The site of the ancient city, now entirely covered by the modern one, lies on the SE coast of Sicily and once comprised a small island, Ortygia, which has yielded evidence of prehistoric life starting in the Early Paleolithic period. The Corinthians, led by Archias of the family of the Bacchiads, routed the Sikels and founded the colony in 734 B.C. The foundation of sub-colonies--;Akrai in 664, Kasmenai in 624, Kamarina in 559--;indicate that the city flourished. Gelon brought to the city a period of splendor and political power. In the battle of Himera in 480 B.C., Gelon and Theron of Akragas won a great victory over the Carthaginians, while the naval battle of Cumae in 474, which Hieron I won against the Etruscans, ensured the city's control over the S basin of the Mediterranean. Arts and letters flourished; philosophers and poets, among whom were Aeschylus, Simonides, and Pindar, came here to live. In 466 B.C. with the expulsion of Thrasyboulos, the successor of Hieron I, the city adopted a democratic government and for ca. 40 years enjoyed prosperity and power. Successes against the Etruscans and against Ducetius greatly enlarged the city's sphere of influence and prestige throughout Sicily.
In the last quarter of the 5th c., in answer to Segesta's request for help by Leontinoi against Syracuse, Athens sent a fleet which was defeated in the Great Harbor. About this time Dionysios, an extremely able politician who had managed to concentrate all power into his own hands and who had negotiated peace with Carthage, transformed Ortygia into a well-provided fortress, and began the fortification of Syracuse, which included the large plateau of the Epipolai. After his death, the city lived under the rule of mediocre men until the arrival of Timoleon, who was sent from Corinth at the head of an expedition. He conquered the city and began the reorganization and rebuilding not only of Syracuse but of Greek cities that had been subject to Carthage. He was succeeded by Agathokles, son of a potter, who defeated (310 B.C.) and laid siege to Syracuse. He was successful also in Magna Graecia, thus securing for Syracuse a large territorial domain. After his death, the Carthaginians were fended off by Pyrrhos, king of Epeiros and Agathokles' father-in-law.
In 275 B.C. Hieron II seized control of the city and ruled for 54 years. He was succeeded by his grandson Hieronimos, under whose rule the city became an ally of Carthage and fell to Rome.
The city declined under Roman rule until Augustus sent a colony there in 21 B.C. The city's recovery lasted through the first centuries of the empire. St. Paul stopped in Syracuse on his trip to Rome, staying with the Christian community, which must have enjoyed considerable prestige in Sicily. Syracuse was served by two excellent natural harbors: the Great Harbor, formed by a large bay closed by Ortygia and the Plemmyrion (the modern peninsula of the Maddalena) into which flow the Anapo and the Ciane rivers, and the Small Harbor or Lakkios, delimited by Ortygia and the shoreline of Achradina. The five districts of the ancient city were Ortygia, Achradina, Tyche, Neapolis, and Epipolai. In Ortygia, which was supplied with fresh water (Arethusa fountain) and was easily defensible, the Corinthian colonists created the first urban nucleus. This must have soon extended to the mainland, in the area immediately beyond the isthmus, where another district was formed, Achradina, containing the agora and surrounded by the earliest cemeteries of the city (the necropolis of Fusco, of the former Spagna Garden, and of Via Bainsizza) which thus gave us the approximate limits of the district. Achradina early acquired a fortification wall. Tyche, the district which corresponds approximately to the modern S. Lucia, must have clustered around the sanctuary of the deity after whom it was named. Neapolis developed to the NW of Achradina, that is, to the W of the modern highway to Catania and as far as the Greek theater; in the Hellenistic period it received a complex of important public buildings of monumental nature and expanded into the area formerly occupied by the archaic necropoleis. Epipolai represents the vast plateau, triangular in shape, which extends to the N and W of the city and culminates in the Euryalos Fort. In the closing years of the 5th c. the plateau was encircled by a huge fortification wall that united it with the urban area solely for defense.
Ortygia retains vestiges of the earliest sacred buildings erected by the Greek colonists. The Temple of Apollo, at the point of access into Ortygia, goes back to the beginning of the 6th c. B.C. and has considerable importance for the history of Doric architecture in the West.
