A glorious past under the lights of the Mediterranean Sea
Not many are aware of Syracuse’s background, and often people are surprised. A city established on the sea, in the middle of trade routes of the Mediterranean. Syracuse is one of Italy’s most historically valuable places, able to fascinate its visitors with traditions, art and colourful culture.
(Di Davide Mauro, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikicommons)
According to some studies and findings, the coastal area of southern Sicily was populated as early as the Neolithic period, particularly in the area of Stentinello, a Neolithic village located right next to the northern entrance to Syracuse and the plain of Targia, dating to the 5th millennium BCE.
Here, the remains of rectangular piling buildings enclosed within a ditch dug into the rock, forming an oval space of about 180 x 200 meters, have been found. Burials of this culture have been spotted in other places all over Sicily. These ancient graves were oval pits dug into the rock where corpses were laid in a crouched position.
The site has been abandoned for years and is difficult to locate because of the presence of private fences and the absence of signals. In addition, finding the area where the village stood, especially the hut holes, is very difficult, given the presence of wild vegetation. The site also stands next to an industrial area, which has caused its historical value to be lost.
Magna Grecia: Greek colonies in South of Italy (Arrotta, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
The earliest origins of Syracuse, however, date back to 733 BCE, a year when, according to the famous Greek historian Thucydides, Greek colonists, in search of new lands, landed on these very shores. In particular, this expedition was undertaken by the inhabitants of Corinth, a famous Greek polis. Leading them was the “ecista” (leader) Archia, who landed on the small island of Ortigia with his men and drove the local tribe inland.
This colony was called Syrakousai. This name is thought to be derived from “Syraka”, a prehistoric name with which the autochthonous inhabitants referred to this place. However, the origins are uncertain, and no firm explanation has yet been given.
What is certain, however, is the rapid development of Syracuse as a Polis of Magna Graecia (an area of southern Italy named so for the intense Greek colonisation and influence). Already in the 7th century BCE, the city participated in the Olympic Games in Greece at Olympia, confirming itself as a progenitor city of great athletes. One must remember that southern Italy consisted of many towns that identified themselves in every way as Greek poleis and therefore had a close relationship with the motherland Greece, in terms of trade, sports, politics and much more. Syracousai grew in commercial and political terms due to its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean routes. In 435 BCE, the city established the first tyranny, with Gelon I sanctioning the beginning of a very prosperous period, which within a few years made Syracuse a real Mediterranean power.
However, great powers attract allies but also enemies, and in the context of the Peloponnesian War that was raging all over Greece, Athens, the queen of Mediterranean development and trade, grew jealous of the Sicilian city. Fearful of Syracuse’s commercial expansion, in 415 BCE, Athens readied the most expensive and mighty armada that had sailed from Greece up to that time and sent it to Sicily, intending to subdue that stubborn and disrespectful Greek colony across the sea. It was a massive defeat that remained forever in history. The Syracusans, having annihilated the Athenian fleet (with a little help from Sparta), emerged not only victorious but also more powerful and confident.
Thus, the city came to be ruled by great tyrants, including the singular Dionysius I, a patron and cunning military and political strategist.
The rise of Syracuse’s power attracted brilliant minds, scholarly innovations and magnificent architectural constructions. Sicily was, at this point, formed by many poleis of Greek origin captained partly by force and partly by will by Syracuse. This network enabled the Sicilian Greeks to drive the notorious Carthaginians, who raged from the coast of North Africa off the Italian island.
Syracuse’s power was extinguished in the Roman siege of 212 BCE when Rome’s legions came to storm the city. They prevailed, but not without difficulty, for in Syracuse lived the famous engineer and discoverer of antiquity Archimedes, who provided his city with war works and machinery unknown to the Romans. According to tradition, the slayer of the genius was a Roman soldier who, not having recognised him, did not carry out the order to capture him alive.
(Herbert Frank, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
The city was an important religious centre. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the 1st century CE is testified three-day stopover of the apostle Paul in Syracuse.
With the rise of Christianity, impressive catacombs were built in the ancient city, which are reported to be the largest and best-preserved in the world, comparable to those in Rome. Syracuse remained in Roman hands until the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE.
Barbarian invasions of the territories followed. The authorities of the now debilitated Western Empire tried to defend Sicily from the invasion of the notorious Vandals, but without success. A papyrus document – the so-called papyrus of Odoacer – dating from 489 CE testifies how the Syracusan territory was now in the power of the Germans.
Syracuse was in the grip of decadence and was conquered in 535 CE by Belisarius from the Byzantines (Eastern Roman Empire, which previously survived the Barbaric Invasions) and remained in Byzantine hands until 878 CE when it was attacked several times by the Saracens and was subdued by them.
The city was set on fire, and the invaders destroyed all sorts of fortifications. The looting was described in the Muslim Annals as the largest the Arabs had ever done, and it went on for more than two months.
Venere Landolina (G.dallorto, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons)
Paolo Orsi Regional Archaeological Museum in Syracuse is one of the leading archaeological museums in Europe and contains unique pieces of Syracuse history and throughout the Mediterranean. It is rich in a repertoire ranging from prehistoric finds to Roman times. Highlights include the magnificent “Venus Landolina,” a work portraying Venus, the goddess of beauty for the Romans. She is in the demure or, more likely, rising position. She in fact, covers her breasts with her right, elegantly turning her head, and with her left, holds a cloth lowered to her hips, which opens theatrically inflated by the wind, revealing the goddess’ legs.
The city was finally taken from the Arabs by the Normans in 1085 CE. The new political order of the island given by the Normans did not, however, give Syracuse a chance to regain its former role as the capital of Sicily (they, in fact, as inaugurated by the Arabs, retained the capital seat in Palermo). Thus, Syracuse, as indeed all of Sicily and part of the south of Italy, became the “Kingdom of Sicily”. This land was coveted by governors from central Europe and was eventually part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was now ruled by Spanish royal blood.
The political order of Europe was evolving and becoming more complicated, with many alliances and new lineages. With the rise of new colonial powers, Sicily and thus Syracuse, as a borderland between the western and eastern Mediterranean, became a key outpost for defending imperial borders. Emperor Charles V had it fortified in such a mighty manner that it assumed, from then on, the appellation “fortress.”
However, the 15th CE was a century of significant natural disasters for Syracuse: the most destructive event was the 1542 CE earthquake, during which the city was close to total destruction.
The natural disasters, however, did not stop the power games and expansionist aims of the kingdoms of Italy and Europe, which saw a succession of treaties and new dominations in Sicily up to the independence movements by which a new and unified nation was conceived: Italy.
Syracuse surrendered itself to Italian patriots on July 28, 1860 CE, and with the unification of the kingdom of Italy immediately following, Syracuse once again became the capital of the southeastern Sicilian province permanently.
Syracuse was later used as a port for the “long fascist arm” aimed at Africa, and it became an incredibly strategic location during World War II.
From 1941 to 1943 CE, with the outbreak of World War II, Syracuse suffered numerous bombings, such as the sad event in 1941 when the liner Conte Rosso was destroyed, causing a severe number of casualties.
The Allies occupied the city between the night of July 9 and the day of July 10, 1943, through Operation Ladbroke (itself part of Operation Husky). Near the hamlet of Cassibile, precisely in the Contrada Santa Teresa Longarini (a few kilometres from the southern entrance of Syracuse), the armistice between Italy and the Allies was secretly signed on September 3, 1943 (to be made known to the world through the Proclamation Badoglio).
With the war over, the city experienced a period of reconstruction and new hope. In 2005 Syracuse was included by UNESCO in the list of World Heritage Sites.