The Muddy Archaeologist's Blog

Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist

Sicily: A Jewel of the Roman Empire

Cicero, the great orator of Rome, called Sicily ‘the first jewel in our imperial crown, the first place to be called a province.’  And what a bright and shining jewel it turned out to be.  Visit Sicily now and you can visit the greatest site of Roman mosaics in Europe, Roman theatres and amphitheatres and admire the vast range of Roman material goods in museums from the Roman cities that studded the island.

Soon after the Romans took Syracuse in 212 BC, the Romans drove their arch enemies, the Carthaginians, from the island.  The volcanic island was (and is) so fertile that it became one of the grain baskets of Rome that would help to feed a million people in the city of Rome by the AD 100s.

Sicily’s wealth of culture that had built up during the glory days of Greece was too tempting for some Romans when they arrived: Cicero would successfully accuse Verres, the Roman Governor of the island, of plundering the island’s works of art (and taxing the people to a level of extreme poverty).

Augustus stamped Rome’s mark on the island.  He founded cities all around Sicily, planting them with his veteran retired soldiers.  Roman sculpture appeared, and marble toga-clad magistrates and armour-bearing Roman generals graced the public areas.  The faces that peered from the marble effigies were personalised in the Roman style, in which wrinkles and serious expressions showed authority and experience of life.

The Roman arch enabled aqueducts to march across the landscape, feeding water to cities and to private houses alike.  The incredibly rich and showy Villa del Casale had its own aqueduct pouring running water into the baths complex.  Here the very Roman hypocaust system of fire-warmed underfloor heating warmed the toes of influential Romans as they walked on one of the richest discoveries of mosaics ever found.

The images are full of activity; boxers, chariot-racers and even bikini-clad girls playing ball filled the rooms.  The welcoming open courtyard, echoing to the splashing of a sizable fountain, celebrated animals from around the known world.

In the rooms, myths are told in thousands and thousands of skillfully laid tiny tesserae.  The Sicilian Cyclops, being outwitted by Odysseus, and the gods and goddesses make their appearances.

Daily life and the running of an estate are shown.   Even the mosaics in the children’s rooms encourage the hunting, the chariot racing and the estate management,

A long corridor is crammed with exquisite representations of risky and dramatic hunting and of equally terrifying animal acquisition.  The owner of this villa must have been making a fortune from fuelling the arena with creatures brought by ship from afar.  The Mediterranean was, after all, mare nostrum (‘our sea’), a highway linking the Empire and the lands beyond.

Those animals were destined to be displayed and sent into the arenas for the entertainment of the populace and for the aggrandisement of the editor, the arranger and financier of the games.  Amphitheatres ,such as that at Syracuse, were a Roman introduction; their oval sandy arenas were edged by tiered seats affording clear views of the skill of gladiators and hunters alike, as well as the ferocity and deaths of exotic creatures released from the substructures of these showbiz buildings.

And, since the old Greek theatres had been designed for tamer, theatrical drama of playwrights, they were adapted.  The front seats were removed, a vaulted corridor tucked under the seats and a substructure excavated to provide dramatic entrance options for rock-star level gladiators and terrified animals and men alike to make their grand appearances.  A high wall protected the cheering and booing audiences, for no one wanted a lion in their lap.

The theatres, so carefully aligned by the Greeks for cooling sea breezes and grand landscape views, were now enclosed.   Three storey backdrops were built, displaying the artworks acquired so often as the spoils of war, closed off the theatre.  Awnings were drawn across the sweltering auditorium (unless an empire as deranged as Caligula ‘punished’ the people by having them drawn back, as the imperial biographer Suetonius gleefully recounted).

Roman Sicily had all the veneer of culture.  Walk into the theatre at Taormina and you now enter high brick vaulted grandeur.  This was grand living.  And whoever owned the Villa del Casale even created a basilica loaded with marble veneer and a throne room area.  If he wasn’t the emperor’s right hand man, Maximian (AD 293-305), he certainly lived like an emperor, meeting and greeting the influential on his home turf and showing off his power and wealth.  For him, Sicily and the world was a resource to be plundered and shown off.


To explore the Greek world on the beautiful island of Sicily read here.

And to discover the very other world of the Phoenicians who shared this island, click here

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