BMCR 2005.01.28

Megara Hyblaia and Selinous. The Development of Two Greek City-States in Archaic Sicily. Oxford University School of Archaeology Monograph No. 57

, , Megara Hyblaia and Selinous : the development of two Greek city-states in archaic Sicily. Oxford University School of Archaeology ; monograph no 57, i.e. 55. Oxford: Oxford University, School of Archaeology, 2003. xxii, 247 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0947816569. $85.00.

This work, a revision of the author’s 1996 Oxford D.Phil. thesis, is an attempt to follow up Dunbabin’s 1948 “archaeological history” of the western Greeks, with specific reference to the two poleis mentioned in the title (p. xiv). In this it succeeds, and it deserves a place beside Dunbabin in the very small cache of English monographs that have attempted to address the history of Archaic Sicily from any perspective.1 Of course, much has changed in the last 50 years: not only has new archaeological material continually been coming to light, but also the approaches taken by earlier studies of Greek colonial regions are now thought to be, if not outmoded, at least limited in their applicability.2 While De Angelis (henceforth D.) desires to “treat the data on their own terms,” he is continually aware throughout his work of the biases and epistemological limitations imposed on the data by vagaries of excavation and publication. In spite of these limitations, D. proposes that a reevaluation of the development and evolution of Megara Hyblaia and Selinous offers an opportunity to explain how and why poleis experience divergent evolution in different environmental and socio-political contexts.

The goal of his investigation into this divergent evolution, as made clear in his conclusion (Chapter 9), is to shed new light on both the nature of the polis and the history of Sicily. To help explain the spectacular differences between these two cities, D. takes a comparative approach which structures the arrangement of the book. Megara Hyblaia is treated first, Selinous second. To each polis are devoted four chapters: 1 and 5 to the historical and archaeological settings, 2 and 6 to a detailed consideration of the settlement evidence, 3 and 7 to demography, society, and politics, and 4 and 8 to environment and economy. In this review, I treat these chapters side-by-side. In Chapters 1 and 5, D. starts the story of both city-states with their respective pre-colonial native Sicilian context so as not to be improperly Hellenocentric (p. 1). Megara Hyblaia, founded in eastern Sicily in the eighth century, found itself in contact with the well-developed, widespread, cosmopolitan native Pantalica/Thapsos culture (p. 10). It is in this context that the legend of the friendly aid given by the native King Hyblon to the Megarian colonists is to be interpreted. Even in nearby Leontini and Syracuse, where the literary sources suggest that the native populations were expelled by the Greek colonists, archaeological evidence suggests a certain degree of cohabitation. Selinous, on the other hand, founded in western Sicily in the seventh century, found itself sandwiched between the “complex and dynamic” native Sant’Angelo Muxaro/Polizzello, Punic, and Elymian cultures (p. 115). The review of the native context in both chapters has obviously benefited from D.’s 1996-2000 archaeological report on Sicily for the British School at Athens, as his discussions are presented clearly, with succinct summaries of traditional questions fleshed out with concise updates of recent excavations.3 The larger question raised by these chapters, of course, is to what extent the presence of these non-Greek cultures influenced the later development of the Greek colonies in question.4 In western Sicily, this seems clear: Selinous’ foreign policy and internal development seem inexorably connected to political and economic relations with its non-Greek neighbors. For eastern Sicily, this connection is less clear: while Megara Hyblaia’s initial settlement seems to have been guided to some degree by friendly relations with Hyblon, these relations have a much less recognizable impact on the polis’ later development.

Chapters 2 and 6 are devoted to a careful investigation of the development of the two settlements. D. treats the material chronologically, in 25-year intervals for Megara Hyblaia, and — since the excavation data do not support such a careful scheme — in 50-year intervals for Selinous. Dates, size, and other noteworthy features for all buildings are summarized in an array of tables and figures in both chapters, which constitute a useful representation of material from both the original site reports and the results of subsequent excavations. Some of the most important differences between Megara Hyblaia and Selinous seem to be due to the difference of at least 85 years between their foundations.

Megara Hyblaia, for example, had a town plan from its earliest years, as is evidenced both by eighth-century foundations which respect a distinction between domestic and public areas and by the early separation of the necropoleis from the settlement (i.e., the 61 hectares later enclosed by the sixth-century city wall). By the seventh century, house sizes and styles begin to differ, suggesting an early start to social stratification explored in more detail in Chapter 3. From the seventh to sixth centuries, religious and public architecture starts to fill in the space set aside in the eighth century for public use (perhaps over 50%, if the evidence from the agora area can be extrapolated to cover the rest of the site), parallelling the flurry of monumental building elsewhere in Sicily at this time.

