by Jeremy Dummett

(Extract from Sicily, Island of Beauty and Conflict)

Segesta’s Greek temple, built on a hill overlooking rolling countryside near the town of Calatafimi, is one of the memorable sights of Sicily. It stands in isolation, apart from the remains of the ancient city, in full view for miles around. Over the years it has fascinated travellers, among them Guy de Maupassant, who after his visit to Sicily in 1885, described the temple as “all by itself, animating the entire landscape, making it alive and beautiful”.

Segesta, known as Egesta in antiquity, was the capital of a small Elymian state in north-west Sicily. The Elymians, who were established in Sicily before the Greeks, were allies of the Carthaginians. As the Greek presence in Sicily expanded, Egesta faced an increasingly difficult task in defending itself. An immediate threat was posed by Selinus (Selinunte), a Greek city on the south-west coast, whose territory bordered its own. In seeking to defend itself against Selinus, Egesta appealed for help from both Athens and Carthage. The temple was probably built for political reasons, during a period of diplomatic activity, to demonstrate publicly the sealing of an alliance with Athens.


The history

Before the arrival of the Phoenicians and Greeks in the eighth century BC, three different ethnic groups were established in Sicily, the Sicans in the west, the Sicels in the east and the Elymians in the north-west. The Elymians, who may have arrived after the fall of Troy in the early twelfth century BC, became allies of the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, who were based at Panormus (Palermo), Solus (Solunto) and Motya (Mozia). 1. Though small in numbers, the Elymians gave a good account of themselves, and through the shrewd use of alliances managed to maintain their independence through a particularly turbulent period in their history.

The Elymians founded three cities around 600 BC. Their political and commercial base was Egesta (Segesta) with its port, Emporio, (Castellammare) on the north coast. Eryx, (Erice) high on a hilltop on the west coast, was a religious centre, holding the most celebrated temple and sanctuary in Sicily, dedicated to the goddess of fertility personified by Astarte for the Phoenicians and Aphrodite for the Greeks. Entella, to the east of Egesta, was their military base.

As this small state expanded, it came increasingly into conflict with the Greek city of Selinus (Selinunte), on the south coast, with which it shared a border. In around 510, a group of Egestans and Phoenicians defeated an invading force from mainland Greece, supported by Selinus, who were attempting to establish a Greek settlement on the west coast. In this battle, Dorieus, the son of the king of Sparta was killed.

During the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century, when Athens and Sparta faced each other in a long and brutal conflict, Athens got drawn into affairs in Sicily. Fearing for its survival against Selinus, Egesta appealed to the Athenians for help. When Athenian delegates came to Sicily, they were taken to the temple at Eryx and shown its treasure as a potential contribution to the war effort. When the Athenians debated the question of sending an expedition to Sicily, Egestans were present in Athens, lobbying for intervention against Selinus.

The Athenians launched their expedition to Sicily, with the main objective of capturing Syracuse, in the summer of 415. As the leading city on the island, Syracuse was the key to Sicily. The Athenians’ secondary objective was to help their allies, including Egesta. The expedition was one of the greatest military operations of its day, initially involving 40,000 troops and a fleet of 134 triremes.  Soon after their arrival in Sicily, the Athenians learnt that they had been deceived by the Egestans, and that the promised sums of money would not be forthcoming. The siege of Syracuse lasted for two years. It was a hard-fought campaign, which ended in total defeat for the Athenians, with their fleet destroyed and their army annihilated.

Selinus, which had supported Syracuse in the war with Athens, took revenge on Egesta and inflicted a heavy defeat upon the city in 411. The Egestans appealed this time to Carthage. Seeing an opportunity to attack the Sicilian Greeks while they were still recovering from the Athenian invasion, the Carthaginians invaded Sicily in 409. After a nine-day siege, they captured Selinus, leaving the city destroyed, with most of its citizens massacred or sold into slavery.

By engineering the destruction of Selinus, Egesta succeeded in retaining its independence for nearly another hundred years. But by fanning the flames of war between Carthage and the Sicilian Greeks, the Egestans helped to release forces that would eventually engulf them.

The temple

The temple at Segesta stands on a hill in a solitary position, immersed in a wild landscape of rock and low scrubland. This position was outside the old walled city of Egesta which stood on the nearby Monte Barbaro. The Doric temple, with its 36 columns, 14 along each side, compares favourably in terms of architectural refinements with those of contemporary Athens. It is an exceptionally fine construction, designed by an unknown architect who was well versed in the techniques of Greek temple building. The columns are shaped so as to appear in perfectly straight lines when seen from a distance. To obtain this effect, they taper slightly towards the top and curve outwards in the middle, the work of expert craftsmen. Remains of other temples nearby indicate that the original intention may have been to build a group of temples as at Selinus. The building is thought to have been carried out between 430 and 415 BC during a period of diplomatic exchanges between Egesta and Athens.

The question that has long engaged historians is what made Egesta, an Elymian city, build a grand temple in the Greek style? While the Elymians did become thoroughly Hellenised in their culture, it still seems an unlikely step to take. Both the timing of the building, and its subsequent abandonment, point to the following conclusions. Firstly, that the temple was built to impress the Athenians of Egesta’s prosperity and secondly, to act as a public statement of the growing relationship between the two cities. In the face of the threat from Selinus, it was probably a way of openly declaring the alliance with Athens.

Following the defeat of the Athenians at Syracuse, the temple was never completed. Allied once again with Carthage, Egesta had no further use for a Greek temple, implying that the motive for its construction was political and not religious.

What is seen today at Segesta is the shell of a temple, with no cella, or inner room, no roof, an unfinished floor and unfluted columns. As the archaeologists confirm, these are clear signs of an unfinished building. The deity for whom the temple was intended is unknown and the temple may never have been used for worship.

The remains of the ancient city of Egesta stand on Monte Barbaro across the valley. These consist of a well-preserved Greek theatre from the Hellenistic period with Roman additions, which in its heyday could seat 4,000 spectators, the remains of an agora (marketplace) and a bouleuterion (council chamber). Fragments of the city’s fortifications indicate that the entire hill was originally encircled by walls, interspersed with gates and towers.

The city’s decline

During the Carthaginian-Greek wars which continued in the fourth century BC, Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, took his army to North Africa but failed to capture Carthage. Returning to Sicily, Agathocles turned aggressively to the pro-Carthaginian cities on the island to raise funds to continue his campaigns. He picked on Egesta, and when the city refused to co-operate, he took brutal revenge upon the population. Mass executions were ordered, wealthy citizens were tortured to reveal their treasure, while others were sold into slavery. The city lost its original identity, with its Elymian population dispersed, and new citizens forcibly brought in. Agathocles changed its name to Dikaiopolis (City of Righteousness). Shortly afterwards it reverted to rule by Carthage.

During the First Punic War, Egesta was one of the first cities to go over to the side of the Romans, who rewarded it with a privileged tax-free status, and renamed it Segesta. Under the Romans the city led a largely prosperous existence. In the break-up of the Roman Empire, it was sacked by the Vandals. The city declined in importance under the Arabs and was abandoned by the late thirteenth century.

Few cities have such an elegant reminder of their former glory as Segesta. The temple remains a symbol, for all to see, of the city’s short-lived alliance with the Greek world, an alliance shattered by the Athenians’ defeat at Syracuse.

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