Most Recent Visit: June 2017.
At the westernmost tip of Sicily is the city of Marsala, and at the western most tip of Marsala is Capo Boèo, which makes up one of the three points of the trinacrium of Sicily, and the location of the ancient remains of the city of Lilybaeum. Lilybaion, a name derived from Carthage’s location in Libya, was founded by the Carthaginians sometime shortly after the destruction of Motya in 397 BCE. A reference in Diodorus Sicullus to a conflict between Segesta and Lilybaeum in 454 BCE almost certain seems to be erroneous, and is probably a reference to the people of nearby Selunite. While there may have been some sort of presence at the location prior to 397 BCE (the Carthaginian army landed here in 409 BCE at the start of a campaign against the Greek allied cities) the city of Lilybaeum did not exist. Motya had served as the stronghold of Punic presence in Sicily for hundreds of years prior, but with its destruction, the Carthaginians took the opportunity to pick a location that better served the expanded Carthaginian presence and role on the island. Motya, it seemed, was no longer suitable for supporting the needed Carthaginian fleet, and Lilybaeum was geographically closer to Carthage; the closest point on mainland Sicily to the city. This additionally served as a strategic advantage for controlling the sea approach to Carthage between Sicily and Africa.
As would be expected, Lilybaeum quickly became a prosperous city for the Carthaginians, but also would prove to be an incredibly defensible position. After its foundation, Lilybaeum doesn’t play much of a role in the historical record until 276 BCE, when Pyrrhus besieged the city in his quest to drive the Carthaginians out of Sicily. Despite taking all the other Punic and Punic-allied settlements, he could not take Lilybaeum, as the Carthaginians, controlling the sea, were able to continually resupply and reinforce the city. It was the unsuccessful siege that prompted Pyrrhus to request more support from the Sicilians and Greeks of Sicily. And the impositions he made when he was rebuffed, that began to turn the tide of support on the island against him, eventually causing him to not only call off the siege, but to call off the entire campaign and leave the island.
Again during the First Punic War, Lilybaeum remained unconquered during the conflict. After 15 years of war, the Romans had conquered all of Sicily aside from Lilybaeum and Drepanum (Trapani) and laid siege to both cities in 250 BCE. Since the Carthaginians had naval supremacy, they were able to keep both cities supplied via the sea. This was compounded by a decisive Carthaginian naval victory at Drepanum in 249 BCE. Polybius notes that Lilybaeum had formidable fortifications and a moat defending the landward side of the city. The fighting was apparently very desperate and resulted in a series of attacks and counterattacks, fortification building and counter-fortification building that maintained a stalemate between the forces.
The Roman troops apparently numbered about 20,000 and in addition to the population and regular garrison of the city, there was a force of 10,000 mercenaries defending Lilybaeum. At one point in the siege, some of the mercenary leaders attempted to strike a deal with the Romans for the surrender of the city, but the plot was discovered and quashed. Soon after, an additional force of at least 10,000 Carthaginian troops reinforced the city. The siege was held by the Romans for nearly 10 years as the fighting in Sicily reached a stalemate. It was not until the surprising Roman naval victory at the Aegates Islands (Egadi Islands) in 241 BCE that the advantage tipped to the Romans and the Carthaginians were forced to negotiate a peace treaty that resulted in the Carthaginians losing all of their holdings on the island, including Lilybaeum.
Lilybaeum continued to prosper under the Romans and became the station of a Roman fleet. At the outbreak of the Second Punic War in 218 BCE, the Carthaginians attempted a surprise attack aimed at seizing Lilybaeum back from the Romans. Some Carthaginians who had been raiding the coast of Sicily near Messana (Messina) were captured by Hiero, the king of Syracuse, and they revealed the plans for the attack. Hiero passed the information along to the Romans, who prepared for the attack and were able to repel it along with capturing seven Carthaginian ships and 1700 men. That ended the serious Carthaginian attempts at retaking Sicily, aside from an attempt to relieve the Siege of Syracuse in 212 BCE.
The Romans susbsequently used Lilybaeum as a base for raiding the coast of North Africa during the rest of the war, and the city served as the base from which Scipio Africanus launched his invasion of African in 204 BCE. Lilybaeum again served as a launching pad for military operations in Africa for Scipio Africanus Minor in 149 BCE and for Julius Caesar 47 BCE. Further, it served as a major naval base for Sextus Pompeius in his campaign against Octavian in 36 BCE. At some point, one of the quaestors for the island regularly resided at Lilybaeum, among them Cicero. At some point the city became a colonia, probably under the reign of Hadrian, or perhaps later. Aside from the military campaigns of the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE, though, Lilybaeum largely doesn’t feature in history, but apparently remained a prosperous city through the rest of the Roman imperial period.
Getting There: Marsala is the 5th largest city on Sicily, and as such, it’s fairly well connected to the other larger cities on the island by bus and rail. From Palermo, there are a few departures daily to Marsala via train that cost about 10 Euros and take between three and a half and four and a half hours depending on the particular departure. It is a bus/train combination journey (bus to Cinisi-Terrasini and train from there to Marsala), from the train station and purchased through Trenitalia. Salemi bus line runs a direct bus that take about 2 hours to get from central Palermo to Marsala (less from the Palermo airport) and runs several times a day both ways. The exact schedule can be found here. Prices are not listed, and I had a vehicle so I did not use the bus, but, I wouldn’t imagine they are more than 15 Euros.
All the ancient remains in Marsala are clustered on the end of the Capo Boèo. Both the Museo Archeologico Regionale Lilibeo (Baglio Anselmi) and the Parco Archeologico Lilibeo are at the same location, Lungomare Boeo 30. That location is just 2 kilometers from the Marsala train station, about a half an hour walk. Bus service seems pretty limited, or at least online resources seem to indicate such, so, while they’re may be a bus that runs through there, it may just be a more effective use of time to walk. The museum is open on Sundays and holidays from 9:00 to 13:30. Tuesday through Saturday it is open from 9:00 to 18:30 in the winter, and from 9:00 to 19:30 in the summer (April through September). It is closed on Mondays. The attached archaeological site (which is accessed through the museum) is open on Sundays and holidays from 9:00 to 12:30. Tuesday through Saturday it is open from 9:00 to 16:30 in the winter and 9:00 to 18:30 in the summer. It too, is closed on Mondays. A combined ticket to both is 4 Euros.
The museum here is not especially large, given the importance of the ancient city that stood here, but it is full of some really nice pieces. Given the area’s importance to maritime trade with Africa, it’s not surprising that there is a fair amount of material dedicated to maritime trade. There are some objects recovered from shipwrecks in the waters around Marsala, including amphorae and anchors, and even a helmet and brazier. There are non-shipwreck amphorae used in maritime trade from various contexts, and other trade related items.
The centerpiece of the maritime collection, and of the museum collection as a whole, is the remains of the Punic shipwreck of a war galley. Displayed in one of the rooms is a large section of the remains of the hull of a Punic ship. Though there is significant reconstruction to give the remaining fragments context, there are also pretty large portions of the original ship remaining. Some of the objects found in the shipwreck are displayed with the ship, while others are displayed in the cases around the room. The ship was found off Isola Grande (the island/peninsula enclosing the Stagnone Lagoon), and based on the dating and location, it is believe that the ship was sunk during the Battle of the Aegates Islands (Egadi Islands) in 241 BCE, the deciding battle of the First Punic War. An interesting point to note is that Punic letters are visible on the planks of the ship, probably used to denote direction and location for quick assembly of prefabricated ship components.
The museum has quite a nice selection of small funerary monuments from the various phases of occupation at Lilybaeum. There are some stele from the Punic cemetery as well as some accompanying funerary goods. There is also a very nice section of fragments of painted funerary monuments from the Roman period of occupation. Interestingly, some of these painted monuments contain Punic elements, which would seem to indicate that even after the Roman conquest, there was still a portion of the population present that still identified with the city’s Punic past. In addition, there are also some with Greek scripts.
Other interesting finds at the museum are the Venus of Lilybaeum, a 2nd century CE Roman copy of a 2nd century BCE Hellenistic statue, similar to the Venus Landolina from Syracuse. Also displayed at the museum is an inscribed tessera hospitalis, a token of friendship between a man of Punic origin and a man of Greek origin from the 2nd or 1st century BCE. Some inscribed tablets in Greek and Latin are also among some of the more interesting artifacts on display. Overall the museum is excellent, the Punic ship alone is worth the cost of admission, and some of the other pieces I’ve highlighted also make for a quite enriching and engaging collection. It took me about an hour to go through the museum, and I probably could have easily taken another half an hour or 45 minutes if I was not relatively pressed for time. Most objects have signs in English and Italian, but there are a few longer descriptions of some of the highlighted pieces that are Italian only.
The archaeological site is accessed through the museum, just opposite the entrance. There aren’t really any signs, and the museum staff don’t seem especially concerned with encouraging people to see the archaeological area. In fact, if you don’t know it’s there, it’s very possible you would miss it. Other than my companion and I, I didn’t see any other people go out and visit it in the entire time I was there.
The archaeological area behind the museum is quite large, but is only very sporadically excavated. To compound things, I was there very early in the season, so, much of the remains were not very well maintained and were still obscured by tall grass in areas. The first set of remains encountered out of the museum is the northwest gate area. Here are the remains of some fortifications and the area of the northwest gate of the city, which lead to the port area. These fortifications have been dated to the 3rd to 2nd century BCE. Immediately adjacent to this gate was a bathing complex dating to the imperial period of occupation. Some of the pilae from the hypocaust system of the caldarium and tepidarium are still present and visible.
A little further on are the excavated remains of the decumanus maximus, which essentially bisects the archaeological area into two halves. The road, apparently due to the slope towards the sea, had steps in some place, making it impractical for wheeled traffic. The remains of some bronze letters have also been excavated and name of a praetor designatus who commissioned the construction of the road. The presence of some Byzantine burials, some placed within the stones of the decumanus maximus, remain in-situ among the remains here.
Further on, at the back of the site is the remains of an insula and Temple of Isis. Unfortunately, the Temple of Isis, on the right of the path leading back from the decumanus maximus, was largely overgrown and was not exceptionally visible. The paths around this area were also overgrown and made exploring this area a little problematic. My bag had been lost in transit from the United States to Sicily, and in it were my shoes, as I had just worn flip flops on the plane. Thus, tromping around in the brush was not really an option in the same way it would have been had I been wearing appropriate footware. The same held true for an apparent Punic defensive ditch a little further on, that was inaccessible to me for similar reasons.
On the left of the path are the remains of the insula, largely taken up by a single domus, the highlight of which was a bathing complex with intact mosaics. A covering over that part of the insula helps to preserve the mosaics and create more ideal viewing conditions, keeping the sun off them in both cases. In addition to the mosaics, there are also pools with surviving plaster and a series of visible drainage channels. The mosaics include a cave canem chained dog at the entrance, a mosaic with a hunting theme in the frigidarium, and various geometric designs. It is theorized that the insula was made up of as many as three distinct sections in the 3rd to 2nd century BCE, when the Romans first took control of the city, but was later consolidated into a single domus in the 2nd or 3rd century CE.
The archaeological area is very much worth a visit, if not just for the well-preserved mosaics in the bathing area. The decumanus maximus is also quite interesting. There are signs at most of the points of interest, with information in Italian, English, French and German, explaining the remains. The information at the northwest fortifications didn’t do a very good job of explaining what exactly was there, and the information at the decumanus maximus glossed over the presence of the tombs, but overall it was pretty informative. It took about a half an hour to see the site, at a moderate pace, and without investigating some of the overgrown areas. Overall, the museum and site make for a good stop of a few hours and are well worth admission.
There were a few things in Marsala I was not able to see. The Chiesa San Giovanni Battista, which is the church just to the southeast of the museum, essentially on the same grounds, contains the “Cave of the Sibyl” a grotto where one of the area’s natural springs welled, and was used as a place for water worship and later as a Christian meeting place. The church, however, is only open from 9:00 to 13:00 on Tuesdays. I was unable to visit it, but nearby is the Hypogeum of Crispia Salvia, a decorated tomb dating to the 2nd-4th century CE. Part of the reason I was unable to visit was the restrictive hours of operation. The site is only open from 9:00 to 13:00 on Fridays, or with prior reservation. Because Lilybaeum was a stop (the second after Motya) on the way to Agrigentum that day, making a reservation wasn’t really an option, as we couldn’t guarantee what time we’d arrive or need to leave. The Hypogeum of Crispia Salvia is located at Via Massimo D’Azeglio 41.
Appian, Bella Civilia, 2.95, 5.97, 5.122.
Cicero, In Verrem, 5.5.
Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, 5.2, 13.54, 22.10, 24.1-3, 32.6.
Holloway, R. Ross. Archaeology of Ancient Sicily. Routledge, 1991.
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 21.49, 25.31, 27.5, 29.24
Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 3.14.
Polybius, Historia, 1.42-54, 1.59-62.
Ruggieri, G. Aldo. “Motya and Lilybaeum.” Archaeology, vol. 10, no. 2, June 1957, pp. 131–136.
Smith, Christopher John. Sicily from Aeneas to Augustus: New Approaches in Archaeology and History. Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2007.
Smith, William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography. Walton & Murray, 1870.
Stillwell, Richard, William L. MacDonald, and Marian Holland. McAllister. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 1976.