In 2020 Agrigento has an unusual celebration – its 2600th anniversary.
Founded in 580 BC by men from nearby Gela, the city grew on the strength of its agricultural produce to become one of the most powerful in Sicily. At its peak in the fifth century BC, it held some 200,000 inhabitants rivalling Syracuse, the leading city on the island. In this period Akragas, as it was called by the Greeks, was famous for its wealth and for the beauty of its monuments which included some of the finest Greek temples in the Mediterranean world.
In 406 BC, Akragas was besieged and destroyed by the Carthaginians. During this destructive war the Sicilian Greek cities of Selinunte, Himera, Gela and Kamarina suffered a similar fate. Only Syracuse succeeded in holding out. In the mid-fourth century BC a period of regeneration took place during which Akragas was rebuilt and repopulated. While there was more destruction during the Punic Wars, once Sicily became a Roman province in 241 BC, growth and relative prosperity returned.
Akragas has fascinated archaeologists for centuries. One of the questions they asked was where is the ancient Greek theatre to be found? For surely a city on this scale and wealth would have built such a feature in line with other Greek cities in Sicily. A theatre was used in the ancient world not only to put on plays but also as a meeting place where the city’s leaders would address the people. It played a crucial part in civic life.
Intriguingly, reference to a theatre was made by Tommaso Fazello in his history of Sicily published in 1558. Fazello studied the ancient writers and rediscovered several of the ancient sites on the island, including Selinunte and Akrai. In his book he described the ruins of Akragas and mentioned examining the foundations of a theatre near the church of San Nicola. Generations of archaeologists who came after Fazello searched in vain for traces of the theatre, including Pirro Marconi and Alexander Hardcastle, who worked on the site in the 1920s. Hardcastle, in particular, became obsessed with the search, carrying out excavations to the north of the church of San Nicola.
Finally, in the autumn of 2016, foundations similar to those described by Fazello were unearthed, located to the south-east of the church of San Nicola, near the site of the ancient agora, in the Hellenistic sector. The first traces to appear were some steps of the upper cavea. Excavations have indicated a Greek-style theatre constructed in a semi-circle facing the sea with a diameter of over one hundred metres. It has been dated from the third century BC, in the Roman era, with an underlying structure from a century before that. In its style of construction, it has been compared to the theatres in Segesta and Akrai. Finds included the remains of theatrical masks and lamps.
It remains unknown whether beneath these structures will be uncovered traces from an even earlier period, specifically 480-406 BC, which was the golden age of ancient Akragas. In Sicily you never know, for it is an archaeologist’s goldmine. As Cicero observed, “Walk where we will, we tread on some story”.