Syracuse ( ; ; ; Syrakoúsai) is a historic city in Sicily, the capital of the province of Syracuse. The city is notable for its rich Greek history, culture, amphitheatres, architecture, and as the birthplace of the preeminent mathematician and engineer Archimedes. This 2,700-year-old city played a key role in ancient times, when it was one of the major powers of the Mediterranean world. Syracuse is located in the southeast corner of the island of Sicily, right by the Gulf of Syracuse next to the Ionian Sea.
The city was founded by Ancient Greek Corinthians and became a very powerful city-state. Syracuse was allied with Sparta and Corinth, exerting influence over the entire Magna Grecia area of which it was the most important city. Once described by Cicero as "the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all", it later became part of the Roman Republic and Byzantine Empire. After this Palermo overtook it in importance, as the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily. Eventually the kingdom would be united with the Kingdom of Naples to form the Two Sicilies until the Italian unification of 1860.
In the modern day, the city is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site along with the Necropolis of Pantalica. In the central area, the city itself has a population of around 125,000 people. The inhabitants are known as Siracusans. Syracuse is mentioned in the Bible in the Acts of the Apostles book at 28:12 as Paul stayed there. The patron saint of the city is Saint Lucy; she was born in Syracuse and her feast day, Saint Lucy's Day, is celebrated on 13 December.
Syracuse and its surrounding area have been inhabited since ancient times, as shown by the findings in the villages of Stentinello, Ognina, Plemmirio, Matrensa, Cozzo Pantano and Thapsos, which already had a relationship with Mycenaean Greece.
Syracuse was founded in 734 or 733 BC by Greek settlers from Corinth and Tenea, led by the oecist (colonizer) Archias, who called it Sirako, referring to a nearby salt marsh. The nucleus of the ancient city was the small island of Ortygia. The settlers found the land fertile and the native tribes to be reasonably well-disposed to their presence. The city grew and prospered, and for some time stood as the most powerful Greek city anywhere in the Mediterranean. Colonies were founded at Akrai (664 BC), Kasmenai (643 BC), Akrillai (7th century BC), Helorus (7th century BC) and Kamarina (598 BC). The descendants of the first colonist, called Gamoroi, held power until they were expelled by the Killichiroi, the lower class of the city. The former, however, returned to power in 485 BC, thanks to the help of Gelo, ruler of Gela. Gelo himself became the despot of the city, and moved many inhabitants of Gela, Kamarina and Megera to Syracuse, building the new quarters of Tyche and Neapolis outside the walls. His program of new constructions included a new theatre, designed by Damocopos, which gave the city a flourishing cultural life: this in turn attracted personalities as Aeschylus, Ario of Metimma, Eumelos of Corinth and Sappho, who had been exiled here from Mytilene. The enlarged power of Syracuse made unavoidable the clash against the Carthaginians, who ruled western Sicily. In the Battle of Himera, Gelo, who had allied with Theron of Agrigento, decisively defeated the African force led by Hamilcar. A temple dedicated to Athena (on the site of today's Cathedral), was erected in the city to commemorate the event
Then in the early 4th century BC, the tyrant Dionysius the Elder was again at war against Carthage and, although losing Gela and Camarina, kept that power from capturing the whole of Sicily. After the end of the conflict Dionysius built a massive fortress on the Ortygia island of the city and 22 km-long walls around all of Syracuse. Another period of expansion saw the destruction of Naxos, Catania and Lentini, then Syracuse entered again in war against Carthage (397 BC). After various changes of fortune, the Carthaginians managed to besiege Syracuse itself, but were eventually pushed back by a pestilence. A treaty in 392 BC allowed Syracuse to enlarge further its possessions, founding the cities of Adrano, Tindari and Tauromenos, and conquering Rhegion on the continent. In the Adriatic, to facilitate trade, Dionysius the Elder founded Ancona, Adria and Issa. Apart from his battle deeds, Dionysius was famous as a patron of art, and Plato himself visited Syracuse several times.
His successor was Dionysius the Younger, who was however expelled by Dion in 356 BC. But the latter's despotic rule led in turn to his expulsion, and Dionysius reclaimed his throne in 347 BC. A democratic government was installed by Timoleon in 345 BC. The long series of internal struggles had weakened Syracuse's power on the island, and Timoleon tried to remedy this, defeating the Carthaginians in 339 BC near the river. But the struggle among the city's parties restarted after his death and ended with the rise of another tyrant, Agathocles, who seized power with a coup in 317 BC. He resumed the war against Carthage, with alternate fortunes. However he scored a moral success, bringing the war to the Carthaginians' native African soil, inflicting heavy losses to the enemy. The war ended with another treaty of peace which did not prevent the Carthaginians interfering in the politics of Syracuse after the death of Agathocles (289 BC). The citizens called Pyrrhus of Epirus for help. After a brief period under the rule of Epirus, Hiero II seized power in 275 BC.
