by Jeremy Dummett

Dionysius I was one of the great tyrants of the ancient world. He ruled Syracuse for 38 years, from 405 to 367 BC, which under his leadership became one of the most powerful cities in the Mediterranean. Dionysius was a genius in military affairs, an able commander who inspired his troops as well as an intelligent planner of campaigns. Early in his rule he fortified Syracuse so effectively that, unlike the other Greek cities in Sicily, it never fell to the Carthaginians.

Map of Syracuse under Dionysius

Syracuse under Dionysius I (Click on image to enlarge)

Dionysius’ first move on obtaining power was to build for himself a castle on the isthmus that separates Ortygia from the rest of the mainland. In so doing he established a pattern of fortification in Syracuse that lasted until the nineteenth century. Once he had constructed a secure base for himself, Dionysius went on to build elaborate fortifications around the city, including long stretches of wall and a well defended fortress, known as the Euryalus Castle, on the Epipoli hill behind the city. The Euryalus Castle was a military base to defend the city which did not include living quarters for the city’s rulers. The substantial remains of this castle can be seen today, see separate article on this website Around Syracuse – Ancient Greek Fortress.

What is known about Dionysius’ castle on the isthmus comes from literary sources and archaeologists, for there are no traces to be seen today. If there are any remains, they lie deep below the modern buildings on either side of Corso Umberto that leads up to the main bridge into Ortygia. As the sea level was lower in ancient times, the area of the isthmus was greater than that of today, making it more difficult to imagine how it might have looked.

Accounts by ancient historians

Dionysius seized power in a chaotic period of warfare, during which the Carthaginians captured and destroyed several Greek cities in Sicily, including Selinus (modern Selinunte) and Akragas (Agrigento). The threat to Syracuse was very real and in this crisis the city elected Dionysius as general with supreme power. He moved swiftly to consolidate his position, appointing a bodyguard for himself of 600 and executing his nearest rivals, the generals Daphnaeus and Demarchus. During the fighting it became apparent that Dionysius was more interested in building his own power than in protecting the smaller Greek cities. This caused the Syracusan cavalry to lead a revolt against him, plundering his house by the dockyards, stealing his treasure and violating his wife, the daughter of Hermocrates, the hero of the Athenian war. Once peace was made, and learning from the attack upon his house, Dionysius set out to protect his position in Syracuse.

The source of this information is the historian Diodorus Siculus, a Sicilian Greek, who wrote a history of ancient Sicily between 60 and 30 BC. His work was based upon that of earlier historians, including Philistus, a wealthy Syracusan, who supported Dionysius from the start. Philistus was rewarded by being made Commander of the Citadel. Later when exiled by an increasingly paranoid Dionysius, he wrote his history, which on events in Syracuse is likely to be an eye witness account.

And perceiving that the Island was the strongest section of the city and could be easily defended, he divided it from the rest of the city by an expensive wall, and in this he set high towers at close intervals, while before it he built places of business and stoas (civic buildings) capable of accommodating a multitude of the populace. He also constructed on the Island at great expense a fortified acropolis as a place of refuge in case of immediate need and within its wall he enclosed the dockyards which are connected with the small harbour that is known as Laccium. The dockyards could accommodate sixty triremes and had an entrance that was closed off, through which only one ship could enter at a time.

This was a major work of construction involving several different elements. A defensive wall was built across the side of Ortygia facing the mainland. The remains of a gate from this period, the Porta Urbica, can be seen today in Via XX Settembre which may have been part of these fortifications. Then on the isthmus, the stretch of land between Ortygia and the mainland, he built his castle, within easy reach of the fleet which was crucial to the ruler’s power. Dockyards filled the coastline on both sides of the isthmus. Within the castle he established his treasury and quarters for his bodyguards. The building was both a castle and a palace, referred to by the ancient writers as the citadel, the acropolis and the Rocca. It became Dionysius’ personal headquarters and the centre of power in Syracuse.

Citadel of Dionysius - map of ancient Ortygia

Fig. 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Little Harbour, Laccius to the Greeks, meaning basin, became enclosed by walls and was later lined in marble. At the end of the isthmus facing the mainland, came a further wall strengthened by towers, with access through the Pentaplon, or five gates. It is not clear where these gates stood or how they were constructed. It is likely that they led down the isthmus, one gate after another, designed for maximum defence. Beyond the gates lay the agora, the marketplace, filled with public buildings, statues and a famous sun dial, on the site of the modern Foro Siracusano. This was where Hermocrates was killed during his ill-fated attempt to seize power in the city after the Athenian war. (See Fig. 2).

Under Dionysius Ortygia became a military zone, the base for the tyrant’s mercenaries and supporters with no access for ordinary citizens. It is probable that a second castle or palace was built for Dionysius at the furthest point of Ortygia, facing the entrance to the Great Harbour, where the Maniace Castle stands today.

Further information on the castle, consistent with that of Diodorus, comes from Plutarch in his Lives of Dion and Timoleon. It refers to the years following the death of Dionysius I, when Syracuse was ruled by his son, Dionysius II. In one incident, Dionysius II leads Dion down to the sea below the acropolis and forces him to board a small boat, confirming that the location was close to the port. We learn that Plato, who came to Syracuse to educate Dionysius II, stayed in the citadel which had a garden attached. Another reference describes the military equipment stored there as follows:

These soldiers then took possession of the acropolis and of the tyrant’s fortress, together with all its equipment and military stores, for the place contained many horses, all kinds of artillery and siege weapons, great quantities of missiles, and arms and armour for seventy thousand men, all of which had been kept there for many years.