The temple, discovered in 1862 and completely excavated in 1943, was repeatedly transformed through the centuries. It has an elongated plan, a stereobate (crepidoma) with four steps and is hexastyle with 17 columns on the flanks. In front of the cella there is a second row of six columns; the cella, preceded by a distyle-in-antis pronaos, was divided into three naves by two rows of columns in two levels; its W end contained the closed area of the adyton.
The columns of the peristyle, all set very close together, lack entasis, and are marked by 16 very shallow flutes; they are surmounted by heavy capitals with strongly compressed abaci, on which rests an unusually high epistyle. The temple frieze had tall triglyphs and narrow metopes, which took no account whatever of the spacing of the columns. Fragments of terracotta revetments with lively polychrome decoration are also preserved. The lack of equilibrium among the temple parts, the marked elongation of its forms, the depth of the front of the building, the presence of the adyton, the lack of coordination among the spatial elements of the peristyle, are the most obvious traits of the architecture of this temple. An inscription on the stylobate of the E facade attests that the building was dedicated to Apollo and was the work of Kleomenes son of Knidios.
Another temple, on a small elevation S of the city, was dedicated to Zeus Olympios; it resembles the Apollonion but shows improved correlations among its parts. A section of the crepidoma survives, together with two incomplete shafts of the monolithic columns of the peristasis. The temple was divided into pronaos, cella, and adyton, and had 6 columns on facade and 17 on the sides. There are remains of two other impressive temples on the highest elevation of the island. Of the earlier, which was begun in the second half of the 6th c., the structures of the stereobate and several architectural members have recently been exposed. It is the only Ionic temple known in Sicily. It must have had 6 columns on the facade and 14 on the sides; it was left unfinished, presumably on the arrival of the Deinomenids. At the beginning of the 5th c. B.C., a second temple was erected parallel to the Ionic temple on the S. An Athenaion, it was probably built after Gelon's victory over the Carthaginians at Himera in 480 B.C. It was constructed within a large sacred area which already comprised sacred structures, altars and votive deposits dating from the beginning of the 6th c. The temple, hexastyle with 14 columns on the sides, contains cella, pronaos and opisthodomos, both distyle in antis. The building, constructed of local limestone and surmounted by tiles and sima in Greek marble, conforms fully with developed Doric.
The Athenaion was transformed into a Christian church and in the 8th c. Bishop Zosimo transferred to it the episcopal see; it is even now a cathedral. The transformation of the temple into a church required the screening of the intercolumniations and the opening of arches into the isodomic outer walls of the cella. Of the Greek temple, the facades are no longer extant, but clearly visible are a good deal of the peristyle (both from within and from without the cathedral), a segment of the entablature on the N side and the general structure of the cella. No other important ancient remains survive in Ortygia.
In Achradina, which must have been surrounded by a defensive system, almost nothing is left of the important civic buildings, for instance the stoas, the chrematisteria, the prytaneion, which are mentioned by the ancient sources. The only monumental complex partly preserved is the so-called Roman gymnasium S of the agora area. This architectural complex, comprising a small theater facing a marble temple and set within a large quadriportico, is of the 1st c. A.D.
Neapolis is the district preserving the most conspicuous complex of ancient monumental buildings, among which the theater is particularly well known. The form of the existing theater may be 3d c. B.C., but probably there was an earlier theater by Damokopos on the site (early 5th c. B.C.?) where Aeschylus produced The Persians and The Women of Aetna, and where Epicharmos' comedies were performed. What remains of the theater today is only what was cut into the rock of the hill from which this impressive and unified structure was almost entirely derived. The cavea, ca. 134 m in diameter, is divided vertically into nine cunei separated by klimakes and horizontally by a diazoma that breaks it into summa cavea and ima cavea. Each section, at the level of the diazoma, presents inscriptions, partially preserved, which give the names of the divinities or of the members of the ruling family to which the section was dedicated. The central cuneus was dedicated to Zeus Olympios, two of the sections toward E to Demeter and Herakles, and those toward W are inscribed to Hieron II, his wife Philistis, his daughter-in-law Nereis, and his son Gelon II. These inscriptions, which must be dated between 238 and 215, are instrumental in establishing a precise chronology for the building of the theater. As for the orchestra and the whole stage building, of which almost nothing is preserved above ground level, innumerable cuttings and trenches are preserved in the rocky scarp; they are variously interpreted by scholars and bear witness to the many alterations, adaptations, and phases of this part of the theater.
