Selinous (today’s Selinunte) was a established as a colony of Megara Hyblaea, a Greek city some 20 km north of Syracuse. Thucydides writes that it took place around a century after the foundation of its mother city, with the help of colonists from Megara in Attica, which was Megara Hyblaea’s mother city. This helps to date the foundation of Selinous to the mid- or second half of the 7th century BC. The years 654 BC, 650 BC, and 628 BC have been proposed.
Selinous soon came to be a major Greek city in Sicily. Because it was the westernmost of the Greek settlements on the island, it soon came into contact (and conflict) with the native Elymians and the Phoenicians, who were inhabiting the western part of Sicily. The enmity between Selinous and the neighbouring Elymian city of Segesta goes back to at least 580 BC. It also determined the destruction of Selinous by Carthage in 409 BC. As Segesta had been an ally of Athens during the latter’s Sicilian Expedition and Selinous had supported Syracuse, the defeat of Athens by Syracuse in 413 BC encouraged Selinous to take prolonged revenge against Segesta, who saw no other choice but to ask for military help from Carthage. As a consequence, the Carthaginians destroyed the city.
After 409 BC Selinous was for a short time under the control of Hermocrates, a Syracusan general who gathered the survivors and refugees from Selinous and resettled them in the newly fortified acropolis. The treaty that Syracuse and Carthage concluded in 405 BC made Selinous a tributary of Carthage.
For the most of its remaining history Selinous remained under Carthaginian control. Its development came to a standstill, which is visible in the lack of new constructions. During the First Punic War, in around 250 BC, the Carthaginians destroyed Selinous entirely, as a tactic of retreat. The city was never rebuilt after, and Roman sources rarely mention it.
The ruins of Selinous can be seen in a vast area around the mouths of the Modione (ancient Selinous) and Coltone Rivers. Its acropolis, agora and residential quarters were located between the two rivers, and their urban layout was carefully planned, making Selinous a good example of the ancient Greek city planning. There was hill with three temples across the Coltone River to the east and a cult area across the Modione River to the west. The river mouths served as the ports of the city, with the west port being the main port.
Site of the east port of Selinous as seen from the acropolis
The acropolis of Selinous stands on a cliff right beside the Mediterranean Sea. It is one of the most beautiful locations for a Greek city that I have ever seen.
Mostly late 5th and late 4th centuries
The acropolis had majestic fortifications. The remains that we see today are from the time of Hermocrates’ reconstruction and the subsequent repairs and enhancements.
The fortifications consisted of a wall, towers and gates, the most impressive being the North Gate. Here, on the outer side of the wall, a three-storey structure stood since the end of the 4th century BC. On the ground floor it had a gallery with arched passages, which enabled the troops to undertake attacks, while on the upper floors there were openings for throwing weapons, such as catapults. The wall was preceded by a moat. The entire defensive and offensive system of the North Gate was remarkable at the time, comparable in its complexity to that of the more famous Euryalus Fortress in Syracuse.
The cardo maximus of the acropolis as seen from the North Gate
3.1.2. Street Plan
Retaining wall – mid-6th century BC; plan – 4th century BC
In the mid-6th century BC an 11-meter-high retaining wall in terraces was constructed slightly to the east of the acropolis cliff. Its purpose was to create a larger space for the temples and to support them. This created the shape of the acropolis as we know it today.
The streets of the acropolis were laid out in a Hippodamian (grid) plan. This plan, following an older model, is from the 4th century BC. The main streets are 9 m wide, while the width of the smaller streets is 5 m.
The southern end of the cardo maximus of the acropolis
Entrance to the acropolis took place through a propylaea in the east. It was a T-shaped building with a peristyle of 5 x 12 columns.
In the northern part of the acropolis, on both sides of the cardo maximus, are remains of the residential quarters built by Hermocrates. The houses were modest, constructed with recycled material. Some of them have incisions in the shape of a cross, indicating that they were also inhabited in the Christian era.
