Where: Selinunte, Italian island of Sicily
When: 650 – 250 BC
History: Rich city destroyed by jealous neighbours
Best sights: The Acropolis – ancient marketplace
Two hours south of Palermo lies a site which bears testament to Sicily’s importance in the ancient world – Selinunte. Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and surrounded by lush green countryside, Selinunte is the site of some of the best preserved Greek ruins in all of Europe. It’s name is derived from the wild celery known as selinon which still grows in the area.
What’s the history here?
Selinunte was once a thriving Greek city set in spectacular surroundings on the Sicilian coast. In its heyday, it had a population of about 25,000 – these days all that remains are the ruins of the acropolis and a number of tumbledown temples.
The city was founded by Greek colonists from Megara Hyblea, on the east coast of Sicily, between 650 and 630 BC. It quickly became embroiled in territorial skirmishes with the neighbouring Elami and Entella, and built a harbour in order to protect its interests. After a treaty was reached in 580 BC, Selinunte turned her sea-faring capabilities to trade, and swiftly amassed riches which were the envy of other nations.
The Cartheginians were particularly concerned at Selinunte’s new found wealth, as they didn’t want to be ousted from their position of control over Sicily. Selinunte, for her part, attempted to remain neutral in subsequent conflicts between the Greek colonies. Ultimately, in 409 BC, Carthage used some minor skirmishes between Selinunte and the Elami as an excuse to attack the town. Selinunte was besieged for just nine days before the 100,000 strong army of Carthaginians breached the walls and embarked on a brutal frenzy of destruction.
Selinunte was inhabited by Carthaginians for the next 150 years, but it never regained its former prosperity. In 250 BC it was razed to the ground by Carthaginian forces who wanted to deprive Rome of her prize for capturing nearby Palermo.
In the early 8th century a small village grew up around the ruined city of Selinunte, but was destroyed by a serious earthquake about a hundred years later. The ruins have remained uninhabited from this time, and since no modern buildings have been constructed above the ruins the site is of supreme importance to archaeologists studying the Greek colonisation of Sicily.
What’s there to see and do?
Selinunte is a spectacular site, evocative of the power and wealth of the ancient Greek civilisation. The temples at Selinunte, five of which are clustered around the acropolis, are identified by the letters A to G, O & M. Most remarkable are:
Temple C – Many of the metopes from Temples C depicting scenes from Greek mythology are on display at the Archaeological Museum in Palermo. This temple is located within the acropolis.
Temple E – Reconstructed amid much controversy in 1958, Temple E was originally built in the 5th century BC. It is thought to have been dedicated to the Greek god Dionysus. The more outstanding metopes in the Archaeological Museum in Palermo come from this temple.
Temple G – One of the largest temples ever built by the Greeks, believed to have been dedicated to Apollo, the sun god. Sadly, little remains of this apart from one of the enormous columns and a huge pile of rubble.
The acropolis was built on high ground overlooking the sea. Some parts of the ancient walls surrounding it remain, but the most part was reconstructed in 1927. The agora or ‘marketplace’ and two main streets have been fully excavated.
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