The town of Taormina, or Tauromenium, is very ancient and the castle
is supposed to have been built on the site of the ancient Greek
acropolis. The district was inhabited by the Siculi, but after
the arrival of the Greeks at Naxos in 734 BC, they founded at colony at
Taormina, possibly on the destruction of Naxos in 403 BC. In 345
BC the city's powerful tyrant, Andromachus, welcomed Timoleon when he
came to expel the tyrants of Sicily. Hence Andromachus survived
the subsequent purge that swept the other tyrants away. In 278 BC
King Pyrrhus landed at Taormina and, after the fall of Carthaginian Erice
to him in 277 BC, took over all Sicily, before abandoning the island
due to the hostility of the natives to his rule. In 263 BC the
city was held by Hieron of Syracuse
after his death apparently made a favourable treaty with Rome.
This resulted in it becoming one of the 3 Sicilian cities that were
regarded as federates and so never owed any military obligation to
Rome. In the Servile War of 134-132 the city fell to the slaves
and held against Rome until reduced by famine, when all the besieged
were put to the sword. In 36 BC the city was a stronghold of
Pompey, consequently after his defeat by Octavian it became a Roman
colony and its original inhabitants were expelled. The town
remained successful under the Romans and later the Byzantines.
In the first 2 months of 869 a Muslim force seized control of one or
more town gates by treason, but without reinforcements arriving, they
retreated rather than risk capture. The defences were then tested
on numerous occasions with attacks recorded in 879, 881, 883, 885 and
889. This led to a peace with the Byzantines which allowed the
Arabs of Palermo and Agrigentans to fight a civil war. On the
fall of Palermo the defeated fled to
Taormina and this sparked the final war for the place. On 1
August 902 AD the town finally fell to the Muslims after an
intermittent 2 year siege. The surrounding castles, no doubt
including Castelmola and Calatabiano
also surrendered. After a revolt subsequent to 902 there was a 30
week siege in 962 after which the fortifications of Taormina town were
razed to the ground in 969, by order of the Emir Ahmad. Despite
this there is still much of the old town to be seen as well as
Much survives of the city walls, but the oldest section is the
Naumachie. This represents the remains of the old Roman city wall
and is some 425' long. It supports some 18 niches that made up
part of the Gymnasium. It is thought the wall was built in the
first century BC and overlies the remnants of a Hellenistic portico,
some traces of which can still be made out under the south end of the
wall. This consists of fine quality ashlar, similar to that found
at Erice and elsewhere in Sicily. The Roman wall consists of well made brick.
Naumachie means ‘sea battle', but this is a misnomer. It
was initially thought that the big water basin found behind the wall
was a stage for re-enactments of sea battles similar to those enacted
at the Colesseum in Rome. Sadly the basin was just a reservoir
used to supply water to the Gymnasium and the rest of the city.
The niches once housed statues, as one was found to contain remnants of
a statue of Apollo. NW of the Naumachia lies the rock on which Taormina castle stands, while to the SW lies Badia Vecchia.
The Old Abbey Palace (Badia Vecchia)
is an alleged rectangular Roman tower, rebuilt in the fourteenth
century as a long rhomboid structure. The original tower to the
north would seem to have been some 25' square, with a fall of ground to
the south. What is possibly an irregular extension adds another
15' to the south, though the structure might be all of one build.
The supposedly Roman walls are built of well laid rubble, packed with
Roman tiles and held in place at the corners by poorly fashioned
quoins. Simple loops exist to W&N, while all the other
apertures appear to be modern. The structure is of 3 storeys to
the south, but only 2 to the north. The Ghibelline battlements
are of a similar build to the underlying masonry. From 1355 the
Regent Euphemia (d.1359) lived here.
Some 300' west of the Badia Vecchia
tower the western, early medieval defences of Taormina begin.
This consists of a curtain wall blocking off the easiest route of
approach to the city from the west. This roughly 600' long wall
is centrally pierced by the Porta Catania. The gateway has a
Byzantine look, although all the jambs and voussoirs look like modern
replacements. The inner arch is Romanesque and is made of Roman
tiles. The wall around the gate is built in Byzantine style with
rubble and some sneckers intermixed with Roman tiles. Above the
gate is a later machicolation as well as battlements of a similar build
to the wall below. Some of these, judging by the changes of
height are replacements.
Palazzo Duchi Di Santo Stefano
Some 100' south of the Catania gate stands the Palazzo Duchi Di Santo
Stefano. This consists of a tower some 40' square and 3 storeys
high. It has been heavily rebuilt, but is in a totally different
style to the ‘Byzantine' curtain which butts against it to the
north. To the south it seems well meshed to the city wall which
is on a different alignment to the northern wall, being some 40'
advanced of it to the west. It is also of a similar
‘Byzantine' build to the lower 2 storeys of the tower's south
side. Quite possibly the current tower is built on a much older
predecessor. Further the base of the south wall consists of some
fine ashlar blocks, badly laid. Possibly these have been stripped
from an Hellenistic structure.
On the northern side of Taormina is another defensive wall running from the castle
hill in the west, towards the sea to the east. This wall is
similar to the southern wall in its build and has 2 gates in it.
