Akragas (today’s Agrigento) was established in around 580 BC. It was a colony of Gela, a city further east along the south coast of Sicily, founded by settlers from Rhodes and Crete in around 688 BC. It soon became one of the richest and most powerful cities of Magna Graecia.
A famous early ruler of Akragas was the tyrant Phalaris (c. 570-554 BC), who managed to increase the city’s influence over the surrounding territories. He was also known for his cruelty, having, for instance, used a large bronze bull to burn to death his enemies imprisoned in it. Another powerful ruler was the tyrant Theron (488-473/472 BC), who, in contrast to Phalaris, was generally described as just ruler and a generous patron of the arts. Phalaris was an ally of Gelon, the tyrant of Gela and Syracuse, and he was mostly remembered for his victory over the Carthaginians in the Battle of Himera in 480 BC.
Akragas remained neutral in the conflict between Athens and Syracuse during the former’s expedition to Sicily in 415-413 BC. Despite this it soon came under a threat by Carthage, who had just shown its might by destroying the nearby city of Selinous. The fate of Selinous befell Akragas in 406 BC.
In the 4th century BC Akragas was a poor shadow of its former self. That changed only slightly after the defeat of Carthage by Timoleon in 338 BC. As a consequence of the First Punic War the city became part of the Roman Republic. During the Second Punic War it was a battleground between Rome and Carthage, until in 210 BC it fell decisively to Rome. Now known as Agrigentum, it was a relatively prosperous city in the subsequent centuries.
4.1. Orientation and Fortifications
6th century BC
Akragas was located on a plateau overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It was bordered in the north by a ridge composed of the Girgenti Hill and the Rock of Athena (the site of today’s city), and in the south by a ridge known as the Valley of the Temples. The both ridges were part of the fortification system of the city. In the east and west the city was delimited by the valleys of, respectively, the Akragas (San Biagio) and Hypsas (Sant’Anna, or Drago) rivers. The walls here were mostly built in masonry. All together, the fortifications were about 12 km long. They were pierced by nine gates, each with a bastion tower.
At the mouth of the Akragas River was the port and the emporion of the city.
The city was spread out on five terraces sloping down from the north to the south ridge. The street layout followed the Hippodamian (grid) plan. The main street of the city, which connected the Gate of Gela with the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, was 12 m wide. Other major streets were around 7 m wide, while the width of the smaller streets was 5.5 m.
The agora of Akragas was located somewhere between the Temple of Heracles and the Church of San Nicola in the north. It had an upper and a lower part. The upper agora contained the ekklesiasterion, the bouleuterion and the Oratory of Phalaris. The lower agora was composed of a stoa, a gymnasium, a sacred area and shops.
The structures of the upper agora have been better researched. The oldest of the three buildings is the bouleuterion (seat of the council of citizens), dating back to the 6th century BC. It was converted into an odeon in the Roman era. The ekklesiasterion (seat of the popular assembly) is from the 4th or the 3rd century BC. Its remains are partly covered by the so-called Oratory of Phalaris, a small temple dating back to the late 1st century BC or the early 1st century AD. Its name comes from the Akragantine tyrant whose palace may have stood here in the 6th century BC. The temple was converted into a chapel in the Norman period.
Near the agora are remains of Greek peristyle and Roman atrium houses. Elements of the water system of the city have also been discovered here, including cisterns, tanks and drainage pipes.
The highest point of Akragas was the acropolis, located on the Rock of Athena in the north. Unlike in the other Greek cities, in Akragas the places of worship were not concentrated on the acropolis. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire the inhabitants abandoned the lower parts of the city and moved here.
To the southeast of the acropolis stood the Temple of Demeter (6th century BC, 480-470 BC). It was a small structure made up of a pronaos (distyle in antis) and a naos. Its foundations and some walls were incorporated into the Church of San Biagio in the Norman period.
