Scylletium and its manuscript collector son Cassiodorus

A trip to the ancient site of Scylletium on the eastern Calabrian coast, south of Catanzaro, is a journey back along the historical roots of the Italian peninsula. Its beginnings are unclear, but in classical times it was either believed to have been founded by an Athenian colony involved in the Trojan War or by the legendary Odysseus, the protagonist of Homer’s epic Odyssey poem.

From 124 BC, when the Romans sent a colony to the area, it experienced a period of flourishing and became known as Scolacium. During the late Roman and early medieval period, one of the town’s most famous sons, the writer and librarian Cassiodorus (490-585 AD), founded the Vivarium monastery nearby which was dedicated to the collecting and copying of manuscripts produced by both Christian and Pagan authors. His efforts to record and preserve ancient writings have had a profound impact on Western culture because the practice set an example that was followed by monasteries throughout Europe in the medieval period, helping to conserve a wealth of historical texts.

Ruins that can be visited in the archaeological site today include the ancient forum and theatre, as well as the amphitheatre, one of the few discovered in Southern Italy and the only one in Calabria. According to information provided by the site, it was constructed in the first half of the second century AD, when the city was beautified with several public works after its re-foundation under the Roman Emperor Nerva. Like similar arenas of the time, it was used for gladiator battles and animal fights.

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When I visited in May 2016, archaeologists were hard at work on preservation and restoration efforts.

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The theatre nearby is one of the most significant from the Roman era in Calabria, both for its structure and spectator capacity. It was built in several phases up until the 2nd Century AD.

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It is a pleasure to explore the archaeological area of Scylletium because it is surrounded by some gorgeous wild flowers, especially during the Spring and early Summer months. These included poppies, daisies and flowering Indian figs.

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The museum on the site is also worth visiting to understand more about the people who lived in Scolacium. One of its highlights is a splendid collection of white marble statues found here which mainly portray prominent citizens.

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The statues also include a depiction of the Genius Augusti, which is a personification of the guiding spirit of the Emperor. I also liked a statue dating to the second century AD that likely portrayed a princess from the imperial house as the figure of Demetra or Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, grains and fertility.

scolacium2During the early medieval period, the Calabrian coast faced a lot of Saracen and pirate attacks. Several coastal settlements started to move inland, including many of the inhabitants of Scolacium, who set up the nearby town of Squillace in the hills. Squillace expanded rapidly and became a religious and tourist centre of the time.

It was during this period that Cassiodorus lived. He founded the Vivarium monastery on his family estate near Squillace, with the aim of perpetuating the culture of Rome. He encouraged monks to collect and copy manuscripts from Pagan and Christian tradition so that they could be preserved. One of his most important written works, An Introduction to Divine and Human Readings, discusses how to study scripture as well as the medieval liberal arts including grammar, rhetoric, music, maths and astronomy.

According to his accounts, his monastery near Squillace contained a scriptorium, which was a room for collecting and transcribing manuscripts. He also built up a library here to help Latin readers learn about Greek culture and to preserve knowledge for future generations. Unfortunately his collection was lost, but his efforts encouraged others to follow similar practices.

I like the sound of Cassiodorus because he was dedicated to promoting education in his community, preserving both Christian and Pagan texts, and to bridging cultural divides such as Roman and Goth, East and West and Greek and Latin culture. He is depicted in the manuscript below at his desk, studying.

squillace10On the way into the Scolacium site, you walk through beautiful olive groves, and see the spectacular remains of the Roccelletta church, built by the Norman court of Palermo in the 11th century. The whole of Calabria came under Norman control in 1060, after the conquest of the castle of Squillace. The Roccelletta church was built at a time the Normans were trying to strengthen the Latin cult and weaken Greek influence.

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Once you’ve toured the ancient site, you can head to Squillace to see the modern town and the remains of its impressive 11th century Norman castle.

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Terracotta production has long been an important part of the local economy, and you can still visit some workshops where they produce dishes, jugs, vases, ornaments and several other goods. A “wall of ceramics” artistic display has been set up on the walls of an old workshop.

squillace3Terracotta has been linked to the city for so long that even Cassiodorus wrote about it in his medieval writings.

cassiodorusSquillace is a lovely town to walk around and its highlights also include the cathedral, diocesan museum and the views over the surrounding hills. In the spring it is enhanced by colourful flower arrangements.

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There are some great places in Squillace to try some rustic local food. I recommend the traditional dish of pasta with chick peas and wild fennel, which I enjoyed at La Taverna di Pepe, Corso Guglielmo Pepe, 24. Hope you have a great time darlings!

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