A Classical Doric Temple in Sicily Built by a Mysterious Population
Thanks to its unique position in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily has a rich and complex history. There are many fine examples of Classical Greek architecture on the island and one of the most remarkable is the Doric Temple at Segesta. This exemplary example of Doric architecture, however, was not constructed by the Greeks, but by a native Sicilian people.
The History of The Doric Temple At Segesta, Sicily
The city of Segesta, in the north-west of Sicily, was founded in the 6 th century BC by a native Sicilian people, the Elymi. Stories that it was founded by Trojan refugees are probably baseless. By the 5 th century BC, the city was wealthy and densely populated. At the time, the Greeks had colonized the east of Sicily and the Carthaginians the south-west. Being bitter foes, they fought a number of wars.
It is believed that the Elymians ordered the construction of the Doric Temple which was designed by an Athenian architect in about 411 BC, during a period of relative peace and prosperity. Some speculate that the temple was built because of the increasing Hellenization of the Elymians. Another theory is that the structure was part of a larger project that involved an Elymian sacred place and that the temple was part of this complex of structures.
The Doric Temple of Segesta. (Giulio / Adobe Stock)
The hollow temple is all that stands today. This was due to the fact that the Elymians were not able to complete their place of worship due to an attack on the settlement of Segesta and the city declined as a result of the constant wars that ravaged the island of Sicily in the Classical era in the 4 th century BC. The population of Segesta had been allies of Athens but after they had been defeated in the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC), the Elymians were forced to become vassals of the Carthaginians.
Tapering columns, capitals and frieze, Doric Temple, Segesta. (Letizia / Adobe Stock)
Segesta was besieged by Dionysus the First in 397 BC and unable to hold out. In 307 BC it was sacked again, and its population enslaved by Agathocles of Syracuse. The city never recovered, although it later became an independent city again, but was garrisoned by the Carthaginians and later by the Romans. The Doric temple was not used as a place of worship during the Roman era, even before Sicily was Christianized. In the 3 rd century BC, a Greek-style theatre was built at Segesta.
Segesta was finally abandoned in the 10 th century because of Arab raids. This ironically may have helped to preserve the magnificent Doric Temple.
The Magnificence of the Doric Temple
The Doric structure is located on Monte Bàrbaro and overlooks the spectacular Gulf of Castellammare. Only the peristyle of the temple was ever built, but it is a very impressive public monument even after 2500 years.
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This temple is a classic example of Doric architecture and is 200 feet long and 85 feet wide (61 x 26 m). Each length of the temple has fourteen columns, which are in an excellent state of preservation and the whole temple was made up of a total of 36 columns. All the columns are large and tapering and topped with a convex capital which bore the weight thrusting down on them. The frieze resting on the capitals was decorated with panels of vertical lines and geometric designs. The temple was once brightly painted and would have been seen for miles around.
The sacred building was never roofed and had no altar, elements one would expect in a classic Doric design. Archaeologists, however, have unearthed a 4 th century Punic tomb in the temple.
Visiting the Doric Temple in Segesta, Sicily
The Doric temple is approximately 50 miles (81 km) from Palermo and 18 miles (30 km) from Trapani. There is a car park at the site, but also public transport. The temple is on top of the hill and the views are expansive. A small fee is charged to enter and for another small fee, it is possible to visit Segesta’s other remarkable attraction, the Greek theatre. There is plenty of accommodation and some great restaurants near the Doric Temple.
Top image: The moon among the columns of the Doric Temple at Segesta, Sicily. Source: ildiora / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Burford, A., 1961. Temple building at Segesta. The Classical Quarterly, 11(1-2), pp.87-93
De Vido, S. (2013). Egesta (Segesta). The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, 1-2
Hodge, A. T. (1964). Notes on Three Western Greek Temples. American Journal of Archaeology, 68(2), 179-184
Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/501659?seq=1