You may wish to read an introduction to this section first.
The coast of Acradina with Ortigia in the background
Some time before our arrival at Syracuse it fell a dead calm and we spied a fine turtle fast asleep on the surface of the water. (..) the turtle made a plunge (..) and disappeared in a moment (..). Soon after this, the remains of the great Syracuse appeared, the remembrance of whose glory, magnificence and illustrious deeds both in arts and arms made us for some time even forget our turtle. But alas! how are the mighty fallen! This proud city, that vied with Rome itself, is now reduced to a heap of rubbish; for what remains of it does not deserve the name of a city.
Patrick Brydone - A Tour through Sicily and Malta in 1770.
In public and private wealth, magnificence of buildings, military renown and excellence in all arts and sciences Syracuse ranks higher than most nations of antiquity; the great names recorded in its annals still command our veneration though the trophies of their victories and the monuments of their skill have long been swept away by the hand of time. (..) The ancient city of Syracuse was of a triangular form and consisted of five parts or towns: Ortigia or the island, Acradina that faced the sea, Tycha joined to Acradina on the east, Neapolis which lay along the side of the great port and at the eastern extremity, Epipolae, an uninhabited tract inclosed within the city walls.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
Greek Theatre (another image can be seen in the introductory page)
The principal remains of antiquity
are a theatre* and amphitheatre*; many sepulchres, the Latomie*, the Catacombs, and the famous ear of Dionysius*, which it was impossible to destroy. (..) The theatre is so entire, that most of the gradini or seats still remain. (..) However, it is but a small theatre in comparison of that of Taurominum. Brydone
According to tradition Syracuse was founded on the island of Ortigia in 734 BC by settlers from Corinth. It became a powerful town very quickly and it founded its own colonies (e.g. Akrai) to develop land and sea trade routes.
* Today these monuments are inside Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, the main archaeological area of Syracuse.
As the greater portion of this place of entertainment was hewn out of the live rock, little detriment has accrued from the lapse of ages, but all that was built upon this foundation has disappeared. What remains forms a most romantic scene for the white steps are half hid with bushes of various kinds, some tall poplars wave their heads over the ruin. (..) No part of the proscenium now remains, the stone having been used in making fortifications though many quarries were open all around where stones might have been procured with almost equal ease, yet the engineers of Charles the Fifth's time made no scruple of calling the Goths and Saracens barbarians. Swinburne
In 485 BC Syracuse was seized by Gelo, tyrant of Gela, a Greek town on the southern coast of Sicily, who left his hometown and became tyrant of Syracuse. During his rule the town expanded into the mainland and reached the area of Neapolis where a theatre was built. Gelo acquired great fame owing to his victory against the Carthaginians, who were attempting to establish their supremacy over Sicily by meddling in the disputes among Greek towns.
At sunrise the cavalrymen rode up to the naval camp of the Carthaginians, and when the guards admitted them, thinking them to be allies, they at once galloped to where Hamilcar was busied with the sacrifice, slew him, and then set fire to the ships; thereupon the scouts raised the signal and Gelon advanced with his entire army in battle order against the Carthaginian camp. The commanders of the Phoenicians in the camp at the outset led out their troops to meet the Siceliotes and as the lines closed they put up a vigorous fight; at the same time in both camps they sounded with the trumpets the signal for battle and a shout arose from the two armies one after the other, each eagerly striving to outdo their adversaries in the volume of their cheering. The slaughter was great, and the battle was swaying back and forth, when suddenly the flames from the ships began to rise on high and sundry persons reported that the general had been slain; then the Greeks were emboldened and with spirits elated at the rumours and by the hope of victory they pressed with greater boldness upon the barbarians, while the Carthaginians, dismayed and despairing of victory, turned in flight. Since Gelon had given orders to take no prisoners, there followed a great slaughter of the enemy in their flight, and in the end no less than one hundred and fifty thousand of them were slain. All who escaped the battle and fled to a strong position at first warded off the attackers, but the position they had seized had no water, and thirst compelled them to surrender to the victors. Gelon, who had won a victory in a most remarkable battle and had gained his success primarily by reason of his own skill as a general, acquired a fame that was noised abroad, not only among the Siceliotes, but among all other men as well; for memory recalls no man before him who had used a stratagem like this, nor one who had slain more barbarians in one engagement or had taken so great a multitude of prisoners.
