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Life Arts

And Two Centuries Later, the Money-Grubbing Materialists Are Still About Destroying the Planet

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"Where the little river Liris runs into the Gulf of Gaeta, seventy miles south of Rome, may be placed the natural boundary between central and southern Italy."

Thus begins "Greek Cities in Italy and Sicily," a book written by David Randall-MacIver and published in 1931. This was pretty much square in the middle of the period written about by Paul Fussell in "Abroad," his study of English literary travelogues written between the world wars; and the minor key of "Greek Cities" is indeed the travelogue.

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But the major key of Greek Cities is a description of Greek architectural sites in southern Italy and Sicily in the late 1920's, with narratives about the cities where the sites are found including the cities' mythologies and most famous citizens, visitors, and political figures. The book's history, then, spans the period from about the eighth century BC to about the third century BC, when Rome displaced Carthage permanently from Sicily in the Punic Wars, and usurped the Greeks' dominance on the island.

So, I skimmed the book's first eighty pages about the Greek cities in southern Italy and started with Chapter VIII - "From Paola to Syracuse" - which begins in the book's minor key and then modulates effortlessly into its major key; and I paraphrase from Chapter VIII's first paragraphs:

"The majority of my readers in all probability will start for Sicily from Naples."

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Naples and Vesuvius, by Claudio Vaccaro at Flickr (2006)

"And if I may advise them I would say do not go by sea, which is perfectly uninteresting. Once out of sight of land, one piece of sea is exactly like another, and if the crossing is made at night even the sea is invisible. But the railway journey down the west coast of Calabria and the east coast of Sicily is the experience of a lifetime. There is scarcely a journey in Europe which is so beautiful and so full of historic interest at every moment....If it chance to be in the middle of February, it seems as though snow-clad trees were reflecting the rising sun (in Calabria). These are the almond trees in blossom....At Villa San Giovanni the train is ferried across the straits on a steamer (to Messina), a picturesque proceeding, and more practical than the method by which Herakles once crossed these waters, swimming beside the oxen stolen from Geryones with his arm resting on one horn of the leader. It would seem a very difficult undertaking to swim the straits against the currents even if we ignored Charybdis. And yet it is on record that when Himilkon stormed Messina in 397 B.C., 200 of the city's defenders threw themselves into the waters and no less than fifty succeeded in reaching the Italian shore...."

Commencing with Messina across the narrow straits at the toe of Italy's boot, Randall-MacIver follows Sicily's east coast southerly turning west where the coast does at the island's southeastern point, to touch successively at each of the following principal Greek cities: Messina, Taormina, Acireale, Catania, Lentini (inland), Syracuse, Gela-Kamarina (Terranova), Akragas (Girgenti), Selinus (Sciacca or Castelvetrano), Segesta (inland- Salemi? Calatafimi?), and Enna (inland). Not surprisingly, Randall-MacIver devotes almost as many pages to Syracuse as to the other cities combined.

By far the greatest number of Greek architectural sites on Sicily are the remains of Doric temples devoted to gods, but probably the most famous remains are those of the theater at Syracuse. Paraphrasing again -

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"(The theater was)...probably built by Hieron I, who reigned (in Syracuse) from 478 B.C. to 467 B.C....(and it was)...certainly enlarged and restored...two hundred years later. It is one of the finest Greek buildings in the whole world..., is hewn out of the native rock, (and) measures 440 feet in maximum diameter. Originally it had sixty-one tiers of seats, divided into nine wedge-shaped blocks. At the back of the theater is the well-known 'street of tombs', which leads up to a cemetery on the plateau just behind. This cemetery contains a mixture of tombs of all dates, some of them as late as the Christian period. There is no mixture, however, in the 'street of tombs.' The great caverns on either side of the way are all post-Hellenic; they are not Greek, still less are they Sicilian, but they belong to the period of the Roman Empire; and this fact must be emphasized, because even our best writers have been misled by an erroneous interpretation which has been current for half a century."

Regarding some of the "many historic memories" of the theater at Syracuse, Randall-MacIver writes:

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I have a law degree (Stanford, 66') but have never practiced. Instead, from 1967 through 1977, I tried to contribute to the revolution in America. As unsuccessful as everyone else over that decade, in 1978 I went to work for the U.S. Forest (more...)
 

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