1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Agrigentum

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Agrigentum (Gr. Άκράγας mod. Girgenti (q.v.)), an ancient city on the south coast of Sicily, 2 ½ m. from the sea. It was founded (perhaps on the site of an early Sicanian settlement) by colonists from Gela about 582 B.C., and, though the lastest city of importance founded by the Greeks in Sicily, soon acquired a position second to that of Syracuse alone, owing to its favourable situation for trade with Carthage and to the fertility of its territory. Pindar (Pyth. xii. 2) calls it καλλίστα βροτεâν πολiων. The buildings for which it is famous all belong to the first two centuries of its existence. Phalaris, who is said to have roasted his enemies to death in a brazen bull (Pindar, Pyth. i. 184), ruled as tyrant from 570 to 554. What form of government was established after his fall is uncertain; we know only that, after a long interval, Theron became tyrant (488-473); but his son Thrasydaeus was expelled after an unsuccessful war with Hiero in 472 and a democracy established. In the struggle between Syracuse and Athens (415-413) the city remained absolutely neutral. Its prosperity continued to increase (its population is given at over 200,000) until in 405 B.C., despite the help of the Siceliot cities, it was captured and plundered by the Carthaginians, a blow from which it never entirely re-covered. It was colonized by Timoleon in 338 B.C. with settlers from Veha in Lucania, and in the time of the tyrant Phintias (289-279) it had regained some of its power. In the First Punic War, however, it was sacked by the Romans (261) and the Carthaginians (255), and finally in the Second Punic War by the Romans (210). But it still retained its importance as a trading and agricultural centre, even in the Roman period, exporting not only agricultural products but textile fabrics and sulphur. In the local museum are tiles used for stamping cakes of sulphur, which show that the mines, at any rate from the 3rd century, were imperial property leased to contractors.

The site is one of great natural strength and remarkable beauty, though quite unlike that of other Greek cities in Sicily. The northern portion of it consists of a lofty ridge with two summits, the westernmost of which is occupied by the modern town (985 ft.), while the easternmost, which is slightly higher, bears the name of Rock of Athena, owing to its identification in modern days with the acropolis of Acragas as described by Polybius, who places upon it the temple of Zeus Atabyrius (the erection of which was attributed to the half mythical Phalaris) and that of Athena.[1] It must be confessed that the available space (about 70 X 20 yds.) on the eastern summit (where there are some remains of ancient buildings) is so small that there would be only room for a single temple, which must have been occupied by the two deities jointly, if the new theory is correct (see Notizie degli scavi, 1902, 387 and reff.). In the modern town, on the other hand, the remains of one temple are to be seen in the church of S. Maria dei Greci, while the other is generally supposed to have occupied the site of the cathedral, though no traces of it are visible.

Ebmap of agrigentum.png

But whichever of these two summits was the acropolis proper,[2] it is certain that both were included in the circuit of the city walls. On the north both summits are defended by cliffs; on the south the ground slopes away somewhat abruptly from the eastern summit towards the plateau on which the town stood, while the western summit is separated from this plateau by a valley traversed by a branch of the Hypsas [mod. Drago], the deep ravine of which forms the western boundary and defence of the city. On the east of the city is the valley of the Acragas [Fiume S. Biagio], from which the city took its name and which, though shallower than that of the Hypsas, still affords a sufficient obstacle to attack, and the two unite a little way to the south of the town; at the mouth was the ancient harbour, small and now abandoned.

The most famous remains of the ancient city are the temples, the most important of which form a row along the low cliffs at the south end of the city. All are built in the Doric style, of the local porous stone, which is of a warm red brown colour, full of fossil shells and easily corroded when exposed to the air. It should be noted that their traditional names, with the exception of that of Zeus and that of Asclepius, have no foundation in fact, while the attribution of the temple in antis, into the cella of which the church of S. Biagio has been built, is uncertain.[3] They are described in R. Koldewey and O. Puchstein, Die griechishen Tempel in Unteritalien und Sicilien (Berlin, 1890), 138-184. Of all these temples the oldest is probably that of Heracles, while the best preserved are those of Hera and Concordia, which are very similar in dimensions; the latter, indeed, lacks nothing but its roof, owing its preservation to its conversion into the cathedral in 597 by Gregory II., bishop of Girgenti. Both temples belong to the best period of the Doric style and are among the finest in existence. In front of the former, as in front of those of Heracles and Zeus, stood a huge altar for burnt offerings, as long as the façade of the temple itself. The cella of the temple of Heracles underwent considerable modifications in Roman times, and the discovery in it of a statue of Asclepius seems to show that the cult of this deity superseded the original one.

