Catania was founded as Katane by settlers from Naxos in 729 BC (possibly on the site of a Sicel village). It was independent until 476 BC, when Hiero I of Syracuse conquered it, replaced its population, and named it to Aitne after the nearby Mount Etna. The former citizens of the city were resettled and the old name was restored in 461 BC, some years after the death of Hiero.
During the 415-413 BC expedition Katane was an ally of Athens, and it served as the main base from which the Athenians launched attacks against Syracuse. This was followed by periods of rule of either Syracuse or Carthage as well as of independence. In 263 BC, during the First Punic War, it was one of the first Sicilian cities to submit to the Roman Republic.
Under the Roman rule, the city, now known as Catana, enjoyed great prosperity, largely because it had a busy port, known for its corn exports. That position lasted throughout most of the Roman Empire.
A notable Roman structure in Catania is the amphitheatre. Its remains can be seen under today’s Piazza Stesicoro (a tenth of its entire size) and on the grounds of some buildings (such as Villa Cerami). It was probably built during the rule of Hadrian (117-138) or Antoninus Pius (138-161). Its expansion, tripling its size, took place in the following century.
The amphitheatre of Catana was the largest and most complex amphitheatre in Sicily, comparable in monumentality with those in Rome, Capua and Verona. Its arena measured 50 x 70 m, while the external diameter was 105 x 125 m. The cavea had 32 tiers on three levels, supported by vaults. A gallery surrounded it from the outside, and it was covered by a fabric awning (velarium), supported by stone blocks and beams.
The cavea was built of basalt from Mount Etna. The techniques of opus quadratum (parallel courses of squared stone) and opus vittatum (horizontal alteration of stone and brick) were used. Some stairs or seats were probably made of limestone, arches were composed of rectangular red bricks, and for the cladding of the podium and in some decorations marble was used. All these materials together created an intresting colour effect.
At the gate to the excavated parts of the theatre fragments of Ionic columns and an architrave with the inscription ‘AMPHITHEATRVM INSIGNE’ (‘Eminent Amphitheatre’) are preserved. Here are also symbolic epitaphs of two famous citizens from the Greek city – the lawgiver Charondas and the poet Stesichorus, whose tombs were believed to be found in the area of the amphitheatre.
The theatre was abandoned at some point during the last years of the Roman Empire. According to some authors, it was spoliated in the 5th century by Theodoric, the king of the Ostrogoths, as well as in the 11th century by Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily. The latter may have brought the grey granite columns that decorate the façade and the apses of the Catania Cathedral from the Roman amphitheatre.
Other important structures in Catania from the Roman period include the odeon and the thermal baths.