Medma sculptures

Beautiful Women of Ancient Medma in Rosarno, Calabria

Medma, Rosarno? For most travelers to Italy, these names will not ring any bells. The former was an ancient city-state of Greater Greece and the latter is its modern-day counterpart in Calabria. Medma’s terracotta is exceptionally beautiful. You can see a few pieces in the collection of the British Museum, or visit the archeological museums in Rosarno and Reggio, and have your fill. 


Terracotta figure of woman making bread (490 BC) from Medma at the British Museum, Photo courtesy of Sailko, Wikipedia Commons


In the words of British-born archeologist David Randall-MacIver:

Those who are not familiar with the museums of southern Italy and Sicily can hardly realize what a rich field of study is afforded by the minor terracottas, of which there are many thousand examples…. Amongst them all, however, I would assign the first place for sheer beauty to the examples from Rosarno. (from Greek Cities in Italy and Sicily, 1931)

Having visited many museums in Southern Italy, I can say that Mr. Randall-MacIver had a lot to choose from, and I concur. The terracotta figurines from Medma are particularly striking. Gazing at the attractive female statuettes and busts, I’ve wondered if the women from Medma weren’t the most beautiful of ancient times. The sculptures were fashioned from a local clay that has lent their characteristic reddish color. Medma had close ties with Locri Epizephyrii, a colony established in the 7th century BC by women from Locris in central Greece. Handsome ladies, no doubt.

Magna Graecia

Terracotta female busts from Ancient Medma, National Archeological Museum of Medma-Rosarno


The Locrians founded Medma (or Mesma) in the 6th century BC. Locri lies over the mountains along Calabria’s eastern coast on the Ionian Sea and Medma is on the Tyrrhenian Sea on the western shore at what would have been less than a day’s walk back in the day. The present city is called Rosarno and its center sits on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Gioia Tauro. Today, state highway 682 goes west across the peninsula from just north of Locri.

From the dimensions of the excavations of the area, Medma would have been able to accommodate over 4,000 citizens in its heyday during the Greek period. The town was mentioned by Roman writers. However, it is thought that the population eventually moved and founded nearby Nicotera some time in the 2nd century AD.

Excavations have uncovered numerous artifacts as well as structural remains of the city. Judging from the craft of the terracotta and bronze pieces discovered in the necropolis and sanctuary areas, Medma had a distinctive and sophisticated lifestyle with particular emphasis on the exaltation of beauty. Interesting to note that Locri Epizephyrii, the founding city-state, was a matriarchal society that was unique in the Greek world.

Magna Graecia terracotta

Female bust in terracotta from Ancient Medma, National Archeology Museum of Medma-Rosarno


The wealth of terracotta includes many female heads and busts. These votive offerings would have been divine representations or stylized images of the donors, themselves. Various hairstyles frame the noble faces set off by classic earrings or a modest crown. What are they all thinking behind those half smiles?

Greater Greece

Female heads in terracotta from Medma, Magna Graecia, National Archeology Museum of Medma-Rosarno

The enigmatic expressions date these sculptures between the late 6th to the 5th century BC. The following terracotta figures with a rigid, frontal stance, one seated on a throne and the other standing, offer winged creatures that bring to mind the cult of Aphrodite.

ancient terracotta figures

Female terracotta figures with winged creatures from Medma (end of the 6th – beginning of the 5th cent. BC) at the Archeological Museum in Reggio Calabria

Another standing female figure from the Archaic Period balances the high cylindrical head covering of a goddess with a wreath in her left hand and a pomegranate, the symbol of fertility, in her right.


Female figure from the Archaic Period (6th cent. BC), Archeological Museum of Medma-Rosarno


Male and animal figures also count amongst the ancient objects. In fact, Mr. Randall-MacIver noted, “One peculiarity of the people of Medma was their fondness for horses; fifty complete figurines and over 100 heads of horses made in pottery were found in one deposit.”

terracotta horses

Clay horses from Medma (5th century BC) at the Archeological Museum in Reggio Calabria

Two distinctive statuettes that never fail to catch my eye are the young man carrying a ram on his shoulders and the mythical hero riding a giant turtle. The terracotta head of a bearded man with a Corinthian helmet shows the masculine side of Medma.

Greek terracotta

Votive offerings from ancient Medma at the archeological museum in Reggio Calabria: Young man carrying a ram on his shoulders (5th cent. BC), Mythical hero riding a giant turtle (6th cent. BC), Head of a bearded man with a Corinthian helmet (4th cent. BC)

And this small bull is a fine example of a bronze artifact from the ancient colony.

bronze bull

Bronze bull from ancient Medma at the National Archeological Museum of Medma-Rosarno


Numerous ancient objects from Medma are on display in the archeological museum in Reggio Calabria, and in 2014 the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Medma-Rosarno opened in the city of Rosarno, which is in the Province of Reggio Calabria less than an hour’s drive north of Reggio. More information can be found on the Museo Medma’s Facebook page.

In the words of Mr. Randall-MacIver:

Rosarno lies in a district of extraordinary fertility, sheltered from all winds and possessed of a very rich soil. The olive groves are said to be the most extensive in all Calabria, if not in all Italy. And the olives in this district are not trimmed and cut as they are elsewhere but are allowed to grow to the height of forest trees….. It is a wonderful experience to pass from the windswept heights of the mountain of Gerace down into broad quiet woods, as still and as as solemn as the oak groves of the Druids. No wonder that the Locrians were charmed with this region so blessed by all the gods.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Medma-Rosarno

A collection of terracotta female heads from Medma at the National Archeological Museum of Medma-Rosarno

Calabria bookRead more about the fascinating region in the toe of the boot in Calabria: The Other Italymy non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this important area of South Italy. It’s available in paperback and e-book versions.

See Rosarno terracotta sculptures on my Calabria Tour.

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Comments 12

    1. Post

      I love seeing the hairstyles, too, Cristina. It’s something very personal yet very relatable at a distance of thousands of years.

  1. Enjoyed reading about the sculpture and getting to see some pictures of it. Very interesting that there was a matriarchal society at one point? I wonder what prompted that and how can we get that going now? ; )

    1. Post

      The matriarchal theory of Locri’s origins is generally accepted. According to Aristotle, during a long period when the men of Locris were fighting a war with Sparta, the ladies escaped with their slaves and established the colony Locri Epizephyrii. To get that going today? Hmm… not in my lifetime, I’m afraid.

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      Wow, very detailed, interesting article about the sanctuaries of Medma and your exhibition of the terracotta in Budapest! Thank you for sharing.

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