You may wish to read an introduction to this section first.
Views from the eastern hill: (above) the temples of the acropolis; (middle) the whole town and the eastern harbour area; (below) walls of the town after 409 BC
December 27, 1777. I rode seven miles into the
south vale, a rich inclosed district like the country
round Naples; it is watered by the Madiuni, a clear romantic stream; the rising grounds are planted with vines
and olive trees, while orange groves shade the low lands;
among these are some mulberry stocks, on which the orange
is grafted, and produces fruit with a blood-coloured pulp.
As I approached the sea, the face of the country altered to
smooth green swells with tufts of lentiscus, but no trees.
The river passes through a long line of hills, which exhibit the most extraordinary assemblage of ruins in Europe,
the remains of Selinus; they lie in several stupendous
heaps with many columns full erect, and at a distance
resemble a large town with a crowd of steeples; my servants took them for such, and were quite rejoiced at the
thoughts of the very grand city they were coming to;
nothing could exceed their disappointment when they
reached the top of the hill, and found silence and desolation, where they expected busy crowds and the noisy hurry
of a populous place. The body of the town stood on a
ridge west of the river and near the sea, where the present watch tower is built; the harbour was at the mouth of the
Madiuni; some of the walls of its mole are still existing
above the sands.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonino Salinas di Palermo: simplified reconstruction of Selinunte: 1) Eastern Hill; 2) Western Hill with the shrine of Malophoros. The letters are those by which archaeologists identify the main temples
Selinunte was founded in the VIIth century BC by settlers from Megara Iblaea, a Greek colony north of Syracuse, on a flat hill facing the sea between the mouths of two rivers. It was the westernmost Greek settlement on Sicily. It stood on the coast of the island which faced Africa. The model at the Museum of Palermo shows the town at the peak of its development, before its seizure by the Carthaginians in 409 BC.
View from the northern end of the flat hill where the town stood
The town was repopulated at the initiative of Hermocrates, a general/politician from Syracuse. The new boundaries of the town did not include the whole northern part of the hill where recent archaeological findings identified the foundations of some public buildings and most likely of the agora. The very large area of the town before 409 BC could have accommodated up to 100,000 inhabitants.
Walls of the acropolis
The circumference of the walls is easily traced, by the
fragments still extant on the hill, where
the guard tower, called Torre delli Pulci is built.
Sir Richard Colt Hoare - A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily - published in 1819.
Travellers of the past were familiar with the history of Selinunte because its conquest by the Carthaginians was described in detail in Bibliotheca Historica by Diodorus Siculus, a Sicilian historian of the Ist century BC. He explained how the war began: And when the Selinuntians went to war with them (the inhabitants of Segesta) over the land in dispute, they withdrew from it of their free will, being concerned lest the Syracusans should use this excuse to join the Selinuntians in the war and they should thereby run the risk of utterly destroying their country. But when the Selinuntians proposed, quite apart from the territory in dispute, to carve off for themselves a large portion of the neighbouring territory, the inhabitants of Segesta thereupon dispatched ambassadors to Carthage, asking for aid and putting their city in the hands of the Carthaginians.
Diodorus Siculus - Book XIII - Loeb Classical Library
On this Hill are traces of the Town, remains of two Towers, and also of Three Temples, all levelled with the soil, and apparently incomplete at the moment when they fell a prey to the tremendous earthquake which, travelling from east to west, laid them, and every other sacred Edifice at Selinuntium prostrate. These Temples stood within its Walls.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1838 Edition - based on a travel to Sicily made in 1834.
It is generally thought that the majority of the colonnades of the temples fell to the ground because of an earthquake which occurred in the VIth century AD and not because of war events. In 1929 a section of the northern long side of one of the temples (Temple C) was re-erected.
Temple C: (left) the colonnade; (right) the same with the walls of the town in the foreground
The temples of Selinunte were all built in Doric style, the first of the three classical orders to be developed in Greece. In Temple C the ratio between length and width was higher than in most Greek temples (usually 2:1). It had 17 columns on the long sides and six on the fronts, very similar to the Heraion of Olympia which had a 16:6 ratio and to the Temple to Apollo in Corinth (15:6). Temple C is dated VIth century BC. The shafts of the columns were made up of stone drums which were quarried some eight miles from the town.