That to the west carries a current motor road and appears to be a
modern insertion, although some ancient jambs survive on the eastern
side of it. Above this is a wallwalk and battlements which appear
to be of ancient provenance. East of this gate is the totally
rebuilt Porta Messina which was replaced in 1808 according to the
inscription above it. The jambs of this are dissimilar to those
found on the nearby western gate. Within the area of these
defences are many historic structures.
The Palazzo Corvaja is a medieval palace just within the Porta Messina,
but now crowded by later buildings. It was allegedly commenced in
the tenth century, after the Arabs conquered the city from the
Byzantines. It initially consisted of a rubble built, with much
Roman tile, square tower that was extended in the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries. It is claimed to consist of an Arabic
tower-keep, a Norman hall where the Parliamentary meetings took place
and Gothic windows. In 1411, after the death of King Martin II,
the father of King Martin I (d.1409)
the Sicilian Parliament met here and choose King Ferdinand I of Aragon
(d.1416) as king of Sicily. This was done before Queen Bianca of
Navarre (d.1441), the widow of Martin I, who was at that time regent of
Sicily. The palace takes its name from the Corvaja family, who
owned it from the mid sixteenth century. Today the palace houses
the tourist office and an art museum.
Set behind the church of St Catherine, near the Palazzo Corvaja, is a
small Roman odeon or theatre, built when the town became a Roman colony
in 21 BC. This was a stage for musical and literary presentations
for the city elite. It therefore had a capacity for only some 200
Facing NE, the Odeon was built of clay bricks and, like the main
amphitheatre, is divided into three main parts, the scene, the
orchestra and the cavea. The scene is said to consist of the
colonnade of a Greek temple, while the mass of masonry consists of
rubble, interlaid with some tiles and a brick facing. The
surviving back wall is laid in ‘Byzantine' style, with squared
rubble blocks laid between courses of Roman tiles. Nearby are the
poor remains of some Roman baths.
The Greek theatre, at 360' diameter is the second largest in Sicily,
with only Syracuse being larger. The construction was probably
begun around the third century BC, possibly in the time of Hiero II
(270-215 BC). It has been estimated that over a third of a
million cubic feet of rock were removed to make the concave bowl of the
theatre. Through the ages the site was improved with the Romans
adding columns, statues and ingenious roofs.
The heart of the structure was the scene or stage building where the
actors used to perform. This has largely been reduced to its
foundations, the columns apparently being removed to build palaces and
embellish places of worship, including the cathedral. Despite
this, some of the back section has survived almost to full
height. This contains 3 large Romanesque openings with 8 niches,
3 on either side of the collapsed central arch and one each beyond the
surviving flanking arches. The standing Corinthian columns were
reconstructed in 1860 on the site of their fallen predecessors.
The standing masonry consists of a rubble core, faced with Roman bricks
and their modern replacements. The long chamber behind was
vaulted at a high level.
The pit of the orchestra, at the lowest level of the theatre and
entered via its own Romanesque archway, was reserved for the musicians,
but also housed choruses and dancers. Later in the Roman era this
was used for gladiatorial games. Both impressively large
Romanesque parodos entrances survive to the sides.
Finally there was the cavea, or seating area often called the
auditorium, which was carved out of the living rock and could at
capacity hold a claimed 11,150 spectators. The bowl of the
amphitheatre was divided by steps into wedges. The upper classes
were seated in the front rows in the ima cavea immediately surrounding the orchestra. This had places for spectators with pillows. Above a walkway was the media cavea which was for the general public, though these were generally men. Finally, above another walkway, was the summa cavea, this uppermost section was usually open to the women and children.
Behind the wall of the cavea were 2 large brick porches, built to
increase the seating capacity. The first porch was divided into
several rows of wooden seats reserved for women, while the second
porch, occupying the highest terrace of the theatre, was without fixed
seats and was made for the poorest inhabitants of the town.
The church of San Pancrazio is built into the remains of a rectangular
Greek temple with a fine stepped plinth. These ruins again have
the fine ashlar work so readily comparable with the fine stonework of Erice
and the other Greek sites, unlike the foundations excavated beside the
church which consists more of boulders set within a matrix of smaller
stones. Two inscriptions and a statue of a priestess allows the
structure to be dated to the third century BC when it was built in
honour of the Egyptian deities Isis and Serapis.
Porta di Mezzo
This gatetower divides the medieval city and douma to the west from the
Classical/Hellenistic parts of Taormina to the east. It was
supposedly built in the twelfth century, allegedly on ancient
Greco-Roman foundations, but was destroyed by French troops under Louis
XIV in 1676. It was then rebuilt in 1679 and a large clock
installed. The build is somewhat similar to that of the Badia
Vecchia, but it is hard to decide what is original and what seventeenth
century, although the many loops facing east are definitely
‘modern'. Some of the base walls appear Hellenistic in
The cathedral stands on the ruins of a Byzantine church dedicated to St
Nicholas of Bari, but it has been heavily rebuilt in the thirteenth,
fifteenth, sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. It is rubble
built, with some walling giving the appearance of Byzantine
construction, viz. stone blocks with levelling layers in between.
The six columns of the nave are thought to have been pillaged from the
Greek amphitheatre. Much of the building is battlemented.
Why not join me here and at other Sicilian
castles? Information on this and other tours can be found at Scholarly
Paul Martin Remfry