Diodorus Siculus - Bibliotheca Historica - Book XI - Loeb Classical Library edition, 1946
Greek Theatre: (above) passage dividing the seating area; (below) one of the inscriptions written along the passage
On the front wall of the grand circumambulatory passage that ran horizontally through the Theatre and dividing the seats into two parts served as a general communication are two inscriptions one of them much damaged the letters ALKEOIN are legible and perhaps are part of the architect's name. The other in distinct characters runs thus BASILISSAS FILISTIDES a queen of whom no mention occurs in history though her medals in silver are frequently met with. Swinburne
The inscription mentioned by Swinburne refers to Philistis, wife of Hiero II, tyrant of Syracuse for more than fifty years (270-216 BC) who commissioned the construction of the theatre we see today. Eventually archaeologists detected other inscriptions with the names of the tyrant, his son, his daughter-in-law, Zeus and other gods. They identified each of the nine sectors into which the seating area was divided. In essence they were a dedication/celebration and at the same time they had a practical purpose.
Museo Archeologico Regionale di Siracusa - exhibits which were found in the theatre area: (left) altar (Ist century AD); (right) fragment of a statue of Asclepius/Esculapius (Ist century BC). The god was worshipped at Epidaurus, which had a large theatre too
The theatre was adapted to the Roman usage by erecting a scenae frons, a permanent architectural background behind the stage. Later on and until the construction of the amphitheatre in the IIIrd century AD it was used also for gladiatorial combats and venationes, fights with wild animals.
Today in May-June the theatre houses a season of Greek classical tragedies and comedies.
The cavea was full from at least 5pm, mainly with large student parties happily texting, ipodding and playing computer games. I arrived at about 5.30 and managed to squeeze in at the end of the second row: more conventional theatregoers - arriving after 6pm properly dressed up - found it difficult to find places without climbing to the very top, where many people were already sitting on the grass. I was glad of my hired cushion, as the marble of my seat had eroded more than somewhat. But it was a fine sight to see a Greek theatre full and buzzing with conversation. The performance began at 6.30 pm, by which time it was a little cooler, and there was a pleasant breeze. Excerpt from the review of Sophocle's "Antigone" by Andrew Wilson in 2005.
Latomie (quarries) in the Archaeological Area of Neapolis
The Latomie now form a noble subterraneous garden, and is indeed one of the most beautiful and romantic spots I ever beheld. Most of it is about one hundred feet below the level of the earths and of a most incredible extent. The whole is hewn out of a rock as hard as marble, composed entirely of a concretion of shells, gravel, and other marine bodies. Brydone
Needle of Latomia dell'Intagliatella
Drawing now nearer to Ortigia I entered the large latomiae on the skirts of Neapolis, a most extraordinary spot. It consists of a very spacious court or area round which runs a wall of rock of great height so artfully cut as to cause the upper part to project very visibly out of the perpendicular line and thereby defeat every attempt to climb up. Swinburne
Latomia del Paradiso
Swinburne wrote that the walls of the Latomie could not be climbed up because he had in mind their use as a large prison after an Athenian expedition against Syracuse in 415-413 BC ended in disaster. The expedition had the objective of supporting the town of Segesta against Selinunte which was an ally of Syracuse.
