Segesta temple interior

The interior of the Temple at Segesta

Segesta – what a beautiful name (pronounce the “g” like the “g” in “gem” and let the vowels run their course as is proper for an Italian word, especially the second “e”).

Today, that name is associated – for those who associate it with anything at all – with a particularly remote and evocative archaeological site embedded in a very beautiful Sicilian landscape and distinguished by one of the island’s most celebrated and problematic ancient monuments. I’d imagine that most ancient Greeks would have agreed with the problematic aspect, but not with much else (moreover, we can’t be sure how they pronounced that “g”).

The Segesta Temple viewed from the Acropolis.

The Segesta Temple viewed from the Acropolis.

Timeo danaos et dona ferentes (“I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts”), is a line in Virgil’s Aeneid, uttered by the priest Laocoön to warn the Trojans against accepting the wooden horse that is to be their demise. It is often quoted to express the traditional Roman mistrust of the Greeks. Whatever a Roman’s reason for saying that, a Greek would have been well-justified in saying “I fear the Segestans, especially when they ask for a favour”.

Segesta, located 11km (7mi) inland in the northwest of Sicily, was the main city of the Elymians.

The who?

Good question: according to ancient writers, the Elymians were one of Sicily’s three native tribes, supposedly with distant origins in the Eastern Mediterranean, who had settled in the westernmost part of Sicily at some point before Greeks arrived in the island and started founding colonies there from the 9th century BC onwards. Perhaps more so than their Sicel and Sicani neighbours to the east, where Greek-style cities and Greek culture soon became dominant and gradually replaced local features, the Elymians appear to have maintained their identity for a long time, retaining control of much of their area and placing themselves “between” cultures by frequently allying themselves with the Greeks’ Phoenician enemies and rival colonisers of Sicily.

View from ancient Segesta towards the coast.

View from ancient Segesta towards the coast.

The truth is that we don’t know nearly as much about the Elymians as we’d like to. Culturally, they appear to have adopted many Greek influences into their lifestyle, perhaps due to the integration of Greek immigrants into Elymian society and to constant contact with the Greek city of Selinus (Selinous), located just on the southern edge of Elymian territory and engaged in centuries of conflict and interchange with Segesta. The Elymians had a language of their own, written in an adapted form of the Greek alphabet, but it remains undeciphered to this day.

Segesta was certainly the most important city of the Elymians, perhaps the tribal capital. Historically, the city is most famous for its appeal to the Athenians for help against long-term rival Selinus and its ally Syracuse in 415 BC. Happening at the height of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, this event lured the Athenians into engaging much of their army in the ill-fated Sicilian Expedition, leading to disastrous losses and eventual defeat at home. Unperturbed by this, the Segestans soon decided to seek Phoenician/Carthaginian protection, triggering the 409 BC campaign that led to the destruction of the Greek cities of Selinus, Akragas, Gela, and Himera.

Part of the outer defensive wall of ancient Segesta.

Part of the outer defensive wall of ancient Segesta.

Later, Segesta was to become an early ally of Rome, as that rising power began to take control of Sicily. At the latest by that time, the tribal identity of the Elymians became undistinguishable from other Sicilians. Also, at some point during the Roman era, the city of Segesta was moved from its ancient location to one nearer the coast.

Today, the remains of Segesta are a site of remarkable beauty and considerable interest in a most strikingly rural setting, as no major settlement has occupied the location at least since the Middle Ages. For most visitors, the experience of visiting Segesta is dominated by two well-preserved, famous and widely visible ancient monuments, but in reality, there is much more to see – reflecting many periods of history – and there can be little doubt that much remains to be discovered by future archaeologists.

The ancient city proper occupied the summit ridge of a 415m (1360ft) hill now known as Monte Barbaro, enclosed by two circuits of ancient defensive walls which are quite well-preserved in places. Remains of private homes and public buildings have been excavated here and there in recent decades, including the large agora, the main city square and market, surrounded by the foundation of the stoas (colonnades) and other structures, among them ancient Segesta’s bouleuterion or council chamber. The summit of the hill is now crowned by the ruins of a medieval (12-13th century) fortification. Near it lie the remains of a mosque (the oldest known in Sicily so far), indicating the origins of the castle and illustrating the Saracen Arab domination of Sicily between the 9th and 11th centuries AD.

The theatre at Segesta.

The theatre at Segesta.

The most impressive structure on Monte Barbaro, however, is the theatre. Built in the typical Greek style into a hollow of the hillside, it originates from the 4th or 3rd century BC, but was probably expanded several times. It had seating for an audience of over 3,000 people. The theatre commands superb views over the adjacent fertile hill country and the coast far below. A cave immediately below the present structure was found to contain large quantities of Bronze Age pottery, indicating that the theatre occupies a spot that had been sacred already about a thousand years before it was built.

Several important sites are known to have existed outside the confines of the ancient city, around the foot of its hill. They probably include cemeteries and sanctuaries.

Exterior view of the Temple at Segesta.

Exterior view of the Temple at Segesta.

Only one of them is well-known and well-studied: the Temple of Segesta. Superficially, this appears to be just another well-preserved example of the great Greek temples of Sicily. Stylistically, it can be dated to the 5th century BC, and it is certain that Greek architects were involved in its construction. It has been suggested that the designer(s) came from nearby Selinus, or even from Athens itself, but that is pure speculation.

At first sight, it is a very fine example of a Doric temple, following the canonical proportions of 6 by 14 columns. The outer colonnade is fully preserved – it was never used as a quarry, converted into a church, or anything of the sort. It stands as it was built.

A view of the Segesta Temple from the Souhtheast.

A view of the Segesta Temple from the Souhtheast.

A second look reveals that the building was never completed: there is no evidence of a roof, the blocks of the crepidoma or substructure still feature the bosses or nobs used for transport, which ought to have been removed once in place, and the columns are essentially in the state in which they would have been delivered from the quarry, thicker than their intended shape and with no flutings. Scholars disagree on the key question whether the temple ever had, or even was meant to have, a cella or naos, i.e. the closed-off central room that would have contained the statue of the deity – not that we have any idea what god was meant to be worshipped here. Depending on interpretation, we are looking at a typical but unfinished Greek temple, or at a variation of that theme, designed especially for the (assumed) ritual needs of the Elymians while following Greek aesthetic standards. Personally, I think we are looking at an unfinished conventional temple, but it’s still up for scholarly judgement.

Eventually, Segesta is a place of great importance, great atmosphere, great beauty and great unanswered questions. That makes a perfect site for an archaeological tour, especially our Exploring Sicily, a 2-week exploration of that extraordinary island and its chequered past, with local, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman and Italian elements forming a whole historical panorama that is much bigger than its parts. Each of those parts is superb and together they make for an extraordinarily wide-ranging cultural experience.

If you find Segesta interesting, also have a look at our other posts about Sicily: Stupendous Agrigento (Akragas), The Dazzling Beauty of Monreale, Living on the Edge – Ancient Morgantina on Sicily.

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