A day of Surprises, in the city of Syracuse (now known as Siracusa).
The Coin of the Day is a denarius of the Emperor Tiberius.
Coin of the Day: Denarius of Tiberius
This year marks the 2000th anniversary of the death of Caesar Augustus, and thus the 2000th anniversary of the accession of Tiberius. Tiberius reigned from 14-37 CE and therefore was emperor when Jesus Christ was crucified.
The denarius, by the way, is the direct ancestor of the English penny, which is why (before decimalisation) the symbol for pence was “d.” Originally, the penny contained twenty four grains (or one “pennyweight”) of sterling silver. Other things came to be weighed in pennyweights, which is why we have 16 penny and 8 penny nails, written 16d and 8d. (It’s not their cost…well maybe now it is…it’s their weight.)
Twenty pennyweight made an ounce of 480 grains. But that’s a troy ounce, not an avoirdupois ounce. The avoirdupois ounce of 437.5 grains, which we use to weigh groceries and packages, is a later invention. Troy ounces, meanwhile, continue to be used for precious metal.
The “pound sterling,” once upon a time, was just that, a pound, a troy pound, of twelve troy ounces or 5760 grains of sterling silver. It was devalued by fifty percent some time in the middle ages, and again several times after that, otherwise the pound would have been worth ten or twelve dollars instead of five, back when both were tied to silver and then gold.
This is an ancient Greek colony–Sicily was once called Magna Graecia–and the city that Archimedes lived in. He, unfortunately, was killed when the Romans conquered the city.
Before this, though, Syracuse was an ally of Sparta in the Peloponnesian war, and Athens tried to conquer it. Athens was never quite able to finish the encircling wall for the siege, and Syracuse was spared. And Athens found this expensive failure of an expedition to be the turning point in the war, eventually losing in 404 BCE.
So, a lot of history, and remember that two days ago I was assured the ruins of Syracuse were spectacular.
So, without further ado, here they are!
The theater, which our guide for the day assured me was the second biggest anywhere. Note though that a lot of the seating has been removed, the exposed ground now overgrown with grass.
Thus the Roman Colosseum was properly known as the “Flavian Amphitheater.”
Elsewhere in the city, closer to the harbor, is this Temple to Apollo.
That’s all, folks!
I asked the guide if there was more that we weren’t seeing because of time constraints or something like that, and she said there wasn’t. I’ve shown you everything. Unlike other places where I didn’t photograph everything, and didn’t show everything I photographed.
I almost didn’t bother taking a picture of that temple, even though I have a digital camera.
So that was surprise number one, and it wasn’t a good one.
But there are two things of actual interest here.
First, close to the first group of ruins, is the Ear of Dionysus, a artificial cave (formerly a quarry) that funnels sound very well, such that Dionysius the tyrant (~390 BCE) used it as a prison for his enemies, and listened in as they hatched jailhouse plots against him.
Second, the cathedral.
This cathedral is very interesting because it’s a relic of the transition of Syracuse from paganism to Christianity.
Christians, on taking over a town during the 4th or 5th centuries, would often convert a pagan temple into a church. Why not? The stones are already quarried, the foundation already laid. It’s some work to do a retrofit, but less than to build from scratch.
This cathedral was originally a temple to Minerva, built about 480 BCE. Said temple was built with Doric columns, the oldest of the three styles of columns.
Pagan temples generally consisted of columns on the outside (six or sometimes eight across the front and rear, more along the sides) and a solid wall within the columns, called a cella, the whole thing covered by a roof. A typical example (OK, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was rather extraordinary, but architecturally it was typical) is pictured here.
The priesthood got to go into the cella, wherein was kept the statue of the god. Sometimes the statue was brought out on parade. Sacrifices to the god would generally take place on an altar outside the temple, where the general public could see the procedings.
What they did with the Temple of Minerva in order to change it into the Syracuse Cathedral, was to fill in the gaps between the columns, as you can see here…
and especially here:
Put this facade on it:
Then, go after the cella. They carved out archways in the cella walls, making it, in effect, the central area (nave) of a basilica. The end result now, is the columns are now on the inside, and the walls are on the outside.
But you couldn’t just knock holes in the cella. There was no mortar between the blocks, and they’d fall in. Somehow or another, they inserted Roman arches into the cella as they created the openings (you will have to look closely).
That must have been an interesting job, somehow keeping those loose blocks from caving in as they put the archway in.
More signs of this cathedral’s former life as a pagan temple:
Finally, here’s an informative sign to explain what’s original and what isn’t. The entrance is shown at the top.
OK, so I should show some of the cathedral’s artwork. That is after all what those who aren’t history or architecture nerds would want to see. Some of the interior you’ve already seen, but here is some stained glass (which was phun to phigure out how to fotograf).
As a cathedral, it doesn’t offer a lot of spectacular artwork. Simplicity is the style here, not gaudiness (I expect I’ll see plenty of “gaudy” later). But I understand there are few better places to see how an old temple was retrofitted to a church.
Ironically, that makes this the best preserved Greek building I saw here.
And it was surprise number two. Very interesting, indeed!
I didn’t show you the front of the building. That’s because it is a much later Baroque addition.
We went back to Ragusa, and got a short tour of some things near the center, after sunset.
(St. George also appears on English and Russian coinage, for example this piece.)
Now that gate, if memory serves, is NOT part of this, the Cathedral of St. George. This is Baroque through and through. Apparently quite interesting inside, but we couldn’t go in.
Behind the facade, you could see this dome, part of the cathedral, and added in the 1800s.
Some walking and I could get closer, but you really couldn’t see much of what the dome was attached to. Nonetheless, the lighting makes this a cool shot.
Very near here was where we held the “official” dinner to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday.
And after that, it was back to mountain goating our way back to the hotel. Tomorrow is the journey to the rather obscure town of Mussomeli.