Syracuse: Trysts with the Tyrants
For the past three days, my brave colonists have explored the wonders of Syracuse, which was one of the wealthiest cities in the ancient Mediterranean and the most influential Greek settlement in the history of Sicily. Founded in 734 B.C. by Greeks from the city of Corinth, the city was a place where brilliant minds such as the playwright Aeschylus, the philosopher Plato, and the mathematician and inventor Archimedes flourished. We travelled here from Catania by train, giving us a glimpse of the rolling Sicilian farmlands and the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean.
The original settlement was on a tiny island called Ortygia, which we explored our first morning here, visiting the remains of several important temples. The first, dedicated to the god Apollo, was a particularly appropriate choice for the city’s first monumental stone temple as it was Apollo who oversaw the establishment of new colonies in the Greek mind. This temple, located close to the waterfront, was the first stone temple in the Greek West as well as one of the first Greek temples ever to have a stone colonnade running around it. Several of these massive monolithic columns, dating back to ca. 590 B.C., still stand, attesting to the skill of the masons who were still experimenting in building in stone. It set the precedent for many of the distinctive features of temples in the Greek settlements of southern Italy and Sicily, making it extraordinarily important in the history of ancient Greek architecture despite its ruinous state today.
Walking on streets that belonged to the original street grid plan of ca. 730 B.C., we came to the Temple of Athena, built ca. 480 B.C., which now serves as the cathedral of Syracuse today. Many of the well-preserved Greek and Roman temples survived because they were converted into Christian places of worship in Late Antiquity. In the case of the Temple of Athena, the space between the columns were walled in and arches were cut into the interior walls to create the nave of the church.
This temple was constructed to commemorate a major Greek victory over the Carthaginians in northern Sicily in 480 B.C., which made Syracuse, and particularly its leader, Gelon, famous across the Mediterranean. Gelon was the first in a succession of rulers of the city known in ancient Greece as tyrants. While we tend to think of the term “tyrant” as a negative, oppressive leader; the term in antiquity simply indicated that the individual was the sole ruler of a city-state, and they could be both benevolent or abusive. Gelon was originally the tyrant of another Greek colony in Sicily, Gela, and was called upon for military assistance by the oligarchs of Syracuse when they were expelled out of the city by the lower classes. After defeating the Syracusans in battle, he took control of the city for himself and was succeeded as tyrant by two of his brothers. Gelon’s reign was remembered later as a golden age in Syracuse, but he was aggressive towards Syracuse’s neighboring Greek colonies, often deporting and enslaving the populations of entire cities to increase his control over eastern Sicily.
Some of the temple’s more unusual contents recorded in surviving ancient sources were giant doors with ivory panels and gold nails and a giant stalk of bamboo brought from India!
Our interactions with the tyrants of Syracuse continued that afternoon when we visited the area of the ancient city known as Neapolis (“new city”), which originally was partially used as a cemetery in the earlier centuries of Syracuse’s history and later was developed as part of the urban fabric as the city’s population expanded during the Classical period. During the reign of Hieron II, the area was particularly monumentalized with a rebuilding of the theater and the construction of an enormous altar, over 650 feet in length and 75 feet in width, the largest surviving altar in the ancient world. While the territory that Hieron II controlled was not particularly large, he was extraordinarily wealthy from the grain tax of 10% he charged, allowing him to have a royal court on the scale of the contemporary Hellenistic princes, and he was particularly close with the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt. His interest in enlarging the theater of Syracuse was especially personal, as he wrote (allegedly awful) tragedies himself, which were even performed at dramatic festivals in Athens.
Perhaps one of the most evocative ancient sites in Syracuse are the quarries, which were the source of stone for many of the structures in the city as well as its extensive fortifications. Here, one can still clearly see the chisel marks extending upwards for nearly 100 feet, a reminder of the human labor it took to build the ruins we visit today. Several tales are connected with these quarries, including one of the most decisive moments of the city’s history – the failed Athenian invasion between 415-413 B.C. During the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, Athens became very interested in controlling Sicilian grain trade and using the island as a strategic outpost of its naval empire that could control the majority of the western Mediterranean. Seeing Syracuse as its greatest threat, Athens began allying itself with Syracuse’s traditional enemies elsewhere in Sicily and on the southern Italian mainland, hoping that they would contribute to their military exploits. Sadly, the allies greatly disappointed Athens, fearing retribution from Syracuse, and infighting and mis-management among the Athenian commanders resulted in a terrible rout, resulting in 7000 captured Athenian prisoners of war and around 40,000 casualties (roughly 1 out of every 25 people in the city of Athens). This event crippled the Athenian military and likely led to the city’s eventual defeat in the Peloponnesian War. The Athenian captives were held by Syracusans in their quarries, where many of them died of thirst and hunger.
One of the man-made caves in the quarries has unusual acoustic features in which noises echo, but repeat only once. Allegedly, another tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysios I, used to imprison his enemies here, using the features of the cave to eavesdrop on them. The shape looks a bit like the inside of a human ear, inspiring the artist Caravaggio to nickname it the “Ear of Dionysios.”
Our last stop in ancient Syracuse was a visit for several hours to the local archaeological museum, one of the largest in Sicily with three wings containing objects dating between the Paleolithic and the Byzantine eras. Most of the pieces come from Syracuse and its surrounding areas, and we concentrated primarily on objects related to the temples we explored in Syracuse and finds from Gela, the home city of Syracuse’s first tyrants.
Tomorrow, off to Morgantina and Piazza Armerina!