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E - 181: 12 Feet Under - How Sybaris and Thurii Were Lost to the Crati River

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Sybaris Archeology Park - the former harbor is to the right

A few days ago, someone asked me what the D-181 stands for in the blog title. It is super simple. It is the countdown to our sailing this summer. D stands for the 10th of July 2021 when we start. And 181 are the days until we set sail.

When writing about the Norman castles in Calabria the other day, I primarily cited military reasons for their construction on the hills overlooking the coastline. But then I found a geo-archeologic paper titled “Sybaris – Thurii – Copia Trilogy: three delta coastal sites become land-locked.” Also, I discovered several Norman fortresses on the coastline of Sicily. Something in my reasoning was inconsistent or at least incomplete. Why were there no Norman castles on the coast of Calabria? As a matter of fact – which I overlooked – there are. But not on the south coast where I was looking but on the northern coast facing the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The Norman castle of Aci north of Catania on the East Coast of Sicily

The above paper on the landlocking of these three ancient towns summarizes the results of a multi-year study on the evolution of the Crati Delta. You may remember from my previous blogs that Sybaris was found in the 8th century BC and had 100’000 inhabitants. Thurii, the settlement that was later built over it, was the town that called for Rome’s help in its conflict with local tribes and opened Rome the door for conquering Calabria and Apulia.

The analysis of hundreds of sediment cores let to the conclusion that over time the Crati Delta had developed from a shallow marine environment during late Holocene to a coastal area in classical times to the landlocked delta as we know it today. The long-term rates of delta migration was about 1 meter per year and the sediments increased by 0.9 to 1.7mm a year. Translated over the 2’800 years since the foundation of Sybaris, the coastline advanced by 2.8 km and what was once the ground level is now 12 feet below the surface.

Such rapid progress of delta sedimentation must have been a daily feature for the people living in these three towns – the coastline had advanced about 1 km since the founding of Sybaris. We know from other records that the Romans based small fleets in the harbor and that the three cities actively participated in Mediterranean trade. It is thus fair to assume that they built canals to keep their access the sea and regularly drenched them to avoid silting. Clearing a bit of debris after a spell of bad weather when the waters of the Crati river deposited sand and stones is not so much work. Provided it was done regularly.

Thurii's old port facilities - now excavated for the first time

With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 AD, demand and long-distance trade in the Mediterranean collapsed and many towns we have seen during our previous journeys lost their commercial basis. Thurri, which exported agricultural products to Rome, had suddenly no revenue anymore. Once demand for its products disappeared, it shrank until its size dropped below the level necessary to keep the harbor free of sediments. Over a few decades the town was then abandoned and people returned to self – sufficient agriculture in the surrounding countryside.

By the time the Normans arrived in the middle of the 11th century, the three towns had been deserted for 500 years. After such a long time, sediments 1 m thick covered the original ground, the coastline had advanced by half a kilometer and the harbor facilities were completely filled with gravel and sand from the Crati river. In other words, they had no value for the Normans who thus built new places far up in the hills which were both easy to defend and easy to maintain.

In our third week, we are going to visit the Archeology Park of Sybaris which offers a good explanation of the role the town played in the ancient economy and how it became completely landlocked over time. Most tourists who enjoy the beautiful sand beaches of Calabria have no idea that the natural forces which created their wonderful holiday places also destroyed three ancient towns.

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