Syracuse is a city with an extraordinary history. It was founded in 733 BC by settlers from Corinth, one of the most powerful Greek city-states. The Corinthian colonisers were just the first wave of Greeks to be lured to Sicily, and they quickly established a flourishing Hellenic culture on the island, as well as building extensive trade with the rest of the Mediterranean. Syracuse grew in size and wealth and became one of the richest, most powerful cities in the region.
This made it a very conspicuous target for would-be conquistadores. Over its 2,700-year history, it survived numerous attacks, sieges and capitulations. In around 400 BC it reached the peak of its power. First though it had to defeat Carthage, a powerful rival across the sea in Tunisia. This was no mean feat, after all this was the civilisation that gave birth to Hannibal and, in later centuries, went head-to-head with the might of Rome, like two prize fighters slugging it out.
In 480 BC, Carthage was sent packing back to North Africa, leaving Syracuse in peace, at least temporarily. It was only towards the end of the century that Syracuse did the seemingly impossible by defeating a powerful invasion fleet sent from Athens in 415 BC. Despite being fellow Greeks, the Athenians envied Syracuse’s wealth and power, waging war against them and their allies, Sparta and Corinth. After the invasion was defeated Syracuse became the most powerful city in the Mediterranean.
Over the next 200 years Greek culture thrived, Syracuse became a centre of learning and, to the north, the power of Rome grew. All good things must come to an end and, in the 2nd century BC , the Romans conquered Syracuse from the Greeks. The price was high. The city was home to the greatest mathematician of Antiquity, Archimedes, and although he’d used his genius to defend the city, the Roman commander gave an order that he shouldn’t be harmed. Tragically, the order was ignored and he was killed.
Roman rule would last several more centuries, but they never tried to rid the island of its Greek heritage. Which may be one of the reasons why Sicily continues to feel a bit different to the rest of Italy. Today, this ancient history can still be found in abundance in Syracuse, even if the centuries have worn away many remnants of Greco-Roman life. Perhaps most significantly, the earthquake of 1693 destroyed almost every building in the city, and when it was rebuilt it took on its new Baroque personality.
On our second morning in town we woke to grey skies and rain. It was warm enough to have breakfast outside overlooking the Temple of Apollo, one of Greek Syracuse’s great temples, and as we ate the clouds cleared and the sun came out again. We were leaving the island of Ortygia and venturing into the modern town of Syracuse (dreary modern buildings, terrible traffic and great ice cream parlours), and then to the truly wondrous Parco Archeologico Neapolis.
The wealth of ancient buildings is breathtaking, as is the utter lack of care they seem to have received over recent years. I know Italy has had a bad few years economically, and that they have an abundance of historic structures to conserve, but it was a shock to see the dereliction of parts of the site. The Roman amphitheatre was overgrown, the path around it falling to pieces and closed beyond a certain point. There were plenty of staff ‘working’ there, their main job seemed to be standing around doing nothing.
We wandered around trying to interpret the faded information boards and trying to work out where our €10 entrance fee was being spent. It certainly wasn’t being used to maintain the 2,700 years of history on display. To compound matters, the museum was closed. We finally reached the site of the ancient Greek theatre, which is magnificent and has splendid views out to sea. Afterwards we visited the old quarry and the vast man made cave known as Dionysius’s Ear.
The ancient history of Syracuse was palpable. Sadly, without much needed care and attention, I’m not sure it’ll be possible to say that in a few years’ time. We wandered back to the modern town for ice cream and then to explore more of Ortygia. In the morning our destination would be the Baroque glories of Noto.