Magna Graecia was the name used by the Romans to refer to the coastal regions of the southern parts of the Italian Peninsula and Sicily. These areas were extensively populated by the Greeks, who had lived there since the middle of the 8th century BC. The Hellenic civilization that they had brought with them had a huge impact on the culture of the indigenous peoples of Sicily as well as later the Romans.
Some of the Greek cities in Magna Graecia were very rich and powerful. In Sicily, the most important of them was Syracuse, which, in the Classical period, equaled Athens in many respects. Other powerful Greek poleis on the island included Akragas and Selinous.
For most of the Greek period Sicily was divided into two. Syracuse controlled the eastern parts, while the west was under the influence of the Carthaginian Empire. The conflict between the Greeks and the Carthaginians goes back to the first half of the 6th century BC, and it defined the outline of the history of the island in the subsequent centuries. It all changed in the First Punic War (264-241 BC), in which the Roman Republic conquered the territories of Carthage in Sicily and made the island its first province outside the Italian Peninsula. Only Syracuse remained nominally independent for a while, until it, too, was conquered by Rome in 212 BC during the Second Punic War.
There are many archaeological sites from the Greek period in Sicily. Even though the Sicilian Greeks generally followed the architectural trends of the mainland Greece, they were also persistent to keep their own traditions, especially when it comes to their temples. That gives the Doric temples of Sicily a more archaic look than their counterparts in other parts of the Greek world.
The Sicilian temples were generally bigger and taller and often had an elongated form that goes beyond the canonical 2n + 1 rule. Especially in the early period the intercolumnations on the long and narrow sides of the temples here were different, and the Doric corner conflict was more often solved by the double contraction (by narrowing two intercolumnations at the sides) rather than by the single contraction, which was more accepted elsewhere. Other typically Sicilian features include the use of local stones instead of marble, the heightened emphasis of the east side of the temple, and the continuation of the use of the adyton (a separate room containing the sacred image of the deity) well into the Classical period.
In the Roman Republic, Sicily was an important province. Its expanses of arable land, which made it the main source of grain for the city of Rome, granted it long periods of prosperity. Especially in the later periods it benefited a lot from the trade between various parts of the empire, largely thanks to its position in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. By that time, many older cities had been destroyed or had lost their importance, while others, such as Panormus (Palermo) or Catana (Catania), had came to their place. Some of the Greek structures were still used, others (most notably theatres) were renovated, and a number of new buildings were constructed.
Below I will describe the following nine Greek and/or Roman sites in Sicily:
These sites are far from all. Notable cities that are missing in my portfolio include Naxos, Tyndaris, Himera, Morgantina and many others. I will also not present natural sites related to Greco-Roman mythology, such as the Fountain of Arethusa in Syracuse or the Stones of Polyphemus in Acitrezza. The portfolio does, however, contain some photos of sculptural works from the described sites, presented in two of the most important archaeological museums on the island: the Regional Archaeological Museum Antonio Salinas in Palermo and the Regional Archaeological Museum Paolo Orsi in Syracuse.
I took all the photos between September and December 2017.
You will find the locations of the mentioned sites on the map below. I suggest to consult the more detailed maps provided by the archaeological sites to find the exact locations of the structures.
Syracuse was established by settlers from Corinth and Tenea in 734 or 733 BC. This took place around the same time with the foundation of Naxos, the oldest Greek settlement in Sicily. The city had grown enough by the 7th century BC, when it established its first colonies (starting with Akrai in around 664 BC), and soon it controlled the whole eastern part of the island. In the subsequent centuries it was the most powerful polis in Sicily. In the Classical Period it was more or less equal to Athens in terms of wealth, influence and population.
Important ruler at that time was Gelo, who was also the tyrant of the western city of Gela. He came to power in 485 BC by quelling the riots against the gamoroi – the land owners and descendants of the first settlers of the city. During his time Syracuse came into conflict with the Carthaginian Empire, which ruled of the western part of Sicily. This culminated in the Battle of Himera in 480 BC, in which Gelo, together with Theron of Akragas, defeated Hamilcar I of Carthage. During the seven-year rule of Gelo and after, the city and its sphere of influence expanded to a large extent.
