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