On the acropolis are a number of temples.
Ruins of structures south of Temple C
Below I will describe the temples of the acropolis one by one.
126.96.36.199. Temple R
The first permanent temple of Selinous was a megaron known as Temple R, measuring 5.5 x 17.65 m. It may have been dedicated to Demeter Thesmophoros. It originally consisted of two spaces: a naos and an adyton. The roof was held by two wooden columns, the bases of which survive in the centre of the naos. A third space was later added to the adyton.
Temple R in the foreground, with Temple C in the background
188.8.131.52. Temple Y
Temple Y was the first peripteros in Selinous. Not much of it survives except for six metopes from its frieze, now stored at the Regional Archeological Museum Antonio Salinas in Palermo. These metopes are the oldest known examples of stone sculpture in Magna Graecia.
The metopes are 84 cm high. They are made of Menfi limestone, which was the most commonly used material for stone sculptures in Selinous. They have the following subjects: a crouching sphinx, the quadriga of Demeter and Persephone, the rape of Europa, the fight between Heracles and Achelous, the Delphic triad (Leto, Apollo and Artemis), and an Eleusinian ceremony, with three deities holding ears of grain.
A crouching sphinx
The Rape of Europa
Eleusinian mystery, with three deities (either Demeter, Persephone and Hecate,
or Persephone with two companions) holding ears of grain
The metopes can be divided into two groups on the basis of the frames that surround the scenes. This has led some to suggest that the metopes were originally on different sides of Temple Y or that some of them are, instead, from another temple (such as the unidentified Temple X).
Two metopes were used in the construction of the wall of Hermocrates, which shows that Temple Y had already been abandoned by 409 BC.
184.108.40.206. Temple C
Temple C is the most prominent structure on the acropolis of Selinous, largely thanks to the anastylosis in the 1920s, during which 14 columns of the northern part of the peristasis were re-erected together with the entablature. It was probably dedicated to Apollo.
The temple shows a number of archaic features. The stylobate measures 23.93 x 63.76 m and has a very elongated (6 x 17) peristasis. The columns are short (8.7 m) and thick, the corner columns being thicker than the others. They have no entasis, and the number of flutes on them varies. The intercolumnations were contracted on the long sides and wider on the narrow sides.
The front of the temple was emphasised by an 8-step entrance. There was a row of columns between the columns of the front and the pronaos, placed without consideration of the proportions of the naos. There was an adyton behind the naos. In the pavement cavities of unknown purpose have been found.
Temple C, with ruins of Temple D in the foreground
The entablature of the temple was unusually high. The frieze on the façade was decorated with ten metopes, sculpted in high relief and framed by blank slabs at the top and bottom. Three of them survive, depicting the quadriga of Helios or Apollo, the killing of Medusa, and Heracles with the captured Cercopes. These are now shown in the Regional Archeological Museum Antonio Salinas in Palermo.
Quadriga of Helios or Apollo (with Leto and Artemis), Perseus beheading Medusa in front of Athena, and Heracles carring the two Cercopes on a pole
The sima was made of coloured and decorated terracotta, and the pediment had a big terracotta mask of a Gorgon in the centre. These are also in the Palermo museum.
Fragments of a terracotta sima
220.127.116.11. Temple D
Compared to the neighbouring Temple C, Temple D had a more standardised look. The stylobate measured 23.64 x 55.96 m and had a peristyle of 6 x 13 columns (with the column height 8.53 m). The columns were more slender, had entasis and were slightly inclined. Typically archaic were the variations of the diameter of the columns, the number of flutes on the columns, and the intercolumnations on the long and narrow sides of the temple.
Temple D had an elongated naos with a pronaos (distyle in antis) and an adyton. In the pavement of the peristyle and the naos can be seen a number of circular and square cavities, the function of which is not known.
Near the southwest corner of the temple stands a large external altar, placed obliquely, which indicates that there may have been an earlier temple on the site.
Temple D was dedicated to Athena or Aphrodite.