An important event in the history of Syracuse was the total defeat of the forces of Athens in 413 BC. Two years earlier Athens had sent an expedition to Sicily, to increase its power there and to obtain more resources to fight the Peloponnesian War. The smaller poleis of Sicily were generally inclined to support Athens in that conflict, to counterbalance the dominance of Syracuse on the island. Syracuse was allied with Sparta and Corinth.
One of the most outstanding rulers of Syracuse was Dionysius I (405-367 BC). He was able to push back the Carthaginians, conquer new territories in both Sicily and the Italian peninsula, and establish colonies as far as in the Northern Adriatic. Although known as a cruel despot, he was also a generous patron of art, visited, for example, by Plato several times.
Internal struggles diminished the power of Syracuse after the death of Dionysios I. Timoleon of Corinth tried to install a democratic regime here and successfully fought the Carthaginians in the late 340s and early 330s BC. Conflict with Carthage resumed in the era of the tyrant Agathocles (317-289 BC).
The last great ruler of Syracuse was Hiero II (270-215 BC). He concluded a treaty with Rome in 263 BC, in the second year of the First Punic War, as a consequence of which Syracuse was left to rule over the eastern part of Sicily as a nominally independent state (and as a Roman ally). The rest of Sicily became a Roman province by the end of the war in 241 BC. Under Hiero II Syracuse enjoyed a long period of peace and prosperity. Under his rule also lived famous Syracusans such as Archimedes and Theocritus.
After the death of Hiero II, during the Second Punic War, Syracusans broke the alliance with Rome in favour of Carthage. This caused the Romans to attack the city. During the Siege of Syracuse in 214-212 BC Archimedes used his many military inventions against the enemy, but with no luck, as Syracuse fell decisively to the Romans by 212 BC.
In the Roman period the city started to decline, although not too fast and not too much, as it was still described as the greatest and the most beautiful Greek city by Cicero in his speech against Verres in 70 BC. Syracuse also continued to be an important port city. During the first centuries AD it grew into an important centre of Christianity.
The ancient Syracuse was a pentapolis. I will describe the five districts that it consisted of one by one.
The nucleus of the ancient Syracuse was the island of Ortygia, located very close to the coast, and later linked to the mainland. It is the oldest part of the city, having been inhabited since the Bronze Age. It was flanked by two ports, a huge one in the south and a smaller one in the north, which together made Syracuse one of the main ports in the Western Mediterranean. The main axis of the island was a sacred road (corresponding to today’s Via Dione and Via Roma) on which a number of temples stood. Remains of three of them, dedicated to Apollo, Artemis and Athena, can be found today.
1.1.1. Temple of Apollo
First quarter of 6th century BC
The Temple of Apollo of Syracuse, dating back to the first quarter of the 6th century BC, is the oldest surviving Doric temple in Sicily. Its influence over the development of Greek temple architecture in Sicily is outstanding: it was one of the first temples almost entirely made of stone, as well as one of the first peripteral temples (i.e. with columns surrounding the naos).
The temple measures 21.47 x 55.36 m (on the stylobate level). Its floor plan is very elongated (6 x 17 columns). The columns are 7.98 m high and thick. Archaic is also the difference of intercolumnations on the long and narrow sides, with the columns on the long side being unusually close to each other. The triglyphs on the frieze were not in correspondence with the columns, and the architrave was high.
The internal plan of the temple shows a pronaos, a naos, and an adyton. The pronaos was preceded by six columns, two between the antae walls and four in front of them. The naos was divided into three aisles by two rows of slender columns, which supported the wooden roof.
Notable details include an inscription by the builder or the architect on the eastern face of the stylobate, fragments of the gutter and the acroteria (ornaments crowning the top and the sides of pediment), and some roof tiles. The latter are located in the Regional Archaeological Museum Paolo Orsi in Syracuse. Here, too, is a marble statue of Hygeia from 130-110 BC. It is a copy of a work from the 4th century BC, probably related to the temple.
The Temple of Apollo was closed during the persecution of pagans in the Late Roman period. In the Byzantine era it was converted into a church, and during the Emirate of Sicily it operated as a mosque. In the Norman period, it was, again, a church, while in the 16th century, under the Spanish rule, it was heavily spoliated, to build the barracks and private houses in Ortygia. It was largely thanks to the work of the archaeologist Paolo Orsi that the temple was brought back to light in around 1890.
