31 July 2015

A visit to the site of Naxos,
first Greek colony in Sicily

The beach-front bars acknowledge the Greek origins of Naxos, the earliest Greek settlement in Sicily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I had promised myself that this week I would explore Giardini Naxos and the site of Naxos, the earliest Greek settlement in Sicily. But it became a busy week, with visits to lofty hill town of Taormina, which stands high above Giardini Naxos, and later in the week to the classical sites in Syracuse and Noto with its grand baroque architecture.

After two walks on the beach at Recanati yesterday [30 July 2015] and along the shoreline, I went in search of the classical city of Naxos, which is behind a railed site east of Recanati.

But it was a long walk around the site and through the resort of Giardini Naxos before I found the entrance to the archaeological site and museum beside La Sirena restaurant on the busy seafront, on the low, rocky headland now called Cape Schisò. It is hard to imagine with these few scanty remains that this was once an important centre of Greek civilisation and culture on the island of Sicily, and remained so until the Arab invasions of the Byzantine Empire.

The beach at Naxos, where the first Greek settlers arrived in Sicily in 735 BC (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Classical Naxos stood on Cape Schisò, formed by an ancient stream of lava, immediately to the north of the Alcantara, one of the great gorges in Sicily. A small bay to the north separates in from the foot of the hill-top town of Taormina.

Classical writers say Naxos was the most ancient Greek colony in Sicily. It was founded a year before Syracusae (Syracuse), or in 735 BC, by a group of colonists from Chalcis in Euboea and the island of Naxos in the Cyclades.

The leader of the colonists and the founder of the city was Theocles or Thucles, who was born in Athens. But the name of Naxos is derived from the presence among the original settlers of a group of colonists from Naxos.

The new colony must have been speedily joined by fresh settlers from Greece. Six years after it was established, the Chalcidians at Naxos were able to send out a fresh colony to set up the city of Leontini (Lentini) in 730 BC, followed soon by another colony at Catana.

Strabo also speaks of Zancle (modern Messina) as a colony from Naxos, although Thucydides does not mention this. Callipolis was another colony of Naxos, although the site is not known.

The lengthy remains of the former city walls of Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Surprisingly, we know little about the early history of Naxos, and the first accounts are about disasters that hit the Greek city. Herodotus recounts that Naxos was besieged and captured by Hippocrates, the despot of Gela, ca 498-491 BC.

Soon after, Naxos was in the hands of Gelon of Syracuse and his brother Hieron by 476 BC. In a move to strengthen his own military power, Hieron moved the people of Naxos and Catana to Leontini, and brought in new Greek colonists to live in the cities he had emptied.

However, Naxos was restored to the original inhabitants in 461 BC, and the cities of Naxos, Leontini and Catana formed a close alliance against Syracuse and the other Doric cities in Sicily.

When Athens sent a force to Sicily under Laches and Charoeades, Naxos immediately came to its aid. In the war that followed, Naxos repulsed a sudden attack from Messina in 425 BC.

During a later expedition from Athens to Sicily, the Athenian fleet landed at Naxos in 415 BC, and Naxos once again fought on the same side as the Athenians. Thucydides recalls that Naxos and Catania were the only Greek cities in Sicily that sided with Athens.

A revenge attack on Naxos by Syracuse was called off in 409 BC because Carthage was posing a military threat to all the Greek cities in Sicily. But in 403 BC, Dionysius of Syracuse captured Naxos which was betrayed by the general Procles. Dionysius sold all the inhabitants of Naxos into slavery, razed the city walls and buildings, and handed over the defeated city’s territory to neighbouring Siculi.

Naxos never recovered from this blow, and it is difficult to trace what happened to the place in the immediate aftermath. But a new settlement was built on the hill called Mount Taurus, which rises immediately above the site of Naxos ca 396 BC, and this eventually became the town of Tauroménion (Ταυρομένιον), present-day Taormina.

In 358 BC, Andromachus, the father of the historian Timaeus, gathered together the descendants of the people of Naxos, by now exiles throughout the island, and brought them to live on the hill of Tauroménion, which became the successor of ancient Naxos.

Pliny the Elder is mistaken when he says Tauroménion was once called Naxos. The new city quickly prospered, and the site of Naxos was never fully resettled.

However, the altar and shrine of Apollo Archegetes continued to mark the spot where Naxos once stood, and it is mentioned in the war between Octavian and Sextus Pompey in Sicily in 36 BC. It remained a tradition for all envoys setting out on sacred missions to Greece, or returning to Sicily to stop at Naxos and offer a sacrifice on the altar.

The Byzantine site at Giardini Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The site stretches over a large area of Cape Schisò, among olive and lemon groves. It is badly labelled, but it is possible to make the foundations of a once-large town laid out in grids and a long stretch of the city wall of Naxos, as well as rubble indicating the later presence of a Byzantine town on the site.

For centuries, the Schisò Castle belonged to the De Spuches family. It is still private property and is not open to visits or for archaeological research. It may date back to 1100. It has a square plant and four round towers and is surrounded by a large garden. The castle had an autonomous supply of water thanks to a well immediately outside.

Underground passages connected to the Vignazza Tower, an impressive defence garrison on the promontory of Naxos, and to another small fortress east of the castle. Inside the Schisò Castle is the small Church of Saint Pantaleo, a martyr who was a missionary in Roman Sicily (feast day 29 July).

During the Arab occupation of Sicily, Naxos was called al-Kusus. In the Norman period, Kusus became Kisoi and then Schisò. Since the area was widely cultivated with citrus orchards, it came to be known as Giardini and was part of the administrative area of Taormina.

In 1005, Queen Adelasia, the wide of Count Roger of Altavilla, gave the Church of Saint Pantaleo at Schisò to monks following the rule of Saint Basil, granting them the right of tax-free fishing in the sea off Naxos.

Schisò Castle may date back to 1100. For centuries, the castle belonged to the De Spuches family. It remains private property in the hands of the Palladino family and is not open to visits or for archaeological research. It has a square shape and four round towers and is surrounded by a large garden. The castle had an autonomous supply of water thanks to a well immediately outside.

The towers and castles on the cape helped to protect the Sicilian coastline along the Ionian Sea against corsairs and pirates from the north African coast, and the raids did not cease until France conquered Algiers in 1830.

In 1846, King Ferdinand II transformed Giardini into an independent commune. The economic development of Giardini Naxos started around 1870 after the Messina-Catania railway opened and changed the small maritime village into a popular tourist destination.

However, the site of Naxos has never been fully excavated by archaeologists, and some of the small number of pieces recovered are on display in the small two-room museum.

Exhibits in the Archaeological Museum at the site of Naxos (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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