Graeco-Roman city founded ca. 582 B.C. by Rhodio-Cretan colonists from Gela led by Aristonoos and Pystilos. The new city, which took its name from the river along its E boundary, stood on a steep hill defended on three sides by the abrupt drop of the natural (tufa) rock. On the S side the hill slopes gently down to the lofty ridge, on which the temples stand, and opens toward the sea. This natural position is described and praised by Polybios (9.27).
In its early years the city was ruled by an oligarchic government. About 570 B.C. it came under the tyrant Phalaris, who carried out an energetic military and political program to extend Akragan territory, conquering Sikanian towns of the interior and even threatening Himera. At his death (ca. 554 B.C.) Phalaris was succeeded by other tyrants such as Alkamenes and Alkandros. During the second half of the 6th c. B.C. the city gained prosperity by the production and export of grain, wine, and olives, as well as by the breeding of livestock. In this period Akragas minted its first silver coins, with an eagle on the obverse and a crab on the reverse. The city reached the peak of its military and political power under Theron, of the family of the Emmenids (488-473 B.C.), who ruled with justice and moderation, though he continued Phalaris' expansionist policy. He conquered Himera, provoking Carthaginian intervention. In 480 B.C. the Carthaginians were thoroughly defeated by a Greek army led by Theron and his brother-in-law Gelon. After this victory Akragas undertook a grandiose building program, including the Temple to Olympian Zeus and the system of aqueducts planned by the architect Phaiax. Pindar lived at the court of Theron.
A semi-aristocratic government followed the tyrants, and was in turn superseded by a democratic constitution; a notable role in this change was played by Empedokles. Until the end of the 5th c. B.C. Akragas enjoyed a long period of prosperity and splendor, disturbed only by a Sikel revolt led by Ducetius, who was defeated at the Akragan border around 450 B.C. The Akragans' wealth, enjoyment of life, and urge to erect splendid public and private buildings were so great that Empedokles remarked that his fellow citizens 'ate as if they would die the next day; and built as if they would never die.';
At the end of the 5th c. the Carthaginians, resuming their attempt to conquer Sicily, captured Himera and Selinus and marched quickly toward Akragas. After a long siege the city was taken in 406 B.C.; temples and shrines were burnt and sacked, the whole city was razed to the ground. For many decades Akragas lay abandoned; it was rebuilt and repopulated only after 338 B.C. by the new lord of Syracuse, the Corinthian Timoleon, who defeated the Carthaginians and restored peace and democratic governments in the Sicilian towns. Akragas' new colonists, who were joined by the former inhabitants of the city, came from Elea and were led by Megellus and Pheristos. In this period the city expanded considerably and enjoyed a certain prosperity. Between 286 and 280 B.C. it came under the tyrant Phintias, who tried in vain to restore the city to its former power. At his death, all hopes of freedom rested on Pyrrhos, who tried to expel the Carthaginians from Sicily and managed to conquer Akragas in 276 B.C. When Pyrrhos' expedition failed, Akragas came again under Carthaginian domination and suffered the conflict between Rome and Carthage in the first and second Punic wars. In 262, 255, and finally in 210 B.C., Akragas was besieged and occupied by the Roman army. From this moment onward the city disappeared as a political entity although under Roman domination it enjoyed a lasting peace and a notable economic recovery. It was repopulated by Roman colonists in 207 B.C. and again in the Augustan period. Under Roman administration Agrigentum was civitas decumana, though it retained civic offices of Greek type. In the Imperial period, besides its usual agricultural production, the city developed a textile industry and the extraction of sulphur; it also had an important commercial harbor, the Emporium, cited by Strabo and Ptolemy. With the spread of Christianity, the end of the Roman empire, and the subsequent Byzantine domination, Agrigentum rapidly declined. The temples were abandoned or transformed into Christian basilicas; the city area became progressively smaller and the hill of the temples was used for cemeteries and catacombs. When the Arabs invaded it in 825, the city was reduced to a village.
