The afterlife of a Greek temple

The Duomo of Syracuse

Few buildings have as deep and as interesting a history as the Cathedral of Syracuse, built on the site of an ancient temple of Athena.

Joshua R. Hall

Wherever you go in the Mediterranean, the ancient world surrounds you. It may not always be evident as around two millennia of development has drastically changed the landscape, both natural and built. The Medieval and Renaissance civilizations of the region created many of the monuments that travellers seek out. But beneath a fair number of these lies a Greek or Roman foundation.

One such monument is the Cattedrale metropolitana della Natività di Maria Santissima, more popularly known in English as the Cathedral of Syracuse. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Syracuse, a Christian community that traces its history back to St. Peter, who supposedly founded a church in the city.

The cathedral stands as the most decadent and spectacular building on the aptly named Piazza Duomo. The building was originally turned into a Christian church by Zosimo, Bishop of Syracuse in the seventh century, who was later canonized.

Zosimo, however, did not create this new sanctuary ex nihilo. The new cathedral was built using structural elements belonging to the earlier temple of Athena, part of which was still standing. Although the church has gone through a number of changes, including its conversion to a mosque after the Arab conquest of Sicily, and the addition of a new façade in the eighteenth century, you can still see how the earlier Hellenic temple was used in its construction.

The most prominent reminder of the building’s Greek past are the Doric columns which are visible both within and without the structure. Their size makes them feel imposing, and it is obvious why Zosimo would want to reuse them in his new cathedral.

The temple of Athena

According to Cicero, it was “the most ornamented” of all the temples in Syracuse (Cic. Ver. 2.4.118 and 122). Notably, it contained a series of paintings depicting a cavalry battle fought by Agathocles, the Syracusan tyrant who led a daring campaign against Carthage in North Africa in the third century BC. All of these things, though, were stripped by Gaius Verres, the nefarious proconsul of Sicily against whom Cicero gave a series of orations.

While they still resided in the temple, however, the paintings of Agathocles’ cavalry battle were very fitting, as it was probably dedicated in the wake of a great Syracusan victory over the Carthaginians. It is generally thought that Gelon, an earlier tyrant, founded the temple as we know it, though an earlier one dating to the sixth century is attested archaeologically. This was to celebrate his destruction of a large (though not as large as Herodotus’ sources would like us to think) Carthaginian army which landed in Sicily.

The invasion was in support of the recently ousted tyrant of Himera, Terillus. Carthaginian leaders were sympathetic to his cause because of personal ties and seem to have invested considerable resources in this expedition.

A view of the outside of the Duomo of Syracuse. It shows the ancient Doric columns of the original temple dedicated to Athena. Photo: Joshua Hall.

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; transl. 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.

Thoughts on history

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.