The remains of the stage, belonging to the period of Hieron II, are few and badly fragmented; it was probably of the type with paraskenia, as in the theaters at Tyndaris and Segesta. The interpretation of some markings before the stage of the Greek scene building (a long trench and a series of cuttings in the rock) has suggested the use of a wooden stage which might have been employed to perform phlyakes. More consistent evidence, especially the long foundation built with limestone blocks, further suggests a major alteration in the stage building in the Late Hellenistic period: the facade was probably provided with thyromata. In the Roman period the whole monumental stage building was moved forward toward the cavea. This move involved the covering over of the earlier parodoi, which were replaced by passageways in cryptae above which were built tribunalia. The theater was also adapted for ludi circenses and for variety shows during the Late Empire. A vast terrace overlooks the cavea and in antiquity housed two stoas set at right angle to each other.
To the W of the theater an altar, bases for stelai and votive offerings, seem to provide evidence for the Sanctuary of Apollo Temenites whose area was crossed by the last retaining wall of the theater cavea.
Not far from the sanctuary, a short distance to the SE of the theater, lies the so-called Altar of Hieron II. It is 198 m long and retains only an enormous rock-cut podium, with two large ramps leading to the central part of the structure where public sacrifices were offered by the city. The whole area in front of the monument was planned to impress: a vast square extended the length of the altar and hal a rectangular pool in the center; it was bordered by porticos with propylaia of the Augustan period.
The amphitheater, probably dating from the 3d c. A.D., is one of the largest known (external dimensions 140 m and 199 m). The entire N half was cut out of the rock, and the opposite half built on artificial fill. It had two large entrances to the arena on the N and S, three corridors leading to the steps, and a service passage around the arena. In the center of the arena is a large pool serviced by two canals. In the area of the steps a podium is bordered by a marble parapet inscribed with the names of the people for whom the seats were reserved. Outside the amphitheater a large area was flanked by retaining walls and provided with entrances, rooms of various types, and water tanks; it was connected with the S entrance to the building.
These monumental structures of Neapolis are bordered on the N by a series of quarries which provided the blocks for the ancient buildings. The so-called Ear of Dionysios, the Grotto of the Ropemakers, the Grotto of Saltpeter are famous for their acoustical properties and their picturesque appearance.
The Epipolai, the rocky plateau of roughly triangular shape which dominates the immediate hinterland of Syracuse, was incorporated into the city for defensive reasons at the end of the 5th c. B.C. At the time of the war against Athens (416-413 B.C.), only Achradina was fortified. Dionysios fortified the Epipolai between 402 and 397 B.C. against the threat of Carthage. He produced an immense defensive system: 27 kms of fortification walls deployed at the edge of the limestone terrace and culminating at its highest point in the Euryalos Fort, one of the most grandiose defensive works in dimensions and conception to have survived from antiquity. Three huge ditches were dug into the rock to prevent a massive frontal attack against the keep of the fortress. Between the second and third ditch a defensive apparatus was accessible by means of a stepped tunnel opening onto the bottom of the third ditch; from this moat, the veritable nerve center of the entire defensive system, a network of passageways and galleries branched off and connected all the various parts of the fort. At the S end of this third ditch rose three powerful piers which supported a drawbridge. In the space between the third ditch and the main body of the fortress is a pointed bastion, S of which are the remains of a structure linking the drawbridge with the fort proper. This latter is in two parts; the first is almost rectangular in shape, defended by five towers connected by wall curtains and protected on the S by a ditch; the second part, an irregular trapezoid, contains three cisterns for the water supply of the castle; it had the function of connecting the fortress to the main defensive system. To the NE of this section of the fortress a town gate with two arches, built according to the pincer system, was protected by towers and external cross walls which channeled traffic into narrow passageways close to the wall curtains from which defense was easy.
Not all the parts of this defensive system, brilliantly engineered under Dionysios, were contemporary but were gradually perfected through the 4th and 3d c. B.C. to conform with the changing requirements of the art of war. Transformations and adaptations were also carried out in the Byzantine period, especially in the rectangular section of the fortress.
The Archaeological Museum includes among its exhibits much material of the Classical period. (G. VOZA)
Info: Princeton Encyclopedia
(Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites, from Perseus Project)