Selinous’ town plan certainly had taken shape by 580-570, although it may go back in part to the seventh century, when the important sanctuary of Demeter Malophoros was first laid out. In the first half of the sixth century, the sanctuary receives its first stone edifice, and the street plan is cemented by the placement of an agora at its center. The trapezoidal shape of the agora and the resultant multiplicity of street orientations is paralleled at Megara Hyblaia, but its significance is as of yet unclear (p. 133 and n. 191). In any event, within decades of its settlement, Selinous’ center occupied all of the areas it would later occupy in the fifth century (totalling roughly 100 hectares, bounded by necropoleis and topographical features). The sixth century sees the beginning of the most significant material fact of Selinous’ development: the construction of its monumental temples. Between the late seventh century and 460, Selinous saw one of the greatest building programs of the ancient world: no fewer than 7 temples, composed of over 112,000 tons of stone (presented in detail by D. on p. 164). Through comparison with Megara Hyblaia, D. brings two facts to our attention: first, regardless of the amount of time which has passed since the foundation of the individual/respective colonies, their periods of most intense monumental construction mostly overlap, centered on the late seventh and sixth centuries. This, fitting into a larger pattern among the Greek cities of Sicily, suggests that the impulse to build in this way is connected to material and ideological causes which transcend the individual polis. Second, given that their behavior so far exceeds that of the mother city in this regard, a context must be found for Selinous’ decision to invest so heavily in temples.

For this, we may look to Chapters 3 and 7, on society and politics, which in my opinion constitute the core of this book’s contribution to the narrative history of Sicilian Greek poleis. These chapters start with the evidence for overall population. Calculations are made from the size and number of houses and the percentage of each site which has been excavated, along with what little can be gleaned from literary sources and comparative evidence. For Megara Hyblaia, D. gives a figure of 2,275 possible for the city center (p. 43), having grown from an original group of colonists which he numbers at no more than 225 (p. 49). Presumably, this small band of Megarian settlers arrived in Sicily on a nominally egalitarian footing. Although Finley had claimed that Megara Hyblaia did not attain a high degree of social stratification until the sixth century, D.’s investigations into eighth-century grain silos suggest that some of the elite may have been attempting from the start to gain status through the formation of trade networks.5 Meanwhile, by the first half of the seventh century the population had doubled, and the burial record includes practices (decapitations, crouched positions) typical of native burials. D. suggests that the inclusion of natives in the settlement, and the decline or disappearance of nearby native sites as Megara Hyblaia rose in size may have been a result of the Archaic Greek proclivity to synoikize (which might also be reflected in the multiple street alignments surrounding the agora) coupled with a fear of Syracusan expansion and the already friendly relations with the native Sicels (p. 54). The rise of Megara Hyblaia’s population in the early seventh century is accompanied by a host of evidence for the stresses associated with social stratification: divergent domestic construction, polychrome pottery with martial and mythological scenes indicative of an elite ideology, and the rise of monumental construction, ascribed to the rise of personal wealth and the competition of political culture. Some members of Megara Hyblaia break away in an attempt to aquire more resources and space elsewhere, leading to the foundation of Selinous between 651/0 and 628/7 (D. prefers to see the two dates provided by the literary sources as two separate moments — perhaps the initial and final — of an actual quarter-century-long foundation process, p. 124). Sixth-century Megara Hyblaia provides further evidence for the presence of a strong elite: conspicuous tombs constucted along the main roads and an oligarchy strong and balanced enough to prevent any of its members from establishing a tyranny. This oligarchy, initially allied with neighboring Syracuse, eventually became its enemy, leading to the destruction of Megara Hyblaia and the absorption of its citizenry by Gelon in 483/2.

For Selinous, where scholarly estimates have varied widely and where we must come to terms with difficult population figures given by Diodorus, D. suggests that there was enough room for 6,664 to 10,000 inhabitants in the 50 hectares of the polis center (p. 149). It is clear that Selinous, settled in a context already inhabited by native and Phoenician cultures, fared much differently than its mother city. First of all, Selinous may have been founded partially over indigenous settlement(s), and the question of whether relations were as friendly as at Megara Hyblaia is gravely tainted by the contemporary destruction of native settlements nearby. After its initial settlement, Selinous seems to have expanded rapidly to fill its territory to the point where it was bounded by a different culture on every side: Phoenicians to the west, Greeks to the east, and Elymians and other native peoples to the north.

