BMCR 2007.05.07

Ancient Sicily, Monuments Past and Present

, , Ancient Sicily, Monuments Past and Present. Rome: Vision s.r.l. and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006. 72; color ills. 95, map 1, site plans 2, color overlays 17. $29.95.

This book appears in the time-honored Past & Present series (there are similar books for Rome and Pompeii), which are built around current views of well-known archaeological sites, each with a plastic overlay of what the area would have looked like in antiquity. It is meant for the general reader who has no particular background in Classical Archaeology but who is likely to visit one or more of the locations on a self-guided ‘Grand Tour’. Although it is clearly not a research tool, in the opinion of this long-time student of ancient Sicily, one finds a surprising amount of detail written from the perspective of experienced specialists.

As in the earlier publications, this one focuses on major locations, including Syracuse, Taormina, Piazza Armerina, Agrigento, Selinus, and Segesta, and the overlay-illustrations are woven together by a topographic narrative introduced by a general historical introduction. A tight spiral binding ensures that the overlays will align properly, even after heavy use and travel-abuse, and it is possible to carry a book of this shape with relative ease in the course of a site visit. The simplicity of such a text is refreshing — one does not need complicated electronic equipment and a power-source just to flip from one location to another. Inside the cover, there is a table of contents, a land-sat image of Sicily with the major locations indicated in clear type-face, and thumbnail samples of the overlays. Beyond the frontispiece, one finds a glossary of major architectural (and two art historical) terms that also are marked in italics or bold typeface where they appear in the historical narratives and in captions. There are partially labeled diagrams of the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders and a diagram of a pediment labeled only as such. The text is written in a smoothly flowing English, which is very clear, except for isolated, awkward Italian transliterations of names, such as (p.2) ‘Spring Arethusa’ for ‘Fontana Arethusa’ and (p.17) ‘Syracuse Forum’ for ‘Foro Siracusano’, and the odd plural ‘necropolises’.

The historical summary that introduces the individual sections is about as much text as one could handle during a site visit, and the authors present in as good a way as any a general outline of the major periods and events that shaped Sicily’s cultural character in antiquity. Although the first paragraph mentions the island’s prehistoric past, ‘ancient’ really means Greek and Roman. The narrative, which mentions Sicans, Elymnians, and Sikels, is taken straight from Thucydides without citing the source. (Herodotus and Thucydides are mentioned only later on in connection with the process of colonization, and this level of generalization is unfortunate for those who are curious to know more about how the narrative is developed and who might like to read the original sources). It ignores many significant prehistoric sites (e.g. Pantalica in the province of Syracuse with its several necropoleis of rock-cut chamber tombs along the walls of breath-taking canyons, and Sabucina in the province of Caltanissetta with its major sequence of buildings from the Bronze and Iron ages), which themselves are major tourist destinations. In this book, Sicily comes onto the Mediterranean sociocultural stage by way of contact with Mycenae (again, well known stories about Daedalos and Minos, which come from Diodorus Siculus without citation, are presented as the primary historical outline), and there seems to be a rather glaring error on p.3 in which trade with the Greek world recovers after the decline of Minoan (Mycenaean?) civilization. In the course of describing the development of Sikeliote (Sicilian Greek) culture, tyrannies arise somewhat inexplicably and then they give way to democracy because of inherent ineptitude. The Battle of Himera (480 B.C.), fought on the plains below the eponymous site, is described as a naval battle. The relation of the historical text to places presented in the body of the book is fairly close, although there is no mention of the Villa del Casale at Piazza Armerina, which is a major Roman imperial location and one of the foci of the book. It is unfortunate, also, that the text closes by lumping the Arabs together with the Vandals and the Goths as a source of disruption in late antiquity. Arabs were a major component of Sicily’s population and important contributors to Sicilian culture overall from the time of the first arrivals in A.D. 840. Archaeological field research in many locations has shown how the Arabs inserted themselves into the existing landscape and life-ways of ancient Sicily, which remained relatively unchanged through the time of Frederick II (13th century).

The topographic character of the book keeps its focus concentrated upon architecture, although there are illustrations of several noted works of ancient art that one may find in Sicilian museums, such as the limestone kourotrophos from Megara Hyblaea (in the Paolo Orsi Museum at Syracuse), the so-called Chariot Driver from Mozia (in the Whittaker Museum on the island of Mozia), and the Venus ‘Landolina’ from Syracuse (also in the Paolo Orsi Museum). The visual layout of the book is interesting and uncluttered — images of objects, whether as a whole or in detail are clear and well illuminated. Sometimes the relation of a picture to the text is not apparent, such on p. 24, where the caption for the overlay of the Euryalus fort on the following page seems easy to confuse with the image of the so-called Tomb of Archimedes in the picture below. The frontispiece unwittingly displays color-coding, which might have been useful throughout the book — the reconstruction overlay showing the so-called Temple of the Dioskouroi at Agrigento is presented in color, while the base photograph is in black-and-white (all other photographs in the book are in color, except for an impressive view of Temple C at Selinus on p. 60, which supports the value of black-and-white photography). Although many may not agree on aesthetic grounds, the presence and absence of color serves to distinguish the imagined state from the actual state of the remains, and it is not necessary to have a color image of the present state when one is on site. In fact, historic photographs of many remains, when they were in better condition, may actually be more useful.

