Erice was originally known as Eryx and was built by the Elymians of western Sicily, who had their main city at Segesta.  In 415 BC the temple was rich in gold and silver which was used to trick the Athenians as to the wealth of the Elymians.  It would appear that originally there was an open air sanctuary or ‘temenos' dedicated to the cult of Aphrodite on the hill top overlooking Trapani.  This was later equated to the Roman goddess Venus.  Apparently passing sailors came here to embrace the goddess with the help of jerodulai, the temple priestesses who could act as prostitutes.  In 260 BC the Carthaginians wrecked the city, but what was left was taken by surprise by L. Junius for Rome.  Desptie a furious counterattack by Hamilcar the fortress on the crag held out until peace was made in 241 BC.  Diodoro Siculo, writing in the first century BC, recorded that Daedalus, the builder of the Minotaur labyrinth, had fled to Sicily where:

near Erice there was a cliff that was so high that the buildings around the temple of Aphrodite threatened to fall over the precipice.  Dedalous strengthened these buildings and surrounded the rock with a wall enlarging its summit admirably.  After this he consecrated a gold beehive to the Aphrodite of Erice, an extraordinary work that imitated a real beehive to near perfection.

There is a representation of the temple on a coin of the Noniano Considio of 60 BC, while Cicero (d.43 BC) only mentions the temple.  This suggests that the rest of the city may have been wrecked and abandoned by this time.

In the Norman era the crag was fortified using parts of the earlier sanctuary, however this does not seem to have happened until after the death of King Roger in 1154.  Edrisi, writing in the Book of Roger, calls the place Gabal Hamid and describes it as:

a huge mountain, superb... defensible, steep; at the top of which lay a flat land to sow, full of water.  Havvi is a fortress that is not guarded, nor is there anybody to do so…

This suggests that after the Norman conquest the place had been abandoned and neglected although there was obviously still something that might have been guarded.  After Roger's death this state of affairs changed and in 1185 Ibn Giubayr described it as:

a fortress of the Rum which is accessed from the mountain by a bridge... The Christians... have equipped this formidable fortress very well.

At this time the castle would seem to have been a royal possession called Mount St Julian (Monte San Giuliano).  In the 1220s there was still a large Muslim population here, although it was much reduced as Frederick II (d.1250) curtailed their power and expelled them to Lucera on the mainland.  Much later in the fourteenth century the castle was recorded as:

Mount St Julian with the Mediterranean castle also known as Mount Trapini (Mons sancti Juliani cum mediterranean castro alias dictu mons Trapani).

The castle, although apparently having a very pacific history, always remained a royal stronghold.  In 1312 King Frederick III (d.1337) was staying here when he ordered the building of the campanile next to the Trapini gate.  According to tradition the 9 Greek crosses on the external southern side of the duomo come from the temple of Venus on the castle site, while the building was commenced around 1315 when Frederick was staying in the city.

In 1561 Don Garzia Toledo, the viceroy of Sicily, and Don Carlo of Aragon, president of the Kingdom in 1576, stated that holding the mountain of Erice (San Giuliano) together with the cities of Syracuse, Messina and Agrigento, was one of the keystones of the Spanish Viceroyalty.  However the garrison of Erice was withdrawn before the end of the century.  The castle then rapidly fell into ruin.

Most of the objects from the fortress, namely inscriptions, statuettes, coins, bronze and ceramic fragments were found below the castle in the large area called Runzi.  According to Carvini's 1682 Erice Antica e Moderna, sacra e profana:

under the precipices of the fortress ... stone idols are quarried, or copper, or anything in gold, marbles and bricks, fragments of ancient vases, gems of rings with characters, candles of terra cotta of different shapes, small copper nails and large spears and cusps of copper arrows.

It seems these may have come from a drain where amphorae and vases of all sizes were cast for many centuries by the occupants of the hill top.  These are now held in the Pepoli Museum in Trapani.

NW of the castle is a large barbican with 3 square towers called the towers of the bailey (Torri del Balio).  This protected the egress to fortress by a deep ditch which was crossed by a drawbridge mentioned by the 1125-50 Arab traveller Ibn-Giubayr.  In the mid seventeenth century the castellan, Antonio Palma, filled the ditch and built the current cordonata with steps, inside the advanced defence works.  Around about 1872, the western crenellated curtain was moved backwards, isolating the ‘Towers ceded by the Commune to Count Agostino Pepoli' from the main fortress which was then operated as a prison.  This allowed for easier access to the castle from the west.  About the same time the 3 towers were restored or possibly even rebuilt.
Entrance to the main castle was gained via an inturned gateway in the west face of the enceinte.  This is dominated by modern Ghibelline battlements, probably added when the Torri del Balio was rebuilt.  An examination of the north wall, west of the entrance gate, shows many large blocks which may have been a part of the ancient temple and its enclosure.  Presumably this is reused work, rather than an original wall.  Over the hidden, slightly ogival arch of the entrance is a large block of limestone bearing the arms of the Habsburgs of Spain who owned the fortress from 1516 to 1735.  Above this is a mullioned window, over which is an ashlar machicolation protecting the doorway below.  A second mullioned window, similar to the first, opens to the north in a turret-like projection covering the gateway.  Beneath this is a garderobe exit, while immediately to the east is a rebuilt, thinner section of curtain. 

The entrance passageway, which contains Romanesque arches, makes a right angled turn up some steps and into the main courtyard.  Beyond this to the SE lies the site of the chapel, while built against the east curtain are the remains of the ‘lower prison'.  The castellans accommodation, which was described by the eighteenth century Carvini as large and sumptuous, was destroyed along with the adjoining buildings around the courtyard by the excavations searching for the Roman temple.  The W&N sides of the entrance all appear of the same build and have thick walls.

The NE portion of the site has much thinner walls, although one internal section appears to be similar to the gateway construction.  This polygonal wall has much Roman tile in it to the NE and shows evidence of having been rebuilt at least once at its NE extremity.  Over the defile to the south of this rebuilding is the so-called bridge and wall of Dedalous.  This has much large stone ashlar blocks in typical archaic style and similar to that found in the Temple of Diana at Cefalu, Eurialus castle, the surviving fragment of Palermo's town wall and in the basement of the Norman palace as well as at Segesta and Taormina.

South of the courtyard the the enceinte follows, with indentations and protrusions, the irregular polygonal shape of the cliff, making a ward running roughly 280' from SW to NE by 100' deep.  To the south was a tunnel leading out of the castle to the cliff face.  While at the south apex was a backless rectangular tower that might be Norman.  There is also a long masonry projection commanding the hillside.  In the western portion of this ward near the 20' diameter water cistern known as di Venere, an excavation of 1934-36 found a portion of the temple perimeter wall and a 2 colour mosaic. These are now lost.  Built within the curtain in an L shaped figure are a series of buildings thought possibly to date back to Phoenician times and connected with the cistern which might be of a similar age.

Why not join me here and at other Sicilian castles?  Information on this and other tours can be found at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2019 Paul Martin Remfry