Segesta was, together with Eryx (modern Erice) and Entella, the most important city of the Elymian people. One of the three indigenous peoples of Sicily, Elymians lived in the westernmost part of the island long before the arrival of Phoenicians and Greeks. The other two ancient Sicilian peoples – the Sicani and the Sicels – lived in the centre and in the east of the island, respectively.
Greeks and Romans generally believed that Elymians were descendants of Trojan settlers, but there are also ancient accounts that describe them as barbarians. Despite their non-Hellenic origin, it is known that Greek civilization had a big impact on the development of the Elymian culture from very early on.
There is no information about when exactly Segesta was established. It may have existed in the form of a Greek polis in the 7th century BC. The zenith of its development was in the mid-5th century BC.
The relations of Segesta with other Greek city-states varied from friendly to hostile. Its conflict with its neighbour Selinous goes back to at least 580 BC. During the Sicilian Expedition in 415-413 BC Segesta was an ally of Athens against the coalition of Syracuse and Selinous. After the defeat of Athens it sought for help from Carthage, who in 409 BC attacked Selinous and destroyed it. Segesta soon became its dependant ally. In 307 BC Segesta was besieged and destroyed by Agathocles of Syracuse, who changed its name to Diceopolis. The city soon regained its independence (and restored its former name), only to lose it to Carthage some time later.
At the beginning of the First Punic War Segesta swore loyalty to Rome. This was greatly appreciated by the Romans, who, after the victorious war, guaranteed to it some privileges and some political autonomy. The city subsequently enjoyed great prosperity. It started to decline in the 1st century AD and by the 2nd century it was already fully abandoned.
The oldest surviving structure in the Segesta Archaeological Park is probably the so-called Sanctuary of Contrada Mango, located south of the ancient city. It dates back to the 6th or 5th century BC.
From 420s or 417 until 409 BC
On a hill outside the ancient city of Segesta stands a very well preserved Doric temple. It was built by an Athenian architect following the contemporary models of temple architecture of Attica.
The temple is a peripteral hexastyle standing on a stylobate that measures 23.17 x 58.07 m. It has a slightly elongated form (6 x 14 columns instead of 6 x 13). The columns are 9.33 m high. The entire peristasis and entablature survive.
The intercolumnations are equal on the long and narrow sides. The Doric corner conflict has been solved by the double contraction of the terminal intercolumnations. The frieze has become partially independent from the columns. Another optical device used is the curvature of the horizontal lines.
The temple was never finished. This can be seen in multiple features, such as the lack of naos, the lack of roof, and the lack of flutes on the columns. There are also knobs in the crepidoma, used for lifting the stone blocks but normally removed after. There is also no trace of metopes and pediment decoration. It is not known if the lack of ornamentation was intended as such.
The city itself stood on the summit and steep slopes of Mount Barbaro. The natural protection provided by the location was complemented by fortifications since the 5th century BC. Some remains of walls and towers stand on the more gentle slope of the mountain facing the temple. The lower gates were later abandoned and by the 1st century BC only the upper part of the town was defensible.
The city plan was regular. It had two acropoleis. The theatre, the agora and the bouleuterion were located on the northern acropolis. Their history goes back to the era following the capture of the city by Agathocles.
Original – late 4th or early 3rd century; current – second half of 2nd century
The theatre of Segesta is oriented to the north, towards the Gulf of Castellamare, offering a dramatic view of the nearby hills. In contrast to typical Greek theatres, which were built directly in the rock, it was constructed from the scratch, using blocks of local limestone.
The theatre has a cavea, with the diameter of 63 m, which is supported by retaining walls. Annexed to the western retaining wall is a cave with a sacred spring, which had been used since the Bronze Age. A praecinctio divides the cavea into two levels. The lower level has 21 rows of seats divided into 7 sectors. The upper level, of which only few traces survive, had backrest instead of seats.
The diameter of the orchestra is 18.4 m. The scaenae frons, of which very little remains, was a two-storey building: the lower storey was in Doric order and the upper storey in Ionic order. The protruding volumes of the scaenae frons on the sides (parascenia) were decorated with satyrs in high relief (a feature common in contemporary theatres in Sicily). There were also underground corridors for the passage of actors.
The upper parts of the theatre were partially reused in the necropolis from the Muslim era. Nearby are ruins of a mosque and a castle from the Norman period.
Last quarter of 2nd century BC
The agora of Segesta, located not too far away from the theatre, was flanked on the east by a stoa with a length of more than 100 m. This makes it one of the biggest known stoas. It terminated in projecting wings on both sides. A special feature – uncommon in mainland Greece – was that it had two levels: the columns of the lower level were in Doric order, while the upper-level colonnade was Ionic.
The northern and western sides of the northern acropolis and the southern acropolis were residential. Notable ruins on the latter include the so-called House of the Navarch, named after the prow-shaped corbels found on the sides of its peristyle. The house dates back to at least the late 3rd or 2nd century BC, though the navarch, or admiral, who owned and decorated the house may have lived later.