The Temple of Demeter was part of a temenos, from which remains of other structures survive, such as two small round altars with a holy well (bothros) in the middle. Further away is an old rupestrian sanctuary, dedicated to Demeter and Persephone.
4.4. Valley of the Temples
The so-called Valley of the Temples forms the southern border of the ancient city. It is named after the ruins of Doric temples that stand here on the ridge.
4.4.1. Temple of Heracles
Around 510 BC or before 480 BC
The Temple of Heracles is the oldest temple in the Valley. Its exact date of construction is, however, not known. On the basis of stylistic features it is usually dated to the last years of the 6th century BC. Some suggest that the temple was constructed some years before the Battle of Himera, on the basis of a type of cymatium (S-shaped molding on top of the cornice) that has been found found from here. That type of cymatium is from the 460s BC, which helps to date the temple itself to an earlier decade, as it usually took some time to complete the decorations of the temples. It has also been suggested that the temple, built by Theron, is, instead, dedicated to Athena.
The Temple of Heracles is an unusually elongated Doric temple, measuring 25.33 x 67 m on the stylobate and having a peristasis of 6 x 15 columns. It stands on a three-step crepidoma which rests on a substructure built due to the unevenness of the terrain. The columns are high and have wide capitals, with a deep gulf between the stem and the echinus. Nine columns of the southeastern side were re-erected in the 20th century.
The naos of the temple is flanked by a pronaos and an opisthodomos (both distyle in antis). Between the pronaos and the naos are pylons with stairs, allowing access to the roof. This is the first example of such a structure, later very common in Akragas. In the Roman Period, the naos was divided into three, possibly indicating a dedication to multiple gods.
To the east are the remains of the large altar of the temple.
4.4.2. Temple of the Olympian Zeus
After 480 BC, until 406 BC
The Temple of the Olympian Zeus was most probably built to commemorate the victory of Akragas and Syracuse over Carthage in the Battle of Himera. It may have been constructed using the captured Carthaginian soldiers. Even though there are traces of it being used, it seems to have never been completed.
The temple has been described as the largest Doric temple ever built, measuring 56.30 x 112.70 m on the stylobate and with the height of 20 m. The crepidoma was around 4.5 m high and had five steps.
The temple had a pseudoperipteral plan: the columns of the peristasis (7 x 14) did not stand on their own, but rested on a continuous curtain wall. This created a need for entrances, which were in the corner intercolumnations on the eastern face of the temple.
Highly unusual were the atlases (7.5 m high) standing on the walls between the columns, holding the entablature with their hands. They were all nude, some bearded and others clean-shaven. Some have seen them as the symbols of the Greek victory over Carthage. Today one of them can be seen among the ruins of the temple, while another has been reassembled at the Regional Archaeological Museum Pietro Griffo in Agrigento.
Unusual was also the interior of the temple, divided into three aisles by 12 square pilasters resting on a wall on both sides. The middle aisle may have been intended as open to the sky. The division of the interior into smaller units (the naos, the pronaos and the opisthodomos) is unclear.
The pediments of the temple were decorated with marble sculptures: the one in the east depicted the Gigantomachia, while the one on the west had the Fall of Troy as its subject.
The Temple of the Olympian Zeus is the least preserved of all the temples in the Valley. It was destroyed by earthquakes over the history, and in the 18th century it was also used as a source of stone for the construction of buildings in Agrigento and Porto Empedocle.
To the east is the basement of the huge (17.5 x 54.5 m) sacrificial altar of the temple. This altar initiated a long tradition of monumental altars in Sicily, which culminated in the 3rd century BC in the Altar of Hiero II in Syracuse.
4.4.3. Temple of Hera Lacinia
The Temple of Hera of Akragas is a peripteral hexastyle (6 x 13), with the stylobate measuring 16.93 x 38.13 m. The crepidoma has four steps, and the columns are 6.44 m high. The intercolumnations on the front differ slightly, with the middle one having been widened.
