Most Recent Visit: June 2017.
The area around the modern city of Taormina, and ancient Tauromenium, seems to have been originally inhabited by the native Siculi people, who may have even dwelt on the site of Taormina. A few kilometers down the coast, though, in 735 BCE, the Greek colony of Naxos was founded. Naxos is said to have been the oldest Greek colony on Sicily, founded a year before Syracuse, and was populated primarily by colonists from Chalcis in Euboea, but also some Ionians. This settlement of Greeks seem to have largely driven the Siculi out of the area of Taormina, forcing them to abandon their habitation on the hill. When the Athenian expedition against Syracuse arrived in 415 BCE, the people of Naxos declared an alliance with the Athenians, and so after the Athenian failure, this relationship put the city at odds with Syracuse, resulting in conflict until 409 BCE, when the two declared peace due to mutual Carthaginian threat. This was short-lived, though, as in 403 BCE, Dionysius of Syracuse moved against Naxos and took the city after being handed the city by the Naxian general Procles. The city was destroyed, all the inhabitants were sold into slavery, and the territory was given to the Siculi.
With the territory back in the hands of the Siculi, those people seem to have founded the settlement of Tauromenium (also called Tauromenion) on the Taurus hill about 396 BCE. In addition to the Siculi, a number of exiles from Naxos, rather than rebuilding the city on its former site, now decided to settle at this new site with the Siculi. Despite the territory being gifted to the Siculi by Dionysius, the two were still not on the best of terms, and in 394 BCE, not long after the settlement was established, it was besieged by Dionysius for an entire winter. At one point, Dionysus was able to breach the city with a contingent of troops at night, but they were discovered and driven back, with Dionysus losing 600 troops and only narrowly escaping with his life. Dionysius abandoned his siege of the city, and after fighting in other areas, a treaty was concluded between Syracuse and the Siculi that resulted in Tauromenium becoming subject to Syracuse. In doing so, Dionysius banished the Siculi from Tauromenium and settled his own mercenary troops there. In 358 BCE, Andromachus of Tauromenium, father of Timaeus, gathered all the remaining exiles of Naxos on Sicily and settled them at Tauromenium, making it essentially a Greek city and successor to Naxos.
After Andromachus’ settlement of the remaining Naxians, Tauromenium seems to have prospered and become quite a wealthy and populous settlement. The moderate government of Andromachus openly welcomed Timoleon when he was dispatched to Sicily from Corinth in 345 BCE, and Tauromenium served as the landing point and camp for Timoleon’s party. When Timoleon was able to successfully oust the tyrants in Syracuse, Andromachus remained in power of Tauromenium, likely due to his more democratic leanings in governing the city. Following Andromachus’ death, the city seems to have once again become subservient to Syracuse, as Timaeus was driven from there during the reign of Agathocles. The despot Tyndarion later came into power and was one of the leaders of the Greek states in Sicily that invited Pyrrhus to Sicily in 278 BCE. It was at Tauromenium that Pyrrhus landed his forces, and Tyndarion joined with him in his march on Syracuse shortly thereafter.
In the time of Hiero II’s rule of Syracuse, Tauromenium was once again effectively under the control of the city, and when conflict broke out between Syracuse and the mercenary Mamertines that had taken control of Messena. Tauromenium was used as a base of operations by Hiero II in his campaigns against the Mamertines. When the Mamertines sought Roman assistance in the conflict and Syracuse Carthaginian assistance, the conflict between Syracuse and Messena gave way to the First Punic War. The Romans quickly landed at Messena in 264 BCE and marched to lay siege to Syracuse. With no help from the Carthaginians, Syracuse made peace with the Romans in 263 BCE and Tauromenium was included in Syracuse’s territory, preventing it from seeing any action during the First Punic War.
When Syracuse once again was put at odds with Rome during the Second Punic War, Tauromenium seems to have peacefully surrendered to the Roman consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus, perhaps forming the basis of its favored position as an allied civitas foederata when the whole of Sicily passed into Roman hands. Because of the peaceful surrender, Marcellus also guaranteed that Tauromenium would not have to host Roman troops and would be free from having to provide soldiers to the Romans. When the First Servile War broke out in Sicily in 135 BCE, Tauromenium was occupied by the slaves, who used the mountain top position to great advantage. The city was besieged by the Roman consul Publius Rupilius, reportedly resulting in such a famine in the city that the inhabitants resorted to cannibalism, though the slaves refused to give it up. It was not until one of the leaders of the slaves betrayed Tauromenium to the Romans that it was taken and all the offending slaves were executed by being thrown off a cliff.
During the Sicilian Revolt of the Civil Wars, fought between Octavian and Sextus Pompey, Tauromenium became a stronghold of power for Sextus Pompey, again partially due to its very defensible position, but also its proximity to the Strait of Messina, which Sextus Pompey was blockading at various points during the conflict. In August of 36 BCE, a fleet commanded by Octavian sailed to Tauromenium intending to capture the city while Sextus Pompey was away. Though he was at Mylae and suffered a naval defeat at the hands of Agrippa, Sextus Pompey was able to make it back to Tauromenium just as Octavian was preparing to attack the city. The Roman forces were driving back to their ships and into a naval battle that resulted in the destruction or capture of much of Octavian’s fleet. To exacerbate the defeat, Octavian was injured in the venture. Shortly after, though, Sextus Pompey was finally driven from the island following the Battle of Naulochus.
During the reign of Augustus, Tauromenium was given a colony and the original inhabitants of the city were apparently displaced in the process. By the beginning of the 1st century CE, the city was still notable but was apparently surpassed in population by Messena and Catana, of which Tauromenium was precisely equidistant between the two. Pliny notes that the area of the city was notable for excellent wine and Juvenal states that the fishing there was particularly good as well. The city was also apparently notable for the production of a valuable marble. Cicero particularly notes one of Verres’ transgressions was in requiring Tauromenium to furnish food when it was exempt from such taxes. After its role in the Sicilian Revolt, though, Tauromenium is only mentioned in those few notes, or as simply existing in passing reference.
Getting There: Taormina is essentially right in the middle of Catania and Messina, making either of those major cities a reasonable point from which to get to Taormina, as Taormina is on the rail line between the two cities. While Messina is the rail access point of Sicily, Catania has an airport. There are many departures daily from Catania to the Toarmina-Giardini station, most taking between 40 minute and an hour and costing 4.30 Euros. There are some quicker trains that make the trip in as little as 36 minutes, but those cost nearly double at 8.50 Euros. Messina has fewer departures a day, but generally has at least one an hour. As one might expect, the trip time frame is essentially the same, and the fare is also 4.30 Euros. Check TrenItalia for the exact schedule. The Taormina-Giardini is at the foot of the mountain on which the city proper is located, so one needs to either walk up or take a bus that stops right in front of the station. The buses run roughly once every half an hour through most of the day, though there are a few breaks longer than that. The schedule can be found here. The traffic up and down can be an issue in the summer, so, as always, consider the bus schedule a rough guide rather than a rigid schedule. I didn’t experience much of an issue going from the train station to the bus terminal, but on the return journey in the afternoon there were many more people looking for a bus going down than there were bus seats, so it was a bit of a circus trying to get on a bus back down. Plan accordingly. The fare is 1.30 Euro each way or 2.20 Euro for a round trip. Tickets can be purchased on the bus, but, I would recommend purchasing them at the bar in the train station. From the bus station in Toarmina, it is a short walk (5-10 minutes) up to the city proper.
The first vestiges of Tauromenium are actually encountered at the train station. In the lobby there is a small case with a limited selection of some artifacts found at the city. On the road on the way up from the bus station to the historic city, about 2/3rds of the way, on the right (north) side of the road is the Villa San Pancrazio, a defunct hotel. On the grounds of this villa are the remains of a 2nd century CE domus. Since 2015, the remains have been undergoing excavation and study and are currently not accessible (as of 2017), but they can be seen through the fence from the road.
The square encountered shortly after entering the historic part of the city, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, is roughly analogous with the agora and forum, and as such there’s a few public buildings in the immediate vicinity. Behind the building on the north size of the piazza, down a little side street on the western edge, is a bathing complex. This bathing complex appears to have been originally built in the 1st century CE. The form of the baths doesn’t seem to follow a typical layout, and the majority of what remains are three consecutive heated rooms with the scattered remains of hypocaust tiles. Which rooms are a caldarium and which are a tepidarium are unclear, though. There are some other structures to the south of the heated rooms, possibly even a pool, but, there does not seem to be any clear identification of the function. The bath remains are visible from a public street overlook, so they are always visible and there is no entrance.
To the west of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II is the Chiesa di Santa Caterina. Behind and inside the church are the remains of the odeon and a peristyle temple, possibly dedicated to Aphrodite. The entrance to the outdoor section of the odeon and temple are located immediately behind the church, through a small gate. The scant remains of the temple are located immediately inside the gate; the linear courses of large paving stones. The temple dates to the 3rd century BCE and its steps served as the foundation for the wooden stage of the odeon when it was constructed in the late 1st or early 2nd century CE. A good portion of the odeon remains, though some of it is still under the surrounding buildings. The 11 rows of seating in the cavea of the odeon are built into the natural slope of the hill. There is no entrance fee or hours posted for the odeon, but there is a gate to close the area off, perhaps overnight.
Inside the church, to the right after entering, there is a small section of the surrounding wall of the odeon exposed. Though excavations have revealed prolific remains beneath the church, the floor of the church has been replaced over all but this small section. The church is open from 9:00 to 20:00 daily, and there is no admission fee.
East out of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II is the Via Teatro Greco, which leads to the Teatro Antico di Taormina, the crown jewel and primary ancient attraction of Taormina. The theater is open every day from 9:00 to 19:00 and admission is 10 Euros. Keep in mind, though, that particularly during the summer the theater is still host to concerts and events, and so that can often impact the opening times of the theater. It also impacts the aesthetics, as the day of, or perhaps even the day before, an event, there will often be constructions on the stage or obscuring parts of it.
The origins of the theater are seemingly a matter of some matter debate, though it is actually fairly straightforward. It is often called the Greek Theater, and in form, it is mostly built in the Greek style. But, the construction of the theater is very definitively Roman. So, like many theaters on Sicily, it likely had its origins in an early Greek construction that was rebuilt during the Roman period. The original theater seem to have been constructed in the 3rd century BCE, while its remaining form appears to have been constructed in the late 2nd century CE, under Hadrian. There also seems to have been an intermediate reconstruction or refurbishment during the Augustan period. By the 3rd century CE there were also adjustments made to the form of the theater to accommodate arena games. As was the custom with Greek theaters, the cavea are built into the natural slope of the hill with the theater accommodating about 5,600 spectators.
The presentation of the theater is fairly nice. There are some videos to watch near the entrance, and there are a few signs posted around in English and Italian explaining about the theater. There are a few artifacts displayed in the rooms flanking the scenae. At the top of the cavea, there is a small antiquarium with a number of inscriptions and a few other objects from the area. It should also be noted that the views from the theater of the surrounding area are spectacular. Though the price of admission is a bit on the expensive side, overall, it is worth the price of admission, as it is likely one of the more scenically placed theaters in the Roman world.
The main street leading south/southwest out of Piazza Vittorio Emanuale II, Corso Umberto, leads to two other sets of remains. The first is on the right (north/northwest) side of the road, down a small, unnamed alley. It’s essentially the last alley on the right before reaching Via Naumachie. Down this alley are the gated remains of a 2nd century CE geometric mosaic in a pretty rough state of preservation. There is no entrance or hours, it is always visible.
Further on down Corso Umberto is Via Naumachie on the left (south/southeast), and turning down that street and then immediately left again is the so-called Naumachia. It is so named because it was originally theorized to be a venue at which the nautical battle re-enactments were performed. In reality, it certainly wasn’t this, though the exact function is still somewhat unknown, though the function is clearly water related. The niched wall construction is thought to either be the remains of a nymphaeum, or possibly the remains of a series of cisterns. There is no official entrance or fee, but, like the odeon, there is a gate that can be closed to restrict access, so, presumably it may be closed at night.
A little further down Corso Umberto there is another mosaic on the right side of the street, though I’m not exactly sure of its location. It’s not noted in any of the information for the remains of the city, and there are many unnamed alleys that make gauging location a bit of a difficult prospect. It is before the duomo, though, and there is a sign on Corso Umberto noting its location. Here, though, there is the gated remains of a 2nd century BCE Hellenistic style mosaic that was part of the peristyle of a house.
Back to Piazza Vittorio Emanuale II, there are a few sets of remains heading north/northeast back through the Porta Messina toward the Chiesa di San Pancrazio. First the remains of some baths located just to the south of Chiesa di San Pancrazio. They are tentatively identified as a bathing complex, as no hypocaust system or any other definitive evidence of bathing activity has been found, but at present it seems to be the best guess. Most of what remains are late antique structures, though there are some remains of a previous 1st-2nd century CE domestic structure and of an even earlier ‘Hellenistic’ age structure of indeterminate use.
Just a little further north is the Chiesa di San Pancrazio, and built into the south wall of the church are the remains of the south wall of a sanctuary dedicated to Isis and Serapis. The north wall of the church also apparently incorporates the north wall of the temple, but, that area was not accessible when I visited. The dedication of the temple is attributed to Greek and Latin inscriptions that confirm the worship of those two deities at the location. The dating of the temple seems to be about the 3rd or 2nd century BCE. The temple is sometimes noted as being dedicated to Jupiter Serapis, based on a ring found at the location. Remains of the temple have also been found beneath the church, but none of those excavations are visible.
The final set of remains is quite far off the path of most of them, and is honestly not much worth pursuing except for the sake of seeing everything. Below the theater on Via Bagnoli Croci (see map), just past the Giardini della Villa Comunale, are the remains of a gymnasium. Unfortunately those remains are on a private property with no access, and largely surrounded by a wall. There is a point where there is a small window in the wall where the scant remains might be visible.
Overall, Taormina is an excellent stop. The theater is a top notch attraction and there are a lot of other remains to be seen as well. Nearly everything has at least one sign with explanatory information in both English and Italian. The setting of the city is quite nice as well, as its location offer great views of the coast around. It is, however, a big tourist draw, and as such is quite crowded, particularly in the summer, but, it’s popular for a reason.
Appian, Sicily, 5.
Appian, Bella Civilia, 5.11.103-111.
Cicero, In Verrem, 2.66, 5.19, 5.22.
Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, 14.14-15, 14.58-59, 14.66-68, 14.87-88, 16.7, 34.20
Juvenal, Satires, 5.93.
Pliny, Naturalis Historia, 6.14.
Ptolemy, Geographhia, 3.4.9.
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.
Tansey, Patrick. “Messalla Corvinus and the ‘Bellum Siculum.’” Latomus, vol. 66, no. 4, 2007, pp. 882–890.