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Acragas


Temple of Concordia. Photo Nico Kaas.
The so-called Temple of Concord
Acragas (Ἀκργας): Greek town in southern Sicily, modern Agrigento.

History

Situated more or less in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily has always attracted visitors, who sometimes stayed. According to the Athenian historian Thucydides, Acragas was founded in 580 BCE by Greek settlers from Gela  led by Aristonous and Pystilus (History of the Peloponnesian War, 6.4). Archaeological evidence seems that the first Greeks arrived some twenty years earlier.

The first nucleus may have been an older cult center, identified near the sanctuary of the Chthonic Deities. The port must have been important too, but the colony may have been founded in the first place to exploit the agricultural resources of the valleys of the rivers Hypsas and Acragas.
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Achilles and Memnon on a sarcophagus from the Archaeological Museum of Agrigento (Italy). Photo Nico Kaas.s.
Achilles and Memnon on an Archaic sarcophagus from the Archaeological Museum of Agrigento.

Gela was soon eclipsed by the new town, which rose to great power in the mid-sixth century, when Phalaris, the son of Leodamas of Rhodes, became its tyrant ("sole ruler"). He is credited with succesful wars against the indigenious population, the strengthening of the walls, and the construction of an aqueduct and several other buildings. He also improved trade with Carthage and organized athletic contests. In short, he changed the original settlement into a real city.

In the historical tradition, Phalaris became the prototype of an evil dictator. One of the most famous stories about him is that of the iron (or brazen) bull made by Perilaus of Athens, a well-known bronze-worker. The victims of the tyrant were shut up inside this artifice and then a fire was kindled underneath the bull. The poor prisoner was now roasted alive, and by some sort of acoustic mechanism, the shrieks of his agony resembled the bull's bellowing. The first victim is said to have been Perilaus himself.

Temple of Hera. Photo Nico Kaas.
Temple of Hera


The territory of Acragas expanded. Ecnomus (modern Licata) was taken over from the Gelans. At the beginning of the fifth century, the tyrant Theron and his son-in-law Gelon of Syracuse often cooperated, for example in a big war against the Carthaginians. In 480 BCE, they were victorious in the battle of Himera. To celebrate this, Acragas ordered the Carthaginian POWs to built the temple of Zeus.

Acragas was remarkably rich. This can be deduced from the excellent coins and an unusually great number of temples. In 500 BCE, the temple of Heracles was built, followed twenty years later by the Zeus temple mentioned above. The temple of Hera and the so-called temple of Concord were built in c. 450 and c. 430

The city was famous. The horses of the city's aristocrats were well-known, because they nearly always won at the Olympic Games. When the flutist Midas of Acragas had won a prize in the contests of Delphi, the poet Pindar called "the splendor-loving city Acragas the most beautiful on earth" (Pythian Ode, 12). On of its most famous citizen was the philosopher Empedocles.


Coin from Acragas, minted between 413 and 411. Bodemuseum, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Coin from Acragas, minted between 413 and 411 (Bode-Museum, Berlin)

In 416, war broke out between Segesta and Selinus. When the latter was victorious, the first-mentioned city invoked Athenian help, but this expedition ended in disaster. Consequently, the Segestans invited the Carthaginians (410), who came, saw, and conquered. And since they had the largest army anyhow, they proceded to capture Acragas, which was sacked in 406. The prestigious temple of Zeus had never been finished (Diodorus, World History, 13.82). The city never recovered, although Timoleon of Syracuse sent colonists in 340.

In 264, the First Punic War broke out, a conflict between Rome and Carthage. After a long war - the longest and biggest conflict in world history, according to Polybius of Megalopolis - the Romans were victorious, and added Sicily to their growing empire.

The so-called Tomb of Theron is in fact a monument to the fallen Roman soldiers of the First Punic War. Photo Marco Prins.aas.
The so-called Tomb of Theron is in fact a monument to the fallen Roman soldiers of the First Punic War.


The capital of Roman Sicily was Syracuse: easier to reach than other cities, including Acragas, which was from now on called Agrigentum. During the Second Punic War, the city was briefly used by the Carthaginians, but in 210 it became Roman, and this time forgood.

Agrigrentum was an agricultural center of some importance, with large, slave-run country estates in the neighborhood. It was prosperous, but it never achieved its former splendor again, although Nero's praetorian prefect, Ofonius Tigellinus, was born in the city. We know that there was a Jewish community, and it is certain that in Late Antiquity, the Christians took over the so-called temple of Concord as a church, which explains why it is so well-preserved.

Sights

There are two building phases: the sixth-fifth century, and the period between 340 and the First Punic War. The temples that attract so many tourists to Agrigento date back to the first period. The urban remains, a bit more to the north of the temples, date to the second period. The citadel was always in use, and is occupied by the modern city.

Temple of the Chtonic Deities. Photo Nico Kaas.
Temple of the Chthonic Deities

From east to west, a visitor will see:
  • The Temple of Hera (or Juno)
  • The so-called Temple of Concord
  • A Christian cemetery with a catacomb
  • The Temple of Heracles
  • The Temple of Zeus
  • The Sanctuary of the Chthonic Deities (also known as the Temple of Castor and Pollux) with a city gate and several other buildings

Atlant of the temple of Zeus. Photo Nico Kaas. Model of the Temple of Zeus. Archaeological Museum of Agrigento (Italy). Photo Nico Kaas. Temple of Zeus. Photo Nico Kaas. Temple of Heracles. Photo Nico Kaas.
Atlant of the temple of Zeus
Model of the Temple of Zeus (Archaeological Museum of Agrigento)
Temple of Zeus
Temple of Heracles
Ecclesiasterion. Photo Nico Kaas.
Ecclesiasterion
The area with the temples is known as the "valley of the temples". Between this series of sanctuaries and the modern city, are the ancient living quarters. We can still see that they were built on a Hippodamean plan, with long blocks and parallel streets leading from north to south. There are no visible monuments, except for the Ecclesiasterion or Council Hall, next to the nice archaeological museum.

A satellite photo can be seen here. The temples are on the lower edge of the photo, the museum to the top.
Photos: Nico Kaas
text: Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2012
Revision: 26 April 2012
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