Virtual travel to Syracuse (Siracusa), Sicily - Italy

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History, facts and travel tips about Syracuse

Colonised by Corinthians around 734 B.C., Syracuse embodies the glories and triumphs of antiquity and the ancient past in a way rivalled only by Athens Carthage and Rome. It is a feast of ancient history in architecture, monuments, geography and geology. The literature of sages and playwrights, normally shrouded in the shadows of fantasy and mystery at which we, modern mortals, can only hope to catch a glimpse, are thrown into sharp relief, and we are bought closer to seeing and understanding how our ancestors and the great figures of our past really lived in the monuments and sights of Syracuse.

The historic area of the city is separate from the modern town and is found on the island of Ortigia which in Greek means "Quail", due to the abundance of the bird on this island in ancient times. Ortigia is separated from the mainland of Syracuse and Sicily by a narrow strip of sea-water, spanned by the Ponte Nuovo ("New Bridge") which by Sicily's standards is indeed "new".

The coast of ancient Ortigia has two ports, Porto Grande ("Large") and Porto Piccolo ("Small"). The latter, following the meandering coastline, east of the island curves closely together, forming two almost entirely protected landings like watery courtyards for seagoing vessels. Both ports were key links to the Greeks for colonising Sicily and for trade between the Greeks and Carthaginians in the ancient world.

Further inland, forming the outer perimeters of Syracuse, some of the more ancient dwellings are incorporated into the base of the beautiful Monti Iblei. These mountains form a curving protective layer around the city, framing it between sea and mountains, rendering it reasonably secure. These surrounding hills and mountains are of a dry texture rich in limestone, giving the area a unique landscape and crops. Verdant, rugged, punctuated with olive groves, and rich in rural beauty, it carries a sense of mystery in its relics of ancient dwellings, crags caves and cliffs.

The great Greek Theatre where Plato performed, is found here, incorporated into a hill, following its natural curve. The city of Syracuse was originally named in Siculo (a Greek/Italian tongue) Syraka, which means "abundance of water" due to the quantity of waterways and swamplands in the area in ancient times. Now, apart from the fascinating and mystic source of the river Ciane not far from the city, where papyrus plants grow, the only evidence of water in the ancient town is in the lovely fountains, including the Fount of the Nymph Arethusa.

In antiquity, and in its glory days as one of the main centres of Greek civilisation and military prowess, Syracuse was composed of five major areas, the names of which have remained to the present day. Akradina, Tike, Epipolis, Neapolis and Ortigia, which in the time of the Greeks were known as "Pentapolis" ("Five Cities"). Though sometimes incorporated in to more recent structures, there are plenty of reminders of the Greek and Corinthian eras in these ancient quarters, in the Greek and Roman theatres, the tomb of Archimedes, the Fount Arethusa and the Ear of Dionysus, to name but a few.

For four centuries since its foundation, Syracuse and the Corinthians at Ortigia remained free and autonomous, independent from dominion or occupation, until the time of the Tyrant whose name was Gelon. He brought the city to heel at the end of the fifth century B.C. establishing himself not only as Ruler of Syracuse, but also as Lord of the entire of Sicily. However it was thanks to Gelon that the fortunes and glories of Syracuse attained new heights of fame, rendering Syracuse second to none among the Greek cities of Sicily.

Syracuse was in fact the last bastion to Greek culture to fall during the changing fortunes of the Island with the Roman invasion centuries later. Hiero I, succeeded in securing for himself an artistic and sympathetic reputation as patron of Poetry and learning, yet he was quite a ferocious and paranoid tyrant. The only "creative" who did not seem to fare so well at court was Plato, whose utopian views were not sufficiently appreciated.

Greek power in Sicily had slipped beyond repair, and almost every city had yielded to the violence of Roman invasion. Only Syracuse remained, thanks to its gifted if somewhat wily ruler Hiero II who claimed to be a descendent of Gelon. Hiero II employed employed questionable tactics to keep his city walls standing and its inhabitants autonomous and prosperous. Whilst he lived, Syracuse stood, lone monument to the memory of Grecian glory in a new Roman world. It was Hiero II who ordered the hill to be hewn out to create the finest and largest Greek theatre in existence, and he who had skilfully developed trade with Alexandrian and enormously increased the wealth of the city.

Hiero II lived until he was 92, thus ensuring all but a century of peace and prosperity to the city. However, upon his death His unscrupulous dealings with the Romans backfired when the anti Roman populace of Syracuse, without the restraining hand of a Grecian ruler, retaliated against and lost to Roman forces. Despite the ingenious defensive contraptions and machinery created by Archimedes, and a fierce battle, this bastion to all things Grecian, fell, not because the walls of Syracuse collapsed, but by the treachery of an unknown citizen, who admitted a Roman spy into the city.

In the skirmish, and against orders, Archimedes was slain (apparently he was so absorbed in his calculations he almost failed to notice his wounds). Thus in 212 B.C. Syracuse capitulated and, at the cost of a great mind and a great city, the Romans established total control over Sicily.

The Romans divided Sicily into estates for growing grain, and treated the island very much as an inferior province. Sicily thus entered a long period of cultural decline in which conditions reached such a pitch that there were two slave revolts, both of which were savagely repressed.

With the decline of the Romans, followed a long line of conquerors, occupiers and dominators of Syracuse and of Sicily, each of whom left their mark and some of whom are remembered with admiration. However, the days of autonomy and glory had gone forever. Despite Syracuse's downfall, its Grecian heritage has been immortalised in the architecture which remains, the memory of Archimedes and the first Pastoral poet, Theocritus.

In the Ninth Century A.D., the Arabs conquered the occupying Byzantines and took Sicily. In Ortigia evidence of this era remains in certain quarters of the city in the characteristic layout of the streets.

Much later, Frederick II continued the Norman tradition of maintaining authority in Sicily by kingship, commissioned the building of the splendid Maniace Castle which stands today on the furthermost tip of Ortigia. The castle had been adapted from a Byzantine country house, named after its owner George Maniace before its adaptation into a unique medieval fortress.

The following "ruling class" of Sicily were the French Angevin whose turbulent dominance of Syracuse and of Sicily was short lived, but immortalised in Sicilian folklore due to the legendary rebellion of Sicilian Vespers. The subsequent Spanish Aragon rule has left traces in architecture in some noble houses.

Following the devastating earthquake of 1693, many ancient sites and monuments were damaged or destroyed, and the city rebuilt in the famous Sicilian Baroque style.

The modern city has expanded somewhat indiscriminately, overriding the boundaries of the ancient, transforming the coastline, leaving little evidence of its form and characteristics in the distant past.

Ortigia, apart from its untouched Greek monuments, has other buildings such as the Greek temples to Apollo and Athena which are now themselves enshrined and incorporated into the more modern Duomo.

Likewise the Cathedral sits on a fifth century base of the pagan Temple of Athea, and while maintaining its Corinthian columns, has a Norman nave. In many ways the more modern churches of Ortigia represent the many layers of history and the changing face of the city with passing generations, each blended with its predecessors.

Created: 09 Aug 2013
Last update: 30 Jun 2022

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