The city of the Akragantines is superior to most Greek cities … in strength and especially in the beauty of its site and buildings.
POLYBIUS, 2ND CENTURY BC
On the eve of its catastrophic fall, Akragas (modern Agrigento) was ‘one of the richest of the Greek cities of the time’ in the words of Diodorus, an ancient (and patriotic) Sicilian historian. The total population of city and hinterland in its heyday in the 5th century BC has been estimated at around 120,000–170,000 souls, making it one of the largest Greek cities of classical times.
Akragas was superbly located not far inland from Sicily’s south coast on a rocky plateau edged by cliffs and ridges, and at the junction of two rivers. This site was excellent not only for defence but also for outward display. While still at sea, ancient mariners would have spotted an eye-catching row of no fewer than six massive and brightly painted temples strung out along one of the ridges. In defiance of the Greek philosophical maxim of ‘moderation in all things’, these temples announced Akragas as a Greek city of luxury and excess.
The so-called Temple of Concord is celebrated as among the best preserved of all Greek temples. Its most curious features are two monumental interior staircases and the attic to which these led. Why these staircases were given such prominence, and what might once have gone on in the attic are mysteries that archaeologists continue to ponder. Yet it was another of these six temples that won the temples of Akragas renown in the larger Greek world. This great edifice was dedicated to Olympian Zeus and the highly original design of its façades incorporated giant male figures over 7.6 m (25 ft) high. But it was so big that it was never finished and it now lies in a chaotic pile of rubble.
The so-called Temple of Concord. It was preserved by being converted into a church; only the ceiling and roof are missing. Note the olive trees in the foreground – olive oil was an important source of the city’s wealth, along with grain and wine.
L. Romano/DeA Picture Library/The Art Archive.
Akragas was remarkable, too, for the grand manner of its rich citizens. On one occasion in the 5th century BC, we are told, so many Akragantines owned a horse that they could welcome home a champion athlete with a spectacular procession of 300 chariots. Then there was Tellias, in his day the richest man in Akragas and one of the most generous. When 500 cavalrymen caught in a storm appeared on his doorstep, this landowner and textile manufacturer gave each of them a new suit of clothes from his own stores. Antisthenes, another local plutocrat, marked his daughter’s wedding by throwing street-parties for all his fellow citizens – around 20,000 people on one ancient estimate. To later Greeks, there was something redolent of an archaic age of heroes about the open-handedness of these Akragantine nabobs.
A reassembled giant on the site of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, 5th century BC. The temple was intended to have a series of these giant male statues adorning its façade, as if supporting its weight, but the huge edifice was never completed and is now completely collapsed.
Photo Michael Jenner.
The fertile land on which the rich farmers of Akragas grazed their livestock is thought to have occupied some 80 km (50 miles) of Sicily’s southern coastal plain. At the eastern end lies today’s Palma di Montechiaro, ancestral home of the 20th-century writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, whose famous novel The Leopard describes the economic and intellectual stagnation of the landowning Sicilian aristocracy in the late 19th century. In antiquity things were very different in this part of Sicily. The oligarchs of Akragas carried on profitable trade, especially with Carthage in North Africa, whose citizens developed a particular liking for the Sicilian city’s olive oil. This thriving economy supported a developed urbanism. Already in the 6th century BC Akragas probably had a grid plan, at that time a rarity in Greece proper.
The spectacular rocky ridge on which six of the city’s temples were built: the temples were clearly visible from both within the walls and the ancient approach from the sea, giving Akragas one of the most impressive skylines of all Greek cities.
The city was renowned for its public amenities. Unusually these included a vast and expensive fish pond – ‘a delight to look upon’, Diodorus writes, thanks to the hordes of swans it attracted. There was also technological innovation. Visitors came to see the city’s famous storm-drainage system, which featured huge underground tunnels called ‘phaiakes’ after Phaiax, the local engineer who directed the project. As for intellectual life, the philosopher Empedocles found Akragas a conducive place to work on his theory that Love and Strife are the main motors of the universe.