In the first section, which is dedicated to Syracuse, general pictures of notable places give a sense for the sights and colors of the city, and the four component districts are described accurately and in fair detail. The first overlay shows the fifth century B.C. Temple of Athena as seen from the west (this is the back of the Greek temple but the front of the building’s Baroque adaptation) with heavy blue triglyphs and a bronze shield. A portico with cypress trees in the background is shown, running across the area presently occupied by the Bishop’s palace, although recent excavations in the area have only uncovered remains of an open space in the adjacent Piazza Duomo. The second overlay, which shows the Temple of Apollo, the first almost fully stone temple, is accompanied by an excellent reproduction of the famous stylobate inscription that celebrates the building’s solid limestone columns. The translation of the inscription, in which the author of the columns, a certain Kleomenes, is described as ‘the son of Knidieidas’ can be challenged (as Ross Holloway has done) to mean ‘Kleomenes, son of the Knidian’, in order to explain features of this Doric building (e.g., a double colonnade along the facade, no thickened antae) that seem more appropriate to an Ionian architectural context 1. The description of the Altar of Hieron II, which accompanies the third overlay, neglects to mention that this building was exactly a stade long, and it presents a rather fanciful box-like altar at the center. The reconstruction of the nearby theater presents the complex in its Roman phase with a large stage building. It is likely that the theater of the fifth century B.C. was not in this location, but rather in an area to the southwest, where seventeen rectilinear steps have been found. While the description of the theater has the ring of completeness that anyone who studies the topography of Syracuse can perceive, mention should have been made of the water channels, which run from the Epipolai plateau above down to the center of the city, some passing (and still functioning today!) through the theater complex.

The book then turns to Taormina, a location frequented more by tourists than the nearby site of Naxos, which is better understood archaeologically. The lengthy discussion of remains seems lost, as do the remains themselves when one visits Taormina, amidst countless restaurants, shops and hotels. Only the magnificent theater stands on its own, and it is given enormous paraskenia in the overlay reconstruction.

Piazza Armerina is the next stop, although in chronological terms it is the latest of all the locations that are discussed. An axonometric diagram of the famous Villa del Casale, with each building unit labeled, is very good. The book abandons H.P. L’Orange’s interpretation of the layout as a sign of the chaos of the later Roman Empire2 in favor of the interpretation of a coherent plan, as exemplified by the armature, which lies at the base of William A. MacDonald’s notion of Roman imperial urban design.3 Extensive description is given over to the individual components of the villa (such as the famous chariot race mosaic in the baths, which unfortunately is not illustrated), although one would have difficulty walking about the complex while following the text. The information here seems to have been written independently of the illustrations. The reconstructions hint at the rather different sense that one would have had in antiquity with respect to the volumetric, plexiglass reconstruction by the architect Franco Minisi that is still in place over the ancient structures at the site. The views chosen for the overlays in the book are all of interior spaces, and they are unfortunately too limited in scope to get a sense for the whole. While the extraordinary Great Hunt mosaic is shown only in a general view (in which one doesn’t see that there is a mosaic) and in two details, the mosaic showing the female, ‘bikini’ gymnasts is shown in its entirety (draw your own conclusions).

The standard ‘Grand Tour’ then passes to Agrigento. It is worth noting that Akragas was the latest colony to be founded, and this has major significance for differences in urban layout — Akragas is a much more regular, planned city than the early colonies Naxos and Syracuse. The local historical summary focuses too closely on fanciful stories about the cruelty of Phalaris and not enough on the expansion that this tyrant gave to the territory controlled by the city. The struggle of Akragas with the Sikels during the time of Ducetius is presented as cause-and-effect for the Carthaginian take-over of the city in 406 B.C., and the impact that the Roman sack of Akragas had in 263 B.C., which reduced significantly the size of the city to a small core, is not mentioned. The book gives a fairly clear picture of the topography of the city — it emphasizes the somewhat mixed forms of domestic architecture, including the Greek peristyle and the Roman atrium, in the Hellenistic-Roman quarter, opposite the medieval monastery complex of S. Nicola, which is the basis of the city’s archaeological museum (an illustration shows a rather uninspiring courtyard view of the Church of S. Nicola, when in fact it has a magnificent, monumental Chiaramontine-style faade).

An axonometric plan on page 42 attempts to show the topography of the Hill of the Temples, now a World Heritage Site, in a state somewhere between ancient and modern — the temples are shown with fallen columns (today there are none around the so-called Temple of Concord), while modern roads are not included and the length of the hill has been compressed significantly to the point at which it is easy to lose sight of the relation between the book’s plan and the actual landscape. Reference to the Kolymbethra, a valley dammed as a reservoir just below of the Sanctuary of the Chthonic Divinities, would have been useful, as would have directions towards the locations of the Temple of Hephaistos (to the northwest) and the Temple of Asklepios (to the south), both of which are mentioned somewhat cryptically in the text. The Tomb of Theron is actually a Roman-era structure in the tradition of funerary monuments in North Africa.