In Plutarch’s Life of Timoleon, the ruler who took control of Syracuse after the banishment of Dionysius II, we learn that the acropolis of Dionysius, being a hated symbol of tyranny, was demolished by citizens of the city led by Timoleon, despite the beauty of the building and the money it had cost to build.

Agathocles, who seized power in Syracuse after the death of Timoleon, built new fortifications around the Little Harbour. It is likely that he also rebuilt the castle on the isthmus for his own use. In the golden age of Syracuse, in the reign of Hiero II, a castle/palace on the isthmus was once again the ruler’s headquarters. It continued as such under the Roman governors, as cited by Cicero:

One of these (the four quarters of Syracuse) is the Island already mentioned, girdled by the two harbours, and extending to their two mouths or entrances. In this quarter is the house, once King Hiero’s, which our governors regularly occupy.

The Spanish fortifications

In the sixteenth century Sicily was a Spanish colony, fortified to repel the forces of the Ottoman Empire, which having taken Constantinople in 1453 was intent upon dominating the Mediterranean. The east coast of Sicily was especially vulnerable to attack, and fortifications were built in the port cities, including Syracuse. Two Sicilian historians in this period noted the remains of ancient buildings being uncovered by excavations on the isthmus to build the new fortifications. An Arab castle, the Castello Marietto or Marieth, which had once dominated the isthmus, was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1550s and its remains demolished by Spanish engineers.

Tommaso Fazello, a Dominican friar from Palermo, published the first printed history of Sicily in 1558. He recorded that during excavations on the isthmus in Syracuse, seven statues were recovered in 1530 together with a marble head of a man, with the following words in Latin and Greek: “To the killer of tyrants”. Fazello noted that 4,000 huge square blocks of stone, some black in colour, were uncovered, the foundations of a massive building, possibly the Rocca of Dionysius. According to Fazello, Hiero II’s palace was on this site, built on the ruins of Dionysius’ castle.

Map of ancient Syracuse

Fig. 3 (Click on image to enlarge)

In 1613, a Syracusan nobleman, Vincenzo Mirabella, published his reconstruction of ancient Greek Syracuse. It contained detailed descriptions of the monuments accompanied by maps of the city. Mirabella witnessed excavations on the isthmus which revealed the ancient mint. Tradition has it that the area became known as Monte d’Oro (Gold Mountain) for the quantity of gold coins found when excavating. Mirabella also claimed to have seen documents showing underground tunnels linking the isthmus to different parts of the city.

The Spanish went on to build elaborate fortifications across the isthmus, cutting a new canal towards the mainland, adding two large bastions and multiple gates. It became known as the Piazzaforte Borbonica (the Bourbon Fortress). (See Fig. 3).

These fortifications remained in place until the late nineteenth century when the Sicilians, at last in control of their island, set out to eliminate all signs of Spanish rule. Prints of the period, some of which appear in my book on Syracuse, give an idea of the scale of these fortifications. Particularly impressive was the Ligne Gate leading into Ortygia, named after one of the Spanish viceroys.

Nineteenth century historians

The late nineteenth century was the golden age of archaeology in Sicily. After Garibaldi freed the island from the Spanish Bourbons in 1860, Sicilians began to take a renewed interest in their ancient monuments. Archaeological museums, displaying the new finds, were established in Syracuse and Palermo. Ancient Greek Sicily became the subject of international interest, attracting many visitors.

Among the works from this period on the history and archaeology of ancient Syracuse, two are of particular interest. The first was published by the Director of Antiquities, Francesco Saverio Cavallari, with his colleague, Adolfo Holm, in 1883. It covers the topography of the ancient city based upon the evidence of the ancient writers. The location of Dionysius’ castle on the isthmus, according to Cavallari, provided the tyrant with two benefits. It meant that he lived close to the fleet, which was the basis of his power, reassured by being able to see the ships from his balcony. In addition, by dominating both the isthmus and Ortygia, he effectively dominated the entire city and put himself in a position to control the population. Cavallari’s description of ancient Syracuse, supported by maps, has never been bettered.

The second was by Edward Freeman, a professor from Oxford University, who spent three months in Ortygia researching his history of ancient Sicily, published in 1894. In Freeman’s day the Spanish fortifications were still in place, which he was convinced, had been built on the site of Dionysius’ castle. In his account of the Greek tyrants of Syracuse he described the castle as “a fortress and a capital within a capital” from which Dionysius controlled access to the Little Harbour where he kept sixty triremes. Freeman was also of the opinion that Dionysius had a second castle, situated at the tip of Ortygia, facing the mouth of the harbour.

The isthmus today

Darsena Montedoro, Syracuse

Fig. 4 (Click on image to enlarge)

Standing on the Umbertino bridge, looking up the isthmus towards the Foro Siracusano, site of the ancient marketplace, there are no signs today of these fortifications. The fact that the topography has changed significantly since ancient times, as the sea level has risen, makes comparison with the past even more difficult. The towers, bastions, high walls and defensive gates have all gone, together with the castles of the Greek tyrants, Roman governors, Arab emirs and Spanish viceroys, making way for rows of modern two and three-story buildings. Only the harbours remain, together with the backdrop of Ortygia, as a reminder of the city’s past glories.In a small section of the Little Harbour known as the Ribellino Port or the Darsena Montedoro, bordered on one side by Via Moscuzza, can be found a stretch of stone wall from Spanish times. It runs down one side of the little port, with a cornice down the centre, and is all that is left of the Piazzaforte. Taking the path that runs along the wall, gaps can be seen opening into the buildings above and footholds carved in the stone for scaling the wall, providing strong echoes of the past. (See Fig. 4).