Akragas certainly knew about strife. For all its wealth and opulence, it was never a paradise. The city was what the Greeks called a ‘settlement away from home’ (apoikia) – a colony. In 580 BC an expedition of enterprising Greeks founded it, some from Gela, an earlier Greek colony further along the coast, others directly from Rhodes, the mother-city of Gela. These first colonists, Dorian Greeks like their militaristic cousins in Sparta, would have included warriors prepared to fight the pre-Greek population, who are known to have resisted Akragantine designs on their land.
Worse was the home-grown strife. Within a decade or so of its foundation, Akragas, true to its reputation for excess, had produced one of the most infamous villains of ancient Greek history. Phalaris seized power in an armed coup against his own citizens. He inaugurated a 16-year reign as an unconstitutional monarch of the kind the Greeks called a ‘tyrannos’, or tyrant. Phalaris once likened himself to the single hawk from which flocks of doves flee in fear. His chosen instrument of torture was a hollow bronze bull in which he roasted his enemies alive. Earlier scholars have scoffed at this ancient ‘legend’. Set beside the horrors of military dictatorship today, it seems disturbingly more credible.
The so-called Agrigento Ephebe or Youth: a superb Greek work of around 480 BC. Its high quality and the expensive material (marble, possibly from the Greek island of Paros) reflect the wealth of the richest families of Akragas. It perhaps served as a grave marker or as an offering in a sanctuary.
Museo Archeologico Regionale di Agrigento, Italy.
It was a later tyrant, Theron, who presided over the golden age of Akragas. An aristocratic citizen, he too seized power in a coup in about 489 BC. There the resemblance to Phalaris ends. Theron was a benign dictator, who earned the favour of ordinary citizens by being just and generous. He gained his city – and himself – great prestige by winning chariot races in the Olympic Games in the Greek homeland. The cultured Theron had the good sense to commission a brilliant young poet, the Greek Pindar, to celebrate these victories. So he won literary immortality, not just for himself but for his city too:
Seat of Persephone, fairest of all
Cities of men, high-built upon your hill above
The stream of [the river] Akragas, and her rich banks of pasture…
The Sicilian Greeks were particularly attached to the Greek goddesses Persephone and her mother Demeter. They were divinities of grain and fertility – both so essential to the prosperity of Akragas. In its Roman twilight, Akragas, or Agrigentum as it was then known, was a major grain-dealing centre.
Not long after Theron’s death in 473 BC the citizens of Akragas declared themselves a ‘democracy’, a political idea of the time thanks above all to the success of the 5th-century Athenian democracy. In truth Akragas remained more like republican Venice: a rich oligarchy. For another half-century its old-style landowners were left to parade around town on their fine white horses.
In the end, the hand that fed was fatally bitten. The imperialistic Theron had upset the Carthaginians by overthrowing one of their friends, the tyrant of Himera, a Greek colony on the north coast of Sicily. The Carthaginians then landed an army in Sicily. The Sicilian Greeks roundly defeated them in a great battle in 480 BC, supposedly on the same summer’s day as the Greek defeat of the Persian fleet at Salamis. The vanquished bided their time. Two generations later, another Carthaginian army – led by a Hannibal – landed in Sicily. One by one Greek colonies fell to the invaders, until this time the Akragantines found themselves under siege.
Fascinated by stories of powerful states laid low by luxury, later Greeks marvelled at the tale (surely a tall story) of how the besieged city pampered its citizen-soldiers on nocturnal sentry-duty. They were to be allowed no more than ‘one mattress, one cover, one sheepskin, and two pillows’. After eight months the city fell. Most of its citizens had already fled under cover of night. The enemy sacked the place. It was said that among the plunder shipped back to Tunisia was the bronze bull of Phalaris.
Although later rebuilt, ancient Akragas never recovered its old glory.