History of Pozzuoli: the name and birth of a city born from a rebellion

by Federico Quagliuolo

There was a period in which Naples counted for little and nothing and Campania was dominated by Puteolis, Capua and Cuma.

But if Capua and Cuma were abandoned over the centuries, Pozzuoli is instead survived on the same ancient foundations, against all adversity who have repeatedly risked making us lose a beautiful city: from Saracen raids to bradyseism.

Let's find out the origin of the name of Pozzuoli, which was founded by a group of politicians who fled their homeland.

Pozzuoli antica di Consalvo Carelli dipinto
Ancient Pozzuoli in a painting by Consalvo Carelli

A tyrant and the exile of the rebels

The history of the Phlegraean city almost begins 2500 years ago, when it was founded by a group of Greek refugees ofisland of Samos they were fleeing from the tyrant Polycrates, the man who, according to the historian Herodotus, was the first ruler of the seas that history remembers.

History never changes: the tyrant secured absolute power with purges and death sentences, letting some people who made history leave his island: on the one hand Pythagoras ran away to Crotone, on the other a group of rebel politicians escaped to the Phlegraean area and founded Dicearchia behind the young Parthenope.
Southern Italy was in fact still a virgin territory, seen by the Greeks as land of infinite possibilities: in the chronicles of colonization of Magna Graecia there are stories of ruthless tyrants like some governors of Sicilian cities, extraordinary men like Archimedes and Pythagoras and stories of utopian projects, like that of Pozzuoli.

Pozzolana Pozzuoli Puteolis
The pozzolan

The origin of the name Pozzuoli

The city originally, as we have seen, was called "Dikearkeia" or "Dicearchia", A fascinating name as only the Greeks can imagine:"City of just government"(Δίκη, right, and ἀρκω, to govern) precisely in contrast with tyranny of the man who drove out his opponents. We know very little about the Greek period of Pozzuoli (and there are no finds of the time) but, in the projects of the exiles of Samo, the city had to be a very small city-state, with its rules and its democratic and autonomous government. Until'invasion of the Osci and then of the Samnites, which nevertheless gave ample freedom for the Puteolans (the fact that Pozzuoli minted coins, which is not at all obvious).

To understand how it turned into Roman Puteolis, we must therefore take some steps forward, of a few decades. Probably this new settlement the Osci did not like it at all, which were a population that almost completely dominated the central area of Campania (have been found traces of settlements on the island of Vivara, behind Procida, even dating back toBronze Age!) and then to the Samnites, who were the rulers of the region until the arrival of the Romans.


It was around 4th century BC than the Greek city changed its name: from the elegant Dicearchia, it passed to the less graceful "Fistlus" or "Fistulis“, As was found on some ancient Samnite coins. In the Oscan language it probably meant "well" or "quarry" and certainly referred to thermal waters or at pozzolana quarries, the material used for the construction of buildings.

Puteolis and pozzolana

The Romans arrived in the 4th century BC e they renamed Fistlus in Puteolis.

Under the Romans and for the next 300 years, Pozzuoli became one of the richest and most influential cities in Campania: it was close to Miseno and Miliscola, headquarters of the military fleet, and with its port it undertook commercial traffic with the entire Mediterranean.

The city became famous for the excellent building material provided by its land, also celebrated by Marco Vitruvio Pollione in his "De Architectura". It was used by the Romans for all great works: from piers to buildings, such as the Pantheon, the Seiano cave it's the same Flavian Amphitheater. It is a mixture of volcanic material which allows the creation of a cement perfectly resistant to chemicals and water.

It is not known exactly if the name Pozzuoli derives from the term "pozzolana" or "pozzolana". The hypothesis is more likely that Puteolis was the Latin translation of Fistlus, which identified one pozzolana quarry.

What is certain is that, in almost all monuments of the ancient world that have survived intact thanks to extraordinary skills of Roman engineers, there is also a bit of Pozzuoli among the merits.

Tempio di Serapide Pozzuoli
The Temple of Serapis in Pozzuoli in a 19th century lithograph.

History of Pozzuoli: from the capital of commerce to decline

Of testimonials onimportance of Pozzuoli there are thousands of them in ancient economics and politics. From the countless quotations and stories in Latin authors of the past, which are still studied today in high school versions, to the testimonies left by historical artifacts that we can find along the streets, come on walls in opus reticulatum that appear under the facades of the buildings atFlavian Amphitheater which still dominates the ancient Puteolis. And let's think about the via Puteolis Neapolim to Colles, one of most famous streets of antiquity in Campania, it was born precisely to facilitate trade to and from Pozuoli. And along this road of stories so many have happened: from first miracle of San Gennaro to ancient traces of the road still traveled today, such as Via Belvedere al Vomero. And still today, in the Mostra d'Oltremare, there are some intact sections of the Roman road.

The years were not generous with Puteolis: when Rome became the capital of the Empire, began to centralize more and more productive activities. Efforts were focused on development of Ostia, much more convenient for imperial needs. There Greek city of Neapolis, meanwhile, began his quick climb towards the dominion first of Campania and then of Southern Italy, with the arrival of the Angevins, who left Pozzuoli reduced to a fishing village.

The coup de grace occurred with the bradyseism, who is the devil who torments the Phlegraean Fields: first of all, yes they took refuge in the Rione Terra, then several times the city was depopulated and even don Peter of Toledo he settled here, to do reborn the city. The movements of the Earth, however, continued to mistreating the Puteolans until the tragic 1983, which shook the whole city.

Fortunately, even on this occasion the worst was averted, but the signs still remain today. Pozzuoli, however, also survived this drama. And today it is one beautiful city, with a lovely stage on the same sea that attracted the first Greek settlers.

-Federico Quagliuolo


Egidio Finamore, Origin and History of local Campania names, Arcolaio, Naples, 1966

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