by any faith in the reasonableness of the railway company. There must be a mistake! The orario for the month gave 4.56, and how could the time of a train be changed without public notice? Changed it was, insisted the waiter; it had happened a few days ago, and they had only heard of it at the hotel this very morning. Angry and uncomfortable, I got my clothes on, and drove to the station, where I found that a sudden change in the time-table, without any regard for persons relying upon the official guide, was taken as a matter of course. In chilly darkness I bade farewell to Taranto.

At a little after six, when palest dawn was shimmering on the sea, I found myself at Metaponto, with no possibility of doing anything for a couple of hours. Metaponto is a railway station, that and nothing more, and, as a station also calls itself a hotel, I straightway asked for a room, and there dozed until sunshine improved my humour and stirred my appetite. The guidebook had assured me of two things: that a vehicle could be had here for surveying the district, and that, under cover behind the station, one would find a little collection of antiquities unearthed hereabout. On inquiry, I found that no vehicle, and no animal capable of being ridden, existed at Metaponto; also that the little museum had been transferred to Naples. It did not pay to keep the horse, they told me; a stranger asked for it only "once in a hundred years." However, a lad was forthcoming who would guide me to the ruins. I breakfasted (the only thing tolerable being the wine), and we set forth.

It was a walk of some two or three miles, by a cart road, through fields just being ploughed for grain. All about lay a level or slightly rolling country, which in winter becomes a wilderness of mud; dry traces of vast slough and occasional stagnant pools showed what the state of things would be a couple of months hence. The properties were divided by hedges of agave--huge growths, grandly curving their sword-pointed leaves. Its companion, the spiny cactus, writhed here and there among juniper bushes and tamarisks. Along the wayside rose tall, dead thistles, white with age, their great cluster of seed-vessels showing how fine the flower had been. Above our heads, peewits were wheeling and crying, and lizards swarmed on the hard, cracked ground.

We passed a few ploughmen, with white oxen yoked to labour. Ploughing was a fit sight at Metapontum, famous of old for the richness of its soil; in token whereof the city dedicated at Delphi its famous Golden Sheaf. It is all that remains of life on this part of the coast; the city had sunk into ruin before the Christian era, and was never rebuilt. Later, the shore was too dangerous for habitation. Of all the cities upon the Ionian Sea, only Tarentum and Croton continued to exist through the Middle Ages, for they alone occupied a position strong for defence against pirates and invaders. A memory of the Saracen wars lingers in the name borne by the one important relic of Metapontum, the Tavola de' Paladini; to this my guide was conducting me.

It is the ruin of a temple to an unknown god, which stood at some distance north of the ancient city; two parallel rows of columns, ten on one side, five on the other, with architrave all but entire, and a basement shattered. The fine Doric capitals are well preserved; the pillars themselves, crumbling under the tooth of time, seem to support with difficulty their noble heads. This monument must formerly have been very impressive amid the wide landscape; but, a few years ago, for protection against peasant depredators, a wall ten feet high was built close around the columns, so that no good view of them is any longer obtainable. To the enclosure admission is obtained through an iron gateway with a lock. I may add, as a picturesque detail, that the lock has long been useless; my guide simply pushed the gate open. Thus, the ugly wall serves no purpose whatever save to detract from the beauty of the scene.

Vegetation is thick within the temple precincts; a flowering rose bush made contrast of its fresh and graceful loveliness with the age-worn strength of these great carved stones. About their base grew luxuriantly a plant which turned my thoughts for a moment to rural England, the round-leaved pennywort. As I lingered here, there stirred in me something of that deep emotion which I felt years ago amid the temples of Paestum. Of course, this obstructed fragment holds no claim to comparison with Paestum's unique glory, but here, as there, one is possessed by the pathos of immemorial desolation; amid a silence which the voice has no power to break, nature's eternal vitality triumphs over the greatness of forgotten men.