The temple has a naos, with a pronaos and an opisthodomos (both distyle in antis). Like the earlier Temple of Hercules and the later Temple of Concordia, it has staircases in the walls between the naos and the pronaos, allowing for the inspection of the roof.
The temple was damaged in fire during the Siege of Akragas in 406 BC. It was restored in the Roman era. It remained in use until the 4th or 5th century AD. The anastylosis was carried out in the 18th century.
In front of the eastern face of the temple are well-preserved remains of the sacrificial altar.
4.4.4. Temple of Concordia
Around 430 BC
The Temple of Concordia is one of the best preserved Greek temples in the world. It is one of the main symbols of the ancient Greek civilization. The logo of UNESCO is said to have been designed on the basis of it.
It is not known what deity the temple was originally dedicated to. The allusion in the name to the Roman goddess of agreement and harmony comes from a Latin inscription found from here during the Renaissance, but that inscription is known to be unrelated to the temple.
The Temple of Concordia is very similar to the Temple of Hera Lacinia. It is a peripteral hexastyle (6 x 13 columns) measuring 16.91 x 39.44 m on the stylobate. The crepidoma has 4 steps. The columns are 6.71 m high, with 20 sharp-edged flutes and a slight entasis. The entablature and the pediments are well preserved (originally painted in red and blue). The gutters were decorated with protomes in the shape of lions’ heads. The roof was originally covered with marble tiles.
On the inside there was a naos, with a pronaos and an opisthodomos (both distyle in antis). Like other temples in Akragas it had pylons with stairs leading to the roof between the pronaos and the naos.
In 597 the Temple of Concordia was converted into a church dedicated to Apostles Peter and Paul. Consequently, the spaces between the columns were filled, the wall separating the naos from the opisthodomos was destroyed, and the walls of the naos were cut into arches. These changes were partially reverted during the restoration of the temple in the 1780s.
Near the Temple of Concordia are catacombs from the Late Roman and Early Medieval periods. There are also tombs were carved into the cliff as well as in the existing cisterns.
4.4.5. Temple of the Dioscuri
Mid- or late 5th century BC
The temple dedicated to Castor and Polydeuces was 13.83 m wide and 31.70 m long (on the stylobate). It was probably a peripteral hexastyle (6 x 13 columns), and the columns were 5.83 m high. The picturesque corner that stands today is actually the result of a 19th-century reconstruction, in which pieces from various other temples were used.
Near the Temple of the Dioscuri are the ruins of the Sanctuary of the Chthonic Deities (6th century BC).
4.4.6. Garden of Kolymbethra
After 480 BC
The Garden of Kolymbethra, located near the Temple of the Dioscuri, was probably built after the Battle of Himera, using the captured Carthaginian soldiers. Designed by architect Phaeax, it was essentially a large water reservoir fed by rainwater via a network of tunnels dug in the porous rock. The reservoir was surrounded by abundant wildlife, and the area may have been used for various purposes, as a holiday resort or for more regular tasks such as doing laundry.
The reservoir had been buried by the first half of the 4th century BC, and the area was then used as a vegetable garden. The original irrigation system still functioned, as it does even today.
The last temple of the Valley is the Temple of Hephaistos from around 430 BC. It stands on the site of a sacellum from around 560-550 BC. Its peristasis consisted of 6 x 13 columns.
Some structures can also be found south of the Valley of the Temples.
South of the Temple of Heracles stands the so-called Tomb of Theron. Instead of being the tomb of the 5th-century-BC ruler of Akragas, as its name suggests, it was more probably a funerary monument to commemorate the Romans killed in the Second Punic War.
Further to the south are the ruins of the Temple of Asclepius (400-390 BC). It was a small temple, possibly frequented by pilgrims seeking cures for illnesses. It has a special feature: two semi-columns on the external side of the rear wall of the naos (a pseudo-opisthodomos). Some elements of architectural decoration have been found from here.