For three days following close on their heels and encompassing them on all sides the Syracusans prevented the Athenians from taking a direct road toward Catania, their ally; instead they compelled them to retrace their steps through the plain of Elorium, and surrounding them at the Ainarus River, slew eighteen thousand and took captive seven thousand, among whom were also the generals Demosthenes and Nicias. The remainder were seized as their plunder by the soldiers; for the Athenians, since their escape was blocked in every direction, were obliged to surrender their weapons and their persons to the enemy. After this had taken place, the Syracusans set up two trophies, nailing to each of them the arms of a general, and turned back to the city. (..) "I could never bring myself to believe that Athenians, after getting themselves involved in so bitter an enmity, will keep the friendly relation unbroken; on the contrary, while they are weak they will feign goodwill, but when they have recovered their strength, they will carry their original purpose to completion. I therefore adjure you all, in the name of Zeus and all the gods, not to save the lives of your enemies, not to leave your allies in the lurch, not again for a second time to bring peril upon your country. You yourselves, men of Syracuse, if you let these men go and then some ill befalls you, will leave for yourselves not even a respectable defence." After the Laconian (Gylippus, a general from Sparta who commanded the Syracusan army) had spoken to this effect, the multitude suddenly changed its mind and approved the proposal of Diocles, (a famous orator of Syracuse who called for a severe punishment of the Athenians). Consequently the generals and the allies were forthwith put to death, and the Athenians were consigned to the quarries; and at a later time such of them as possessed a better education were rescued from there by the younger men and thus got away safe, but practically all the rest ended their lives pitiably amid the hardships of this place of confinement. Diodorus Siculus - Book XIII
The Latomie were used as a prison also in Roman times.
You have all heard of the Syracusan stone-quarries. Many of you are acquainted with them. It is a vast work and splendid; the work of the old kings and tyrants. The whole of it is cut out of rock excavated to a marvellous depth, and carved out by the labour of great multitudes of men. Nothing can either be made or imagined so closed against all escape, so hedged in on all sides, so safe for keeping prisoners in. Into these quarries men are commanded to be brought even from other cities in Sicily, if they are commanded by the public authorities to be kept in custody.
Cicero - In Verrem - II-5-68 - Translation by C. D. Yonge
Orecchio (Ear) di Dionisio
The ear of Dionysius (the Elder, tyrant of Syracuse in 405-367 BC) is no less a monument of the ingenuity and magnificence than of the cruelty of that tyrant. It is a huge cavern cut out of the hard rock, exactly in the form of the human ear. The perpendicular height of it is about 80 feet, and the length of this enormous ear is not less than 250. The cavern was said to be so contrived that every sound made in it, was collected and united into one point,
as into a focus; this was called the Tympanum; and exactly opposite to it the tyrant had made a smallhole which communicated with a little apartment where he used to conceal himself. He applied his own ear to this hole, and is said to have heard distinctly every word that was spoken in the cavern below. This apartment was no sooner finished, and a proof of it made, than he put to death all the workmen that had been employed in it. He then confined all that he
suspected were his enemies; and by overhearing their conversation, judged of their guilt, and condemned and acquitted accordingly.
As this chamber of Dionysius is very high in the rock, and now totally inaccessible, we had it not in our power to make proof of this curious experiment,
which our guides told us had been done some years ago by the captain of an English ship. The echo in the ear is prodigious, much
superior to any other cavern I have yet seen.
