Relics of an ancient Greek colony

From the outside, the Syracusan cathedral?s 18th-century Baroque facade, with ornate Corinthian columns, two-tiered, undulating surfaces and finely carved statues, is an impressive architectural monument reminiscent of Europe?s not-so-distant past. Inside, the remains of an ancient Greek temple are said to be visible. Greeks once played a dominant role in the history of Sicily, formerly part of the southern Italian region called Magna Graecia, but as one stands in the broad, paved piazza facing Syracuse?s Duomo, ancient Greece seems far away. On entering the cathedral?s cool, shady interior, however, visitors familiar with Greek history are drawn back in time to Classical Athens and may even imagine themselves standing inside the Parthenon.

Doric columns strikingly similar to those erected on the Periclean Acropolis line the side aisles of the church, which seems to have grown almost organically around the ancient Greek temple, entwining its remains with new interconnective walls. Like the Parthenon, this Syracusan temple was built in the 5th century BC and dedicated to the goddess Athena. The long walls of the temple?s rectangular cella (naos) still stand but at some time were pierced with arched openings to create two rows of piers flanking the church?s central aisle. Athena?s temple originally had six columns across the ends and 14 columns down each side. Remarkably, its conversion into a Christian church in the 7th century AD, followed by modifications or larger-scale reconstructions in the 9th, 11th, 16th and 17th-18th centuries, left much of the ancient building intact. Unlike the Parthenon, no well-placed Venetian bomb ever brought ruin and decay. Still preserved both inside and outside the present-day cathedral are numerous traces of the original Doric structure, some seeming to emerge ghostlike out of the fabric of the later building, the temple?s platform exposed at the bottom, tall column shafts swelling slightly with entasis, elegant capitals supporting solid, square plinths, and in the surmounting architrave zone rows of triglyphs and other smaller details. Picking out the distinctive architectural elements, phases and alterations in this composite, richly preserved, ancient, medieval and early modern building presents an amusing exercise for specialists and laymen following the footsteps of the Western Greeks.

The Greek foundation and fluctuating fortunes of ancient Syracuse, today largely obscured by many centuries of later Italian history (just as materially Athena?s temple now stands cloaked by the later Duomo), form the basis of this once-powerful city?s fascinating past. Established in 734 BC by colonists from Corinth, the port city of Syracuse soon became Sicily?s foremost settlement, a cultural and commercial crossroads with enough military and economic might to challenge even Athens, Carthage and Rome. Visited by the Archaic and Classical poets Sappho and Pindar, occasional home to Aeschylus, who staged plays here, and praised by Plato for its strong, often authoritarian government, Syracuse was also the birthplace of Archimedes, the great 3rd-century BC mathematician and engineer who died ingloriously at the hands of the invading Romans in 212 BC. As Syracuse prospered, expanding its reach through the establishment of its own Sicilian colonies in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, the city repeatedly clashed with its North African neighbor, Carthage.

Syracuse also had a long history of governance by tyrants, including Gelo, Hiero, Thrasybulus, Dionysius the Elder, his son Dionysius the Younger, Dion, Timoleon, Agathocles and Hiero II. These strong leaders in Classical and Hellenistic times helped Syracuse maintain steadfastly its independence. Athens, too, coveted Syracusan resources but was infamously defeated during the Sicilian Expedition of 415-413 BC. Roman forces finally overthrew the city after a two-year siege in the late 3rd century BC. Later, following a stopover by the Apostle Paul on his way to Rome (ca. AD 59), Syracuse became a main portal for Christian influence in the West. Throughout alternating periods of Christian and Muslim rule, the culturally rich city continued to be a well-known center of learning and the arts.

Syracuse?s antiquities are visible today in two distinct areas: on the small, near-shore island of Ortygia (?Quail-island?), where the Greek colony was first founded, and on the opposite mainland within the Neapolis Archaeological Park. Ortygia, the heart of ancient Syracuse, contained the Classical temple of Athena as well as an earlier Archaic temple of Apollo. An unfinished Ionic temple of the later 6th century BC now lies inaccessible to the public beneath the Syracuse City Hall, adjacent to the Duomo.

The archaeological park incorporates the city?s enormous, rock-cut Greek theater once capable of accommodating about 15,000 spectators ? a capacity equal to that of the Greek theater at Epidaurus. Behind the theater are tall limestone bluffs laced with cave-like ancient stone quarries reputed to have been reused by Dionysius the Elder in the 4th century BC as state prisons. Dionysius also built a massive, 22 km circuit wall around Syracuse, much of which survived until 1870, when Syracuse ? now within a unified Italy ? no longer required such strong defenses and finally dismantled its age-old fortifications.

Fairest of them all

Cicero describes Syracuse as ?the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all…? He often speaks of it as a particularly splendid and beautiful city, as still in his own day the seat of art and culture (Tusc. v. 66; De deor. nat. iii. 81; De rep. i. 21), and in his speeches against Verres (iv. 52, 53) he gives an elaborate description of its four quarters (Achradina, Neapolis, Tyche, the island).