A Greek colony founded by the Chalkidians of Naxos during the second half of the 8th c. B.C. (ca. 729). During the archaic period the city enjoyed complete autonomy and lived intensely both politically and intellectually. At the beginning of the 6th c. B.C. it adopted a law code drafted by Charondas.
From the early 5th century B.C. the city was under Syracusan control; in 475 B.C. Hieron invaded it, expelled the Chalkidians, and repeopled the city with 10,000 Donans; the name of the town was changed to Aitne. The Chalkidians returned there in 461 B.C. During the Sicilian expedition the city favored the Athenians. It was occupied by Dionysios in 403 and remained within the sphere of Syracusan politics. It was conquered by the Romans in 263 B.C. Throughout the 2d and 1st c. B.C. it was civitas decumana; it became a Roman colony under Octavian and progressively gained an importance that it retained until the Byzantine period. At the beginning of the war against the Goths it was invaded by Belisarius. The Emperor Maurice Tiberius (582-602) established a mint there which functioned for ca. 50 years. It was one of the earliest and most important Christian communities in Sicily, as attested by rich and interesting epigraphic material.
The first Greek colony must have settled on the hill that always remained the city's acropolis, presently occupied by the Benedictine monastery. The area has yielded proto-Corinthian sherds slightly later than the foundation date. In 1959 a chance find led to the fortunate discovery of a rich votive deposit (6th-4th c. B.C.) at the foot of the S side of the acropolis, in the Piazza di San Francesco; the deposit was probably connected with a sanctuary of Demeter.
During the Roman period the city must have expanded considerably toward S and E into the plain. The major civic monuments belong to this phase. The theater, which together with the nearby odeion rests against the S slope of the acropolis hill, has been recently cleared of the modern structures that crowded over the cavea and the area of the stage building. Of the original Greek construction only a large wall remains under the level of the cavea; the extant portions of the building date from the Roman period. The cavea was divided into nine cunei by means of eight stairways, and its lower section rests against the slope of the hill, while the upper section is supported by three concentric corridors which give access to the seats; the uppermost corridor opens outwards into a portico with piers. In the interior, a colonnaded portico crowned the cavea; orchestra and seats were revetted with white marble, while the euripos and the stairways were built of lava.
The odeion was joined to the W side of the theater, and its orchestra opened toward the S at the same level as the theater's uppermost corridor. The cavea, built in small blocks of lava, was supported by a structure resting on 18 radial walls sloping toward the interior of the building and connected to one another by a series of barrel vaults; two stairways divide the auditorium into three cunei. The radial walls formed 17 units opening outwards. The building, revetted by lava blocks, was crowned by a simple cornice.
On the NE slope of the hill of the acropolis and separated from it by a narrow passage was the amphitheater; its N end is partly visible in Piazza Stesicoro, while to the S its corridors lie under the foundations of modern buildings. The preserved portion of the amphitheater is built on two concentric corridors connected by radial passageways.
There are numerous remains of baths. Under the cathedral some units of the Achellian Baths are still visible, their vaults finely decorated with stucco reliefs; a large square hall supported by four pilasters and flanked by a corridor is still preserved; the building continues under the level of present Piazza Duomo. Not far from there other baths (Terme dell'Indirizzo) in the Piazza Curro, with ca. 15 units, both large and small, are preserved up to their original height including their vaulted ceilings. On the acropolis hill, to the N of the theater, one can see the Rotunda Baths, so called because of a large circular hall that was later transformed into a Christian church. To a bath complex belong the ruins of seven rooms in Piazza Dante, opposite the Benedictine monastery. Remains of many other buildings of this type have been identified within the city area.
Under the level of the Via V. Emanuele, where it meets the Via Transito, lies a large rectangular podium delimited by two steps and a fine molding, which local tradition calls the Arch of Marcellus. There are numerous remains of a large aqueduct which brought the waters from S. Maria di Licodia.
The NE border of the city must have coincided with the edges of the acropolis, and with the approximate course of the Via Plebescito and the Via Etnea (S of the Piazza Stesicoro). This is shown by the fact that within this line only structures of a civic nature have been found, while outside of it lie several funerary buildings and cemetery areas.
In the N section, a large rectangular tomb of the Roman period is preserved near the Via Ipogeo, while another is to be found in the Modica estate, along the Viale Regina Margherita. To the NE of the amphitheater, within the present caserina Lucchese-Palli, is the so-called Tomb of Stesichoros, a funerary structure probably belonging to the Classical period. A group of graves of Roman date is preserved in the basement of the Rinascente store, and represents a portion of the cemetery complex uncovered in the Via S. Euplio and extending up to the area presently occupied by the Post Office building. A subterranean tomb with remains of inhumation and cremation can also be seen in Via Antico Corso, where it is incorporated into one room of the building erected by the Istituto delle Case Popolari.
The most important group of graves has been uncovered along the Via Androne and in the area crossed by Via Dottor Consoli. The continuity of this burial ground is attested from the Hellenistic into the late Roman period, and offers a good example of a pagan necropolis which slowly became transformed into a Christian cemetery. It contains numerous mausolea, cist graves, hypogaean (underground) chambers; a grave with wall paintings and barrel vault is preserved under the level of Via Dottor Consoli. In some places the graves were contained within precincts surrounded by low walls and interconnected: these were mostly graves characterized by an abundance of Christian inscriptions; in some precincts the graves were built above ground level in several stories.
In the largest precinct yet discovered, along the Via Dottor Consoli, an Early Christian funerary basilica was found superimposed on the level of the graves; a large polychrome mosaic with figured scenes covered the floor. The mosaic (20 x 10 m), which is at present in the Museo Comunale, can be dated to the middle of the 6th c. A.D., and is to be attributed to an Oriental workshop. Of the basilica only the apse is preserved, and can be seen under the Lombardo dwelling.
To the same period can be attributed a large trichora uncovered and preserved under Via S. Barbara, and the small Basilica of Nesima.
The finds from excavations and accidental discoveries within the city of Catania are housed in the Museum of Castello Ursino, where are also gathered the collections once in the Museo Biscari, the Benedictine Museum, and the Antiquarium Comunale. (G. RIZZA)
Info: Princeton Encyclopedia
(Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites, from Perseus Project)