Akrai, established in around 664 BC, was the first colony of Syracuse. Its location on a commanding spot in the Hyblaean Mountains made it difficult to attack and allowed it to prosper, especially during the reign of Hiero II (270-215 BC). In around 211 BC it became, together with its mother city, a Roman province. In Latin it was known as Acre, although there is little mention of it in the Roman sources. In the 4th and 5th centuries AD it was, after Syracuse, the most important centre of Christianity in Eastern Sicily.
The archaeological site of Akrai, located in the town of Palazzolo Acreide, consists of a number of structures, the most important of them being the theatre.
3rd or 2nd century BC
This small theatre is the most outstanding monument of the ancient city. It was most probably constructed during the reign of Hiero II. Unlike most other Greek theatres, which were carved in rock, it was purpose-built on a natural slope. Since it was constructed in an already existing urban fabric, it has many irregularities.
The koilon consists of 9 sectors and 12 rows of seats. The seats on one side are set against the walls. It differs from the other Greek theatres in that the koilon is not bigger than a semicircle and that the two faces of the koilon don’t converge, as was usual, but diverge.
Unusual, too, is the shape of the orchestra – semicircle instead of a perfect circle – and the fact that it did not have the parodoi. Instead of the parodoi there were two front doors beside the skene facing the koilon.
The proskenion was made of large blocks of stone, to be able to support columns or pillars. The skene was wooden, had a depth of three meters and was closed by a wall. It was replaced by a new one in the Roman period. The already narrow space for the orchestra was further reduced, and the orchestra was paved over.
The theatre was connected to the bouleuterion through a tunnel. The function of this unusual construction has not been conclusively explained. It has been suggested that the theatre also functioned as an ekklesiasterion, for the gathering of the citizens’ assembly. In that case, its connection to the bouleuterion, or the senate house, makes more sense.
2nd century BC
The bouleuterion of Akrai consisted of six rows of stone seats divided into three sectors. It was connected to the theatre via a tunnel.
Near the bouleuterion are the ruins of a circular building, most probably thermal baths from the Roman period.
Mid-4th century BC
The city was built of stone originating from two quarries (latomie), now known as the Intagliata and the Intagliatella. They contain numerous tombs in different styles from different periods. Some have niches for votive tablets (pinakes), while others are covered with rich baldachins. Unique is a bas-relief depicting a banquet of heroes and a propitiatory sacrifice by a Roman warrior (from the first half of the 1st century BC). The caves were also used as dwellings in the late antiquity.
4th to second half of 2nd century BC
The walls of Akrai were constructed between the 4th and the second half of the 2nd century BC. They were pierced by two gates: the Gate of Syracuse and the Gate of Selinous.
The main street of Akrai connected the Gate of Syracuse with the Gate of Selinous. It was 250 m long and 4 m wide, and it was paved with lava stone. Smaller streets crossed the main street diagonally. Some houses from Greek and Roman periods have been excavated.
The most important of temple of Akrai was the Temple of Aphrodite, located in the middle of the sacred acropolis of the city. It has been dated to either the mid-6th century BC or the 4th century BC. It was a Doric temple, a peripteral hexastyle (6 x 13), measuring 18.30 x 39.50 m. Only its foundation stones survive.
There were two other temples in Akrai, one dedicated to Artemis and the other to Persephone.
A bit further away from the ancient city of Akrai are 12 statues in niches carved in a rock, commonly known as the Santoni. These statues are extremely interesting as they are from a sanctuary dedicated to one of the most mysterious cults in antiquity, that of Cybele, or Magna Mater. This sanctuary, from the 4th or 3rd century BC, is believed to have been the principal centre of her cult in Sicily. In 11 niches the enthroned Cybele is flanked by other figures, while in one she is depicted standing in life size. These depictions provide a lot of information about the religious beliefs and iconography related to that cult.