18.104.22.168. Temple O
Temple O was dedicated to Poseidon or Athena. Its stylobate measured 16.23 x 40.23 m and had a peristasis of 6 x 14 columns (with the column height 6.23 m). It had a pronaos (distyle in antis), a naos, an adyton, and an opisthodomos (distyle in antis).
22.214.171.124. Temple A
Temple A, dedicated to the Dioscuri or Apollo, was almost identical to Temple O. Its stylobate measured 16.13 m x 40.31 m and had a peristasis of 6 x 14 columns. It had a pronaos (distyle in antis), a naos, an adyton, and an opisthodomos (distyle in antis). The naos stood a step higher than the pronaos and the adyton was a step higher than the naos. In the wall between the pronaos and the naos were two spiral staircases that led to the upper floor.
On the pavement of the pronaos are remains of a mosaic depicting the Punic goddess Tanit, the sun, the caduceus (the staff of Hermes), a bull’s head, and a crown. This indicates the reuse of the space in the Punic period.
126.96.36.199. Temple B
Around 250 BC
Temple B is the only religious structure in Selinous that is known to have been built after its destruction in 409 BC. It was formerly believed to be the heroon of the Akragantine philosphoper Empedocles, but today it is more accepted that it was a temple dedicated to a strongly Hellenised Punic cult (possibly to Demeter or Asclepius-Eshmun). The temple was small, measuring only 4.6 x 8.4 m. A staircase led to a prostyle portico of four columns, followed by a pronaos and a naos. Traces of polychrome stucco have been found from here.
On a hill north of the acropolis stood the agora and the living quarters of Selinous. This area had been inhabited since foundation of the city, and it was originally surrounded by its own wall. Its streets were laid out following the Hippodamian plan. After the destruction of Selinous in 409 BC this part of the city remained uninhabited, as the refugees brought back by Hermocrates settled down on the acropolis instead.
Further north were the Manuzza and Galera-Bagliazzo necropoleis (6th century BC). From the latter a bronze statue known as the Ephebe of Selinous (470 BC) has been discovered. It is now stored at the Civic Museum of Castelvetrano.
Across the Coltone River to the east, near the entrance to the archaeological park, is a hill with the remains of three temples. It has been suggested, on the basis of some remains of a wall between two of these temples, that this area was not a single sacred compound (temenos). It is said to have been very similar to the western slopes of the acropolis of Megara, Selinous’s mother city.
3.3.1. Temple F
Temple F was the smallest of the three temples on the east hill, measuring 24.37 x 61.88 m. Its peristasis was composed of 6 x 14 columns with the height of 9.11 m. Only the columns of the east façade had entasis.
The temple had an unusual feature: tripartite screens (4.7 m high) between the columns of the peristasis, with narrow entrances only on the east façade. The purpose of these screens is unknown. They may have been designed to protect votive gifts or to prevent particular rites, such as Dionysian mysteries, from being seen by the uninitiated. It is possible that the screens were added later, with the purpose of turning the peristasis into a cultic area.
Temple F has a very narrow naos with a pronaos and an adyton. In front of the pronaos is a row of four columns. The floor plan is very similar to that of Temple C on the acropolis.
The temple was dedicated to either Dionysus or Athena, depicted on two metopes surviving from the east frieze. The metopes are from the second half of the 6th century BC. They are now in the Regional Archeological Museum Antonio Salinas in Palermo.
3.3.2. Temple G
530-409 BC; unfinished
Temple G was dedicated to Zeus or Apollo. Its measured 49.97 x 109.12 m and was 30 m high (the columns 14.7 m). That makes it the largest temple in Selinous and one the largest in the Greek world. Its peristasis consisted of 8 x 17 columns. Only one of the columns stands today. It is because of that column that the temple is known in Sicilian as ‘lu fusu di la vecchia’ (‘place of the ancient (column)’).