The Metope Bassi-rilievi, with which the Duca di Serra di Falco has enriched Palermo. were found in one of the Temples on this Hill; and perhaps it might be in one of these Temples that the Matrons of Selinuntium took refuge, when their Town was stormed, two hundred and forty-two years after its foundation. Starke
In 1823 the fragments of three metopes of Temple C were found: they depicted subjects which were typical of the Greek world. Heracles carrying the Cercopes was portrayed also in a metope of a sanctuary near Paestum, another Greek town in Italy. The episode is not one of the twelve labours of Heracles. Perhaps it was meant to celebrate the victory of the Greek culture over the indigenous ones.
Archaeologists have found enough evidence to say that Temple D was dedicated to Apollo and that temples on the eastern hill were dedicated to Zeus and Hera, however the temples continue to be named by the letters they were given during the first systematic excavations which identified seven large temples: A, B, C and D on the acropolis and E, F and G on the eastern hill. Small temples which were found at a later stage were named after the last letters of the alphabet. It is a very rational approach, yet it spoils the monuments of their evocativeness.
Four small metopes were found in 1892 and two other ones in 1968 in sections of the walls which were rebuilt after 409 AC. Their size is not compatible with any of the four large temples of the acropolis. They could have decorated a small ancient temple which has been identified near Temple D. They are dated VIIth century and they include elements which indicate influences from Eastern Mediterranean civilizations.
Demeter and her daughter Kore or Persephone are goddesses of agricultural fertility; they symbolize the seeds and the spikes of grains. Ceremonies in honour of Demeter and Kore were held at Eleusis. Hecate is a goddess who assisted Demeter in her search for Kore who had been abducted by Hades (Pluto). The three together symbolize a Triple Mother Goddess: Kore, the Maiden, Demeter the Mother and Hecate the Crone. The Greeks settled on Sicily in search of land which could be farmed and in particular could produce wheat and barley, oil and wine.
North-South (above) and East-West (below) streets of the acropolis leading to the walls
The Selinuntians, who were prosperous in those days and whose city was heavily populated, held the Segestaeans in contempt. And at first, deploying in battle order, they laid waste the land which touched their border, since their armies were far superior, but after this, despising their foes, they scattered everywhere over the countryside. The generals of the Segestaeans, watching their opportunity, attacked them with the aid of the Carthaginians and Campanians. Since the attack was not expected, they easily put the Selinuntians to flight, killing about a thousand of the soldiers and capturing all their loot. Diodorus
Northern gate of the redesigned/resized town
At this time Hannibal, the general of the Carthaginians, (not the Hannibal of the Second Punic War) gathered together both the mercenaries he had collected from Iberia and the soldiers he had enrolled from Libya, manned sixty ships of war, and made ready some fifteen hundred transports. On these he loaded the troops, the siege-engines, missiles, and all the other accessories. After crossing with the fleet the Libyan Sea he came to land on Sicily. (..) At that very time some Selinuntian cavalry were tarrying in those regions, and having seen the great size of the fleet as it came to land, they speedily informed their fellow citizens of the presence of the enemy. The Selinuntians at once dispatched their letter-carriers to the Syracusans, asking their aid. (..) Hannibal disembarked his troops and pitched a camp; (..) after adding to his army the soldiers supplied by the Segestaeans and by the other allies he broke camp and made his way toward Selinus. And when he came to the Mazarus River, he took at the first assault the trading-station situated by it, and when he arrived before the city, he divided his army into two parts; then, after he had invested the city and put his siege-engines in position, he began the assaults with all speed. Diodorus
Double wall of the northern fortifications of the redesigned/resized town
Hannibal set up six towers of exceptional size and advanced an equal number of battering-rams plated with iron against the walls; furthermore, by employing his archers and slingers in great numbers he beat back the fighters on the battlements. The Selinuntians, who had for a long time been without experience in sieges and had been the only Sicilian Greeks to fight on the side of the Carthaginians in the war against Gelon (a tyrant of Syracuse), had never conceived that they would be brought to such a state of fear by the people whom they had befriended. But when they saw the great size of the engines of war and the hosts of the enemy, they were filled with dread and dismayed at the magnitude of the danger threatening them. However, they did not totally despair of their deliverance, but in the expectation that the Syracusans and their other allies would soon arrive, the whole populace fought off the enemy from the walls. Indeed all the men in the prime of life were armed and battled desperately, while the older men busied themselves with the supplies and, as they made the rounds of the wall, begged the young men not to allow them to fall under subjection to the enemy; and women and girls supplied the food and mills to the defenders of the fatherland, counting as naught the modesty and the sense of shame which they cherished in time of peace. Such