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Heraclea (also Heracleia or Herakleia; Greek: ) was an ancient city of Magna Graecia, situated in Lucania on the Gulf of Tarentum (modern Gulf of Tarantomarker), but a short distance from the sea, and between the rivers Aciris (modern Agrimarker) and Siris (modern Sinni), the site of which is located in the modern comune of Policoromarker, Province of Matera, Basilicata, Italymarker.


It was a Greek colony, but founded at a period considerably later than most of the other Greek cities in this part of Italy. The territory in which it was established had previously belonged to the Ionic colony of Siris, and after the fall of that city seems to have become the subject of contention between the neighboring states. The Atheniansmarker had a claim upon the territory of Siris, and it was probably in virtue of this that their colonists the Thurians, almost immediately after their establishment in Italy, advanced similar pretensions. These were, however, resisted by the Tarentinesmarker; and war ensued between the two states, which was at length terminated by an arrangement that they should found a new colony in the disputed district, which, though in fact a joint settlement, should be designated as a colony of Tarentum (modern Tarantomarker). The few remaining inhabitants of Siris were added to the new colonists, and it would appear that the settlement was first established on the ancient site of Siris itself, but was subsequently transferred from thence, and a new city founded about 24 stadia from the former, and nearer the river Aciris, to which the name of Heraclea was given. Siris did not cease to exist, but lapsed into the subordinate condition of the port or emporium of Heraclea. The foundation of the new city is placed by Diodorus in 432 BCE, fourteen years after the settlement of Thurii; a statement which appears to agree well with the above narrative, cited by Strabo from Antiochus of Syracuse. Diodorus, as well as Livy, calls it simply a colony of Tarentum. Antiochus is the only writer who mentions the share taken by the Thurians in its original foundation. Pliny erroneously regards Heraclea as identical with Siris, to which it had succeeded; and it was perhaps a similar misconception that led Livy, by a strange anachronism, to include Heraclea among the cities of Magna Graecia where Pythagoras established his institutions.

The new colony appears to have risen rapidly to power and prosperity, protected by the fostering care of the Tarentines, who were at one time engaged in war with the Messapians for its defence. It was probably owing to the predominant influence of Tarentum also that Heraclea was selected as the place of meeting of the general assembly ( ) of the Italiot Greeks; a meeting apparently originally of a religious character, but of course easily applicable to political objects, and which for that reason Alexander, king of Epirus, sought to transfer to the Thurians for the purpose of weakening the influence of Tarentum.

But beyond the general fact that it enjoyed great wealth and prosperity, advantages which it doubtless owed to the noted fertility of its territory, we have scarcely any information concerning the history of Heraclea until we reach a period when it was already beginning to decline. We cannot doubt that it took part with the Tarentines in their wars against the Messapians and Lucanians, and it appears to have fallen gradually into a state of almost dependence upon that city, though without ever ceasing to be, in name at least, an independent state. Hence, when Alexander, king of Epirus, who had been invited to Italy by the Tarentines, subsequently became hostile to that people, he avenged himself by taking Heraclea, and, as already mentioned, transferred to the Thurians the general assemblies that had previously been held there. During the war of Pyrrhus with the Romans, Heraclea was the scene of the first conflict between the two powers, the consul Laevinus being totally defeated by the Epirot king in a battle (subsequently called the Battle of Heraclea) fought between the city of Heraclea and the river Siris, 280 BCE.

Heraclea was certainly at this time in alliance with the Tarentines and Lucanians against Rome; and it was doubtless with the view of detaching it from this alliance that the Romans were induced shortly afterwards (278 BCE) to grant to the Heracleans a treaty of alliance on such favorable terms that it is called by Cicero prope singulare foedus. Heraclea preserved this privileged condition throughout the period of the Roman Republic; and hence, even when in 89 BCE the Lex Plautia Papiria conferred upon its inhabitants, in common with the other cities of Italy, the rights of Roman citizens, they hesitated long whether they would accept the proffered boon. We hear that Heraclea surrendered under compulsion to Hannibal in 212 BCE. We have no account of the part taken by Heraclea in the Social War; but from an incidental notice in Cicero, that all the public records of the city had been destroyed by fire at that period, it would seem to have suffered severely. Cicero nevertheless speaks of it, in his defence of the poet Aulus Licinius Archias (who had been adopted as a citizen of Heraclea), as still a flourishing and important town, and it appears to have been one of the few Greek cities in the south of Italy that still preserved their consideration under the Roman dominion. Its name is unaccountably omitted by the 2nd century AD geographer Ptolemy; but its existence at a much later period is attested by the Antonine Itinerary and the Tabula Peutingeriana. It was still a place of some importance under the empire; a branch road from Venusia joined the coast road at Heraclea.