This geopolitical situation is central to D.’s interpretation of what is known about Selinous’ subsequent development. For example, the presence of military forces such as those led by Pentathlos from Rhodes and Malchus from Carthage seems to have intensified territorial disputes and led to the creation of fortifications in the sixth century not just at Selinous but at neighboring Phoenician Motya and native Poggioreale as well. Heraclea Minoa was established, possibly in 580-570, as an attempt to check the expansionism of Acragas under Phalaris (p. 159). The pressures of Selinous’ geopolitical situation, coupled with its immense wealth, led to the ascension of the tyrant Theron (not the Emmenid Theron of Acragas) in the mid sixth century.

From this point on, we hear of no further hostilities between Selinous and its non-Greek neighbors until the fifth century, strongly implying that the city’s famously pro-Punic stance had its roots in the exigencies of this tyranny and the pressures leading to its presence/creation. Nevertheless, the pro-Punic stance of the Selinountine tyrants was not unchallenged: according to Herodotus (5.39-48), survivors from the expedition of the Spartan prince Dorieus, wiped out by a coalition of Phoenicians and Segestans, seized Heraclea Minoa and used it as a base to help the Selinountians eject the tyrant Peithagoras, perhaps in 505. An early fifth-century inscription records the return of exiles from Megara Hyblaia to Selinous, around the time Heraclea Minoa was captured by Acragas. The relationship between these last events, and their significance, must remain obscure, but some connection between factional strife, the pro-Punic tyranny, and pressure from Selinous’ neighbors is clearly implied. By collecting and reviewing this information, D. provides a strong context for interpreting the archaeological record.

The most notable material product of Selinous’ socio-political context is, without a doubt, the construction of its monumental temples. Dissatisfied with art-historical explanations, D. seeks to examine the temples as “statements of human expression and achievement” (p. 163). His analysis leaves no stone unturned: he quantifies the amount of stone, the cost of construction, and the number of man-hours required. From this, he is on firm ground to draw conclusions about who could have paid for, and therefore what significance should be attributed to, such an undertaking. His conclusion is that, in spite of the large amounts of liquid capital attributed to the city by Thucydides (6.20) and by IG 14.268, it is hard to imagine that any state per se could have been wealthy enough to pay for this amount of construction. Therefore, we should attribute the construction of the temples in Selinous to the efforts of wealthy individuals with a desire to invest in symbolic capital: not only the tyrants, but their allies, rival factions — even foreign interests such as Carthage should not be ruled out (pp. 167-169). The most intense period of construction, 550-460, clearly fits within the socio-political context of the period described in detail by D. However, as he himself suggests, our understanding of so many complex monuments over such a shadowy period must remain open to multiple interpretations (p. 158).

Chapters 4 and 8, on environment and economy, although they come as something of a coda to the preceding chapters, do deal explicitly with the material realities and sources of wealth which made possible the development of these poleis: their territory, resources, industries, and foreign contacts. Based on topographical calculations and a careful review of certain and possible sites from the historical record, D. suggests a size of approximately 400 square kilometers for the territory of Megara Hyblaia, able to support somewhere between 39,000 and 52,000 people engaged in an economy based on such resources as stone, potting clay, grain, textiles, horses, fishing, grapes, olives, and honey. The ceramic record reflects a typical shift in the late sixth century from Corinthian to Attic imports, and a study of the shapes and types indicates an import trade mainly in oils, wine, and brined products. Selinous, on the other hand, by the end of the sixth century constituted almost 1,500 square kilometers, the high arability of which could support a population of between 161,000 and 215,000 people — certainly giving it the ability to produce more than it required. Selinous had a similar range of agricultural and mineral products, although it seems to have had a more cosmopolitan range of imports such as East Greek and Etruscan pottery. Selinous also minted its own coinage in the sixth century — an important difference from Megara Hyblaia. One puzzling aspect of Selinous’ economy is that, despite the presence of the Phoenicians in western Sicily, their material culture is curiously underrepresented in the Archaic period. D. suggests (p. 193) that this absence may be circumvented by considerations such as the placement (and name) of Mazara for trade with Phoenician settlements, the notice of Diodorus that Selinous’ neighbor Acragas made money trading oil and wine in north Africa, the likelihood that Selinous’ use of Spanish silver involved Phoenician traders, and the fact that the Punic settlements’ failure to exploit their hinterland will have given them a need to engage in the trade of food for metals with nearby Selinous — all of which imply large-scale trade with the Phoenicians in spite of its apparent archaeological invisibility. D. notes an important conclusion from the evidence for Archaic Selinous’ economic development: it cannot be coherent with Finley’s substantivist model, since there was simply too much activity for it all to have taken place in an embedded framework.

