The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spanish have all left extensive remains in Sicily, whose strategic geography has long made it a vibrant and intriguing destination. Subsequent centuries of neglect have kept many of these sites well-preserved and, thanks to the work of archaeologists today, many of these sites continue to be brought back to their former glory. Agrigento’s Greek temples, for example, are in a better state of preservation than those in present-day Athens.
Academy Travel has been touring Sicily for 14 years and in this blog, we take a look at ten key sites, often stunningly situated, that reveal Sicily’s history.
1. Magnificent Greek temples in Agrigento
It’s hard to go past the magnificent Valle dei Templi (“valley of the temples”) in Agrigento. Arguably Sicily’s most enthralling archaeological site and once the ancient city of Akragas, the site is highlighted by the stunningly well-preserved Temple of Concordia, one of several ridge-top temples that once served as beacons for homecoming sailors (ironically, all the temples lie on a vast rocky spur). A UNESCO site since 1997, it is the largest archaeological site in the world with 1,300 hectares.
Agrigento’s glorious seven temples offer one of the most outstanding examples of Greater Greek art and architecture, and number amongst the best preserved in the Greek world: in the Temple of Concordia, for example, evidence remains of the interior staircases used by priests. Other structures show traces of the original coloured stucco. The site’s wild landscape provides tones of burnt umber as it stretches away to the sea, and for those with time to spend the whole day exploring, the temples are spectacularly lit at night.
At its height, the Greek city of Akragas may have had a population of 200,000, but after the fall of the Roman Empire it was repeatedly sacked by Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines and Saracen pirates. The townsfolk moved to the elevated site of modern Agrigento for protection, yet a pattern of economic exploitation had been established that continued well into the 20th century, as chronicled by local Nobel Laureate Luigi Pirandello and by the brilliant Leonardo Sciascia.
The site’s nearby Museo Archeologico is also excellent, its almost 6000 artefacts allowing you to imagine the archaeological site inhabited by the people and objects that once gave it meaning. There are scores of votive statuettes, offered to the deities and then buried in front of the temples; massive telamons (supporting columns with a human form) from the Temple of Olympian Zeus; and a sublime 5th-century BC Ephebe, or statue of a beautiful youth. Once you finish exploring these treasures, don’t forget to stop at the small kiosk in the museum’s grounds for a delicious arancino (fried rice ball).
2. The Peloponnesian War in Syracuse
Theatre was a key part of Greek life, its tragedy and comedy regularly used as both instructional tool and cathartic safety valve. The 5th-century BC theatre in Syracuse had a huge capacity: 67 rows of seating and a cavea, or seating tiers, of 138.6 metres in diameter.
Syracuse was one of Magna Grecia’s most important cities, giving the world luminaries such as the mathematician and philosopher Archimedes. Later Christianised by St Paul himself, the city’s earliest martyr was none other than St Lucy, the patron saint of the blind, whose feast day (known as Saint Lucy’s Day) is celebrated in the West on 13 December. But its power and wealth also drew it into a fierce Mediterranean conflict. The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) saw Athens pitched against the peninsular cities of Corinth and Sparta. Syracuse, founded by colonists from Corinth, was suspected of providing material support to Athens’ sworn enemies and was drawn into the conflict. Enlisting the efforts of a Spartan general, Syracuse defeated the Athenians and herded over 7,000 prisoners-of-war into the stone quarries (latomie) alongside the Greek theatre. If the prisoners could recite Euripides by heart, the culture-loving Syracusans freed them. But those not sold into slavery were left to die of exposure, starvation or hard labour.
Our best source for ancient Syracuse is one of the world’s most important works of political history, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and a visit to the quarry prisons of Syracuse’s archaeological park brings to life the human consequences of war he describes – even though today the latomie are lush with undergrowth and trees.
Also alongside the Greek theatre is the “Ear of Dionysius”, a limestone cave with unique acoustic effects. Legend says that its ear-like structure allowed the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse to eavesdrop on the political dissidents imprisoned here. It was named by the painter Caravaggio, who spent time in Syracuse after fleeing from Malta.
Syracuse’s Museo Archeologico is some distance from the site, but is well worth a visit. Its exceptional collection includes a prehistoric dwarf elephant, for example, and the Venus Landolina, one of the world’s most beautiful representations of the goddess arising from a foaming sea.
3. Late Antique Rome at the Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina
We often overlook Late Antique Rome, thinking of this as the period in which the culture entered its long decline. Yet in Sicily is one of the most important examples of elite 4th-century life, equal in scope to the Great Palace alongside Istanbul’s hippodrome, or Diocletian’s Palace in Split.