During Greek and Roman times the city occupied a large square area delimited by ravines and by a powerful circuit of fortification walls which, in their original form, probably went back to the 6th c. B.C. On the S side the wall follows a winding course to its SE corner, formed by the so-called Temple of Juno. In this stretch the scant remains of Gate I are followed by a powerful pincer bastion to block a canyon that provided easy access to the city. This bastion was formed by two ashlar walls meeting at an angle and defended by a strong square tower. Gate II, called the Geloan Gate, opened farther S; it was cut into the rock and spanned a road which, from the valley of the river Akragas, climbed up to the city between steep cliffs protected by walls; one can still see today the deep furrows made by wheeled traffic. On the ridge immediately to the W of the Temple of Juno stood Gate III, of which only a few remains survive together with the road level and the vehicle tracks. From this point the fortifications ran along the S edge of the temple hill and were partly cut into the natural rock. To the W of the Temple of Herakles was Gate IV, today called the Golden Gate. It was the most important city gate, and led toward the sea, to the Emporium; there are now no traces of its defenses. The walls continue S of the Temple of Zeus and the Shrine of the Chthonian Divinities; Gate V was in a set-back of the walls and was protected on the right by a bastion projecting ca. 25 m. Today the gate is blocked by tumbled masonry. Beyond Gate V other stretches of the walls have been brought to light, with postern gates and square towers up to the SW corner. Along the W side, the walls resume a winding course to Gate VI, probably a dipylon defended by two towers. Farther N Gate VII was also defended by towers and a projecting bastion. At this point the fortifications curved in an ample arc toward the E and then back to the foot of the acropolis. Gates VIII and IX were built in this stretch. The whole N side of the town was protected only by the rock scarp; to the NW it included the hill called di Girgenti on which the modern town is built, and to the NE the other peak called the Athenian Rock, which most scholars identify with the lophos athenaios mentioned by Polybios. Along the circuit of the walls, as if in defense of the city, rose the series of temples and sanctuaries which still form the greatest archaeological attraction of Agrigentum. Starting from the NE corner, on the slopes of the Athenian Rock, one sees first the Sanctuary of Demeter. In the center are the foundations of its temple in antis (30.2 x 13.3 m), on which, in the Middle Ages, the Normans built the small church of St. Biagio, partly incorporating into its structure the cella of the Greek temple. This latter dates from 480-460 B.C. and carried a stone sima with lion head water spouts. Along the N side of the temple are two round altars with bothroi, typical of the cult of Chthonian divinities. On its S side the sanctuary was closed by a long retaining wall; access to the temple was by means of two roads cut into the rock and still preserved with their deep furrows cut by the chariots' wheels. Nearby, but outside the walls at the foot of the rock scarp, lies another Sanctuary of Demeter, of pre-Hellenic origin. It consists of two natural grottos from which water flowed, and which were found filled with terracotta busts of Demeter and Kore. In the archaic period a rectangular building with inward leaning walls was erected in front of the grottos; it was probably a cistern that gathered the water of the caves and channeled it into various troughs on the outside. At a later phase the sanctuary was enclosed by a trapezoidal wall and the entrance was flanked by pilasters.
Another small rock sanctuary, with little niches for votive pinakes cut into the cliff, lies farther S to the side of Gate II. The temple hill proper formed the S side of the city; on its highest point is the so-called Temple of Juno (38.15 x 16.9 m), Doric peripteral (6 x 13). The conditions of the ground required the construction of a massive platform which increases the upward thrust of the building. On the N side the columns, the epistyle and part of the frieze are standing, but on the other three sides only the columns are partially preserved. The door leading from the pronaos into the cella is flanked by piers with traces of stairways to the roof; the opisthodomos was inaccessible from the cella. The temple is dated ca. 460-440 B.C., and was restored in Roman times. To the E of the temple lie the large foundations of its altar. Descending along the ridge, where the rock is honeycombed with Early Christian and Byzantine arched tombs, one reaches the so-called Temple of Concord. Its exceptional state of preservation is due to the fact that in the 6th c. A.D. the temple (to the Dioskouroi?) was transformed into a Christian church to SS. Peter and Paul. The temple (39.4 x 16.9 m) is Doric peripteral (6 x 13) and dates from ca. 450-440 B.C. Columns, pediments, and entablature up to the level of the cornice are still standing. The cella, with pronaos, opisthodomos, and piers, with inner stairways, now appears transformed by its adaptation to a Christian church: the rear wall is missing and the side walls are pierced by 12 arches; the pronaos shows evidence of its change into a sacristy and bishop's lodgings. The whole area between the so-called Temple of Concord and the next temple (of Herakles) is filled with Roman graves and Christian catacombs and cemeteries. The Roman necropolis contains heroa in the Hellenistic tradition, cist graves, and sarcophagi; the most notable structure is the so-called Tomb of Theron near the Golden Gate. It is a typical Hellenistic heroon of Asia Minor form, dating from the 1st c. B.C.; it consists of a square podium surmounted by a chamber with engaged Attic-Ionic columns at the corners, and a Doric entablature.
