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E + 11 : Kroton - One of the Finest Towns

The one and only column left from the Temple of Hera - the Greek thanked their Mother

Earth for the fertility of Kroton with an elaborate cult

It never stops amazing me how nothing is permanent and everything changes all the time. The ancient town of Kroton, today’s destination, is a good example. Many writers described Kroton as the Mediterranean’s wealthiest places, it was a big exporter of agricultural products, had its own fleet, the town dominated the Olympic Games, it had with Milo of Kroton the strongest athlete in antiquity, was home to the philosopher Pythagoras, relied on an army of more than 100’000 men, was protected by town walls 12 kilometers long and had an Acropolis that was the envy of every other town.

Map of Crotone from the 19th Century - the ancient metropolis had completely disappeared

It is all very different now. The town still exists - much smaller though with only a quarter of its ancient population. Today, 65’000 people live here. And the headlines are different . It is known for its offshore gas fields, its Premier League football team, as a summer holiday resort and as Calabria’s Mafia capital.

Recent aerial photo of Crotone - the old harbour on the right - the new on the left

We all know how Kroton and other Greek towns lost their power. The quarrelling between the city states of Magna Graecia allowed Rome to play them against each other. Eventually they ended as commodity suppliers to Rome losing their independence and added-value business. As provincial capitals they survived into Byzantine time. But the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD meant the loss of Rome as paying customer – smaller Constantinople could only partially compensate. Less money, fewer people, smaller towns.

The Greek Acropolis became Crotone's old town where everybody huddled together

The Saracen raids in the 8th century then made the coasts unsafe. People started to move into the mountains or to strongly fortified towns , leaving the rich costal planes untended. The Alhambra edict of 1492 was the straw that broke Calabria’s back. When the Jewish and Arabs were evicted by the Spanish rulers, the last remaining commercial network was taken away. Fertile and wealthy, Calabria went for broke. It became a loss making province for the Spanish Crown.

Reconstruction of the massive town walls which Spain had to finance - the Bastions and Ramparts were built with material from ancient Kroton

Sailing up the coast from Le Castella to Crotone allowed us to observe how the city states of Magna Graecia became so rich and wealthy. We sailed relatively close to the shore to avoid the stronger winds further out.

West and Northwind made our trip quite choppy

The coastal plains consists mostly of rolling hills, ideal for the cultivation of wheat and barley, intersected by small creeks running from the mountains to the sea. The creeks are full of orchards and are flanked by olive and almond trees. The fruits here are incredibly sweet and juicy. Reminds me of southern Spain, Europe’s fruit basket. We bought a few kilos of apricots, peaches and cherries in an open fruit stand in Le Castella – they taste wonderful! The merchant told us that his harvest lasts all summer.

One of the lush Bergamot orchards behind Crotone - the French Fragrance Industry is now the biggest customer for the citrusy fruit

When the Greek arrived here, they combined this natural wealth with their way of living and their scientific approach to life. They found out that barley loved the soil here, that their native olive trees and grapes did well on Kroton's lime stone and that the food preservation methods they had developed at home allowed them to export their agricultural surplus. The forests in the Calabrian mountains provided the wood for building ships, hemp for ropes could be grown a bit further up and iron was found along the many rivers. I just imagine the forest of masts and sails on the Ionian Sea.

This is a Roman mosaic 500 years later but I guess it illustrates my point

Greek culture figured out early that the key to wealth creation was the division of labor and specialisation. Each town had a few key products which they excelled in and traded for what else they needed. Soon, Athens became a big buyer of wheat, olive oil and wine and paid for the goods with its beautiful vases and silver of course. Long distance trading did not only require transportation and navigational skills, it also required a trusted payment system. Greek merchant families often sent their children abroad to look as agents after their business in foreign ports and handle the payments. They spoke the same language, had the same numbers for counting and recording the transactions and trusted each other.

One of the Athenian Vases we discovered in the Museum in Lipari

In today’s world, the Mediterranean separates us. We got used to the fact that we cannot travel to the North African shores anymore. 3’000 years ago, the Mediterranean united. It was a highway for exchanging goods, ideas, money and people. Reminds me of the EU’s four Maastricht freedoms (Goods, Services, Capital & People). Sadly, the EU is far better in announcing goals than implementing them. The Greek did not have big policies but their “Let’s do it” mentality got it done. No wonder the towns in Magna Graecia became so wealthy and influential in the Greek world.

Crotone was so poor, some of the old town walls were converted into homes

Back to Crotone, where very little of this glorious past survived. The town became so poor that it had to recycle every single stone from its Greek past. There is no Greek theatre left, the temples were completely dismantled, the big stone blocks were used for building town walls, the columns now decorate the palaces of the nobles, the cardinals and the churches. Was trying to find a map of ancient Kroton but could not find any. Crotone today is a Spanish town – the 700 years of Spanish rule are visible everywhere. Almost feels as if Spanish Baroque eclipsed the entrepreneurial Greek past.

The Baroque Town Center of Crotone with the Piazza Duomo

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