1.1.2. Temple of Artemis
Second half of 6th century BC
On the highest point of Ortygia stood two temples next to each other, one dedicated to Artemis and the other to Athena. The remains of the former can be seen in a basement across the Piazza Minerva from the Cathedral of Syracuse, which was formerly the Temple of Athena.
The Temple of Artemis of Syracuse is a rare example of a Ionic temple in the West. It was a peripteral hexastyle (6 x 14 or 6 x 16), with the columns of 12.5 m. It measured 25 x 59 m. It had a pronaos, a naos and an opisthodomos. Like in the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, which had been built some time earlier and which definitely served as a prototype for all the subsequent Ionic temples, its naos was most probably in the form of an unroofed peristyle courtyard (sekos).
It looks like the temple was never completed. It has been suggested that materials meant for it ended up in the adjacent Temple of Athena instead, which was being reconstructed after 480 BC.
1.1.3. Temple of Athena
After 480 BC
The Temple of Athena stood on a cult site that goes back to the foundation of the city in the 8th century BC. Since the middle of the 6th century BC there was a Doric temple here. That temple was replaced by a new one after the Battle of Himera in 480 BC. The new temple was very similar to the Temple of Nike in Himera and built with the same purpose – to commemorate the victory over the Carthaginians.
The temple measured 22.20 x 55.45 m and was a peripteral hexastyle (6 x 14). The columns were 8.78 m high. The plan included a naos (possibly a sekos), with a pronaos and an opisthodomos (both distyle in antis). The intercolumnations were slightly reduced at both ends on the eastern face of the temple.
The structure was very ornate. On the pediment it had a huge aegis made of gold or guilded copper. It is known that the shield of Athena was visible to the sailors on the sea, which made the temple a sort of a lighthouse. Other preserved decorative elements include water spouts in the shape of lions’ heads and some marble tiles.
In the 7th century AD, parts of the temple were incorporated into the Cathedral of Syracuse, built on the same spot. Elements of the Greek temple that can still be seen inside and outside the current Baroque church include the crepidoma and the columns.
The city soon expanded to the mainland, where the Achradina district developed. Located north of Ortygia along the coast, it was the administrative and commercial centre of the city. It had its own wall. The agora as well as many public buildings and shops were here. The oldest and the biggest of the quarries of Syracuse – the Quarry of the Capuchins (Latomia dei Cappuccini) – was also here.
Furthermore, Achradina was the site of the first necropoleis of the city. In the northern part of the district, carved in the Ridge of Achradina (Balza di Akradina), can be found a number of hypogea from the Sicel, Greek, Roman and medieval periods. Niches in the walls are indicative of the practice of the hero cult here.
Neapolis was built to the west of Achradina on the initiative of Gelo since around 480 BC. The most monumental structures of the ancient Syracuse were located here.
1.3.1. Quarry of Paradise
5th century BC
Syracuse was famous in antiquity for its numerous limestone quarries (latomie). Several of them were located in the Neapolis district, the most famous of them being the so-called Quarry of Paradise (Latomia del Paradiso). Stone extracted from here was used in the construction of the district itself as well as for the fortifications of the city. Its caves were also used to imprison slaves, criminals and war prisoners (such as the Athenian soldiers captured during the Sicilian Expedition in 415-413 BC). On the bottom of the precipice is a rich carpet of trees and plants.
In the latomia is a cave that looks like an ear or a teardrop. It is 23 meters high, and it curves into the cliff for 65 m in the shape of an S. It is not known how it came into being. One theory has it that it was purpose-built to enable water storage for Syracuse. Others suggest that the cave is, actually, of natural origin, cut by rain water like in case of a slot canyon. The unusual shape and the polished walls of the cave confirm the latter hypothesis.
The cave was famous for its acoustic effects already in the ancient times. Its name is from 1608, when the painter Caravaggio visited it and called it the Ear of Dionysius (Orecchio di Dionisio) because of its unusual shape. According to a legend, Dionysius I used the cave as a prison for his political opponents and, because of its good acoustics, was able to eavesdrop their plans and secrets.