The Christian cemeteries lie around and under the modern Villa Aurea, with rock-cut tombs and catacombs formed by corridors with arched entrances and round halls adapted from ancient cisterns. On the crest above the Golden Gate stands the Temple of Herakles, perhaps mentioned by Cicero (Verr. 2.4.43). It is the earliest of Akragas' temples, datable to the end of the 6th c. B.C. because of the shape of columns and capitals, the elongated plan of the foundations (67 x 25.34 m) and the ratio of the facade columns to those of the flanks (6 x 15). It is a Doric peripteral temple, of which 9 columns still stand or have been re-erected, 8 of them on the S side. From this building come parts of the stone entablature with lion head water spouts (at present on display in the National Museum) which can be assigned to a restoration of the temple during the first half of the 5th c. B.C. Remains of the altar were found E of the temple. Beyond the Golden Gate one sees the ruins of the colossal Temple of Olympian Zeus, begun after the victory of Himera and left unfinished at the time of the Carthaginian destruction in 406 B.C. Its size (112.6 x 56.3 m) makes it comparable to Temple G in Selinus and the great Ionic temples of Asia Minor, e.g., the Artemision at Ephesos and the Didymaion at Miletos. Although Doric in style, this temple is unique architecturally. Over the foundations and the five-stepped crepidoma, in place of the traditional colonnade there extended a solid wall, strengthened at regular intervals by Doric half columns on the exterior and pilasters on the interior. Between the half columns, at mid height up against the solid wall, stood colossal statues of Telamons, 7.65 m high, with arms bent at head level as if supporting an architrave. One of these Telamons was reassembled during the past century and is now exhibited in the National Museum; it was originally lying among the ruins of the temple where it has now been replaced by a cast. The building was almost certainly hypaethral, but we cannot restore its entablature. We only know that the facades were decorated with sculptural representations of the Gigantomachy and the Fall of Troy.
At some distance from the E front of the temple lie the remains of the great altar (54.5 x 17.5 m), which was originally a platform supported by piers. Near the SE corner of the Temple of Zeus are the foundations of a small temple with a double-naved cella; its chronology is controversial (between the 6th and 4th c. B.C.). Safely dated to the second half of the 4th c. B.C. is a long portico set along the crest of the walls S of the Temple of Zeus; a trough filled with votive terracottas was found at one end of it. Another portico, of which only the foundations are preserved, separated the Temple of Zeus from the adjacent Sanctuary of the Chthonian Divinities. Excavation in this area revealed traces of prehistoric settlements going back to the Neolithic period. The sanctuary and its various architectural structures are surrounded by a wall that is still extant on the W side. The earliest monuments are on the S side of the sanctuary and consist of 8 round and square altars; two enclosures, each containing several rooms and two interior altars; three shrines with pronaos, cella, and adyton; and various bothroi scattered among the structures. During the 6th c. B.C. work started on two temples that were left unfinished and are now preserved only as foundations; a third temple was completed during the first half of the 5th c. B.C., and is now erroneously called the Temple of the Dioskouroi. Its foundations are preserved and, at the NW corner, a group of four columns with entablature, in a picturesque but incorrect reconstruction of the 19th c. which incorporated architectural elements of various periods. A few yards to the S are the foundations, column drums, and entablature blocks of a Hellenistic temple (now called 'Temple L';) and its altar. Very recent excavations E of this temple have uncovered a paved court and another shrine of rather complex plan, built in the 5th c. B.C. over an earlier archaic shrine. Another sanctuary, perhaps also of the Chthonian Divinities, has recently been identified at the W end of the hill, but the scarce monumental remains that have come to light (shrine platforms, a round altar) do not allow positive identification. A narrow valley lies under the N ridge of the Sanctuary of the Chthonian Divinities; it is perhaps to be identified as the 'Colimbetra,'; the reservoir into which flowed the waters of the Akragan aqueducts planned by Phaiax. Beyond this valley, on a small hill, stands the so-called Temple of Vulcan. It was of the Doric order (43 x 20.8 m). At present only the foundations of peristyle and cella, a few sections of the crepidoma, and the shafts of two columns remain. The temple dates from the second half of the 5th c. B.C., but it contains in its interior the foundations of an earlier temple in antis of the 6th c. B.C.; pieces of its polychrome terracotta revetments are now on display in the National Museum.
