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Encyclopedia > Tarentum
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Map of Italy showing Taranto in the bottom right

Taranto is a coastal city in Apulia, southern Italy. It is the capital of Province of Taranto and is an important military and commercial port.


According to the 2001 census, it has population of 201,349. Its coordinates are 40°28' North and 17°14' East. Its altitude is 15 metres above sea level, with a surface area of 217 kmē. The postal code is 74100, the phone prefix is 099, and the fiscal code L049.


Taranto is a very important commercial and military port. It has well-developed steel and iron foundries, oil refineries, chemical works, some shipyards for building warships, and food-processing factories.


Taranto history dates back to the 8th century BC when it was founded as a Greek colony. The ancient city was situated on a peninsula, protected by a helm; the modern city has been built over the ancient Greek necropolis. The islets S. Pietro and S. Paolo (S. Peter and S. Paul) protect the bay (called Mar Grande, Big sea) where the commercial port is located. Another bay, called Mar Piccolo (Small sea), is formed by the old city, and there fishing is flourishing; Mar Piccolo is a military port with a strategic importance; at the end of the XIX century, a channel was excavated to allow the military ships to enter Mar Piccolo harbour, and the ancient Greek city become an island. In addition, the islets and the coast are strongly fortified. Because of the presence of these two bays, Taranto is also called “the city of the two seas”.


The Greek colonists called the city Taras, from the name of the mythical eponymous hero Taras, while the Romans, who connected the city to Rome with an extension of the Appian way, called it Tarentum.


Taranto is also famous for the British attack to the Regia Marina base during the World War II, known as the Battle (or Night) of Taranto

Contents

History of Taranto

The Greek period

Foundation and splendour

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Emblem of the city of Taranto, with Taras riding a dolphin

Taranto was founded in 708 BC by Spartan immigrants. It is the only Spartan colony, and its origin is peculiar: the founders are partheniae, sons of Spartan women and perioeci (free men, but not citizens of Sparta); these unions were decided by the Spartans to increase the number of soldiers (only the citizens of Sparta could become soldiers) during the bloody Messenian wars, but later they were nullified, and the sons were forced to leave. Phalanthus, the partheninan leader, went to Delphi to consult the oracle: the puzzling answer designed the harbour of Taranto as the new home of the exiles. The partheniae arrived in Apulia, and founded the city, naming it Taras after the son of the Greek sea god, Poseidon, and of a local nymph, Satyrion. According to other sources, Heracles founded the city. Another tradition indicates Taras as the founder of the city; the symbol of the Greek city (as well as of the modern city) is Taras riding a dolphin. Taranto increased its power, becoming a commercial power and a sovereign city of Magna Graecia, ruling over the Greek colonies in southern Italy.


In its beginning, Taranto was a monarchy, probably modelled on the one ruling over Sparta. In 466 BC, Taranto was defeated by Iapyges, a native population of ancient Apulia, and the monarchy fell, with the inauguration of a democracy, and the expulsion of the Pythagoreans.


In 472 BC, Taranto signed an alliance with Rhegion, to counter the Messapi, Peucezi and Lucanians (all Italic populations), but the Tarantine and Reggian joint armies were defeated near Kailėa (modern Ceglie).


In 432 BC, after sever years of war, Taranto signed a peace treaty with the Greek colony of Thurii; both cities contributed to the foundation of the colony of Heraclea, which rapidly fell under Taranto control.


In 367 BC Carthage and the Etruscans signed a pact to counter Taranto's power in southern Italy.


Under the rule of its greatest statesman, strategist and army commander-in-chief, the philosopher and mathematician Archytas, Taranto reached its peak power and wealth; it was the most important city of the Magna Graecia, the main commercial port of southern Italy, it produced and exported goods to and from motherland Greece, it had the biggest army and the largest fleet in southern Italy. However, with the death of Architas in 347 BC, the city started a slow, but ineluctable decline; the first sign of the decreased power was its inability to field an army, since the Tarantines preferred to use their large wealth to hire mercenaries, rather than leave their lucrative trades.


In 343 BC Taranto appealed for aid against the barbarian to its mother city Sparta, in the face of aggression by the Bruttian League. In 342 BC, Archidamus III, king of Sparta, arrived in Italy with an army and a fleet to fight the Lucanians and their allies. In 338 BC, during the Battle of Manduria, the Spartan and Tarantine armies were defeated in front of the walls of Manduria (nowadays in province of Taranto), and Archidamus was killed.


In 333 BC, still troubled by its Italic neighbours, the Tarantine called the Epiriotic king Alexander Molossus to fight the Bruttii, Samnites, and Lucanians, but he was later (331 BC) defeated and killed in the battle of Pandosia (near Cosenza).


In 320 BC, a peace treaty was signed between Taranto and the Samnites.


In 304 BC, Taranto was attacked by the Lucanians, and asked for the help of Agathocles tyrant of Syracuse, king of Sicily. Agathocles arrived in southern Italy, took control of Brutium (the ancient Calabria), but was later called back in Syracuse.


In 303 BC-302 BC Cleonymus of Sparta established an alliance with Taranto against the Lucanians, and fought against them.


Wars against Rome

First contrasts

In the beginning of the 3rd century BC, Rome's increasing power started to frighten Taranto, especially for the mastery of the sea and the control over the Greek colonies in Magna Graecia. After the surrender of the Samnites in 290 BC, the Romans founded many colonies in Apulia and Lucania. Furthermore, some of the city-states in Magna Graecia, such as Rhegion, Croton and Locri, asked Rome for military help because of the wars that they were having with their neighbours; also Thurii, which was located on the Gulf of Taranto and under Tarantine rule, asked Rome for help in 282 BC, after having been attacked by Lucanians. This situation inevitably led to a conflict between Taranto and Rome, since Taranto felt Rome was interfering in the affairs of the Greek colonies in southern Italy, which the Tarantines considered under their dominion.


Two political parties were present at the time within Taranto. The democrats, led by Philocharis or Ainesias, were dominant; they were against Rome, because they knew that if the Romans entered Taranto, the Greeks would have lost their independence. The second faction in Taranto were the aristocrats, led by Agis; they had lost their power when Taranto had become a democracy, and did not oppose surrendering to Rome as it would increase their own influence on the city, by reducing the power of the democrats. However, the aristocrats did not want to surrender openly to Rome and become unpopular with the population.


At that time, Taranto had the most powerful naval forces in Italy, and hastened to come to an agreement with Rome that stated that Roman ships could not enter into the Gulf of Taranto.


In 282 BC, Rome sent a fleet carrying troops to garrison Thurii, but ten ships were caught by a tempest, and arrived in the sea in front of Taranto, during a holy day (the festival of Dionysus). The angered Tarantines, considering it a hostile act openly in conflict with the pact, which forbade the gulf of Taranto to Roman ships, responded by attacking the Roman fleet: the Tarantine navy sunk four Roman ships, and captured a fifth. According to some historians, Tarantine aristocrats had been asked by the Roman commanders Publius Cornelius and Lucius Valerius to arrest and execute the democrats and their followers, which would allow the aristocrats to lead the city, and sign an alliance with Rome.


Pyrrhic wars

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Most important places of the wars against Rome

The Tarantines decided to call for help from Pyrrus, king of Epirus. The army and fleet of Taranto moved to Thurii and helped the democrats there exile the aristocrats. The Roman garrison placed in Thurii withdrew.


Romans sent diplomats to Taranto, but the talks were broken off by the Tarentines: the Roman ambassador, Postumius, was insulted and mocked by Philonides, a member of the popular party. In 281 BC, Roman legions, under the command of Emilius Barbula, entered Taranto and plundered it. Taranto, with Samnite and Sallentinian reinforcements, then lost a battle against the Romans. After the battle, the Greeks chose Agis to sign a truce and begin diplomatic talks. These talks were also broken off when 3000 soldiers from Epirus under the command of Milon entered the town. The Roman consul withdrew and suffered losses from attacks by the Greek ships.


Pyrrhus decided to help Taranto because he was in debt to them - they had earlier helped him conquer the island of Corcyra. He also knew that he could count on help from the Samnites, Lucanians, Bruttians, and some Illyrian tribes. His ultimate goal was to conquer Macedonia, but did not have enough money to recruit soldiers. He planned to help Taranto, then go to Sicily and attack Carthage. After winning a war against Carthage and capturing south Italy, he would have enough money to organise a strong army and capture Macedonia.


Before he left Epirus, he borrowed some phalanxes from the Macedonian king, and demanded ships and money from the Syrian king and from Antigonus II Gonatas of Antioch. The Egyptian king also promised to send 9000 soldiers and 50 war elephants. These forces had to defend Epirus while Pyrrhus was gone. He recruited soldiers in Greece as well, as the Greek cities wanted to avoid a war with Epirus, even though they were unconcerned with the Greek colonies in Italy. In the spring of 280 BC, Pyrrhus landed without losses in Italy. He had 20,000 phalanxes, 500 peltasts, 2,000 archers, 3,000 elite cavalry from Thessaly, and 20 war elephants.


After hearing of Pyrrhus' arrival in Italy, the Romans mobilized eight legions with auxiliaries, totalling about 80 000 soldiers, and divided into 4 armies. Valerius Levinus marched to Taranto, with an army of 30,000 legionnaires and auxiliaries. Pyrrhus moved from Taranto to meet its allies, but met with the Roman army, and decided to fight it next to Heraclea. The battle of Heraclea was won by Pyrrhus, but the casualties were very high. Upon his arrival in Italy, Pyrrhus thought that the Roman army would have been easily defeated by his Macedonian phalanx. However, Roman legions proved to be stronger than expected. Furthermore, Rome was able to raise a large number of legions, while Pyrrhus was far from home, and had only a handful of veterans with him.


Pyrrhus moved towards Rome, with the intention of rallying the peoples ruled by the Romans and conquering the city, but he had no success in this, and was forced to return to Apulia.


In 279 BC, Pyrrhus defeated another Roman army in the battle of Asculum (the modern Ascoli Satriano, in Foggia province), again with many casualties. Most of the men Pyrrhus had brought over from Epirus were disabled or dead, including nearly all of his officers and friends. Recruiting would be impossible, and his allies were unreliable. The Romans, on the other hand, quickly replaced their losses with fresh men, and with every defeat, the Romans were becoming more determined to win. At the same time, Pyrrhus received a proposal from the Sicilian Greek colonies of Syracuse, Leontini, and Agrigentum, to lead them in a war against the Carthaginians, and left Italy for Sicily, suspending the war against Rome, and leaving a garrison in Taranto.


The Tarentines called back Pyrrhus in 276 BC, and the king gladly returned from his Sicilian adventure. The war against Rome revamped, but this time Pyrrhus and the Tarentines were defeated by the Romans in the battle of Beneventum. After six years, Pyrrhus returned to Epirus, with only 8,500 men: only a garrison was left in Taranto, under the command of Pyrrhus' vice-commander Milon.


The Romans conquered the city in 272 BC, by treachery of the Epiriotic soldiers, and demolished the defensive walls of the city.


Second Punic War

During the Second Punic War, Taranto was conquered by Hannibal 212 BC, and supported his war against Rome, but later returned to Rome, in 209 BC, ending the Greek period of Taranto.


Roman and Byzantine periods

Roman Republic and Empire

In 122 BC a Roman colony was founded next to Taranto, according to the law proposed by Gaius Sempronius Gracchus. The colony was named Neptunia, after the Roman sea god Neptunus, worshipped by the Tarantines. The Roman colony was separate from the Greek city, and populated by Roman colons, but it was later unified to the main centre when Taranto become a municipium, in 89 BC.


In 38 BC Mark Antony, Octavianus and Lepidus signed the Treaty of Tarentum, extending the second triumvirate until 33 BC.


During the late Republic and all the Roman Empire, Taranto was a simple provincial city. Emperor Trajan tried to counter the reduction of the population giving the Tarantine lands to his veterans, but this initiative failed. Taranto followed the story of Italy during the late Empire, with Visigoth attacks and Ostrogoth domination.


Byzantine, Longobard, Arab, and Norman dominations

Byzantine and Longobard dominations

In the wake of the Gothic wars, Taranto became part of Byzantine Empire in 540, and was ruled by them until the Lombards of the Duchy of Benevento captured it in 662. In spring 663, basileus Constans II arrived at Taranto with a fleet and an army, and defeated the Longobards: it was the first time a Byzantine Emperor arrived in Italy with an army. Next, he conquered Apulia, and went to Rome to meet Pope Vitalian. After the Emperor got back to Byzantium, a new war between the Byzantines and the Duchy of Beneventum started, and lasted for years. Duke Grimoaldus conquered the northern Apulia, his son Romoaldus, in 686, took Taranto and Brindisi from the imperial army.


In 700s, Berbers started to raid Taranto and southern Italy; their menace lasted up to the 11th century.


Arab domination

The first years of the 9th century were characterized by the internal fights that weakened the Longobard power. In 840, a Longobard prince, who was held prisoner in Taranto, was freed by his partisans, brought to Benevento, and made duke. At the same time, the Saracens took control of Taranto, exploiting the weak Longobard control. Taranto became an Arab stronghold and privileged harbour for forty years. It was from here that ships loaded with prisoners sailed to the Arab ports, where the prisoners were sold in the slave market. In the same 840, an Arab fleet left Taranto, defeated in the gulf of Taranto a Venetian fleet of 60 ships, summoned by the emperor Theophilus, and entered the Adriatic sea, sacking the coastal cities. In 850, four Saracen columns departed from Taranto and Bari to sack Campania, Apulia, Calabria and Abruzzi. In 854, Taranto was again the base for an Arab raid, led by Abbas-ibn-Faid, which sacked the Longobard province of Salerno. Two Arab fleets arrived to Taranto, in 871 and later in 875, carrying the troops which sacked Campania and Apulia. The situation of southern Italy worried Emperor Basil the Macedonian, who decided to fight the Arabs and take the harbour of Taranto from them. In 880, two Byzantine armies, led by generals Procopius and Leo Apostyppes, and a fleet, commanded by the admiral Nasar took Taranto from the Arabs, ending a forty years dominion. Among the first actions taken by the Byzantine ruler Apostyppes was the enslavement and deportation of the Latin-Longobard original inhabitants - who had almost completely converted to Islamic - and the import of Greek colons, in order to increase the population. Taranto became one of the most important cities in the Thema Longobardia, the Byzantine possession in southern Italy.


Second Byzantine domination

The city suffered from other Saracen raids, such as in 922. On 15 August 927, the Saracens, led by the Slavic Sabir, conquered and destroyed the city, enslaving and deporting to Africa all the survivors. Taranto had no inhabitants, until the Byzantine conquest in 967. The Byzantine emperor Nicephorus II Phoca understood the importance of a strong military presence and harbour in southern Italy, and rebuilt the city. He added several military fortifications, and made Taranto a stronghold of Byzantine resistance against the uprising Norman power in south Italy. However, the weakness of the Byzantine local government exposed Taranto to other Saracen raids. In 977, it was attacked by Saracens led by Abn'l-Kāsim, who took many prisoners and sacked the city, burning some parts of Taranto. In 982, emperor Otto II started his war against Saracens from Taranto, but he was defeated by Abn'l-Kāsim in the battle of Stilo (Calabria).


Norman conquest

The 11th century was characterized by a bloody struggle between Normans and Byzantines for the rule over the Tarentine and Barensis lands. In May 1060, Robert Guiscard conquered the city, but in October Taranto was re-occupied by the Byzantine army. After three years, in 1063, the Norman count Godfried, son of Petrone I, entered in Taranto, but he was obliged to flee from it on the arrival of the Byzantine admiral Michele Maurikas. Taranto was definitely conquered by the Normans: the sons of Petrone elect the first Norman archbishop, Drogo, in 1071, and prepared a fleet to conquer Durazzo.


Principality of Taranto (1088-1465)

Taranto became the capital of a Norman principality, whose first ruler was Robert Guiscard's son, Bohemond of Taranto. The principality of Taranto, during its 377 years of history, was sometimes a powerful and almost independent feud of the Kingdom of Sicily (and later of Naples), sometimes only a title, often given to the heir to the crown.