Chapter 9 reviews what can be learned from this study. Based on his investigations, D. rejects outright the core/periphery model under which the development of colonies derives from the development of mainland poleis. Some of the developments common to both Megara Hyblaia and Selinous are due to their shared Sicilian context. These include a reliance on grain as a central economic product, ethnically mixed populations, and some architectural features. But their development had more differences than similarities, owing to the exigencies of their local contexts: Selinous had an economic advantage with its two perennial waterways and immensely larger hinterland. Whereas Megara Hyblaia developed between two pre-existing rival Greek states (Syracuse and Leontini), forcing it to take a third seat in the political relations of the region, Selinous’ lonely presence in western Sicily pushed its non-Greek neighbors into such a strong defensive alliance that it was eventually forced to join the alliance itself. This led, ironically, to a long-term political stability which allowed the city to make the most of its potential for wealth. Although D. is silent on this question, one wonders whether the colonists of Selinous learned anything from the experience of their Megarian colonial predecessors, or whether the differences between the two poleis are mostly to be explained in terms of material contingencies.

Certainly the major contribution of this book is D.’s ability to read the social and political history of these poleis out of, and in such close conjunction with, the evidence of the material record. The two separate narratives are joined to produce conclusions which are admirably cautious and coherent, because the author is careful in each instance to make an explicit case for skepticism or conviction in order to distinguish between possibility and probability. A constant element in the conclusions D. is able to draw are the limitations in the published archaeological record, especially for Selinous. His call for more thorough work in this regard is a frequent but justified refrain throughout the book. But by posing questions which in fact require the very evidence D. finds lacking, it is to be hoped that he will push people to start producing it, since he has provided a context in which such evidence would satisfy pre-existing desiderata and answer established questions.6


1. T. J. Dunbabin, The Western Greeks: The History of Sicily and South Italy from the Foundation of the Greek Colonies to 480 B.C. (Oxford, 1948). Also: E. A. Freeman, The History of Sicily from the Earliest Times, 4 Volumes (Oxford, 1891-1894); M. I. Finley, Ancient Sicily (London, 1979); R. Leighton, Sicily Before History (London 1999); S. Berger, Revolution and Society in Greek Sicily and Southern Italy, Historia Einzelschriften 71 (Stuttgart 1992); E. Sjöqvist, Sicily and the Greeks. Studies in the interrelationship between the indigenous populations and the Greek colonists (Ann Arbor 1973).

2. A view which D. has propounded in depth: “Ancient Past, Imperial Present: The British Empire in T.J. Dunbabin’s The Western Greeks.” Antiquity 72 (1998): 539-549.

3. F. De Angelis, Archaeology in Sicily, 1996-2000 (Archaeological Reports: 2000-2001).

4. D. does explore this question at greater length in “Equations of Culture: The Meeting of Natives and Greeks in Sicily (ca. 750-450 BC).” Ancient West and East 3.1 (2004): 19-50.

5. F. De Angelis (2002), “Trade and Agriculture at Megara Hyblaia.” OJA 21.3: 299-310.

6. The book is handsomely produced and bound in such a way as to withstand six months in a backpack, a delay for which this reviewer sincerely apologizes. Some pages of the reviewer’s copy were printed at a much lighter density than others, but these were still readable. Web pages for the publisher and list this book incorrectly at 310 pages. The transliteration of Greek words seems to be uneven — e.g., Syracuse but Korinth, oinochoe but Khalkidian — but not unclear. Minor typographical errors aside, only three have the potential to introduce confusion: p. 173: “like Ennaios” is missing from the Greek text of Steph. Byz; p. 175: if Mazaros is a river and Mazare is a town, then “the Mazare” is ambiguous; p. 213: the references to “Bracessi” 1998 and 1999 should be to “Braccesi”. Of the 34 plates, the images of ceramics and architectural features are most effective; however, owing to their small size, some of the landscape scenes are rather tiny. The 51 figures and 32-page bibliography, comprising almost 1,000 references, are outstanding features to complement such an otherwise concise work. A simple but effective index of 5 pp. rounds out the volume.