In the colossal temple of Zeus the huge Atlantes (figures of Atlas), 25 ft. in height, are noticeable. They seem to have stood in the intercolumniations half-way up the outside wall and to have supported the epistyle. The collapse both of this temple and of that of Heracles must be attributed to an earthquake; many fallen blocks of the former were removed in 1756 for the construction of the harbour of Porto Empedocle. The four columns erected on the site of the temple of Castor and Pollux are a modern (and incorrect) restoration in which portions of two buildings have been used. Of that of Hephaestus only two columns remain, while of that of Asclepius, a mile to the south of the town, an anta and two pillars are preserved. It was in the latter temple that the statue of the god by Myron stood; it had probably been carried off to Carthage, was given to the temple by P. Scipio Africanus from the spoils of that city and aroused the cupidity of Verres.

The other remains within the city walls are of surprisingly small importance; near the picturesque church of S. Nicolo is the so-called Oratory of Phalaris, a shrine of the 2nd century B.C., 27 ¼ ft. long (including the porch) by 23 ⅓ ft. wide; and not far off on the east is a large private house with white tesselated pavements, probably pre-Roman in origin but slightly altered in the Roman period (R. P. Jones and E. A. Gardner in Journal of Hellenic Studies, xxvi., 1906, 207). Foundations of other buildings are to be seen in other parts of the site, but of little interest. The huge fishpond, spoken of by Diodorus as being 7 stadia in circumference (xi. 25), is to be seen at the south-west corner of the city; it is an enormous excavation in the rock with drains in its sides, at the bottom of which there is now a flourishing orange garden.

The line of the city walls can be distinctly traced for most of the circuit, but the actual remains of them are inconsiderable. On the east and west the ravines already mentioned afforded, in the main, a sufficient protection, so that a massive wall was unnecessary, while near the south-eastern angle a breastwork was formed by the excavation of the natural rock,[5] which in later times was honeycombed with tombs. E. A. Freeman attributes the southern portion of the walls to Theron (Hist. of Sic. ii. 224), but the question depends upon the date of the temple of Heracles; and if Koldewey and Puchstein are right in dating it so early as 500 B.C., it is probable that the wall was in existence by that time. Close to this temple on the west is the site of the gate known in later times as the Porta Aurea, through which the modern road passes, so that no traces now remain.

Tombs of the Greek period have mainly been found on the west of the town, outside the probable line of the walls, between the Hypsas and a small tributary, the latter having been spanned by a bridge, now called Ponite dei Morti, of which one massive pier, 45 ft. in width, still exists. Just outside the south wall is a Roman necropolis, with massive tombs in masonry, and a Christian catacomb, and a little farther south a tomb in two stories, a mixture of Doric and Ionic architecture, belonging probably to the 2nd century B.C., though groundlessly called the Tomb of Theron. A village of the Byzantine period has been explored at Balatizzo, immediately to the south of the modern town (Notizie degli scavi, 1900, 511-520). The walls of the dwellings are entirely cut out of the natural rock.

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See[edit]

  • J. Schubring, Historische Topographie von Akragas (Leipzig, 1570);
  • R. Koldewey and O. Puchstein, op. cit.;
  • C. Hulsen in Pauly-Wissowa, Encyclopädie, i. 1187. (T. As.)

Endnotes[edit]

1 ^ E. A. Freeman, History of Sicily (Oxford, 1891), i. 438, accepts the name "Rock of Athena" and yet puts the acropolis on the site of the modern town, arguing further that the cathedral hill was an acropolis within an acropolis (II. and XVII.).

2 ^ Some writers place Kamikos, the city of the mythical Sican Kokalos, on the site of Acragas or its acropolis; but it appears to have lain to the north-west, possibly at Caltabellotta, 10m. north-east of Sciacca. We hear of it even in the Punic Wars as a fortified post of Acragas (E. A. Freeman, Hist. of Sic. i. 495).

3 ^ The attribution to Demeter is supported by the discovery of votive terra-cottas, representing Demeter and Kore in the neighbourhood, while the conjecture that it was dedicated to the river-god Acragas rests on its position above the river, in the valley of which, indeed, a statue which may represent the deity has been discovered.

4 ^ Dimensions in English feet.

5 ^ Polybius ix. 27 κεîται τὀ τεîχος ἐπί πέτρας ἀκροτόμου καί περιρρώγος, ί μὲν αύτοΦυοûς φ όὲ χειροποιπτου.