Four major temples at Akragas are given reconstruction overlays. The roof on the so-called Temple of Hera Lacinia seems somewhat heavy in comparison to the fairly well-preserved features of its close relation, the so-called Temple of Concord, which is described in the text precisely, but with the ring of an Italianism, as the Temple of The Concord ( Il tempio della Concordia). The book conveys both the repetitive, formulaic nature of Greek architecture and the individuality of each building — the Temple of Hercules is given blue triglyphs, while the so-called Temple of Hera Lacinia has red ones; the former has capitals unpainted for the most part, while the later has capitals with a red echinus and a blue abacus; the simas and antefixes are different, too. The Severe style statue of a fallen warrior, assigned in this book to the Temple of Hercules, may come from a gigantomachia on the Temple of Olympian Zeus (Olympieion), or even from an independent sculptural monument. The enormous Olympieion, ascribed in the text to the period 480-470 B.C. (although it may have been conceived at the end of the preceding century), is shown according to the ‘latest’ reconstruction, which is that of the architect Antonio Prado (a cork model now graces the archaeological museum), and it features column-like telamones, or Atlas-figures, standing on a platform-ledge. The overlay dedicated to the Temple of the Dioskouroi, a full-color version of the overlay in the frontispiece, is perhaps the most successful illustration in the book (what remains of the temple itself is already a Roman-era reconstruction of the original Greek structure).

Beyond Akragas, the road leads to the Greek city Selinus and the Elymnian center Segesta. These places are often visited together, and they had much to do with each other in antiquity, as well. It would have been useful to have axonometric plans of each site.

There is a pointless photograph of the acropolis at Selinus, called confusingly the Hill of the Temples (as the area at Akragas), which is overlain by a photo of an antefix from Temple E, which is not located there, but instead on yet another hill with temples just to the east. The magnificent Archaic sculptural metopes from Temple C are shown in easy-to-read thumbnail-pictures, while acrolithic heads from the metopes of Temple E (no mention is made of their Severe Style character) are treated out of context as independent objects. Mention on p. 59 that the discovery of, “many seals, papyri and tablets in the area of the temple [Temple C] suggests that the building may also have been used as a city records office,” comes as a surprise to this reviewer, who remains skeptical about such a degree of preservation. Temple E is shown reconstructed both on the interior and the exterior. It is given a hypaethral roof (the cella is open to the sky), which does not jump off the page either in the reconstruction or in the text (a better roof to illustrate would have been that of the Olympieion at Akragas). The picture of a fallen column on the steps of the enormous Temple G (on the scale of the Olympieion, but slightly earlier in date) does not give a sense for the immense size of the building — a photograph of the Cusa quarries, located several kilometers to the west of Selinus, would leave a greater impression. The propylon to the Malophoros sanctuary, an independently built area along a riverbank just west of the acropolis of Selinus, is shown on p.60 in a reconstruction that is a good example of the strengths of this kind of presentation. It is only regrettable that the well-framed photograph of the Zeus Melichios sanctuary, another sanctuary just upstream, could not have been accompanied by an overlay, as well. The text ends with vague references to ancient cemeteries surrounding the city that reads more as an edited afterthought than as useful information.

The book’s treatment of Segesta provides a somewhat travel-weary overview of the significant structures and recent discoveries that have been made there. Segesta is known for its unfinished Doric temple and its elegant theater, but relatively recent fieldwork has opened new chapters in its history, including the exploration of a Swabian castle and the discovery of a twelfth century mosque. Both of these latter structures have been reconstructed in site publications,4 but they are simply mentioned here, presumably because they fall beyond the scope of the book. While it is not appropriate to show a reconstruction of the Temple, which is likely never to have been finished, some of the best examples of Greek building techniques can be seen here, including lifting bosses, alignment marks used to define the curvature of the stylobate, and columns which had yet to be fluted at the time the building-project was abandoned in the 420s B.C. Likewise, the reconstruction of the theater remains problematic for the state of conservation of its stage building. Whereas the text begins with a bang about reviving the places and spaces of Sicily’s ancient past, it ends with the din of academic controversy.

While the focus of this review has been on the relevance of such a book to travelers and visitors on-site (and it is available in many locations around the island), it is also a useful addition to any teaching library. As a view into the status quaestionis of reconstructing some of Sicily’s best known ancient monuments at the present moment, the book serves its purpose — as an introduction, which can raise many questions for further study and an impetus for one to go see these locations for oneself.


1. See R. Ross Holloway, “Architect and Engineer in Ancient Greece,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 73 (1969), 281-290.

2. H. P. L’Orange, Art Forms and Civic Life in the Late Roman Empire, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1965.

3. W.A. MacDonald, The Architecture of the Roman Empire, Volume II, An Urban Appraisal. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1968, 274-283.

4. A. Molinari, Segesta 2: il castello e la moschea, scavi 1989-1995, Flaccovio Editore, Palermo, 1997.