The princes of Taranto were:


Hauteville dynasty:

  • 1088 - Bohemond I (1054-1111), later Bohemond I prince of Antioch;
  • 1111 - Bohemond II (1108, 1130), also prince of Antioch;
  • 1128 - Roger II (1093-1154), duke of Apulia, king of Sicily;
  • 1132 - Tancred, son of Roger II, prince of Taranto and prince of Bari, received the principality from his father;
  • 1138 - William I, later king of Sicily, son of Roger II, became prince of Taranto with the death of his brother Tancred;
  • 1144 - Simon, son of Roger II, became prince of Taranto when his brother William became duke of Capua;
  • 1157 - William II, king of Sicily;
  • 1194 - William III, king of Sicily;

1194 - Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Sicily;


1198 - Robert;


Brienne dynasty:

  • 1200 - Guy III, husband of Elvira, daughter of Tancred of Hauteville;

Hohenstaufen dynasty:

Anjou dynasty:

  • 1266 - Charles I (1227-1285), defeated Manfred and was entitled by the pope king of Naples and Sicily;
  • 1285 - Charles II (1248-1309), son of Charles I, king of Naples;
  • 1294 - Philip I (1278-1332), son of Charles II;
  • 1332 - Robert of Taranto (1299-1364), son of Philip I;
  • 1346 - Louis of Taranto (1308-1362), son of Philip I, later king of Naples;
  • 1364 - Philip II (1329-1374), son of Philip I;
    • 1356 - Philip III, son of Philip II, died in his youth, the title returned to his father;

Del Balzo (Baux) dynasty:

  • 1373 - James of Baux;

Brunswick dynasty:

Orsini Del Balzo dynasty:

  • 1393 - Raimondo Orsini del Balzo, also known as Raimondello;
  • 1406 - (non Orsini Del Balzo) Ladislas, king of Naples;
  • 1414 - (non Orsini Del Balzo) James Bourbon of Marca, husband of Joan II of Naples.
  • 1420 - Giovanni Antonio Orsini del Balzo;
  • 1463 - Isabel of Clermont, nephew of Giovanni Antonio;

1465 - Ferdinand I of Naples, also known as Ferrante, unified the Principality of Taranto to the Kingdom of Naples, at the death of his wife, Isabel of Clermont. The principality ended, but the kings of Naples continued giving the title of Prince of Taranto to their sons


From Renaissance's to unification

In March 1502, the Spanish fleet of Ferdinand II of Aragon, allied to Louis XII of France, seized the port of Taranto, and conquered the city.


Modern times

In November 1940, during World War II, the Italian ships, which were at anchor in Mar Grande and Mar Piccolo, were severely damaged by British naval forces (see Battle of Taranto.)


British forces landed near the port on September 9, 1943 as part of the Allied invasion (Operation Slapstick).


Historical figures

Here is a list of historical figures, who have had a relationship with the city. Not all of them were actually born in Taranto.

  • Archytas of Tarentum (428 BC - 347 BC), philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, statesman, strategist and commander-in-chief of the army of Taranto;
  • Philolaus (c. 480 BC – c. 405 BC), mathematician and philosopher.
  • Aristoxenus, peripatetic philosopher, and writer on music and rhythm;
  • Leonidas of Tarentum poet;
  • Livius Andronicus, poet;
  • Titus Quinctius Flamininus (c. 228 BC - 174 BC), propraetor of Tarentum;
  • Catald, archiepiscop of Taranto, saint, and patronus;
  • Giovanni Paisiello (1741 - 1816), composer;
  • Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741 - 1803), Napoleonic army general and novelist;
  • Etienne-Jacques-Joseph-Alexandre MacDonald (1765 - 1840), duke of Taranto and marshal of France;

Miscellanea

  • Star of David: "A David's shield has recently been noted on a Jewish tombstone at Tarentum, in southern Italy, which may date as early as the third century of the common era."
  • In 212 BC, the Romans executed the traitors who gave Tarentum city to Hannibal by throwing them from the Tarpeian Rock,

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