Question: Where in the world did a city build an entire Greek Temple it couldn’t afford, just to prove that it was rich?
Answer: Segesta, Sicily
High on Monte Bàrbaro in Sicily, the fifth-century BCE temple at Segesta is considered among the best-preserved Greek temples on earth—which is surprising, since Segesta is not a Greek city. At a glance, the temple is all about the Doric style, with 36 tapered columns and a wide flat capital. But a few details betray it: it has no tribute to any deity and it has never had a rooftop.
The temple was meant to be window dressing of a kind. When Segesta’s rival city, Selinute, paired up with mighty Syracuse, the hilltop town’s nobles hit on the idea of finding an even mightier ally far from Sicily: Athens. Of course, Athenians were skeptical, and took several years of wooing, but agreed to send diplomats to check out Segesta. Local history says the Segestans hired Greek builders to construct as much of the temple as possible before the visitors arrived, as a way of proving their (non-existent) wealth. The envoys saw the grand structure looking almost exactly as it does today, a whopping 200-feet long and 85 feet wide.
While the envoys did later aid Segesta when it was under siege, Athenians soon figured out the city’s fraud, and refused to make a more meaningful alliance. Without Athens to impress (and out of cash), Segesta halted work on the temple, which never got a roof. Perhaps because it was not a site of deep significance, the temple was spared during various attacks on the city over the years, including when Syracusans leveled many of the other buildings.
Today, the once proud city of Segesta is just a hyphenated extension of nearby Calatafimi, but the 2,400-year-old temple, a pretender no more, really is the greatest treasure of both.
The History of Segesta in 8 Fast Facts
- Some historians say Segesta was initially settled by people fleeing the Trojan War, but others say the first people were the indigenous Elymi.
- Segestans started fighting with their neighbors in Selinute 2500 years ago, with each side eyeing the other’s territory and wrestling for dominance in the region.
- When Hannibal the Great’s Carthaginians took control of Selinute, Segesta spared ruin by making nice and agreeing to be subject to his rule.
- That alliance was only helpful until Syracuse had the upper hand and punished Carthaginian sympathizers: the town’s men were killed, and the women and children sold into slavery.
- The little city that could bounced back in the 200s BCE, and, when the forces of Carthage returned, the city refused to submit, a move which made it popular with the Romans.
- Pliny the Elder and Ptolomy describe how a Roman emporium thrived nearby at the edge of the sea, but the rest of the city was recorded as being dingy and dying.
- By 900 AD, the city of Segesta was entirely gone, while the emporium was growing into a city of its own, Castellamare del Golfo.
- In 1997, neighboring town Calatafimi changed its name to Calatafimi-Segesta, reviving the lost city, if only in name, and drawing travelers to see the wonder that never faded in history.
Experience the history of Sicily and rise to new heights as Segesta on your Sicily’s Ancient Landscapes & Timeless Traditions adventure.