Sicily is renowned for many qualities: its luscious fruits and vegetables, varied and bountiful seafood, and drool-inducing pasta; the mountainous terrain, including Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest and most violent volcano; even for being “that weird-shaped ball” at the toe of Italy’s “boot.” But most people aren’t aware that Sicily has a rich and varied history, which includes centuries of occupation from many of the Mediterranean cultures: Phoenician, Carthaginian, Greek, Roman and Arabic, to name a few.
Perhaps because the Greeks and Romans were the last of the major pre-Christian civilizations to inhabit Sicily, their relics are most visible of those remaining on the island. In our three week ramble through Sicily, we sampled some of Sicily’s Greco-Roman past which included Segesta, Siracusa and beyond.
We were fortunate to have Alessio Patane of Sicily Grand Tour to take us through Siracusa-Ortigia and Agrigento. With his expert knowledge of Sicilian history in general, and specifically of the Greco-Roman period, we could fully appreciate the influence of these cultures on Sicily and Italy as a whole, and thus on our own modern, Western culture.
Primarily because I’m an unabashed history geek, I knew that Siricusa, founded 2,700 years ago as a Corinthian Greek colony, grew in size and importance to successfully rival Athens, once the mightiest of the Greek city-states of the period.. But I hadn’t realized just how extensive the Greek influence was within and beyond Siricusa.
The Corinthians first established their colony on the small island of Ortigia, which is now part of modern Siricusa. The earliest remains are of the Temple of Appollo, and columns of a Doric temple to Athena, which were incorporated into the walls of the cathedral.
The gems of the Greek and Roman remains lie a couple of miles north in the now protected Parco Archeologico.
Valley of the Temples, Agrigento
Alessio took us also to Agrigento, in southwest Sicily, to view the magnificent temple ruins that stand along a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean. (It’s thus a mystery as to why this site was named the valley of the temples.)
Another interesting oddity is that the individual temples are still called by names given to them somewhat arbitrarily a century or more earlier, when more modern research clearly states most of the temples’ dedications were unknown. Nevertheless, the temples of Agrigento are spectacular.
One of the most impressive settings for the Greco-Roman Ruins and ancient sights we saw was the 3rd century BC Greek amphitheater in the hill town of Taormina. How can you beat the view of smoking Mt. Etna and the Mediterranean Sea as part of the backdrop to the stage?
The fabulous Doric Greek temple in Segesta was one of the great surprises of our trip. We decided to check it out on our way to Erice, northwestern Sicily, and as often happens with the unexpected, we were astounded. The temple in Segesta was featured above as the lead photograph, from the top of another, higher hillside which featured a Greek amphitheater as well as the ruins of a medieval church and a mosque.
Mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale
Not all the reminders of Greece and Rome are temple ruins. We visited a semi-recovered Roman villa in the mountains of central Sicily that had some of the most beautiful and well-preserved floor mosaics I’ve ever seen.
While archaeologists can date the construction to early 4th century AD, the exact identity of the owner of this 3,000 square meter dwelling is unclear, other than he must have been wealthy and in the upper Roman hierarchy of his time. What is clear is that the rooms of mosaics were preserved due to an enormous landslide in the 12th century which destroyed the second level of the villa but covered and thus protected the ground floor’s mosaics over the ensuing centuries.
Dusk was already falling when we entered the villa’s remains, where we walked along raised cat-walks and peered down through the gloom at the mosaic floors. Yet despite the centuries, the avalanche of mud, and poor lighting, the beauty and colors of the mosaics were readily visible.
By no means is Sicily’s Greco-Roman past limited to these few archaeological sites but Segesta is a real gem and should not be missed. If you’re a history lover, you’ll want to see them all. It’s probable that many relics remain, either destroyed as later civilizations built upon them, or simply buried by lava, landslides or earthquakes and are as yet waiting discovery.
Carol Barbier Rolnick grew up in Japan and Southeast Asia, traveling extensively as a child through Asia, the Mideast and Europe on family vacations. Travel has continued as a priority through raising kids and continuing into retirement, extending adventures through the Americas, southern Africa, Asia, and repeat trips throughout Europe. Carol and her husband, Michael spent four summers based in Utrecht, The Netherlands, which has become like a second home. They are (still) aiming towards Australia-New Zealand and Antarctica to round off their continental travels.