Unlike those sites, however, the Villa Romana del Casale has been remarkably preserved by both natural disaster (landslides effectively covered the villa’s remains) and by its modern lack of geographic importance. Ironically, this apparently remote location – due east of Agrigento, in the wild interior around Enna – was what led to the development of the Villa Romana. It was the hub of an extensive latifundium (agricultural estate) belonging to an official who probably imported the wild animals for Rome’s venationes, staged hunts in the arena.
The Villa Romana del Casale was situated on the ancient road used to bring these animals from North Africa to Sicily, and then on to the games in Rome. Its magnificent mosaics even show the exotic creatures as they are loaded on ships to sail to their fate. While we don’t know the precise identity of the villa’s owner – the best suggestion is one Lucius Aradius Valerius Proculus, Sicily’s 4th-century governor under Constantine – we can certainly assume his status. The official state reception room (basilica), large formal dining room (triclinium), and private thermal baths, complete with a charming mosaic of the mistress of the house holding her toiletries, all demonstrate his wealth and power.
It is the floor mosaics that make Piazza Armerina’s Villa Romana justly famous. A long corridor shows the Great Hunt, vibrantly coloured and alive with movement. Another floor mosaic has happy children pretending to be grown up as they set off on the so-called Little Hunt. In other mosaics we see the Cyclops Polyphemus or Orpheus with his lyre. But the most celebrated mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale are the “bikini girls”, athletically attired and undertaking their physical exercise on the floor of a room that must originally have been the villa’s palestra (gymnasium).
All of Villa Romana’s floor mosaics are brightly coloured with intricate geometric borders, and the level of craftsmanship suggests that they were designed and executed at great expense, by workmen brought over especially from North Africa. Covered in the 20th century with a Perspex roof, the mosaic tesserae were plagued by mould blooms in their cement fixing, and hundreds of thousands of Euro had to be spent on rehabilitating the site. Today the mosaics have never looked better, making this a good time to admire the wealth and sophistication of the Late Antique Roman empire at Piazza Armerina.
4. Temples and wildflowers at Selinunte
Selinunte, an ancient Greek site in north-west Sicily, was named “Selinus” for the wild celery that grew here in abundance (it was even depicted on the city’s coins), and one of the prettier aspects of the site is the wildflowers that carpet it in spring.
Selinunte’s Greek temples have a very different atmosphere to those of Agrigento. The site still feels remote and a little wild, with the sea crashing nearby and few tourists. Thucydides writes that Selinunte was founded in the 7th century BC as a colony of nearby Megara Hyblaea. Divided in two by a river, it was oriented in the west around an acropolis and temples and, in the east, around shops, housing and administration. Unlike other archaeological sites – where the great temples were given evocative names that didn’t reflect their actual history – Selinunte’s temples are simply lettered, many of them toppled by an earthquake in the Middle Ages.
Today the huge drums of the fallen columns lie scattered around, and surveying this giant jumble brings to mind Piranesi’s etchings of looming prisons, or lines from Shelley’s “Ozymandias”: “Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
A number of the temples have been re-erected to give a sense of their original scale, and if we compare the toppled column sections with the reconstructions we learn a lot about Sicilian Greek temple architecture. Unfortunately the pediment friezes were removed, but you can still admire them in Palermo’s Museo Archeologico.
5. A moment frozen in time at the Cave di Cusa
Only ten kilometres from Selinunte is a site that makes even more sense of Sicilian Greek engineering. The quarries (cave) at Cusa are also a dramatic testament to the effects of Magna Grecia’s conflict with Carthage.
In 409 BC, Greek Sicily was gripped by the prospect of war with the Carthaginian fleet. At precisely this time, Selinunte’s masons were quarrying the stone drums at Cusa for the temples’ columns. War with powerful Carthage required all hands on deck and the masons’ work was abandoned, never to be completed. Some drums were left already separate from the rock wall, while others were only half-quarried.
A visit to Cusa, with its grasses and wild poppies, is an excellent way to understand how temple columns were quarried in sections and later constructed on site at Selinunte. Firstly, the column’s diameter would be chiselled into the stone as a guide for the masons. They would then chisel downwards to a depth of about 2.5m, leaving a gap of about 45-60cm between the stone cylinder they were carving out, and the rock wall. The base of the stone cylinder would be chipped away with metal tools, until a lever could be introduced to move it away from the rock base (It was after all Sicilian Archimedes who said that he could move the world from its axis, if only he had a long enough lever and a firm place to stand!). Finally, oxen would be used to drag the stone drums to the port, where they were loaded for transportation to the construction site at Selinunte.