consternation prevailed that the magnitude of the emergency called for even the aid of their women. Hannibal, who had promised the soldiers that he would give them the city to pillage, pushed the siege-engines forward and assaulted the walls in waves with his best soldiers. And all together the trumpets sounded the signal for attack and at one command the army of the Carthaginians as a body raised the war-cry, and by the power of the rams the walls were shaken, while by reason of the height of the towers the fighters on them slew many of the Selinuntians. For in the long period of peace they had enjoyed they had given no attention whatever even to their walls and so they were easily subdued, since the wooden towers far exceeded the walls in height. (..) The Selinuntians, picking out their best horsemen, dispatched them at once by night, some to Acragas, and others to Gela and Syracuse, asking them to come to their aid with all speed, since their city could not withstand the strength of the enemy for any great time. Now the Acragantini and Geloans waited for the Syracusans, since they wished to lead their troops as one body against the Carthaginians; and the Syracusans, on learning the facts about the siege, first stopped the war they were engaged in with the Chalcidians and then spent some time in gathering the troops from the countryside and making great preparations, thinking that the city might be forced by siege to surrender but would not be taken by storm. Diodorus
Northern fortifications of the redesigned/resized town: round bastion
Hannibal, when the night had passed, at daybreak launched assaults from every side, and the part of the city's wall which had already fallen and the portion of the wall next the breach he broke down with the siege-engines. He then cleared the area of the fallen part of the wall and, attacking in relays of his best troops, gradually forced out the Selinuntians; it was not possible, however, to overpower by force men who were fighting for their very existence. Both sides suffered heavy losses, but for the Carthaginians fresh troops kept taking over the fighting, while for the Selinuntians there was no reserve to come to their support. The siege continued for nine days with unsurpassed stubbornness, and in the event the Carthaginians suffered and inflicted many terrible injuries. Diodorus
Houses in the acropolis
When the Iberians mounted where the wall had fallen, the women who were on the housetops raised a great cry, whereupon the Selinuntians, thinking that the city was being taken, were struck with terror, and leaving the walls they gathered in bands at the entrances of the narrow alleys, endeavoured to barricade the streets, and held off the enemy for a long time. And as the Carthaginians pressed the attack, the multitudes of women and children took refuge on the housetops whence they threw both stones and tiles on the enemy. For a long time the Carthaginians came off badly, being unable either, because of the walls of the houses, to surround the men in the alleys or, because of those hurling at them from the roofs, to fight it out on equal terms. However, as the struggle went on until the afternoon, the missiles of the fighters from the houses were exhausted, whereas the troops of the Carthaginians, which constantly relieved those which were suffering heavily, continued the fighting in fresh condition. Finally, since the troops within the walls were being steadily reduced in number and the enemy entered the city in ever-increasing strength, the Selinuntians were forced out of the alleys. And so, while the city was being taken, there was to be observed among the Greeks lamentation and weeping, and among the barbarians there was cheering and commingled outcries; for the former, as their eyes looked upon the great disaster which surrounded them, were filled with terror, while the latter, elated by their successes, urged on their comrades to slaughter. The Selinuntians gathered into the market-place and all who reached it died fighting there; and the barbarians, scattering throughout the entire city, plundered whatever of value was to be found in the dwellings, while of the inhabitants they found in them some they burned together with their homes and when others struggled into the streets, without distinction of sex or age but whether infant children or women or old men, they put them to the sword, showing no sign of compassion. They mutilated even the dead according to the practice of their people, some carrying bunches of hands which they had spitted upon their javelins and spears. Such women as they found to have taken refuge together with their children in the temples they called upon their comrades not to kill, and to these alone did they give assurance of their lives. This they did, however, not out of pity for the unfortunate people, but because they feared lest the women, despairing of their lives, would burn down the temples, and thus they would not be able to make booty of the great wealth which was stored up in them as dedications. To such a degree did the barbarians surpass all other men in cruelty, that whereas the rest of mankind spare those who seek refuge in the sanctuaries from the desire not to commit sacrilege against the deity, the Carthaginians, on the contrary, would refrain from laying hands on the enemy in order that they might plunder the temples of their gods. By nightfall the city had been sacked, and of the dwellings some had been burned and others razed to the ground, while the whole area was filled with blood and corpses. Sixteen thousand was the sum of the inhabitants who were found to have fallen, not counting the more than five thousand who had been taken captive. Diodorus
