What are Sybarites?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The Sybarites were people living in the Greek city of Sybaris, a city that perhaps existed on the western shore of modern Italy. No one is precisely sure where the city existed, but it is often said to be located near Sibari, Italy. This ancient city was known for its exceptional wealth; perhaps as early as the 700s BCE, this wealth led many to a pleasure seeking and hedonistic life style. The modern sybarites are people who have the ultimate in luxuries and spend most of their time in pursuit of or enjoying these luxuries. Many may aspire, but few can became a modern Sybarite.

The Sybarites lived in the Greek city of Sybaris, a city theorized to have existed on the western shore of modern Italy.
The Sybarites lived in the Greek city of Sybaris, a city theorized to have existed on the western shore of modern Italy.

Historically, there is little known about Sybaris until its destruction in about 510 BCE. There was much recorded about the wealth of the Sybarites, who seemed to have a very large group of citizens and upper class members of their society. Sybarites were slave owners, wore beautiful and fine clothing, and appear to have manufactured their own money. The city may also have controlled 25 other cities, adding to its ability to acquire material goods and additional wealth.

Downfall to Sybaris came in 510 BCE, when the head of an opposing democratic party, led by a man named Telys, overthrew the city’s rule. Telys then set himself up as ruler of Sybaris, and the ousted citizens, who were so great in number, determined to not only defeat Telys, but also destroy Sybaris in the process. To accomplish the overthrow of Telys, citizens rerouted the Crathis, a large river, which flooded into the city and essentially ruined many of its structures, forcing people to evacuate. The ruin was so extensive that all people left Sybaris.

The destruction of Sybaris and the end of the Sybarites is compared to stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, and to many myths in Greek origin where arrogance or attempting to live like or imitate the Gods is met with dreadful retribution. Accounts of the Sybarites written long after their downfall tend to focus on their arrogance, expensive lifestyles, and corrupt ways, all as factors that contributed to their end. The history of Sybaris conjures the ideas of Icarus flying too high and melting his beautiful wings in the sun, or the old adage that pride goeth before a fall.

Accounts of the wealth of the Sybarites and their lifestyle have led to the term being used in modern day to refer to those who live in ultimate luxury. The adjective sybaritic may also be applied to such people. Sometimes specific areas with a high concentration of wealth are viewed as sybaritic, or a group of people, like some of the world’s most recognizable celebrities, is described by this adjective.

Perhaps this is why some take satisfaction at the downfall of celebrities whose lives appear centered on luxury and seeking pleasure, and why shows on celebrities spend so much time on stars who are clearly having trouble in their personal lives. The "little people," or most average people, seem satisfied and/or distinctly curious when sybarites of today (Britney Spears and others like her) take turns for the worse. This may reflect the malcontent of the populace, or the deeper yearning to see hedonism destroyed, a common theme in most religions.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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