The holes in the rock, to which the prisoners were chained, still remain, and even the lead and iron in several of these holes. Brydone
The excavation that appears most worthy of our notice and gives name to the whole place is that in the northwest corner called the ear of Dionysius. It runs into the heart of the hill in the form of a capital S. (..) It appears that (in 1608) the celebrated painter Michael Angelo da Caravaggio first gave it the name of Orecchio which has since been adopted by the Syracusans. (..) The sides are chiselled very smooth and the roof covered gradually narrowing almost to as sharp a point as a Gothic arch; along this point runs a groove or channel which served as is supposed to collect the sounds that rose from the speakers below and to convey them to a pipe in a small double cell above where they were heard with the greatest distinctness; but this hearing place having been too much opened and altered has lost its virtue as those who have been let down from the top by a rope have found. Swinburne
(left) Grotta dei Cordari (rope makers); (right) a rock which brings to mind Niobe's Rock at Manisa
Near to this there are caverns of a very great extent, where they carry on a large manufactory of nitre, which is found in vast abundance on the sides of these caves. Brydone
Vast caverns penetrate into the heart of the rocks and serve for salt petre works and roperies. Swinburne
Latomia del Paradiso
The bottom of this immense quarry, from whence probably the greatest part of Syracuse was built, is now covered with an exceedingly rich soil; and as no wind from any part of the compass can possibly touch it, it is filled with an infinite variety of the very finest shrubs and fruit-trees, which bear with vast luxuriance and are never blasted. The oranges, citrons, bergamots, pomegranates, figs, &c. are all of a remarkable large size and fine quality. Some of these trees, but more particularly the olives, grow out of the hard rock; where there is no mark of any soil and exhibit a very uncommon appearance. Brydone
Latomia di S. Venera: walls which housed votive reliefs plaques
After the defeat of the Athenians. Segesta appealed to Carthage for help. In 409 the Carthaginians seized Selinunte and in 406 it was the turn of Agrigento to be conquered. In 405 they laid siege to Syracuse, but a pestilence forced them to lift it. Dionysius the Elder strengthened the fortifications of Ortigia and built new walls on the mainland which included a hill on a commanding position where he erected a fortress (Castello Eurialo). The conflict between Syracuse and Carthage went on for the whole IVth century BC. It was temporarily suspended by peace treaties which usually assigned the control over western Sicily to the Carthaginians and that over the eastern part of the island to Syracuse.
Altar of Hiero II
The conflict between Syracuse and Carthage continued in the following century. In 276 Pyrrhus, king of Epirus landed on Sicily to help the Greek cities in gaining control of the whole island. After having lost many towns, the Carthaginians managed to hold on the fortress of Lilybaeum, at the western end of the island. Eventually Pyrrhus was no longer supported by his local allies and he left the island. One of the consequences of the failure of Pyrrhus' attempt to unify Sicily was a conflict between the Mamertini, mercenaries from the Italian peninsula, and Syracuse. This minor feud led to the First Punic War because the Mamertini sought the help of Rome. In 263 the Romans laid siege to Syracuse, but eventually accepted the peace proposals made to them by Hiero II, tyrant of the town. During the whole war Syracuse stood on the side of the Romans and at the end of it, it retained its independence. Hiero II helped the Romans also during the Second Punic War until his death in 216.
Diodorus Siculus attributes the construction of a very long altar to him. Its length (196 m) makes it the largest known altar of antiquity. It was used for hecatombs, sacrifices of 100 oxen.
Necropoli dei Grotticelli: "Tomba di Archimede", actually a IInd century AD tomb
We searched amongst the sepulchres, several of which are very elegant, for that of Archimedes but could see nothing resembling it. At his own desire it was adorned with the figure of a sphere inscribed in a cylinder (the mathematician wrote "On the Sphere and Cylinder" a treatise where he proved that the volume of a sphere is two-thirds that of the cylinder in which it is inscribed), but had been
lost by his ungrateful countrymen, even before the time that Cicero was quaestor of Sicily. Brydone
Hiero II was succeeded by his grandson Hieronymus, aged fifteen. The new ruler was convinced to switch side and support Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who repeatedly defeated the Romans. In 212 a Roman army laid siege to and eventually conquered Syracuse.