The temple was still unfinished at the time of the Carthaginian attack in 409 BC, as the lack of fluting on some columns shows. The long construction period can be seen in the variation of style – archaic on the east side and classical on the west side.
Temple G had a pronaos, a naos, an adyton and an opisthodomos. Its plan was highly unusual. The antae of the pronaos ended in pilasters, one linked to the other by a U-shaped portico of six columns. Three doors led to the naos. Two rows of ten slender columns divided the naos into three aisles, with the middle aisle probably being left open (hypaethros). There was a second row of columns on the gallery level, accessible from two staircases on the sides. The adyton stood independently in the middle of the naos, without any connection to its walls. The opisthodomos (distyle in antis) was not accessible from the naos.
From the adyton survives an inscription in which the cults of Selinous are catalogised (the Great Table of Selinous; mid-5th century BC). Interesting finds also include traces of coloured stucco on some columns and horseshoe-shaped grooves for ropes in the blocks of the entablature (used for lifting the blocks into place).
3.3.3. Temple E
Temple E, dedicated to Hera or Aphrodite, is the best preserved of the temples of Selinous. It is the third sacred building on the site. The first of the preceding temples burned down in around 510 BC.
The temple has a very elongated plan. It measures 25.30 x 67.74 m, and its peristasis consists of 6 x 15 columns, each 10.35 m high. Optical illusions typical of the Doric order used here include the entasis, the contraction of corner intercolumnations, and the widening of corner metopes. The anastylosis was carried out in 1956-1959.
As for the plan, Temple E is very similar to Temples A and O on the acropolis. It has a pronaos (distyle in antis), a naos, an adyton and an opisthodomos. The eastern face of the temple is emphasised by a monumental staircase, and there are also steps between the pronaos, the naos and the adyton. The opisthodomos (distyle in antis) was separated from the adyton by a wall.
The most important decorative elements that survive from the temple are four metopes of its frieze. These are, in my opinion, among the very best examples of ancient Greek sculpture. Made of limestone and marble, they show the fight of Heracles with an Amazon, the sacred nuptials (hieros gamos) of Zeus and Hera, the punishment of Actaeon by Artemis, and the killing of Enceladus by Athena. These are all displayed at the Regional Archeological Museum Antonio Salinas in Palermo.
Heracles fighting the Amazon Antiope
Sacred nuptials (hieros gamos) of Zeus and Hera
Punishment of Actaeon, torn apart by dogs for having seen Artemis naked
The oldest necropolis of Selinous – the Buffa necropolis from the late 7th and 6th centuries BC – was located north of the East Hill.
Across the Modione River to the west of the acropolis is a hill with a temenos dedicated to Demeter Malophoros (‘apple-bearer’ or ‘sheep-bearer’). Originally a sacred open area, it was surrounded by a wall at some point. A temple is known to have stood here since at least the 6th century BC.
The ruins show a megaron (9.52 x 20.40 m), consisting of a pronaos, a naos, an adyton and a service room attached to the pronaos. The temple had no crepidoma and no columns. Close by was a monumental altar, and a channel provided the temple with water. Since the mid-5th century on the temenos was accessed via a propylaea, flanked by a portico and a large room dedicated to Hecate.
Slightly to the north was another temenos, dedicated to Zeus Meilichios (‘honey-sweet’) and, possibly, Persephone Pasicrateia (‘ruler over all’). Its ruins are mostly from the 4th century BC.
Further west were the biggest necropoleis of Selinous – the Pipio Bresciana and Manicalunga Timpone Nero necropoleis (from the 6th and 5th centuries BC).
3.5. Cave of Cusa
From first half of 6th century to 409 BC
The Cave of Cusa, located some kilometers northwest of Selinous, is a limestone quarry used as a source of building material for the city. Here we can see a number of blocks of stone intended for Selinuntine temples. The attack by Carthage on the city in 409 BC caused the sudden interruption of work in the quarry, which is why we can still see the blocks in various stages of carving. Some show grooves and holes that allowed to lift and transport them with ropes and poles.