Taranto sits on the coast of the Gulf of Taranto, an arm of the Ionian Sea, on Puglia's south west coast the instep of Italy's "boot". It was founded in the 8th century BC by the legendary Spartans of ancient Greece - who called the city Taras after the mythical son of the god Poseidon and the nymph Satyrion. In time Taras became one of the most powerful cities in Magna Graecia. At that time, the Greek acropolis is said to have presented a mammoth bronze statue to Poseidon that was considered one of the wonders of the world.
So powerful was the city, particularly at its peak under Archytas, the Greek commander (and a renowned mathematician and philosopher), that in 367 BC the usually hostile Etruscans and Carthaginians entered into a pact whose purpose was to curtail and counter Taranto's various military and commercial threats in the Adriatic and Mediterranean.
The city withstood several attempts by the early Romans to conquer it, but Taranto finally succumbed in 272 BC. In 89 BC, the Romans, who called the city Tarentum, designated the city a "municipium" - a city whose inhabitants enjoyed Roman citizenship. The city was connected to Rome by an extension of Via Appia.
Taranto's fates after the decline of the Roman Empire followed the pattern of other cities in Puglia and Calabria. The city fell to the Byzantines in 540 AD. Just over a century later, in 662 AD, the city fell to the Longobards, but found itself under Byzantine rule again just a year later. Through the 8th century, the city was subject to Saracen raids and in 840 AD became an Arab stronghold until about 880 AD when the Byzantines once again conquered the city.
The Normans, who eventually established the Kingdom of Sicily which they ruled from Palermo, took the city from the Byzantines in the 11th century. Notwithstanding the Normans propensity to strong centralized rule, Taranto existed as a semi-independent principality, a status it more or less preserved - with a brief interruption during the Napoleonic conquest - until Puglia and the rest of the south was integrated into a unified Italy in 1860.
The heavily fortified harbour at Taranto had long made it a strategic asset for anyone who controlled it. Napoleon created a naval base there which he used to counter the power of the British bases in Malta. During 1st and 2nd world war the port was one of the most important Italian navy bases. In the 2nd world war, the British caught most of the Italian navy in the harbour and deployed the first all air attack on the fleet and utterly destroyed it. (For more). The Italian's still maintain a large a naval base here now, second only in importance to La Spezia in Liguria Region.
Today, Taranto, built on the ancient Greek acropolis, is a major southern Italian port and industrial city (steel and iron foundries, oil refineries, chemical works, fishing, food processing) with a long, interesting and multi-layered past. Much of the city is on an island and two peninsulas connected by bridges. The peninsulas enclose two bays - the Mar Grande and the smaller Mar Piccolo. Taranto, therefore, is also known as the City of the Two Seas.
Not much of ancient Greece remains, except in the "national" museum which has a wonderful pottery collection, but there are remnants of Roman times including an amphitheater, thermal baths, Roman villas with mosaics, columns and so on. The medieval period is represented by the 14th century Aragonese castle (1481 AD) and various fortifications, as well as by the Cathedral, originally built in the 11th to 12th century, but rebuilt and restored during the Baroque period. Of interest also is the Gothic Church of San Domenico.