Under ancient Greek rule, Siracusa was the most important city in the Western world. Today it is one of Sicily’s main draws, thanks to its extensive archeological park, a Greek theatre where plays are still performed and a charming historic centre occupying an offshore island where Greek, Roman, medieval and Baroque buildings of mellow golden limestone tangle along a labyrinth of cobbled streets. In between the two, is modern Siracusa, a busy and functional city of undistinguished apartment-lined boulevards.
It’s hardly surprising that Siracusa attracted Greek colonists from Corinth, who settled the site in 733 BC. An easily defendable offshore island with fertile plains across on the mainland and two natural harbours, it was the perfect site for a city, and within a hundred years, ancient Syracuse was so powerful that it was sending out its own colonists to the south and west of the island, and soon became the power base of ancient Sicily’s most famous and effective rulers.
Syracuse assumed an almost mythic eminence under Gelon, the tyrant of Gela, who began work on the city’s Temple of Athena. It was an unparalleled period of Greek prosperity and power in Sicily, though this troubled Athens, and in 415 BC a fleet of 134 triremes was dispatched to take Syracuse – only to be destroyed. Those who survived were imprisoned in the city’s stone quarries.
In the fourth century BC, under Dionysius the Elder, the city became a great military base, the tyrant building the Euryalus fort and erecting strong city walls. Syracuse more or less remained the leading power in Europe for two hundred years until it was attacked by the Romans in 215 BC. The subsequent two-year siege was made long and hazardous for the attackers by the mechanical devices contrived by Archimedes – who was killed by a foot soldier as the Romans finally triumphed.
From this time, Syracuse withered in importance. It became, briefly, a major religious centre in the early Christian period, but for the most part its days of power were done: in the medieval era it was sacked by the Saracens and most of its later Norman buildings fell in the 1693 earthquake. Passed by until the twentieth century, the city suffered a double blow in World War II when it was bombed by the Allies and then, after its capture, by the Luftwaffe in 1943. Luckily, the extensive ancient remains were little damaged, and although decay and new development have reduced the attractions of the modern city, Siracusa remains one of the most fascinating cities on the island.