At a distance of some three miles from this temple there lies a little lake, or a large pond, which would empty itself into the sea but for a piled barrier of sand and shingle. This was the harbour of Metapontum.

I passed the day in rambling and idling, and returned for a meal at the station just before train-time. The weather could not have been more enjoyable; a soft breeze and cloudless blue. For the last half-hour I lay in a hidden corner of the eucalyptus grove--trying to shape in fancy some figure of old Pythagoras. He died here (says story) in 497 B.C.--broken-hearted at the failure of his efforts to make mankind gentle and reasonable. In 1897 A.D. that hope had not come much nearer to its realization. Italians are yet familiar with the name of the philosopher, for it is attached to the multiplication table, which they call tavola pitagorica. What, in truth, do we know of him? He is a type of aspiring humanity; a sweet and noble figure, moving as a dim radiance through legendary Hellas. The English reader hears his name with a smile, recalling only the mention of him, in mellow mirth, by England's greatest spirit. "What is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wild fowl?" Whereto replies the much-offended Malvolio: "That the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a bird." He of the crossed garters disdains such fantasy. "I think nobly of the soul, and no way approve his opinion."

I took my ticket for Cotrone, which once was Croton. At Croton, Pythagoras enjoyed his moment's triumph, ruling men to their own behoof. At Croton grew up a school of medicine which glorified Magna Graecia. "Healthier than Croton," said a proverb; for the spot was unsurpassed in salubrity; beauty and strength distinguished its inhabitants, who boasted their champion Milon. After the fall of Sybaris, Croton became so populous that its walls encircled twelve miles. Hither came Zeuxis, to adorn with paintings the great temple of Hera on the Lacinian promontory; here he made his picture of Helen, with models chosen from the loveliest maidens of the city. I was light-hearted with curious anticipation as I entered the train for Cotrone.

While daylight lasted, the moving landscape held me attentive. This part of the coast is more varied, more impressive, than between Taranto and Metaponto. For the most part a shaggy wilderness, the ground lies in strangely broken undulations, much hidden with shrub and tangled boscage. At the falling of dusk we passed a thickly-wooded tract large enough to be called a forest; the great trees looked hoary with age, and amid a jungle of undergrowth, myrtle and lentisk, arbutus and oleander, lay green marshes, dull deep pools, sluggish streams. A spell which was half fear fell upon the imagination; never till now had I known an enchanted wood. Nothing human could wander in those pathless shades, by those dead waters. It was the very approach to the world of spirits; over this woodland, seen on the verge of twilight, brooded a silent awe, such as Dante knew in his selva oscura.

Of a sudden the dense foliage was cleft; there opened a broad alley between drooping boughs, and in the deep hollow, bordered with sand and stones, a flood rolled eastward. This river is now called Sinno; it was the ancient Sins, whereon stood the city of the same name. In the seventh century before Christ, Sins was lauded as the richest city in the world; for luxury it outrivalled Sybaris.

I had recently been reading Lenormant's description of the costumes of Magna Graecia prior to the Persian wars. Sins, a colony from Ionia, still kept its Oriental style of dress. Picture a man in a long, close-clinging tunic which descended to his feet, either of fine linen, starched and pleated, or of wool, falling foldless, enriched with embroidery and adorned with bands of gay-coloured geometric patterns; over this a wrap (one may say) of thick wool, tight round the bust and leaving the right arm uncovered, or else a more ample garment, elaborately decorated like the long tunic. Complete the picture with a head ornately dressed, on the brow a fringe of ringlets; the long hair behind held together by gold wire spirally wound; above, a crowning fillet, with a jewel set in the front; the beard cut to a point, and the upper lip shaven. You behold the citizen of these Hellenic colonies in their stately prime.

Somewhere in that enchanted forest, where the wild vine trails from tree to tree, where birds and creatures of the marshy solitude haunt their ancient home, lie buried the stones of Sins.


George Gissing