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Greek Cities in Italy and Sicily by David Randall-MacIver (1931)

By       Message GLloyd Rowsey     Permalink
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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." 

So begins "Greek Cities in Italy and Sicily," a beautiful, 224-page book published in 1931. This year puts the book pretty much squarely in the middle of the period written about by Paul Fussell in Abroad, a highly original and informative study of English literary travelogues written between the world wars, and the minor key of Greek Cities is indeed the travelogue. The absence of David Randall-MacIver from Abroad suggests that he was both too academic and too little literary to be included in Mr. Fussell's book, which makes sense to me, and it makes Greek Cities even more extraordinary to my mind. The major key of Greek Cities is a description of Greek architectural sites in southern Italy and Sicily in 1931, 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 B.C. to about the third century B.C., when Rome commenced to expel Carthage permanently from Sicily, in the Punic Wars, and displace the Greek presence there. 

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I bought the book in anticipation of taking a cruise around Persephone's isle, about which I had developed a reading interest over the last couple of years, an interest undimmed even by Dennis Mack-Smith's mind-numbing, two-volume history of Sicily from 800 A.D. to 1945. I purchased Greek Cities after realizing that the cruise -- titled "Sicily - Crossroad of Civilizations" - would put heavy emphasis on the Greek presence on the island. So I pretty much skimmed the initial eighty pages about Greek cities in southern Italy and started with Chapter VIII - "From Paola to Syracuse" - which begins in the book's minor key 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. 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, 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 - "(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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"When Aeschylus visited Syracuse we are told by an anonymous commentator that he witnessed in this theater a performance of his own Persae....Plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and many less famous dramatists were performed in this theater before distinguished visitors from Sparta, Corinth, and every part of Greece. Pindar and Plato must have sat at various times in the audience, and Theocritus almost certainly came here..."

The immortal Archimedes was born in Syracuse, and Randall-MacIver writes - "Cicero, when he visited Syracuse in 75 B.C., discovered the real tomb of Archimedes, read the inscription and pointed it out with justifiable pride to the local authorities. But its place has never been rediscovered and is probably lost forever." 

Other famous Greeks mentioned in the book who visited Sicily or lived there include Parmenides, Empedocles, Pythagoras, and Xenophanes. 

Very much on Sicily as everywhere, the Greeks were constantly at war, when not with the Carthaginians from north Africa or the Romans then with themselves. The following brief passage mentions the Sicilian Greek city of Segesta's alliance with Carthage against the Sicilian Greek city of Akragas (Girgenti) in 409 B.C., then briefly describes who bears most responsibility for the destruction of Sicily's Greek architecture. Randall-MacIver writes:

"The friendship with Carthage which saved the Segestans in 409 B.C. was the cause of their ruin a hundred years later, when Agathokles, foiled in Africa, turned savagely on the philo-Carthaginians in Sicily and crushed Segesta. From the Romans, however, the Segestans received unusual favor, and...Cicero (mentions Segesta) as a place of some importance. That its temple survived when the city was devastated by the Saracens shows once again that the worst destroyers of ancient buildings were not Carthaginians, Romans, or Mohammedans. It was Christian fanatics of the first few centuries after Christ, it was the plundering kings, barons, and prelates of the Middle Ages, and their successors the money-grubbing materialists of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, who destroyed the great monuments of antiquity in Sicily and southern Italy."  

(c) 2004 GLloyd Rowsey

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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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