Archimedes, the famous and learned engineer and mathematician, a Syracusan by birth, was at this time an old man, in his seventy-fifth year. (..) During the time when Marcellus, the Roman general, was attacking Syracuse both by land and by sea, Archimedes first hauled up out of the water some of the enemy's barges by means of a mechanical device, and after raising them to the walls of Syracuse, sent them hurtling down, men and all, into the sea. Then, when Marcellus moved his barges a bit farther off, the old man made it possible for the Syracusans, one and all, to lift up stones the size of a wagon, and by hurling them one at a time to sink the barges. When Marcellus now moved the vessels off as far as an arrow can fly, the old man then devised an hexagonal mirror, and at an appropriate distance from it set small quadrangular mirrors of the same type, which could be adjusted by metal plates and small hinges. This contrivance he set to catch the full rays of the sun at noon, both summer and winter, and eventually, by the reflection of the sun's rays in this, a fearsome fiery heat was kindled in the barges, and from the distance of an arrow's flight he reduced them to ashes. Thus did the old man, by his contrivances, vanquish Marcellus. (..) Now when Syracuse was (..) suddenly betrayed to Marcellus, or (..) sacked by the Romans while the citizens were celebrating a nocturnal festival of Artemis, this man was killed by one of the Romans, under the following circumstances. Engaged in sketching a mechanical diagram, he was bending over it when a Roman came upon him and began to drag him off as a prisoner of war. Archimedes, wholly intent on his diagram and not realizing who was tugging at him, said to the man: "Away from my diagram!" Then, when the man continued to drag him along, Archimedes turned and, recognizing him for a Roman, cried out: "Quick there, one of my machines, someone!" The Roman, alarmed, slew him on the spot, a weak old man, but one whose achievements were wondrous. As soon as Marcellus learned of this, he was grieved, and together with the noblemen of the city and all the Romans gave him splendid burial amid the tombs of his fathers. As for the murderer, he had him, I fancy, beheaded. Diodorus - Book XXVI
The amphitheatre is in the form of a very excentric ellipse, and is much ruined. Brydone
The Amphitheatre had four Entrances and was partly masonry and partly hewn out of solid rocks. The semi-diameters of this Amphitheatre are one hundred and thirty-four by eighty-three English feet. The work is Roman and supposed to have been constructed when Syracuse had ceased to contain its usual number of Inhabitants.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1838 Edition - based on a travel to Sicily made in 1834.
The amphitheatre was excavated in the 1830s and this explains why XVIIIth century travellers wrote very little about it.
Amphitheatre: (left) entrance to the arena; (right) passage under the seating section
During the Roman rule, Syracuse, although having lost its independence, continued to house a large population because it was the capital of the Province of Sicily. It retained this role of capital until the Arab conquest of the island in the IXth century, when it was replaced by Palermo.
But the Franks having applied to the emperor, and having a country given to them, a part of them afterwards revolted, and having collected a great number of ships, disturbed all Greece; from whence they proceeded into Sicily, to Syracuse, which they attacked, and killed many people there.
Zosimus - New History - 1814 Translation.
The Frank raid is set in 278 during the reign of Emperor Probus. The amphitheatre was most likely built after this event. All the upper section is lost (you may wish to see the amphitheatre of Thysdrus in today's Tunisia which was built in the same century).
Roman cistern and S. NicolÚ dei Cordari
The amphitheatre was supplied with water by a nearby cistern upon which a small church was built in the XIth century.
Tombs near the Amphitheatre; they were found in necropolises of Syracuse and Megara Hyblaea, another Greek colony, north of the town
The image used as background for this page shows a decorative motif on an ancient vase at Museo Archeologico Regionale di Siracusa.
Move to Syracuse - Other Archaeological Areas or Syracuse - Castello Eurialo or Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia. Other pages on Syracuse to be developed: Medieval Monuments, Renaissance Monuments and Baroque and Modern Monuments.
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Catania - Ancient Monuments
Catania - Around Piazza del Duomo
Catania - Via dei Crociferi
Catania - Other Monuments
Palermo - Gates and City Layout
Palermo - Norman-Arab Monuments
Palermo - Martorana and Cappella Palatina
Palermo - Medieval Palaces
Palermo - Cathedral
Palermo - Churches of the Main Religious Orders
Palermo - Oratories
Palermo - Other Churches
Palermo - Palaces of the Noble Families
Palermo - Public Buildings and Fountains
Palermo - Museums
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Selinunte - The Acropolis
Selinunte - The Eastern Hill
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale