My favourite place: Syra­cuse

The lat­est in our his­tor­i­cal hol­i­day se­ries sees Cather­ine dis­cover the time­less beauty of Si­cily’s an­cient heart

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - by Cather­ine Nixey

Iar­rived in Syra­cuse feel­ing be­sieged. There is noth­ing re­mark­able in this. This an­cient lime­stone city, jut­ting with al­most in­de­cent beauty into the Io­nian Sea, has been the down­fall of many. The flower of the Athe­nian army was crushed here in the fifth cen­tury BC. The great Greek sci­en­tist Archimedes met his end here, at the point of a Ro­man sword, in the third. So too did the Byzan­tines in the ninth cen­tury… the list goes on.

Ad­mit­tedly, my strug­gle was not so dra­matic. I was not con­tend­ing with the might of the Ro­man army but merely with hordes of peo­ple. I was in Syra­cuse as a teacher on a school clas­sics trip and, as we marched groups of stu­dents through var­i­ous Ital­ian beauty spots, we found our­selves in the midst of crowds.

As we ap­proached Syra­cuse on that hot July evening, mur­mu­ra­tions of star­lings swirled in a deep­en­ing blue sky. Then, just as we got off the coach, one par­tic­u­lar bird sent a sign. This sign fell, and landed with unerring aim on the hand of a pupil. The omens seemed ill.

Still, Si­cily pro­vides good prece­dent for ig­nor­ing au­gury. Be­fore one third-cen­tury BC battle, the con­sul Publius Claudius Pulcher, ac­cord­ing to cus­tom, had sa­cred chick­ens re­leased from their cages. The birds had re­fused to eat – a ter­ri­ble sign that alarmed ev­ery­one ex­cept Claudius. “They can drink, since they don’t wish to eat,” he said, be­fore throw­ing the birds into the sea and sail­ing into battle. We too pressed on. And un­like Claudius, who lost his fight, my per­sis­tence was re­warded.

When we en­tered Or­ty­gia, the small is­land at the an­cient heart of Syra­cuse, I fell in love. Home to the Corinthians who set­tled on the is­land in 733 BC, Or­ty­gia’s great pi­az­zas and churches and vaulted court­yards are as­ton­ish­ing. I was amazed at how un­touched it felt, sur­rounded by bunker-like sea walls, in turn hemmed by the sea. These bar­ri­ers once pro­tected Or­ty­gia from en­croach­ing en­e­mies; in mod­ern times, they have pro­tected it from en­croach­ing su­per­mar­ket car parks.

In so much of Italy the past feels un­touched by moder­nity. But in Si­cily there is a lit­tle more past than usual. In the fifth cen­tury BC, when Rome was just get­ting go­ing, the ter­ri­tory of Syra­cuse was al­ready one of the most im­por­tant in the west­ern world, with a pop­u­la­tion then num­ber­ing al­most a quar­ter of a mil­lion peo­ple.

Ev­i­dence of this an­tiq­uity is ev­ery­where. In the great Pi­azza Duomo stands Syra­cuse’s cathe­dral. At first sight it looks like a per­fect ex­am­ple of Si­cil­ian baroque ar­chi­tec­ture. Look closer and you see mas­sive col­umns pok­ing, as though half-sub­merged, through its ex­te­rior wall. This was a tem­ple of Athena un­til a Si­cil­ian bishop built a cathe­dral over it in the sev­enth cen­tury.

To the north of Or­ty­gia is the city’s an­cient Greek the­atre, still in use to­day. Sit on its bak­ing stone steps, and you will see a sim­i­lar view to the one the au­di­ence would have seen while watch­ing the premier of an Aeschy­lus play here in the fifth cen­tury BC. Be­hind the the­atre, lies the vast quarry from which Syra­cuse was cut; the chisel

marks of Greek slaves still vis­i­ble on the lime­stone. It’s said that if Syra­cuse were placed back into the quarry, like a cut bis­cuit popped back into rolled pas­try, it would fit per­fectly.

To­day the quarry is cov­ered in or­ange and lemon groves but its wealth of caves were used to im­prison sol­diers cap­tured af­ter the failed Athe­nian mil­i­tary ex­pe­di­tion of 415– 413 BC, dur­ing the Pelo­pon­nesian War. One of the most im­pres­sive of these caves is the 23 me­tre-high L’Orec­chio di Dion­i­sio (the Ear of Diony­sius). Ac­cord­ing to one leg­end, King Diony­sius I of Syra­cuse used the cave’s im­pres­sive acous­tics to eaves­drop on the se­cret plans of the po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers he held in there.

This, then, is a city that be­witches. And it al­ways has done. Plutarch records that, be­fore the Ro­man gen­eral Mar­cel­lus sacked Syra­cuse in that third cen­tury BC siege, he “wept much in com­mis­er­a­tion of its impending fate”. Though, be­ing a good Ro­man, he still did sack it. Some good came of that. It is said that the Greek stat­ues Mar­cel­lus plun­dered from Syra­cuse were so won­der­ful that they taught Rome, for the first time, to un­der­stand the beauty of art. I can see how they felt be­cause, on that trip, Syra­cuse taught me to un­der­stand the beauty of Si­cily. Not to men­tion of Si­cil­ian ice cream. Cather­ine Nixey is a his­to­rian and writer. Her most re­cent book is The Dark­en­ing Age: The Chris­tian De­struc­tion of the Clas­si­cal World (Macmil­lan, 2018) Read more of Cather­ine’s ex­pe­ri­ences in Si­cily at his­to­ryex­tra.com/syra­cuse Next month: Nigel Jones pays a visit to Vi­enna

This an­cient lime­stone city juts with al­most in­de­cent beauty into the Io­nian sea

The an­cient ru­ins of the Tem­ple of Apollo, on the tiny is­land of Or­ty­gia, date from the sixth cen­tury BC

The Fountain of Arethusa on Or­ty­gia, the his­tor­i­cal heart of Syra­cuse, sep­a­rated from the main city by a small chan­nel

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