Ancient Sicily (Western Edition)

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Sicily sits at the heart of the Mediterranean. It has been a crossroads of this region since before history. “Sicily was inhabited 10,000 years ago. Its strategic location in the center of the Mediterranean has made the island a crossroad of history, a pawn of conquests and empires, and a melting pot for more than a dozen ethnic groups, whose warriors or merchants sought its shores.” 

Some of the best preserved ancient Greek temples still stand in Sicily. We visited temples at Agrigento and Segesta, both in western Sicily.


In the time of the Greek colonists, what is today Agrigento was called Akragas. This is when these temples were built.

When we think of the glories of ancient Greece, we think of the fifth-century BCE Athens of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle; of the Spartans; and of fourth-century Alexander the Great. But at the same time that Athens was at its height, Akragas was a prosperous influential place. During this period (582 – 406 BCE), Akragas grew from a small settlement to a large city state with a population of over 200,000 inhabitants.

Initially, its prosperity came from its role as producer of grains, olives and livestock for the surrounding Mediterranean region. Then, soon after 480 BCE, Akragas beat the Carthaginians in a little war; the Carthaginians had to pay Akragas to settle the conflict. The leaders of Akragas used a portion of that money to erect some of the splendid temples we see today. 

The citizens of Akragas, just like their rivals in Athens, were very proud of themselves. They wanted to build grand temples for two main reasons. First, they wanted to attract the gods to come stay a while. At this time, Greeks believed that the gods really did come live in the temples built for them. Not all the time, but occasionally. The grander the temple-home, the more lavish the decoration, and certainly the more fervent the devotion, the more time the gods would spend in the local temple. We think of all this as abstract, metaphorical. But for the ancient Greeks, these residents were literal.

The second reason to construct such temples was to trumpet the power and sophistication of the city of Akragas. They chose a ridge between the town and the water to array the temples. People aboard passing ships could easily see the grand structures. The temples we see today are monochrome: the color of sand and the local earth. Not the white marble of the temples in Athens. But the Athenian temples and these at Agrigento were, in antiquity, painted vivid colors. Vibrant decorations made the gods happy, and made the temples stand out against the dry hills behind them.

Before our outing to Agrigento, we visited a wonderful archeological museum in Palermo: the Antonino Salinas Regional Archeological Museum. It possesses one of the richest collections of Punic and Ancient Greek art in Italy, as well as many items related to the history of Sicily. Some of the artifacts and exhibits show what the ancient Greek temples of Sicily might have looked like. Here are some examples. (They aren’t specifically from Agrigento or Segesta; most are from another contemporaneous Western Sicilian site that we did not visit: Selinunte.) Then, in your mind’s eye, you can overlay these images over our photos of the temples as they are today — like your own augmented-reality headset.

There is a total of 8 temples here, plus quite a few other remains of residential areas, necropolises, civic structures and sanctuaries.

Temple of Hera Lacinia (Juno), around 450 BCE (1 on the map)

The building, constructed in the Doric order, was built sometime in the middle of the fifth century BC and features a base of four steps upon which stand six columns on the short sides and thirteen on the long sides. The temple’s interior is divided into the portico at the entrance, the naos [central room with the shrine of the deity] and the opisthodomos, [which is] the rear room, with the portico and opisthodomos framed by two columns…. It is possible that the temple sustained severe fire damage during the Carthaginian conquest in 406 BC, the signs of which can still be seen on the walls of the naos.

Temple of Concordia 440-430 BCE (2)

The building, constructed in the Doric order, was built around the second half of the fifth century BC and features a base of four steps upon which stand six columns on the short sides and thirteen on the long sides. It is unique among the temples in the Agrigento area in that it has retained almost all of its entablature and the two capitals on the east and west sides.

Temple of Olympian Zeus 480 BCE (8)

The ruins of the temple of Olympian Zeus bear testament to one of the largest Doric temples of classical antiquity. Unfortunately, the area – likely already damaged by earthquakes in the past – was used as a quarry in the Middles Ages (the cava gigantum cited in archival documents) and in the 1700s became the site of the harbour of Porto Empedocle.

According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, construction began immediately after the great victory of the Greek cities of Sicily over the Carthaginians in the battle of Himera in 480 BC.

Outside the temple, huge statues of Giants (Atlases), each around eight metres tall and frozen in the act of supporting the entablature of the temple with sheer strength, were positioned in the spaces between the half-columns on platforms measuring around eleven metres.

Temple of Castor and Pollux 480-460 BCE (10)

In the southernmost part of this area stands the so-called Temple of Castor and Pollux, one of the most characteristic ruins of the Valley of the Temples thanks to the partial reconstruction (the four columns on the north-west side) carried out by the Sicilian Commission of Antiquity between 1836 and 1852 using architectural elements of various periods and origins.


This is another significant site of ancient structures. The origins of this settlement are not well known. One legend has it that ancient Trojans settled here around the time of the famous war (somewhere between 1210 and 1180 BCE). By the 5th century BCE, Segesta was at least partially a Greek city. This time is contemporaneous with Athen’s golden age of Socrates, the Parthenon, and its fledgeling democracy.

Why is there a doric temple in this particular place? The temple was built around 420 BCE. This was the time of Segesta’s greatest prosperity and importance in the region. It was rich in wine, corn, wool, walnuts, wool and olives. While situated inland, a port with a trading emporium was not far away. Like at Akragas, an important town wanted to attract an important god or two, and to show off its worldly and heavenly power. Doric-style temples, like the Parthenon in Athens, were in style. 

Scholars have debated a great deal about the deity to whom the temple was dedicated. Some attribute it to Ceres, while for others it is a temple dedicated to Diana and still others believe that it was dedicated to Venus. It is certain, however, according to Cicero (“In Verrem”, IV), that there existed a temple of Diana in Segesta, and inside there was the statue of the goddess. (source)

Curiously, the temple was never completed. Perhaps a Carthaginian conquest put an end to its construction. Nonetheless, this temple is now one of the best-preserved Classical monuments in the world.

There’s also a wonderful ancient theater at Segesta.

We say “wonderful” because of its splendid setting. The audience faces the stage as well as a vast panorama of natural Sicily. The  theater that we visit today dates from the 2nd century BCE. In the Greek tradition, the back wall of the stage would have been a one-story decorated wooden construction. The Segestans must have taken their view for granted. We wouldn’t have wanted to block the panorama! To this day, musical and theatrical productions are presented in this ancient theater. 

Osteria Lo Bianco

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