Northern fortifications of the redesigned/resized town: cryptoporticus, a hidden passage which allowed the defenders to safely move from one sector of the walls to another and to make sallies. The use of hidden passages was a characteristic of Castello Eurialo, a fortress which protected Syracuse. It can be traced back to very ancient Greek fortifications, e.g. at Tiryns
Hermocrates the Syracusan arrived in Sicily. This man, who had served as general in the war against the Athenians and had been of great service to his country, had acquired the greatest influence among the Syracusans, but afterwards (..) he was overpowered by his political opponents and condemned to exile. (..) And since he had struck up a friendship with Pharnabazus, the satrap of the Persians, as a result of the campaign, he accepted from him a great sum of money with which, after he had arrived at Messina, he had five triremes built and hired a thousand soldiers. Then, after adding to this force also above a thousand of the Himeraeans who had been driven from their home, he endeavoured with the aid of his friends to make good his return to Syracuse; but when he failed in this design, he set out through the middle of the island and seizing Selinus he built a wall about a part of the city and called to him from all quarters the Selinuntians who were still alive. Diodorus
(above) Western harbour; (below) shrine most likely dedicated to Demeter Malophoros (carrier of apples) on the hill beyond the western harbour
Hermocrates died shortly after having refounded Selinunte. The new town had state-of-the-art fortifications, but only a fraction of its former population and wealth. It was entirely in the Carthaginian sphere of influence and there is no evidence of public buildings being erected after 409. According to Diodorus the Carthaginians, having razed to the ground the city of Selinus, removed its population to Lilybaeum (today's Marsala) during the First Punic War to avoid its conquest by the Romans. In the Ist century AD Pliny the Elder listed Selinunte among the Sicilian towns, but according to Strabo the town was an extinct one.
Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonino Salinas di Palermo: vases from Selinunte
The Hall of Sculpture, which enriches the Royal University of Palermo, owes its most valuable treasures to the remains of Selinuntium. Starke.
In 1866 a monastery of the Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri at Palermo was confiscated and turned into an archaeological museum. A large hall houses the works of art found at Selinunte by a long series of excavation campaigns which are still going on. The Museum is named after Antonino Salinas who was its Director from 1873 to 1914 and who enriched it with new findings from Selinunte, some of which, such as the vases shown above came from tombs.
Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonino Salinas di Palermo: terracotta decorations of the Selinunte temples. The image used as background for this page shows another similar exhibit
The roofs were clad with large terracotta tiles which were finely painted with vivid colours. The tiles were found in the walls built after the Carthaginian conquest of the town. It appears that this system for cladding a roof was no longer in use in the Vth century BC, so the tiles were used as building material for the walls.
In 1882 a boy found a small bronze statue by chance in the countryside near Selinunte. It portrays a kouros, a Greek word meaning boy, youth of a noble rank. It is very similar to two marble statues found at Agrigento and Reggio Calabria. It is usually housed in a small museum at Castelvetrano, the town in the territory of which the archaeological area of Selinunte is located. The oldest examples of these statues have arms hanging by the sides of the body, while the statue of Selinunte has arms detached from the body and the right one seems to be making an offer. This feature led archaeologists to assume it was placed in a temple.
In 1979 a beautiful marble statue was found at Motya, a Carthaginian colony on an islet south of Drepanum (Trapani). It is possible that the statue was looted from Selinunte in 409 BC or from another Greek town in Sicily. It is believed to represent the winner of a chariot race because the garment is very similar to that of the Charioteer of Delphi. Eventually it was used as building material for the fortifications of the town.
Materials stored in a warehouse at Selinunte
The archaeological site of Selinunte does not have a small museum. Materials from the most recent excavation campaigns and which are not deemed worth being moved to Palermo or Castelvetrano are stored in a former farmhouse in the area of the town which was abandoned after 409 BC.
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Catania - Ancient Monuments
Catania - Around Piazza del Duomo
Catania - Via dei Crociferi
Catania - S. Niccol˛ l'Arena
Palermo - Gates and City Layout
Palermo - Norman-Arab Monuments
Palermo - Martorana and Cappella Palatina
Palermo - Medieval Palaces
Palermo - Cathedral
Palermo - Churches of the Main Religious Orders
Palermo - Other Churches
Palermo - Oratories
Palermo - Palaces of the Noble Families
Palermo - Public Buildings and Fountains
Palermo - Museums
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Syracuse - Main Archaeological Area
Syracuse - Other Archaeological Sites
Syracuse - Castello Eurialo
Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia
Syracuse - Medieval Monuments
Syracuse - Renaissance Monuments
Syracuse - Baroque and Modern Monuments
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale