Most Recent Visit: June 2017.
Though now overshadowed by Palermo, and even nearby Catania, the ancient city of Syracusae (Syrakousai) was perhaps the most important city on the island of Sicily in antiquity. Syracusae was founded on the island of Ortygia by Corinthian colonists (as well as Locrian or Dorian colonists, though they, as a whole, considered themselves Corinthian), led by Archias, in 734 BCE. The name or Syracusae seems to come from the name of a nearby marsh, Syraco, which appears to be an indigenous name. Ortygia, meanwhile, is derived from the name of the birthplace of Artemis, to whom the island was originally consecrated. It is also the location of the spring of Arethusa, the water nymph who was turned into a spring by Artemis to escape the river god Alpheus. In order to found the colony, it was necessary for the Greeks to drive out the native Sicel population from the area. Despite this, the colonists at Syracusae apparently maintained a relatively friendly relationship with the surrounding autochthonous populations. Over the next 200 years or so, Syracusae flourished and, in turn, founded numerous settlements of its own, including Akrai, Kasmenai, and Kamarina, in the southeastern area of Sicily.
As early as 648 BCE, though, Syracusae was beginning to struggle with internal strife. By 486 BCE, an oligarchic ruling class called the Gamoroi, likely direct descendants of the original settlers, was in power. In 486 BCE lower classes revolted, drove the Gamoroi out, and installed a democracy at Syracusae. The revolution was short lived, however, as with the help of Gelon, the tyrant of Gela, the Gamoroi were returned to power the following year, and Gelon effectively became tyrant of Syracusae. After seizing power in Syracusae, Gelon settled populations from Gela, Kamarina, Megara, and Euoboea (the latter two after conquest of those cities) tin Syracusae. He also invested in a large building project in Syracusae that extended the city out beyond the confines of Ortygia into the area presently known as the Neapolis.
Under Gelon, Syracusae enjoyed growth and prosperity. As the Persian army under Xerxes was closing in on mainland Greece, the Athenians sent an envoy to Syracusae to enlist the help of Gelon against the Persians. Gelon rebuffed them for their lack of help to the Sicilian Greeks in an earlier engagement with Carthage, but agreed to send an army if he would be allowed to lead the Greek army against the Persians. The Athenian envoy refused, and so Gelon’s army remained in Sicily. In 480 BCE, the Syracusan army, along with that of the tyrant Theron of Agrigentum, defeated a Carthaginian army at Himera. Gelon’s brother, and successor, Heiron, defeated the Etruscans in a naval battle at Cumae not long after, in 474 BCE, securing Syracusan control over the southern Tyrrhenian Sea. Under Heiron, Syracusae hosted the notable literary figures Aeschylus, Pindar, and Bacchylides.
In 466 BCE, the tyrant and brother of Heiron, Thrasybulus, was expelled from the city. At about the same time tension mounted between those descended from the original colonists and those moved to Syracusae by Gelon, leading to unrest in the city. Violence was largely avoided, though, when the Gelon contingent was moved to Messana and a democracy was established at Syracusae. Syracusae prospered in relative peace until the beginning of the Peloponnesian War in 430 BCE, when the interference and aggression of Syracusae towards allies of Athens begin to draw the attention of the latter. An expedition by the Athenians in 427 BCE managed to force a peace between Syracusae and the Athenian allies, but the conflict between Segesta and Selunite in 416 BCE once again brought the Athenians to the island. This time, the Athenian expedition set sights on Syracusae and a two year campaign culminating in a siege by Athens against Syracusae and resulting in a devastating defeat for the Athenians in 413 BCE.
About 410 BCE, Carthage began a renewed campaign against the Greek cities of Sicily, sometimes involving forces from Syracusae, but with the fighting occurring well west of the city. In 405 BCE, Dionysius I began his 38 year reign as tyrant of Syracusae, and in 402 BCE initiated a building project to increase the walls and defenses of Syracusae. This would be of particular use when, after initiating a direct conflict with Carthage, the city was besieged by the Carthaginians in 397 BCE. A plague in the ranks of the Carthaginians besieging the city in 396 BCE, effectively ending the attempt to take the city and eventually leading to a truce between Syracusae and Carthage in 392 BCE. Dionysius I would intermittently wage war against the Carthaginians over the course of his reign, with no definitive change in the balance of power on the island. Following the death of Dionysius I in 367 BCE, his son, Dionysius II took over rule of the city until he was ousted in 356 BCE by Dion, who was assassinated shortly thereafter.
Dionysius II returned to claim power in Syracusae in 344 BCE, which was subsequently contested by Hicetas, the tyrant of Leontini, who was also born of Syracusae. The conflict also drew the attention of the Carthaginians, who sought to take advantage of the power struggle and sent an army to the island. Hicetas, meanwhile, sought help from Timoleon of Corinth, who brought an army to the island. Timoleon, however, was not interested in helping Hicetas install himself as tyrant of Syracusae, and instead defeated both Hicetas, now allied with Carthage, and Dionysius II and set up a democracy. Under Timoleon’s democracy, the city was rebuilt and prospered after the preceding period of decline and destruction, and a treaty was once again signed with Carthage that lasted until the tyrant Agathocles seized power of Syracusae in a coup in 317 BCE and once again pit Syracusae against Carthage in war. The Carthaginians unsuccessfully besieged Syracusae from 311 to 309 BCE, and blockaded it a further two years beyond that.
The defeat of the Carthaginian army besieging the city once again led to a brief truce between the two powers before hostilities resumed and Syracusae was once again besieged by the Carthaginians in 278 BCE. This time, it was the arrival of Pyrrhus of Epirus on the island, at the behest of Syracusae, that drove the Carthaginians back from the city. Pyrrhus was effectively in control of Syracusae for a short period while he waged war on the Carthaginians, before he was in turn driven from the island by a reversal of the Greek colonies’ support and Hieron II ascended to power in 275 BCE.
Hieron II’s rule in Syracusae was a largely peaceful and prosperous time for the city aside from a brief conflict with Rome at the start of the First Punic War, when the city’s troops were defeated at Messana and the city was briefly besieged by the Romans before entering in an alliance with Rome and largely remaining on the sidelines for the rest of the war. It was Hieron II that instituted the Lex Hieronica, an agricultural taxation scheme, following the First Punic War, and which remained in effect well into the period of Roman rule of the island. Hieron II’s successor, Hieronymus, maintained the city’s alliance with Rome through the opening of the Second Punic War. After the Battle of Cannae in 215 BCE, though, when Rome’s position in the war was starting to seem tenuous, Hieronymus broke the alliance with Rome and threw the city’s lot in with the Carthaginians. Roman retribution was swift, and in 214 BCE, Marcus Claudius Marcellus marched against the city and laid siege to it. The Syracusans resisted the siege for 2 years, in part due to the inventions of Archimedes, who was born and resided there. One such invention, the Claw of Archimedes, helped to repel a Roman assault by sea early on, and legend tells of a giant mirror used to focus the sun’s rays and set fire to Roman ships. The Romans, in turn, employed their own novel tactics, such as a floating siege tower, but to no avail. Recognizing the advantage of tying up Roman forces in Sicily, the Carthagininas attempted to break the siege and resupply the city with troops, but they were driven back by the Romans.
After 2 years of stalemate, in 212 BCE, the Romans learned of a festival to Artemis that would be occurring. Using the festival as a distraction, a small contingent of Roman soldiers, under cover of darkness, clandestinely scaled the walls and opened up the outer city to the Roman army. The citadel, however, remained in the hands of the Syracusans. As the Romans took the outer city, Marcellus apparently gave specific orders that Archimedes was to be spared, but at some point he was killed by a Roman soldiers; the circumstances of this death vary depending on the account. The citadel held out another 8 months before an Iberian mercenary captain named Moeriscus struck a deal with the Romans to let them into the citadel at the Fountains of Arethusa. With that deception, the siege was over and the city was sacked, resulting in the violent deaths of many of the inhabitants.
With the fall of Syracusae to Rome, the whole of the island was now under Roman control and the city became the capital of the province and seat of the government on the island. While it remained and important trade center due to the harbor and position on the island and greater Mediterranean, it declined somewhat from its pre-Roman greatness over the next 200 years or so. In 21 BCE, Augustus sent a colony to Syracusae, providing with a boost that would reverse the decline of the previous two centuries and give way to a modest ascendance in prosperity for the city. Syracusae, of course, is mentioned frequently in Cicero’s orations against Verres, who governed Sicily from the city. Cicero himself was a quaestor in Syracusae. Suetonius mentions Tiberius bringing a statue of Timenian Apollo from Syracusae for his birthday during his reign.
Getting There: Syracuse is probably best approached from the nearby city of Catania. Catania, in turn has an airport with connections to Italy and other European cities, as well as regular train and bus service to the rest of the island. From Catania, the easiest way to get to Syracuse is by train. Getting around Syracuse is fairly easy, as all the sites covered here are within walking distance of the train station.
There are two primary areas of remains in Syracusae, the Neapolis, which is located roughly north/northeast of the train station (which is also where the archaeological museum is located) and the remains of the older settlement on the Isola di Ortigia, to the southeast of the train station. The entrance to the Parco Archeologico Neapolis is located at Viale Paradiso (no street number), which is about a 20 minute walk from the train station. The archaeological park is open every day from 9:00 to an hour before sunset (19:00 in the summer), and entrance is 10 Euros. Additionally, a combination ticket with the nearby Museo Archeologico Regionale ‘Paolo Orsi’ can be purchased for 13.50 Euros. The actual ticket office is located across the street (east side of Via Francesco Saverio Cavallari) and to the south of the entrance to the archaeological site.
Near the entrance to the archaeological park, adjacent to the Chiesa di San Nicolò ai Cordari is the so-called Piscina Romana, the remains of a Roman era cistern that supplied the amphitheater just to the south of it. While this is supposedly able to be visited, it did not appear to be open when I visited (which became an unfortunate pattern at the park). Some remains can be seen from ground level outside the church, but most of what can be seen is below the church, and perhaps accessible through or behind the church. The cistern was later converted into a basilica in the Byzantine period.
Accessed via a path to the south are the remains of the Roman amphitheater. The area leading up to the amphitheater was used as a quarry prior to the construction of the amphitheater and some of the remaining stone face contains carved votive niches for pinakes, tablets related to the funerary cult. The dating of these niches is unclear, with some analysis placing their use beginning during the Hellenistic period between the 4th and 1st centuries BCE. An alternative analysis, however, dates the construction of these niches to the Augustan age, based largely on the use of opus reticulatum in the associated structure.
Like the niches leading up to the amphitheater, the dating of the amphitheater is of some debate as well. Most sources seem to put the construction date in the 3rd century CE, though others place it as early as during the reigns of Augustus or Nero. What remains of the amphitheater, particularly the north side, was cut into rock, perhaps making use of the pre-existing quarry in the area. While there was masonry construction that extended the size above what remains, but like many of the ancient buildings in the Neapolis, much of that was spoliated in the 16th century, and very little remains from that part of the amphitheater. The amphitheater measures 140 meters by 119 meters. Corridors leading out of the pit of the amphitheater were later waterproofed after construction, leading to some speculation that naumachia were performed at the amphitheater, perhaps utilizing the cistern to the north. Some Roman structures to the south of the amphitheater, including the remains of the so-called Arch of Augustus, were inaccessible when I visited. They were also largely overgrown, making viewing from within or outside the park impossible.
Most of what remains at the archaeological park here is Greek in origin. Just to the west of the amphitheater is the Altar of Hieron II. The 196 meter long altar built by Hieron II in the 3rd century BCE is the largest altar known to exist from antiquity. The exact dedication is unknown, but it has been theorized that this was the altar dedicated to Zeus Eleutherios for the Eleutheria festival, which Diodorus Siculus notes was celebrated in memory of the expulsion of Thrasybulus in 466 BCE and featured the sacrifice of 450 bulls. The altar itself is fenced off from the public, and there is really only a small area along the north side of the altar for viewing.
Unfortunately, when I visited the archaeological park, a few of the primary sites were closed for the day, the Latomia del Paradiso quarry, and the associated Ear of Dionysius. While I caught glimpses of both from other places in the park, entrance to that whole area was restricted due to “security upgrades.” The quarry here seems to have been used as early as the 6th century BCE and was in use for several centuries following. After the Sicilian Expedition of the Athenians ended in a resounding defeat at the hands of Syracusae, many Athenian prisoners were sent to the quarry to work. Carved into a corner of the quarry near the theater is the so-called Ear of Dionysius, which according to legend, is where Dionysius housed prisoners and used the acoustics of the space to spy on their conversations. In reality, the structure with an ear-like opening was probably used for water storage.
Perhaps the focal point of the archaeological park is the Greek theater. Using the natural southern slope of the Temenite Hill, the theater seems to have been constructed first in the 5th century BCE. The theater was later rebuilt in the 3rd century BCE (which likely makes up much of the remaining form) and major renovations (including reshaping the cavea of the theater into the Roman style) were made during the Augustan period. An inscription noting a late renovation, possibly in the early 5th century CE, would seem to indicate that the theater was in use until at least that point. Among the plays put on at this theater were Aeschylus’ no longer extant work “The Aitnans” as well as the works of Dionysius I. Like the amphitheater, much of the masonry was spoliated in the 16th century CE. Perhaps unfortunately, modern performances have necessitated some degree of reconstruction, though much of it seems impermanent, and perhaps outside of the summer performance season does not obstruct so much of the original remains of the theater. Of particular interest, there are still the remains of Greek inscriptions on the wall of the diazoma running between the two tiers of seating. These inscriptions date to between 238 and 215 BCE and bear the names of divinities and members of the ruling family at the time. Zeus Olympios is the central inscription, while the names of Demeter and Herakles are found to the east of that, and to the west the names of Hieron II, his wife Philistis, his son Gelon II, and Gelon II’s wife Nereis.
At the top of the theater is a small terrace which had a portico running around two sides, some traces of which still remain. Among the portico, though, is an artificially carved niche, the Grotta del Ninfeo. In this niche is a fountain dedicated to the nymphs and supplied by two Greek aqueducts, the Acquedotto del Ninfeo and the Acquedotto Galermi. The larger area of the fountain seems to have been a Mouseion, indicated by the presence of three statues of the Muses dating to the 2nd century BCE found here, and was probably a gathering place for actors prior to performances. Even today, the fountain still flows and the niche provides some shade as a respite from the intense Sicilian summer sun. The walls of the portico surrounding the fountain are covered in both large and small votive niches. Adjacent to the fountain is the Via dei Sepolcri, a road cut into the rock that leads from the terrace above the theater to the top of the Temenite Hill. Though the road was mostly closed, the beginning is open, and like the walls of the portico, it is covered in votive niches, likely related to a hero cult.
Even without access to the quarry area, the park was well worth the visit, and is certainly a must-see stop for anyone interested in archaeology, and in particular, it contains the primary Roman monument in the city. With the closures, I spent about an hour at the park, but would probably have budgeted at least a half an hour more to see those areas that were closed, possibly more.
Cicero, Ad Verrem, 1.21, 2.
Cicero, Pro Planco, 27.
Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, 5.3, 11.67, 11.72-73, 11.76, 13.18-19, 14.7-9, 14.18, 14.62-75, 16.12-13, 16.70. 20.29.
Herodotus, Histories, 7.153-7.163.
Holloway, R. Ross. “Architect and Engineer in Archaic Greece.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 73, Harvard University Press, 1969.
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 21.49, 24.4, 24.21-34, 25.3, 25.23-31, 26.21, 27.16, 28.43, 29.1, 31.7, 31.29.
Lucian, Hippias, 2.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, V.572-641.
Plutarch, Marcellus, 14.
Plutarch, Timoleon, 22-26.
Polybius, Historia, 1.8-9.
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.
Stillwell, Richard, William L. MacDonald, and Marian Holland. McAllister. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 1976.
Strabo, Geographica, 6.1.
Suetonius, Tiberius, 74.
Thucydides, Histories, 6.2-5, 6.66, 6.75, 6.97-103, 7.2-6, 7.78-97.
Wilson, R. J. A. “A Wandering Inscription from Rome and the So-Called Gymnasium at Syracuse.” Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik, vol. 71, 1988, pp. 161–166.