The main gate of Syracuse on the island of Ortigia as uncovered by excavation.

Syracuse was founded in 734 BC on the island of Ortigia as an important Corinthian colony and soon became a powerful city state in its own right.  As it expanded the urban area passed beyond the island and onto the mainland, forming 4 new districts, Akradina, Tyche, Neapolis and Epipolis, making Syracuse Pentapolis - the city of 5 cities.  By the fifth century BC most of the important public buildings were built, viz. the temples of the gods on Ortigia (Apollo, Artemis and Athena), as well as the temple of Zeus and the theatre in Neapolis (the new city).  In the fifth century BC Syracuse also became heavily involved in the politics of the Mediterranean which led to fighting with Athens and Carthage, usually in alliance with the Spartans.  As one consequence of this in 415 BC Athens, possibly attempting to conquer all Sicily, launched an attack on Syracuse and besieged the city for 2 years, during which time they built a wall across the Epipolis plateau in an attempt to isolate the city from the rest of Sicily.  This almost proved successful, but their army was defeated and destroyed in 413 BC.

At the end of the fifth century Dionysios (d.367 BC) became the face of Syracuse.  He had fought in the Punic war that had began in 409 and was elected military commander in 406 BC.  He subsequently made himself a tyrant by increasing his bodyguard until his position was unassailable, seizing full power in the city during 405 BC.  Three years later he decided to convert the undefended city, lying on 5 low undulating hills, into the most fortified city in the known world.  The defences he had built exceeded even those of the Servian walls of Rome.  The walls of Syracuse were commenced in 402 BC, when Dionysios moved much of the population down towards Ortigia island.  When they were finished in 397 BC they were thought the most powerful in the known world and they successfully resisted both Carthaginian and Roman expansion for 200 years.  The historian Diodorus (d.c.27BC) recorded that Dionysios used 60,000 peasants (an impossible number), divided into work gangs of 200 to build the northern side of his fortification in a mere 20 days.  Such claims are of course fanciful, especially when it is known that the work of fortifying the whole plateau took 6 years, though the work gangs of 200 men and they use of 6,000 oxen seems more acceptable.  What might also be correct is Diodorus' claim that the northern works were 30 stades long (a stade being 600 Greek feet), ie. about 18,000'.  The actual distance of the wall is 18,300', ie. about half a stade more than Diodorus estimated.  His statement that the wall was made of carefully laid 4' long blocks is also accurate.  Later Strabo estimated that the walls were 180 stades in length, ie. 108,000 feet or a little over 20 miles.  This is about 7 miles too long.

Syracuse was the capital of the theme of Sicily and resisted Muslim attack until the campaign of 877.  After its protecting forts were taken the city was heavily besieged until it was finally stormed on 21 May 878, the population being massacred or sold into slavery and the site systematically looted for 2 months. 
Despite this, the fortifications were repaired and became the major stronghold of Emir Bernavert.  In 1085 Count Roger Hauteville (d.1101) besieged the city from land and sea, killing the Emir in a sea battle on 25 May 1085.  That October the city finally surrendered, Bernavert's widow and children fleeing to Noto.

The city of Ortigia, but not the Dionigian walls, were still fortified under King Charles (d.1285), who had 12 knights defending the city in May 1272, while there was only one in Maniace castle.

The city walls have mostly gone, but some remains can be seen on Ortigia above the marina to the west, while the best preserved section, the Dionigian walls, stand towards Eurialus castle at the apex of the raised Epipolis plateau.  The defences were some 13 miles long and had at least 14 towers, including Eurialus castle.  If the defences of Ortigia are added to this it made a grant total of 17 miles of defensive walling.  The largest of the towers was 28' square, while the defences varied from place to place which meant that the wall thickness altered from 10' to 17½' thick, while the ditches were up to 30' deep.  There were possibly two lines of defence at the weakest section of the line immediately west of Ortigia south of the amphitheatre.

The walls encircling Epipolis utilised the natural crags and slopes of this plateau to give them the best possible defence.  To the north some defences are still visible at Porta Scea where the Greek road to Catania is cut deeply into the rock and still shows the deep indentations of cart wheels dug through the limestone as the road dog legs up the slope.  Between the ruts are holes, probably dug to allow the cart animals more grippage on the slope.  The gate name appears in Homer as one of the gates of Troy.  It is common name in archaic fortifications as the angle of the approach does not allow the gates themselves to be attacked at right angles, thus breaking up any momentum of attack and leaving attacking soldiers vulnerable as their shield was slung on the opposite side to the approach wall.  The angled approach also disallowed the use of large rams.  Porta Scea is probably translatable as Skewed Gate, although skaios actually means left.  Sadly the masonry defences on this front seem all gone.

To the west, behind Eurialus castle, stand the Dionigian walls.  These can be traced along the cliff edge from the SP46 as it leaves the urban area.  As it nears Eurialus to the west the walls improve in their surviving quality until they reach a square watchtower with a bland Romanesque doorway standing beside the main road.  From here they cross the road and run up the hill, curving to meet Eurialus castle at the apex of the plateau.  This is the best place to the see the walls, although the Str. Mura di Dionisio gives a good view of the cliff on which they stood along the northern edge of the Epipolis plateau.

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


Copyright©2019 Paul Martin Remfry