The human scale of this enterprise was enormous, and the Cave di Cusa clearly demonstrate the kind of effort and social hierarchy (often involving slave labour) required to bring the magnificent stone temples of Sicily to life.
6. The elusive Elymians at Segesta
Before the Greeks arrived, ancient Sicily was peopled by a number of indigenous groups. One of these was the Elymians in the island’s north-west, but we know little about them. We do know that by intermarriage with the Greeks, the Elymians were rapidly Hellenised.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing at Segesta, however – the Elymian town was in constant conflict with nearby Greek Selinus. The Segestans appealed to Athens and Carthage for assistance, and would be virtually destroyed in the 4th century BC as a direct result of its alliance with Carthage against Dionysius of Syracuse. Perhaps to impress a delegation of Athenians sent to Segesta for these military discussions, the Elymians constructed a small Doric temple on a hill across from the town. Segesta’s Greek temple was probably designed by an Athenian, but its construction was Elymian and left incomplete, perhaps because it had served its diplomatic purpose. We can see that the temple was left unfinished when we look at its columns: they are not fluted, as Doric columns usually were. Nor does the temple appear to have had a roof, and the sacred inner sanctum (cella) is missing. There is no evidence of decoration, friezes or even an altar.
But for all its state of incompletion, Elymian Segesta’s Greek temple is marvellous. Dramatically placed against the backdrop of a small mountain, its size has been greatly condensed so that its proportions fit the landscape around it. The warm stone contrasts with the lush green of the rising ground behind the temple, which stands in majestic isolation thanks to a hidden ravine separating it from the mountain.
Segesta’s temple was a necessary stop on the Grand Tour – Goethe greatly admired it – but the town’s other jewel lies on the facing hill, where the acropolis and town buildings have been excavated.
The 3rd-century BC Greek theatre of Segesta is in remarkable condition, and seats about 4,000. Like most of Sicily’s Greek theatres, it is provided with a dramatic natural stage set of mountains and sea, and is still used for an annual theatre season.
7. The Punic origins of Palermo
Most visitors to Palermo are overwhelmed by the city’s sophisticated Arab-Norman past, its Baroque churches with their elaborate stucco, or the hustle and bustle of its markets, traffic and street life.
Few visitors head to the Palazzo dei Normanni (Palace of the Normans) to see evidence of Palermo’s Punic past, but in the basement underneath the museum shop lies a strong, cyclopean wall that testifies to the city’s original settlement. The Phoenicians, Arabs and Normans were interested in the site of the palace for the same reason: it occupies strategic high ground that surveys Palermo’s port (the city’s Greek name, Panormus, means “all harbour”.).
For the 9th-century Phoenicians settling “Zis” – a significant trading post in their Mediterranean network – the location of this hill, between the rivers Kemonia and Papireto and sitting above the harbour, was another attractive quality of Palermo’s sweeping bay, the Conca d’Oro.
The urban layout has changed significantly: the Kemonia river has disappeared, although the Papireto still lends its name to an antiques market. The Phoenician harbour was located where the Baroque street corner of the Quattro Canti stands today, and the natural beauty of the Conca d’Oro was despoiled in the 1950s by Mafia concrete. Yet the Punic origins of Palermo are there for those who look: a Phoenician cemetery in the police barracks on congested Corso Calatafimi, leading up to the majestic cathedral of Monreale; a grain storage pit in Piazza Edison in the Via Libertà’s Art Nouveau neighbourhood.
On Mount Pellegrino, which provides a dramatic viewing point for the entire Conca d’Oro, remains of Hamilcar’s fortified settlement of the First Punic War have been tentatively identified. And just outside Palermo lies the archaeological site of Solunto, one of the best places to understand Phoenician culture in all of Italy.
8. Taormina and the Grand Tour
Of all Sicily’s Greek theatres, Taormina’s has the most dramatic location, thanks to its framing of Mount Etna. This stretch of the Sicilian coastline has long attracted settlers, due to the fertile soil that results from the volcanic eruptions. Nearby Naxos was the first colony of Magna Grecia in Sicily, settled in the 8th century BC.
Colonists from Naxos arrived in Taormina in the 4th century BC, and its theatre, perched above the town, was modified in the Roman period to include a proscenium, permanent stage scenery. It is second in size only to Syracuse’s theatre and has surely the most spectacular view of any Sicilian archaeological site.
Since Goethe and the Grand Tour, Taormina has been a permissive holiday town. In the late 19th century, Wilhelm von Gloeden took stylised photographs of naked local boys in various “Greek tableaux”, DH Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover here, and during World War II, Kesselring found it a comfortable base.
This international aspect of Taormina can be seen not far from the Greek theatre, at the Villa Comunale. It was once the personal park of eccentric Englishwoman Florence Trevelyan: her dogs are buried in a cemetery inside, and her strange honeycomb teahouse-follies dot the gardens.
9. Bronze Age trade in Lipari’s Museo Archeologico
Homer tells us that when Ulysses was struggling to return home, he was offered hospitality in the Aeolian islands by Aeolus. The king offered Ulysses the west wind, which would carry the ship safely and swiftly back to Ithaca. He also gave Ulysses a sack – not to be opened – containing all of the unfavourable winds. Of course Ulysses’ men were overcome with curiosity and opened the sack to take a look inside. The ship was promptly blown back to the Aeolian islands by the now free but unfavourable winds.
The Aeolian Islands can still be a windy corner of the Mediterranean, and have long been a location for myths and wild tales. Flung between Sicily and mainland Italy, they contain one of Europe’s most active volcanoes – Stromboli – and, according to some archaeologists, have been inhabited for 6,000 years.
The volcanic origins of the Aeolian Islands resulted in the development of crucial ancient resources, such as pumice (a key ingredient in Roman concrete), and valuable obsidian, a hard stone used in Bronze Age cutting instruments as far afield as Mycenae and the British Isles. From the 6th century, Greek rule also resulted in a flourishing local pottery industry and trade.
The islands’ profitable early history is beautifully traced in Lipari’s Museo Archeologico, yet to be modernised but containing a cornucopia of artefacts. Few of the islands’ pleasure-seeking tourists visit the museum, which also means that it is easy to take your time and closely examine this wonderful collection. Located in a castle overlooking Lipari’s twin harbours, the museum includes an excavation of Bronze Age huts, dozens of ancient amphorae recovered from shipwrecks by underwater archaeologists, spectacular Grecian urns and a large collection of ancient theatre masks. And if you’re inspired by the hard glint of obsidian in the museum’s collection, not far from the Museo Archeologico, on the road leading down to the colourful Marina Corta, is the Gioielli del Mare jewellery store, where you can admire modern recreations of ancient Greek and Roman pieces.
10. Mozia (ancient Motya)
A good part of Mozia’s charm is the story of the island’s rediscovery. Napoleonic conflict brought an English influence to Sicily, with wine-making tycoons settling in the west to provide Sicilian fortified wine to the British navy. Modern Marsala, where the Whitaker and Ingram families developed the industry, was once the site of Phoenician Lilybaeum. Scholars knew, from ancient historians, that Lilybaeum had been from another Phoenician town, located on a nearby island. Motya, as it was called, had been destroyed after the invasion of Syracuse’s Dionysius I in 397 BC.
Founded in the middle of a marsh in the 8th century BC, Motya had been extensively fortified and connected to the mainland via a causeway, developing into a centre of salt production (the picturesque windmills on Trapani’s nearby salt pans are still evidence of this tradition). After it was sacked, however, the bustling town disappeared entirely from view. It wasn’t until 1888 that Joseph Whitaker, who owned the island – then known as San Pantaleo, after it was resettled by monks in the Middle Ages – began an amateur dig and uncovered the extensive ruins of the ancient town.
Whitaker was a dilettante and gentleman scholar who had inherited his family’s vast Sicilian business interests, from marsala wine to banking. An enthusiastic ornithologist, he tracked birds as far afield as Tunisia and gave Palermo one of its most beautiful Liberty Style buildings – the Villa Whitaker, which is well worth a visit.
Thanks to the interests of the Whitaker Foundation, ancient Motya has been brought back to life. The island’s small museum contains numerous remains of the Phoenician settlement, and a short stroll takes in the causeway, city walls and even a Tophet for the cremated remains of children (debate continues about the extent of child sacrifice to the Phoenician god Ba’al Hammmon). The key piece in the museum’s collection is not, however, Phoenician. It is a 5th-century Greek statue of a youth, probably a charioteer. It was found in 1979 inside hastily-constructed fortifications, probably looted from a Greek town and then repurposed as building rubble by Phoenicians erecting impromptu defensive structures against Dionysius’ invasion.
The Mozia Charioteer is superb. The sinuous lines of his physique are traced by the wet drapery technique of his long tunic (xystis), which highlights his muscular form. Proud but tired at the end of a race – his muscles are still taut – the youth stands in contrapposto, which emphasises his elegance but also ensures adequate distribution of weight in the heavy stone.
Requests for loans are constantly made – by the Getty and British Museum, for example. Yet, to see the Mozia Charioteer standing here, in the island’s archaeological museum, before walking around the semi-wild and still quite deserted island, is an evocative reminder of Sicily’s long, varied and rich history.
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