Syracuse. The “via sacra” and the Ancient Theater of the Neapolis

Maria Amalia Mastelloni


Travellers1 and scholars2 who have studied Syracuse, have been captured by the monumental ruins of the Theatre and even in modern3 systematic works, this has assumed a prominent role in putting into the background other emergencies. This process led to an isolation from the urban context of the monument and his surroundings (road system, hydraulics, urban, other monuments of Neapolis, etc..). Today the building needs to be re-contextualized, the monumental unit and the scenic system it belongs needs to be defined and re-valued the sacred and civil character: scene orchestra and cavea, stoai, covered and open streets, terraces, sacred places, temenos and temples, cisterns, altars, nympheus, funerary monuments. It is also necessary to consider the phases before and after the creation of complex, steps heavy removed in 1891, with a cancellation of all non-emergencies and accretions considered “interesting”.

The theatre - made by the excavation of the soft and clear limestone of the Temenite 4 hill - according to some authors is of late archaic age or classical (with a trapezoidal plan) and subsequently undergoes changes (Anti Polacco), according to others - colleagues who give identification in the building that hosted the performances of Aeschylus and Sophocles – is not before the fourth century BC (Mertens), or built by Ierone II, as part of a massive urban renovation (Campagna, La Torre); however it doesn’t seem to have been considered that the theatre and the stoa surrounding the sacred area above, have the same  width of  the blocks created during the late IV-III century BC, becoming part of an ideal urban network, but there is no road network in Neapolis where you place the complex and its relating roads.

Besides the analemma of the theatre, there is a terrace, perhaps naturally flat and regulated by operations on the rock, in whose background wall there are several natural caves of the Middle Bronze Age,  recast during the Byzantine period and the Middle Age. One of them appears regularized and monumentalized and  doesn’t  seem to have been altered: it is the Nymphaeum, which ends in a water conduit of an aqueduct that irrigates the whole area. Being slightly off-axis the cave leaves to assume that this cave has been created in a different period in respect to the theatre built with both circular orchestra and cavea.

The front of Nympheus housed niches and architectural moldings and decorative elements (part of a Doric frieze, carved in the top part of the wall); inside the cave (9.35 x 6.35 m., 4.75 m. high) the tank is covered with powdered terracotta (cocciopesto). The whole complex has obvious comparisons with clay little models of Magna Graecia (Taranto, Locri, etc.), attributable to the second half of the fourth and third century BC and put in relation to rich deposits of predominantly Hellenistic terracotta.

In the space located on the left of the Nymphaeum there is the area investigated by Orsi and studied by Polacco with systematic excavations. It has been identified by some scholars as the seat of the “Mouseion”, the sanctuary of the Muses, where Dionysius I would have dedicated objects belonging to Euripides, purchased in Corinth for the high cost of a “talentum” and where the actors guild was in the late era.

In this area Orsi recovered a decorated ceiling with epistyle and with a Doric frieze on the forehead (area St. Mary of the Cave), n Hellenistic leonine protome drip and numerous little black-painted saltcellars, some of them carved with five letters, read as Ierwn (name of Ieron II) by Orsi and as “terov” (= adjective “sacred”) by Trojani.

Polacco and Trojani assume that these findings derive from the terrace above, and they put them in relation to the temenos sacred to Demeter and Persephone, next to the sacred area dominated by a statue of Apollo Temenite and temples of Ceres and Libera mentioned by Cicero.

In the upper terrace the archaeologist Giuseppe Voza recognized an archaic temple, which was replaced by a building with two monumental tombs.

From the terrace above the theatre it starts  the so-called “Via delle figure” (Polacco) or “Via dei Sepolcri”, carved into the rock, rich of caves reused in Byzantine, Late Medieval and Modern age. If one accepts the existence of a phase of maximum expansion of the theatre with ḳila that reached the upper terrace you should think that the Nymphaeum was made or corrected in the subsequent period, when a smaller cavea was created and the already mentioned terrace, L-crossed by a road, was covered by a porch.


1 between XVII e XVIII sec. d‘Orville,  von Riedesel[, ,  Saint-Non,  Houel,  Denon  

2 between XVI e XVII sec. Arezzo, Fazello, Mirabella, Bonanni 

3 Serradifalco, Capodieci, Landolina,  Cavallari, Orsi, Bernaḅ Brea Anti Polacco e Voza

4 the word derives from τεμνω  τεμν-, τετμη-,  τμη  τεμενίτης  = τεμένιος: at Syracuse Apollo of the Temenos, Thuc.:—fem., κρα Τεμεντις the height on which was the Temenos of  Apollo, id=Thuc. (LIDDELL –SCOTT,  An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford 1889).



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