Magazine article The Spectator

Notes On. Sicily

Magazine article The Spectator

Notes On. Sicily

Article excerpt

Credit: Bruce Anderson

Western Sicily has been a crucible of aspiration and grandeur: the human condition at its most exalted: unsurpassable art and architecture. It started in the Greek era. Sicilian agriculture produced abundance. Trade with north Africa turned Demeter's bounty into gold. With this wealth, Greek colonists built the temple cities of Selinunte and Agrigento, plus other glories such as the temple at Segesta. The modern traveller, seeing only harmony, might assume that the ancient inhabitants must have been uniquely blessed. In earlier generations, the best preserved temple in Agrigento was known as the Temple of Concord.

This was an error. That was not its name and there never was much concord. Empedocles of Agrigento claimed that mankind was governed by the twin forces of love and strife. In Sicily, strife was usually in the ascendant. Wealth aroused envy, and almost constant warfare. The island was also a crucible of cruelty. The terrible fate of the Athenian captives after the failed expedition -- one of the most moving passages in Thucydides -- was played out in the east. But western Sicily witnessed equally bloody events, lacking only a chronicler. In the sixth century bc, in an attempt to placate the then tyrant, Phalaris, an Agrigento blacksmith, built a hollow bull large enough to contain a man. Put it on a fire, and the chosen sufferer would roar like a bull as he roasted to death. This availed the blacksmith naught. He was one of the first victims of his infernal machine. In Sicily, as in less favoured regions, human life could often be a cry of pain. …

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