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Sybaris (Greek: Σύβαρις) was an ancient city in Magna Graecia on the western shore of the Gulf of Taranto. The wealth of the city during the 6th century BC was so great that the Sybarites became synonymous with pleasure and luxury. The modern town of Sibari lies near the ruins of the Greek city; it is a frazione of the comune of Cassano allo Ionio, in the province of Cosenza.
Sybaris was situated close to the sea and lay between the Crathis (Crati) and Sybaris (Coscile) rivers. The river Sybaris (from which the town derives its name) feeds into the Crati about 5 km from its mouth, but in antiquity pursued an independent course into the ocean. It lies on a plain that in antiquity was renowned for its fertility.
The Greek geographer Strabo claimed that Greek colonists named the river Sybaris after a fountain of the same name at Bura in Achaia: According to some sources it had the property of making the horses that drank its water shy. It is a stream of considerable size. Its sources are in the Apennines near Morano, it flows beneath Castrovillari, and receives several minor tributary streams before it joins the Crathis.
Sybaris was most likely the earliest of all the Greek colonies in this part of Italy and was founded according to Scymnus Chius, as early as 720 BC. It was an Achaean colony, and its Oekist (founder) was a citizen of Helice in Achaia; but they were accompanied by a number of Troezenian citizens. However the Achaeans eventually drove out the Troezenians. But according to legend the city was founded by the son of Oïlean Ajax;
By the sixth century BCE, Sybaris had amassed great wealth and a huge population, as a result of the rich farming land nearby and its policy of admitting settlers of other nations to its citizenry, a practice which was shunned by other Greek colonies. During this period Sybaris's wealth and power was greatly envied and admired by the rest of the Hellenic world. It minted its own coinage and its innovations include perhaps the world's first primitive yet effective street-lighting system and the concept of intellectual property. The latter notion was developed, according to Athenaeus's "Banquet of the Learned" (Deipnosophistae), to ensure that cooks could exclusively profit from their signature dishes for a whole year. Sybaris was also a dominant power in the region. We are told that the Sybarites ruled over 25 subject cities, and could bring into the field 300,000 of their own citizens, although this is probably an exaggeration. Most of the subject cities were probably Oenotrian towns in the interior, but we know that Sybaris had extended its dominion across the peninsula to the Tyrrhenian Sea, where it founded the colonies of Poseidonia (Paestum), Laüs (Laus), and Scidrus. The city itself was said to be no less than 50 stadia in circumference, and it is said that 5000 knights attended its religious processions, which would mean that their number was four times greater than at Athens.
Sybaris was at its height during the time of Smindyrides (c. 580–560 BC), a prominent citizen who is claimed by Herodotus to have surpassed all other men in refined luxury. He was the wealthiest suitor for the daughters of Cleisthenes of Sicyon and was accompanied by a train of 1000 slaves on this occasion. Athenaeus provides many examples of the opulent wealth for which Sybaris was famous in this period. In particular they were renowned for the splendour of their attire, which was made from the finest Milesian wool, and as such developed extensive commercial relations and a close friendship with Miletus. Another example of Sybaritic luxury is found in the story of Alcimenes of Sybaris, who gave a splendid figured robe as a votive offering to the temple of Lacinian Juno. Much later the robe fell into the possession of Dionysius of Syracuse and was sold by him for 120 talents.
After this period there is very little information on history of the city until shortly before its fall. It appears that in a later period the government, which had previously been in the hands of an oligarchy, was overthrown by a democratic party. This party was headed by a demagogue named Telys who drove a considerable number of the leading citizens into exile. Subsequently Telys seems to have become the despot or tyrant of the city. The exiled citizens took refuge at Crotona; but not content with their victory, Telys and his partisans demanded that the Crotoniats hand over the fugitives. They refused to do so and as a result the Sybarites declared war and marched upon Crotona with an army said to have amounted to 300,000 men. They were met by the Crotoniats at the river Traeis whose army did not amount to more than a third of their numbers. Nevertheless the Crotoniats won resoundingly and slaughtered most of the Sybarites. They continued their pursuit to Sybaris' gates, gained control of the city, and determined to raze it to the ground so it could never be inhabited again. In order to do this they diverted the course of the river Crathis, so that it inundated the site of the city and buried the ruins under its silt deposits. This catastrophe occurred in 510 BC, and seems to have been viewed by many of the Greeks as divine vengeance upon the Sybarites for their pride, arrogance, and excessive prosperity. More specifically it was seen as punishment for the contempt they had shown for the great Olympic Games, which they are said to have attempted to supplant by attracting the principal artists and athletes to their own public games.
It is certain that Sybaris was never rebuilt. The surviving inhabitants took refuge at Laüs and Scidrus, on the shores of the Tyrrhenian sea. Although 58 years after its destruction they did attempt to restore the city, they were quickly driven out by the Crotoniats, and afterwards the exiles joined the Athenian colonists in the foundation of Thurii.
Today the site is bare and the exact position of the ancient city cannot be determined. Explorations undertaken by the Italian government in 1879 and 1887 failed to lead to a precise knowledge of the site. Only two discoveries have been made: an extensive Iron Age necropolis, some 12 km to the west of the confluence of the two rivers, known as Torre Mordillo; and a necropolis from about 400 BC – the period of the greatest prosperity of Thurii – which consisted of tombs covered by tumuli. However in the 18th century Henry Swinburne stated that the degraded remnants of aqueducts and tombs on a peninsula between the two rivers were seen as the ruins of Sybaris. Yet he also observes that this is likely false because they were made from brick and therefore most probably from Roman times. Contrastingly Keppel Craven states that a wall which was occasionally visible on the bed of the Crathis when the waters are very low was the only remaining relic of the ancient Sybaris.
In English, the words "sybarite" and "sybaritic" have become bywords for opulent luxury and outrageous pleasure seeking. One story, mentioned in Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), has a Sybarite sleeping on a bed of rose petals, but unable to get to sleep because one of the petals was folded over. The best known humorous anecdote of the Sybarites concerns their defeat in battle. It is said that to amuse themselves the Sybarite cavalrymen trained their horses to dance to pipe music. Armed with pipes, an invading army from nearby Crotonia assailed the Sybarite cavalry with music. The attacking forces easily passed through the dancing horses and their helpless riders, and conquered the city.