Another cave in the quarry is the Grotto of the Ropemakers (Grotta dei Cordari). This artificial cave may have been another prison used by Dionysius I. Until recently its humidity was highly appreciated by local ropemakers, who had worked here for hundreds of years.
Original – early 5th century BC; current – between 238 and 215 BC, renovated in late 1st century BC
The first theatre of Syracuse was commissioned by Gelo and designed by architect Damocopos. It was probably made up of straight banks of seating arranged in a huge trapezoid. It is known that Aeschylus, Epicharmus, Phormis and Deinolochus staged their plays here.
The theatre got its current form in the later years of the rule of Hiero II, some time between 238 and 215 BC. It is often described as the largest of the ancient Greek theatres, with the koilon diameter of 138.6 m and 67 rows of seats. A diazoma divides the koilon into two. The lower rows of seats were carved into the rock, while the upper part was built on top of a structure held up by a retaining wall. The koilon is further divided into nine sectors, each with an inscription mentioning either a god, Hiero II himself or a member of his family.
The orchestra had a passage under it, leading from the staircase that descended from the stage into a small underground room. This may have been the so-called Charon’s staircase, which allowed for sudden entrances and exits of the actors. The orchestra was surrounded by a wide drain (euripos). In front of the skene was a ditch for the front curtain, which rose from below, as was typical in Greek theatres. Among other remains is a basement for columns and pilasters (possibly a mobile stage for Phlyax plays).
The theatre was modified in the Roman era, possibly in the early Imperial period. The converging faces of the koilon, typical of the Greek theatre, were modified to create the semicircular form characteristic of the Roman theatre. A new scaenae frons was built (later redecorated), which allowed access past it to the orchestra (the parodoi). A new ditch was built for the stage curtain, as well as a new euripos, which was now much closer to the cavea.
Some researchers have suggested that in the late Imperial period the orchestra was redesigned to adapt it to gladiatorial battles and water games. This view is, however, contested, as we can still see the original first steps of the cavea, which would have otherwise been replaced by a raised wall to protect the spectators.
Above the theatre are a number of structures. Here is said to have been a sanctuary dedicated to the Muses, from which the actors descended to the theatre to stage plays in Gelo’s time. This is confirmed by three statues dedicated to the Muses that have been found from here (from the 2nd century BC; in the Regional Archaeological Museum Paolo Orsi). Part of the Mouseion was probably the so-called Grotto of the Nymph (Grotta del Ninfeo), into which water flowed from the Galermi Aqueduct and another aqueduct named after the grotto. (The Galermi Aqueduct was the longest, most important and most advanced aqueduct of Syracuse in terms of engineering.) From the Grotto of the Nymph the water was led to the hydraulic system of the theatre.
A lot of burials can also be seen here, forming the Street of the Tombs (Via dei Sepolcri). Near the grotto are niches for epitaphs and votive tables (pinakes) – evidence of the use of the area for hero cults. Many hypogea from the Byzantine period can also be found.
At the beginning of the 16th century the theatre was heavily spoliated. The scaenae frons and the upper part of the koilon were removed to build the new fortifications of Ortygia. Later in that century several watermills were built on the grounds of the theatre and the ancient hydraulic system was reactivated. Interest in the theatre revived in the late 18th century, and in the 19th century it was properly excavated and investigated (also by Paolo Orsi). Since 1914 the theatre is the venue of a celebrated annual festival of Greek drama.
1.3.3. Altar of Hiero II
After 235 BC
The monumental sacrificial altar commissioned by Hiero II is the biggest altar known from antiquity, measuring 20.85 x 195.8 m. It was partly carved into the rock, partly built of masonry blocks.
The altar, which stands roughly in the north-south orientation, is composed of masses of different heights. The sacrifices were probably carried out on a lower mass, accessible via a staircase in the northern and southern ends of the structure. The two staircases had an entrance flanked by two atlases, one of whose feet survive. The whole building was covered in plaster, and around the top of the masses ran a Doric frieze with a cornice.
The altar was part of a larger compound. To its east was a grotto from which votive offerings from the Archaic and Classical periods have been found. To the west was a U-shaped stoa with a basin in the centre. The complex was accessed via a propylaea to the west.
