“Mediterranean Cultures” — Course Description

ICCS-Catania, Spring 2009


Nigel Nicholson & Matt Panciera

Tues 9-10:45, Fri field trip


In the time of the Persian Wars, Syracuse, and not Athens or Sparta, was the most powerful Greek city: while the Greeks in east were repelling the Persians, Syracuse and its allies in the west defeated both the Carthaginians and the Etruscans; and it was, of course, in Syracuse that Athens suffered its greatest disaster in the later Peloponnesian war. Moreover, Syracuse and Acragas could with justice claim to be the cultural capitals of Greece too: the two cities spent lavishly on Doric temples, chariot racing, and dedications at the Panhellenic sanctuaries, and attracted the best poets of the day: Pindar, Simonides, Aeschylus, Bacchylides and Xenophanes.

Yet the Greek cities of Sicily could not forget that they were colonies, planted in some of the most contested real estate in the ancient Mediterranean. Their status was much more tenuous than that of Athens, and had to be negotiated against a wide variety of other groups: the Sicels (the local non-Greek inhabitants of Sicily, who themselves hardly formed a unified community), each other, particularly those Greek cities close by in the east of the island or the south of Italy; their mother-cities (Corinth for Syracuse, Gela, another Sicilian colony, for Acragas); the older cities of the Greek mainland more generally (hence all the activity at Olympia and Delphi); the Phoenician outposts in the west of the island; and then the powerful kingdoms of Carthage and Etruria to west and east. It was perhaps this context that encouraged such extensive patronage of art and architecture as the cities attempted to place themselves on the map of the wider Mediterranean.

At the dawn of the fourth century, the map of Sicily is radically simplified, as Carthage (which has suddenly cracked siege warfare) largely destroys the majority of the Greek cities, and Syracuse, rising to meet the challenge, destroys several more to enhance its manpower and security. Syracuse and Carthage face off for another 100 years or so, but then, as the power of Rome grew, Syracuse, found its sphere of operations increasingly constricted, as it became caught between the new clashing between Rome and Carthage; under the Roman umbrella, it ruled a highly prosperous kingdom in eastern Sicily (modeled on the monarchies that appeared in the East after Alexander and including Hellenistic Morgantina), but it was soon to become part of the Roman empire, and Syracuse and the other cities of eastern and northern Sicily (Catina, Solunto, Taormina) then offer case studies in Romanization both in the time of Cicero and the high empire.

The Mediterranean Cultures class will use a close study of Sicilian material culture to trace the ways in which the largely Greek cities sought to articulate identities for themselves within this complex situation. The primary focus will be on the early centuries of Syracuse and the Greek other colonies (their foundations, the rise of the Deinomenids in the East, relations with the Sicels, Phoenicians and with each other), but we will also spend several weeks on Romanization, beginning with the long field trip to Tunisia.

Our goals are threefold. First, to examine what identity/identities Syracuse and other Sicilian cities created for themselves in this complex geopolitical situation through the various material means open to them: town planning, civic architecture, burials, statues, coins, vases, inscriptions, mosaics, literature. Second, to develop the methodological tools needed to study these varied objects, and to study them together. Third, to appreciate the richness of Sicilian culture in the ancient period, and to recognize that Sicilian identities were fluid and had to be argued for, and could not simply be assumed. A complex and thick description of various Sicilian communities should emerge.

Central to this class will be a weekly field trip; two of these trips will involve overnight stays, the first, to western Sicily, for only one night, the second, to Tunisia and Palermo, for 6 nights. These longer trips will fit well into the syllabus; the first trip will add Agrigento and Selinunte, with their splendid temples, to our consideration of the developing Greek colonies, while the second will allow us both to study Phoenician civic structures in Carthage and Sicily (Motya) and to study the development of very Roman cities in North Africa under the empire.

Through these field trips we will also have some exposure to the rich history of Sicily beyond the strict limits of the course. As Roman power waned, the island was fought over by Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans, and the latter two in particular left many marks on the island, often reusing and reshaping the Roman and Greek remains they found when they arrived. The temple of Athena in Syracuse, for example, became a church, then a mosque, and then a church again, as which it still serves; the Temple of Apollo became a church, a mosque and Spanish prison, before being stripped down to the more iconic ruined Greek temple shape…

Sicily should be at the center of Hellenic studies, and this course aims to fix it there. Syracuse was a powerful, prosperous and cultured city that deserves as much attention as Athens; moreover, as an island made desirable by its fertility and importance to shipping, Sicily more generally was a point of intersection for a wide variety of groups and interests, and so provides a superb case study for the process of civic identity formation in the Greek world. Unlike the Athenians, we will not underestimate Sicily!


The course is structured around the field trips. Each week there will be a seminar and a field trip; during the field trip students will be expected formally or informally to discuss the artworks. For both days, reading will be due; all students will do a presentation in a small group. Students should keep a journal. Students will develop the technique of formal and iconographic analyses, and will submit such analyses on three occasions during the semester; the final examination will consist of such analyses.

Evaluation: active preparation for class is central; student participation will be graded. As noted, there will be a presentation, 2 tests, a final, and 4 written submissions. Relative weight: class participation, tests and presentation ¼; written analyses ½, with the final analysis more heavily weighted than the others; final ¼.


• Ellen Grady, Blue Guide Sicily, 7th edition (WW Norton); ISBN: 0393328899

• Ross Holloway, Archaeology of Ancient Sicily (Routledge); ISBN: 0415237912

• Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound and Other Plays, trans. Philip Vellacott (Penguin Classics); ISBN: 9780140441123

• Pindar, The Odes of Pindar, trans, C.M.Bowra (Penguin Classics); ISBN: 014044209X

• Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (Penguin Classics); ISBN: 9780140440393