In the end, however, it was unsuccessful. Gelon destroyed their army in the Battle of Himera (480 BC), one which would later be compared to Greek victories over the Persians. Herodotus’ informants from Sicily said it occurred on the same day that the Hellenes beat back Xerxes’ invasion in the Battle of Salamis, which occurred in September of 480 (Hdt. 7.166). Other sources, preserved by Diodorus Siculus, synchronized Gelon’s victory with the now famous Battle of Thermopylae, which occurred not long before Salamis (Diod. Sic. 11.24.1).
While it is possible that the Battle of Himera was fought on the same day as one of the those in the war between the Greeks and Persians, emphasizing this connection was part of a wider scheme of propaganda by the Deinomenid tyrants Gelon, and his brother and successor, Hieron. This can be seen plainly in the First Pythian of Pindar, in which the poet sung (Pind. Pyth. 1.75-81):Show The translation is that from Perseus.
From Salamis I will win as my reward the gratitude of the Athenians, and in Sparta from the battles before Cithaeron – those battles in which the Medes with their curved bows suffered sorely; but beside the well-watered bank of the river Himeras I shall win my reward by paying my tribute of song to the sons of Deinomenes, the song which they earned by their excellence, when their enemies were suffering.
This poem was commissioned by Hieron in celebration of both a chariot-race victory and of his family in general. It’s illustrative of how far these tyrants went to make their wars in the west seem as “great” as those fought by the Greeks in the east. The Temple of Athena in Syracuse can be seen in a similar way, and was a physical reminder of their success against the Carthaginians.
The Duomo of Syracuse, thus, has an interesting and long history. Most visitors will likely be aware of the reuse of the Doric columns, though perhaps not the deep history of the building.
While today the Holy Trinity, Mary, and St. Lucia are worshiped here, other deities have been so for centuries. An altar dating to the eighth century BC, discovered by Paolo Orsi in the early twentieth century AD, is evidence that this was a cultic site even before the first Greek temple was built here (that we know of).
What made this place such a hotspot for religious activity? The nearby Aretusa, a fresh-water spring which, without architectural protection would be washed by the Mediterranean, is a common-sense location for such worship, but why the altar/temple/cathedral?
It is a question that cannot be answered easily. Perhaps the original altar was setup where it was on Ortygia and as the city grew it became an ideal location for placing a temple. Maybe there is nothing intrinsically divine about the place, and it was only its location which made it suited for a building of worship.
Regardless of “why” the buildings on this site have been used to praise the deities, it is a constant reminder of the ancient past of Syracuse. While there may still be a Christian church on the site if the original sixth century BC temple was the only one ever built, there is reason to suspect that the reason Syracuse’s Duomo is where it is, and looks as it does, is because of Gelon’s victory over a Carthaginian army in 480 BC.
This one building is an important example of how connected we still are to the ancient world. While we often study the past as if it is a sterile laboratory, this is not the case. It is all around us, and we should be mindful that the events of the past, even the ancient past, continue to shape the communities in which we live and travel. Without the Battle of Himera, and the Deinomenids’ brilliant campaign of propaganda which resulted in the construction of the Temple of Athena, the metropolitan cathedral of Siracusa would appear much differently than it does today.