Hiero inaugurated a period of 50 years of peace and prosperity, in which Syracause became one of the most renowned capitals of Antiquity. He issued the so-called Lex Hieronica, which was later adopted by the Romans for their administration of Sicily; he also had the theatre enlarged and a new immense altar, the "Hiero's Ara", built. Under his rule lived the most famous Syracusan, the mathematician and natural philosopher Archimedes. Among his many inventions were various military engines including the claw of Archimedes, later used to resist the Roman siege of 214 BC–212 BC. Literary figures included Theocritus and others.
Hiero's successor, the young Hieronymus (ruled from 215 BC), broke the alliance with the Romans after their defeat at the Battle of Cannae and accepted Carthage's support. The Romans, led by consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus, besieged the city in 214 BC. The city held out for three years, but fell in 212 BC. It is believed to have fallen due to a peace party opening a small door in the wall to negotiate a peace, but the Romans charged through the door and took the city, killing Archimedes in the process.
Imperial Roman and Byzantine period
Though declining slowly by the years, Syracuse maintained the status of capital of the Roman government of Sicily and seat of the praetor. It remained an important port for trade between the Eastern and the Western parts of the Empire. Christianity spread in the city through the efforts of Paul of Tarsus and Saint Marziano, the first bishop of the city, who made it one of the main centres of proselytism in the West. In the age of persecutions massive catacombs were carved, whose size is second only to those of Rome.
After a period of Vandal rule, Syracuse and the island was recovered by Belisarius for the Byzantine Empire (31 December 535). From 663 to 668 Syracuse was the seat of Emperor Constans II, as well as metropolis of the whole Sicilian Church.
The city was besieged by the Aghlabids for almost a year in 827–828, but Byzantine reinforcements prevented its fall. It remained the center of Byzantine resistance to the gradual Muslim conquest of Sicily until it fell to the Aghlabids after another siege on 20/21 May 878. During the two centuries of Muslim rule, the capital of the Emirate of Sicily was moved from Syracuse to Palermo. The Cathedral was converted into a mosque and the quarter on the Ortygia island was gradually rebuilt along Islamic styles. The city, nevertheless, maintained important trade relationships, and housed a relatively flourishing cultural and artistic life: several Arab poets, including Ibn Hamdis, the most important Sicilian poet of the 12th century, flourished in the city.
In 1038, the Byzantine general George Maniakes reconquered the city, sending the relics of St. Lucy to Constantinople. The eponymous castle on the cape of Ortygia bears his name, although it was built under the Hohenstaufen rule. In 1085 the Normans entered Syracuse, one of the last Arab strongholds, after a summer-long siege by Roger I of Sicily and his son Jordan of Hauteville, who was given the city as count. New quarters were built, and the cathedral was restored, as well as other churches.
High medieval period
In 1194 Henry VI of Swabia occupied Syracuse. After a short period of Genoese rule (1205–1220), which favoured a rise of trades, Syracuse was conquered back by emperor Frederick II. He began the construction of the Castello Maniace, the Bishops' Palace and the Bellomo Palace. Frederick's death brought a period of unrest and feudal anarchy. In the struggle between the Anjou and Catalan-Aragonese monarchies, Syracuse sided with the Catalan-Aragonese and defeated the Anjou in 1298, receiving from the Spanish sovereigns great privileges in reward. The pre-eminence of baronal families is also shown by the construction of the palaces of Abela, Chiaramonte, Nava, Montalto.
From the 16th century to the 20th century
The city was struck by two ruinous earthquakes in 1542 and 1693, and a plague in 1729. The 17th century destruction changed forever the appearance of Syracuse, as well as the entire Val di Noto, whose cities were rebuilt along the typical lines of Sicilian Baroque, considered one of the most typical expressions of art of Southern Italy. The spread of cholera in 1837 led to a revolt against the Bourbon government. The punishment was the move of the province capital seat to Noto, but the unrest had not been totally choked, as the Siracusani took part in the Sicilian revolution of independence of 1848.
After the Unification of Italy of 1865, Syracuse regained its status of provincial capital. In 1870 the walls were demolished and a bridge connecting the mainland to Ortygia island was built. In the following year a railway link was constructed.
Heavy destruction was caused by the Allied and the German bombings in 1943. Operation Husky, the codename for the Allied invasion of Sicily, was launched on the night of 9/10 July 1943 with British forces attacking the west of the island. General Montgomery's Eighth Army captured Syracuse on the first day of the invasion almost unopposed. The port was then used as a base for the Royal Navy. To the west of the city is a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery where about 1,000 men are buried. After the end of World War II the northern quarters of Syracuse experienced a heavy, often chaotic, expansion, favoured by the quick process of industrialization.
Syracuse today has about 125,000 inhabitants and numerous attractions for the visitor interested in historical sites (such as the Ear of Dionysius). A process of recovering and restoring the historical centre has been ongoing since the 1990s. Nearby places of note include Catania, Noto, Modica and Ragusa.