The Temple of Asklepios is outside the city in the center of the plain of St. Gregorius, almost at the confluence of the rivers Akragas and Hypsas. It is almost certainly the temple mentioned by Polybios (1.18) in his description of the Roman siege in 262 B.C. According to Cicero (Verr. 2.4.43) it contained a statue of Apollo by Myron, stolen by Verres. This small temple of the second half of the 5th c. B.C. is built on a high podium; it is Doric, in antis (21.7 x 10.7 m) with pronaos, cella, and a false opisthodomos formed by a solid wall decorated with two Doric half-columns in between corner pilasters. The remains of another temple, of the first half of the 5th c. B.C., lie in the center of the modern city, on the colle di Girgenti, under the mediaeval church of S. Maria dei Greci. The drums of six columns and 22.5 m of the krepidoma are preserved. It has been suggested that this is the Temple of Athena built by Theron, but excavations have provided no evidence to confirm this theory.
Two important archaeological complexes have been uncovered in the last twenty years in the center of the valley of the temples. One is the archaeological area between the church of S. Nicola and the new National Museum; the other is the Hellenistic and Roman quarter nearby. The first archaeological area is called S. Nicola after the beautiful mediaeval church next to it; here the famous Phaedra sarcophagus is at present exhibited. This masterpiece is attributable to an Attic workshop of the 2d-3d c. A.D. In the 6th and 5th c. B.C. the area next to the church must have housed a Sanctuary of the Chthonian Divinities; its scanty remains have been sacrificed to the construction of the new museum. Around the middle of the 3d c. B.C. the rocky plateau was cut into a semicircular cavea with low steps, which has been identified as the meeting place of the citizens' assembly, either the ekklesiasterion or the comitium of the early Roman city. It is an important monument because it represents the first public structure of a civic character to be discovered in Agrigento. In the 1st c. B.C. the cavea was filled in and replaced by a court, and at one end of it wasbuilt the famous prostyle temple on a high podium known by the conventional name of Oratory of Phalaris. It was once thought to be a monumental tomb, but the discovery of an altar with semicircular exedra has confirmed that it was a shrine. In the Imperial period this area was occupied by private houses of which a few rooms with mosaics are visible at the foot of the cavea.
Not far from the S. Nicola area, on the opposite side of the national road, recent excavations have uncovered a large section of the Roman living quarters, built on an earlier Hellenistic site with a regular grid plan which, on stratigraphic evidence, seems to go back to the 5th c. B.C. Aerial photography has revealed that the entire slope of the valley was occupied by these habitation quarters with regular plan. The road system of the area thus far excavated includes four long parallel cardines, ca. 4 m wide and separated one from another by ca. 30 m. The cardines end at the present state road, which in this section must overlie the ancient decumanus, as shown by sections of terracotta paving in opus spicatum one of which is preserved in place. The houses, aligned in rows between the cardines, are separated from each other by narrow ambitus and lie at different levels according to their different chronology. Some houses belong to the Late Republican period and have floors in opus signinum; most of them however belong to the Imperial period, with polychrome mosaic floors. Some houses have an atrium of Italic type, others the Hellenistic peristyle. They are all built with blocks of local limestone, and no bricks were used. Large fragments of wall paintings with geometric motifs are preserved. Among the most important are the Peristyle House, the House of Aphrodite, and the House of the Gazelle, now displayed in the National Museum. Among the houses there are also some tabernae and, on the surface, a few Early Christian or Byzantine graves which infiltrated into the quarter after it was abandoned in the 5th c. A.D.
Other notable monuments, though not easily accessible, are the so-called hypogea, subterranean installations of the Greek aqueducts of the 5th c. B.C. The best known are the Hypogeum Giacatello, to the N of the Museum, and the Hypogeum del Paradiso in the center of the modern city. They are large rooms supported by pilasters into which converge the galleries of the aqueducts. Outside Agrigento, besides the so-called Tomb of Theron and the already-mentioned Temple of Asklepios, are the remains of a small Early Christian apsidal basilica in the valley of the river Akragas, along the road that climbs to the Temple of Juno. A large monumental complex has also been discovered recently in the area of the modern quarter of Villa Seta, between Agrigento and Porto Empedocle. It consists of the massive ashlar foundations of a large quadrangular portico, probably with an Ionic colonnade as suggested by an extant base. It may have been a large public building or an extramural sanctuary of the Hellenistic-Roman period. All the archaeological material once in the old Museo Comunale and the finds from recent excavations in Agrigento and its territory are today gathered in the new National Museum near the church of S. Nicola, which also houses the Superintendency to the Antiquities. (P. ORLANDINI)
Info: Princeton Encyclopedia
(Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites, from Perseus Project)