Greek-Roman Sicily: between art and history

Sicily, with all its years of dominations and conquests by different populations and cultures, offers a unique historical heritage. Trying to summarize all of Sicily’s archaeological and cultural past is an impossible task indeed.

Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans: many were the different cultures that landed on the island and left an indelible testimony of their passage in the architectural and landscape physiognomy of Sicily.

If you are a classical history buff, take a look at some interesting facts about the island’s Greek-Roman period.

Greeks in Sicily

Greek domination in Sicily can be traced back to the 8th century BC, the first colonizations on the island. One of the first colonies, and certainly also one of the most important, was Syracuse. The history of Greek Sicily, as a matter of fact, cannot disregard this city, at least until Roman times.

But who were the Greeks who came to Sicily? Let us start by saying that the first colonies were established in eastern Sicily. The Chalcidian Greeks founded Zancle, Naxos, Leontinoi, and Katane; in the southeastern part, the Corinthians and Megareans established Syrakousai and Megara Hyblaea, respectively; and in the southern coast, the Cretans and Rhodians founded Ghelas in 689 B.C., marking the end of the first phase of Greek colonization in Sicily.

We do not have many documents to testify the birth of such colonies but certainly the Greeks clashed with native and therefore already existing populations in Sicily, such as the Siculians and Sicanians.

From 600 BC, the inhabitants of the colonies also clashed with the Carthaginians, resulting in the wars known as the Greek-Punic wars.

In 276 B.C., Pyrrhus king of Epirus, who had managed to conquer all of Sicily except Lilybaeum (present-day Marsala), was ousted from the island. At this point, shortly thereafter, Sicily would completely fall under Roman rule: even Syracuse, at first an ally, fell in 212.

Roman rule in Sicily

During the First Punic War, 264-241 BC, Sicily fell under Roman rule, later becoming a province of the Empire. Syracuse, at first an ally, also ended up being conquered in 212, during the second war against the Carthaginians.

We do not have much historical record of what happened in Sicily in the period from Augustus to Emperor Diocletian. In the first century B.C., riots and uprisings occurred, and so did under Gallienus, who held power from 253 to 268 A.D.

Granary of the Empire, cereal activity declined after the famous Battle of Actium (31 BC), in favor of pastoralism and other more profitable crops, such as olives and vineyards. In the same period, relations with North Africa intensified. Sicily again became a major player in the supply of grain to Rome when the Egyptian annona was diverted to Constantinople in the Eastern Roman Empire.

The barbarian invasions of the 5th century severely affected the stability of the Roman Empire: the famous “Sack of Rome” by Alaric’s Visigoths occurred in 410, while in 476 the Germanic general Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus, considered the last Roman emperor of the West.

Greek art in Sicily

The many years of rule over the Island, first by the Greeks then the Romans, were also decisive for Sicily’s artistic and architectural development. Greek art, for example, contributed to the architectural physiognomy of the Island. Just think of the splendid Doric-style temples in Syracuse, Gela, Selinunte and, above all, Agrigento.

The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento is one of the largest and most important archaeological parks in Sicily and Europe. The Valley, which has been a regional archaeological park since 2000, is characterized by an exceptional state of conversation of Doric temples from the Hellenic period. Since 1997, the entire area has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But the Greeks did not only bequeath temples to posterity.

In Sicily there are plenty of theaters dating back to the Hellenic period. Theater was a decidedly important space in the life of an ancient Greek polis, and this was also true of the colonies. The performances were meant to educate and instruct the audience and were an excellent opportunity for socializing. Some of Sicily’s finest theaters from the Greek era are found in Catania, Syracuse, Segesta, and Taormina. In addition to temples and theaters, numerous other artifacts from the Greek era, such as statues and amphorae, have also been found in Sicily. Most of these important archaeological remains are preserved in the many museums scattered throughout the island and can still be admired by all lovers of classical history.

One of the earliest examples of Greek sculpture found on the Island is the Ephebe of Agrigento. The sculpture depicts a young man and dates back to the fifth century BC. The Ephebe embodies the characteristics of the style of the late Archaic period, emphasizing the aesthetic aspect. Many other statues come from the classical period, such as the gigantic Telamons at the Temple of Zeus Olympius in Agrigento. The Telamons were huge representations almost always supporting columns. Each of these sculptures was mammoth in size: imagine that they could reach up to eight meters!

Artistic evidence from the Roman period

Architectural structures dating from Roman times are less numerous and conspicuous than those proper to Hellenic rule. This is partly because the Romans regarded Sicily precisely as a granary, meaning a useful source of sustenance for much of the imperial territory. This does not mean, however, that artistic and architectural evidence of Roman rule on the island is entirely nonexistent.

There are several public buildings in Sicily that can be traced back to Roman times, such as amphitheaters and baths. In addition, the Romans also built an effective road network, which was useful for both economic reasons and military matters. During the rule of the Romans on the Island, many existing buildings dating back to Greek times underwent renovations and various modifications.

This was the case of the theaters of Taormina and Catania.

If you are in Sicily and you are a lover of classical history, then you will be bound to notice all the important and valuable archaeological evidence dating back to the Greek-Roman period on display in most Sicilian cities.

Buon viaggio!

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