Ancient Sybaris was a Greek city renown for its love of luxury and pleasure. In its heyday, Sybaris was a celebrated city of Magna Graecia on the western shore of the Gulf of Taranto. One of the earliest of all the Greek colonies in this part of Italy, it was founded as early as 720 BC. The wealth of the city in the 6th century BC was such that the Sybarites became synonymous with pleasure and luxury. The modern town of Sibari lies near the ruins of the original city.
Sybaris lay a short distance from the sea, between the rivers Crathis (Crati) and Sybaris (Coscile), from which it derived its name. The river Sybaris was named by the Greek colonists for a fountain of that name at Bura in Achaia: it had the property, according to some authors, of making horses shy that drank of its waters. The sources of the river are found in the Apennines near Murano, flows beneath Castrovillari, and receives several minor tributary streams before it joins the Crathis.
The Sybarites appear to have sought for a heroic origin, and Solinus has a story that the first founder of the city was a son of Ajax (though this was evidently fictitious). The city was, historically speaking, undoubtedly an Achaean colony. Rising rapidly to great prosperity owing to the fertility of the plain in which it was situated, its people freely admitted settlers of other nations to the rights of citizenship, which contributed to the vast population of the city. Sybaris had in the sixth century BCE attained a degree of wealth and power unprecedented among Greek cities and was greatly admired by of the rest of the Hellenic world. It is thought that Sybaris may have been the first city to boast an effective, yet primitive, street lighting system. The Sybarites ruled over 25 subject cities and could bring into the field 300,000 of their own citizens. The subject cities were probably for the most part Oenotrian (an Italian peolpe), 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, and Scidrus. The city itself was said to be not less than 50 stadia in circumference, and the horsemen who paraded at the religious processions amounted to 5000 in number, which would prove that these wealthy citizens were more than four times as numerous as Athens.
Stories told by various writers concerning the absurd refinements of luxury ascribed to the Sybarites have rendered their very name proverbial. The word Sybaritic has become a byword meaning extreme luxury and a seeking for pleasure and comfort. One story has a Sybarite turning in his bed sleeplessly, because a crumpled rose petal had gotten into it. (Perhaps the origins of the fairytale, the Princess and the Pea.) They were particularly noted for the splendor of their attire, which was formed of the finest Milesian wool, and this gave rise to extensive commercial relations with Miletus, which produced a close friendship between the two cities. Sybaris also minted its own coins.
Very little historical information about Sybaris exists until shortly before its fall. It appears that the government was an oligarchy, but the democratic party, headed by a demagogue named Telys, succeeded in overthrowing their power and drove many of the leading citizens into exile. Telys raised himself to the position of despot over the city while the exiled citizens took refuge at Crotonia. Not content with his victory, Telys and his compatriots called upon the Crotoniats to surrender the fugitives. This they refused to do, and the Sybarites hereupon declared war on them, marching upon Crotona with an army said to have amounted to 300,000 men.
The best known anecdote of the Sybarites is of their defeat in battle. They were met at the river Traeis by the Crotoniats, whose army did not amount to more than a third of their number. To amuse themselves, the Sybarite cavalrymen had trained their horses to dance to pipe music. Armed with pipes, the army from Crotonia assailed the Sybarite cavalry with music and easily passed through the dancing horses and helpless riders to conquered the city. The Crotoniats obtained a complete victory, putting the greater part of the Sybarite army to the sword. They proceeded to destroy the city so entirely that it could never again be inhabited. For this purpose, they turned the course of the river Crathis, so that it inundated the site of the city and buried the ruins under deposits silt. This catastrophe was viewed by many of the Greeks as divine vengeance upon the Sybarites for their pride and arrogance, caused by their excessive prosperity. More especially, they were said to have been punished for the contempt they had shown for the Olympic Games, which they had attempted to supplant by attracting the principal artists, athletes, etc., to their own public games.
It is certain that Sybaris was never restored. The surviving inhabitants took refuge at Laüs and Scidrus, on the shores of the Tyrrhenian sea. An attempt was made, 58 years after the destruction of the city, to reestablish it on the ancient site, but they were quickly driven out by the Crotoniats, and the fugitives afterwards combined with the Athenian colonists in the foundation of Thurii.
At the present day, the site is utterly desolate, and even the exact position of the ancient city cannot be determined. Explorations undertaken by the Italian government in 1879 and 1887 failed to lead to the precise location of the site. Only two discoveries were made: first an extensive necropolis, some 12 km to the west of the confluence of the two rivers, known as Torre Mordillo, the contents of which are now preserved at Potenza; and second, a necropolis of about 400 BC, the period of the greatest prosperity of Thurii, consisting of tombs covered by tumuli (locally called timponi), in some of which were found fine gold plates with mystic inscriptions in Greek characters; one of these tumuli was over 2.7 m in diameter at the base with a single burial in a sarcophagus in the center.
The whole plain watered by the rivers Coscile and Crati (the ancient Sybaris and Crathis), so renowned in ancient times for its fertility was long a desolate swampy tract, pestilential from malaria, and frequented only by vast herds of buffaloes. The circumstance mentioned by Strabo that the river Crathis had been turned from its course to inundate the city, is confirmed by the accidental mention in Herodotus of the dry channel of the Crathis and this would sufficiently account for the disappearance of all traces of the city. Keppel Craven speaks of a wall sometimes visible in the bed of the Crathis when the waters are very low as being the only remaining relic of ancient Sybaris.