The Archaeology of Ancient Sicily

By R. Ross Holloway | Go to book overview

2

EARLY GREEK SICILY

Background

To most of us ancient Sicily means Greek Sicily. The first Greek colonists came to Sicily in the eighth century BC, and the presence of the Greek cities is still apparent in the landscape. Until very recently modern Syracuse occupied the area of her ancient predecessor. At Agrigento (Greek Acragas) the ancient metropolis is hidden, but only barely so, in the sloping bowl that descends from the acropolis (and medieval town) toward the low ridge a kilometer distant where a line of three temples still marks the limit of the city. At Selinus an archaeological park keeps alive something of the deserted grandeur of the ruins. Sicily’s Greek temples are more numerous than those of any part of the ancient Greek world. One of them, erected by the non-Greek (Elymian) city of Segesta, and thus Greek only in architecture, has a setting which rivals even the mountain backdrop of Greek Delphi. But unlike the ruined temple at Delphi, the temple of Segesta is in the same condition now as it was on the day in the late fifth century when its builders interrupted their work. At Acragas and Selinus there are two of the grandest and most unusual Greek temples (the Olympieion at Acragas and Temple GT at Selinus). Selinus is home to some of the earliest Greek architectural sculpture. And in another art, coin design, Greek Sicily became preeminent for all time.

The non-Greek Sicilians, Sicels in eastern Sicily, Sicans in the central area, and Elymians in the west, were never a serious threat to the Greeks. But the Greek cities were confronted by two dangers which made their existence precarious. The first of these was the imperialism of their own tyrants, especially the rulers of Syracuse, under whom subject cities were suppressed and populations reshuffled at will. The second was the threat of Carthaginian expansion. From at least the time when the first Greek settlers arrived in Sicily and possibly before, the Carthaginians (Phoenicians settled in North Africa) held a foothold in western Sicily on the island of Motya, situated hardly more than a kilometer offshore across a shallow lagoon. The Carthaginians went on to become masters in Spain and Sardinia. They mounted their first war of conquest in Sicily at the beginning of the fifth century but were turned back by the united forces of Syracuse and Acragas at the Battle of Himera (480 BC) . Seventy years later they repeated their attack, and now with devastating success. Soon there was no Greek city save Syracuse that had not fallen victim either to the invaders or to the Syracusan counter-attack. Indeed the Greek population of the island was faced with near extinction on more than one occasion. It was supported by new groups of colonists drawn from the motherland, beginning under the tyrants of the early fifth century. Mercenaries, often from Oscan-speaking Italy, entered the service of the tyrants and remained to cause trouble when their service ended or the tyrant and his family lost power. From the mid-fifth century on several towns of the interior, and the city of Catane for a time, were in the hands of Campanian mercenaries. The struggle between the Greeks and Carthaginians continued intermittently during the fourth and third centuries until Rome entered the arena of Sicilian affairs in 264 BC and the struggle became one between Carthage and Rome. Rome triumphed. Sicily became partly a Roman province in 241 BC and completely so after 211 BC.

Had the writing of ancient history been

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