The time and circumstances of its final extinction are wholly unknown, but the site is now desolate, and the whole neighbouring district, once celebrated as one of the most fertile in Italy, was by the mid-19th century almost wholly uninhabited. The position of the ancient city may nevertheless be clearly identified; and though no ruins worthy of the name are still extant, large heaps of rubbish and foundations of ancient buildings mark the site of Heraclea near Policoro, about 5 km from the sea, and a short distance from the right bank of the Aciris. Numerous coins, bronzes, and other relics of antiquity have been discovered on the spot. A medieval town, Anglona, was founded on the site; however, once a bishopric, now itself is but a heap of ruins, among which are those of an 11th century church.

Tabulae Heracleenses

The bronze tablets commonly known as the Tabulae Heracleenses, one of the most interesting artifacts of antiquity still remaining, were found a short distance from the site of Heraclea, between it and Metapontummarker.

As a consequence of its having accepted Roman citizenship in 89 BCE, Heraclea became a municipium, and the Tabulae Heracleenses contain a long Latin inscription relating to the municipal regulations of Heraclea, which is a part of a copy of a more general law, the Lex Iulia Municipalis, issued in 45 BCE for the regulation of the municipal institutions of the towns throughout Italy. This curious and important document, which is one of our chief authorities for the municipal law of ancient Italy, is engraved on two tables of bronze, at the back of which is found a long Greek inscription of much earlier date, probably the 3rd century BC, defining the boundaries of lands belonging to various temples. The Latin one has been repeatedly published (Murat. Inscr. vol. ii. p. 582; Haubold, Mon. Legal. pp. 98-133, &c.), and copiously illustrated with legal commentaries by Dirksen (8vo. Berlin, 1817-1820) and Savigny (in his Vermischte Schriften vol. iii.). Both inscriptions were published, with very elaborate commentaries and disquisitions on all points connected with Heraclea, by Mazocchi (2 vols. fol. Naples, 1754, 1755).


Heraclea is generally regarded as the native country of the celebrated painter Zeuxis, though there is much doubt to which of the numerous cities of the name that distinguished artist really owed his birth. But the flourishing state of the arts in the Lucanian Heraclea (in common with most of the neighbouring cities of Magna Graecia) is attested by the beauty and variety of its coins, some of which may deservedly be reckoned among the choicest specimens of Greek art; while their number sufficiently proves the opulence and commercial activity of the city to which they belong.


  1. Herodotus, 8.61–62.
  2. Strabo, 6.1.14.
  3. Strabo, 6.1.14; Diodorus, 12.36.4.
  4. Livy, 8.24.
  5. Livy, 1.18; Pliny, 3.15 (11).
  6. Strabo, 6.3.4.
  7. Livy, 8.24; Strabo, 6.3.4.
  8. Plutarch, Pyrrhus 16, 17, p. 531; Florus, 1.18.7; Zonaras, 8.4; Orosius, 4.1. It is a striking instance of the carelessness of the Roman epitomisers, and their consequent worthlessness as geographical authorities, that Florus places this battle apud Heracleam et Campaniae flumen Lirim, mistaking the river Siris for the Liris; and the same blunder occurs in Orosius, who says, apud Heracleam Campaniae urbem, fluviumque Lirim; for which last the editors substitute Sirim, though the mistake is evidently that of the author, and not of the copyist.
  9. Cicero, pro Balbo, 22 (50), vol 3, p. 334.
  10. Cicero, pro Balbo 8 (21), vol 3, p. 319.
  11. Cicero, pro Archia 4 (8), vol 2, p. 415.
  12. Strabo, 6.1.14; Cicero, pro Archia 4 (6), vol 2, p. 414, 5 (10), vol 2, p. 416; Mela 2.4.8; Pliny, 3.15 (11).
  13. Eckhel, p. 153; James Millingen, p. 111.


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