There are many theories about the dedication and function of the altar. It is generally thought that the altar was dedicated to Zeus, but there is no agreement about the exact nature of his cult. The exact way that the structure functioned as an altar is also questioned. Some researchers point out that it was not possible to move the animals through the narrow staircases onto the roof of the lower mass and carry out the ritual killings there. According to that view, the animals were slaughtered in the courtyard instead and it was only their parts meant for the sacrificial burning that were carried upstairs. It has also been suggested that the altar – together with the nearby theatre, which was reconstructed around the same time – was instrumental in the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the foundation of Syracuse.
Like the theatre, the altar was heavily spoliated in the later centuries.
1st century AD, modified in 3rd century AD
The Roman amphitheatre of Syracuse was built in the early Imperial period. It measures 119 x 140 m. It was carved into the living rock. Only the superstructure was built with blocks of masonry.
In the centre of the amphitheatre was the arena, in which remains of a rectangular pit can be seen (originally covered). From here an underground passage ran to the entrance at the southern end of the theatre. These were necessary for the operation of the machinery used during the shows.
The cavea is separated from the arena by a platform, to protect the viewers from the fights. Under it ran a vaulted corridor through which the gladiators entered the arena. The front seats were preserved for the upper classes, and there are traces of inscriptions carved on the blocks of the railing, meant to indicate different seating areas. Access to the upper parts of the cavea was via two walkways running under the seating around the entire arena and via a colonnaded portico which circled the theatre on the top.
The entrance to the amphitheatre and, in fact, the entire Neapolis district took place through a triumphal arch since the Augustan period. It was about 13 m high, 10 m wide and 6 m deep. Nearby was a monumental fountain, fed by a large cistern, as well as another cistern that provided water to the amphitheatre itself. The ruins of the latter cistern can be found under the nearby church of San Nicolò ai Cordari.
In the northern part of the Archaeological Park of Neapolis is the Grotticelle Necropolis, with Sicel, Greek and Roman tombs. The most famous of the structures here is the so-called Tomb of Archimedes, which is in reality a columbarium from the 1st century BC or the 1st century AD. According to Cicero, the real tomb of Archimedes is located somewhere near the Gate of Akragas.
The district of Tyche, named after a temple dedicated to the goddess of fortune, was located between Achradina and Neapolis, slightly to the north. The border with Achradina was marked by a wall from the period of Gelo. It was mostly a residential district. Notable structures that can be found here include a lesser-known quarry known as the Latomia del Casale and the Catacombs of Saint John.
Latomia del Casale
Epipolae, located to the northwest of the city, was largely an undeveloped area. Because it was a high terrain, it was extensively used in the city’s defensive system, which extended far to the west until the Euryalus Fortress. The fortress and the wall of Syracuse were built by Dionysius I in 402-397 BC, in anticipation of an attack by Carthage. The total length of the fortifications was around 30 km. They were later renovated by Agathocles and Hiero II.
The Euryalus Fortress is often considered to be the most outstanding example of military architecture of the antiquity. Its name, meaning ‘nail-shaped’, ‘large nail’ or ‘nail head’, refers to its shape and the terrain where it stands.
The main structure of the fortress was a rectangular central building, originally open, but at some point closed by five towers. The towers were 15 m high, square, crenelated and had platforms for catapults. From here have been found rainwater spouts in the shape of lions’ heads (4th century BC; now in the Regional Archaeological Museum Paolo Orsi).
The main entrance was through a three-gate structure in the east. Here was also a thick wall with towers and a vaulted passageway. It connected the fortress with the Dionysian Walls.
There were four moats that further protected the fortress, one parallel to its south side and three successive moats to the west. The whole structure was designed to surprise the attackers. This included the moats, which were not seen from far away. There was also a draw bridge that helped navigation over one of the moats. The fortress also had a complex system of internal galleries which enabled the defenders to move around and plan their manoeuvres without being seen from the outside.
South of the city, on the banks of the Ciane River, are the ruins of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. A Doric temple from the first decades of the 6th century BC, it is the second oldest in Syracuse after the Temple of Apollo.