Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
The Temple of Segesta
We love ancient Greek art and architecture. The only problem is that we don't have a lot of it, at least not in Greece. Some of the best examples of many Greek styles can be found in other unlikely places, like Sicily. In the north-west corner of this Mediterranean island was once the city of Segesta. Its inhabitants were an indigenous Sicilian population called the Elymi, and yet here we find one of the best-preserved examples of the oldest orders of Greek architecture. The Temple of Segesta is a mystery, a marvel, and a monument to the cultural influence of the ancient Greeks.
History of Segesta and Its Temple
The city of Segesta seems to have been founded thousands of years ago, perhaps as far back as 2,000 BCE. Greek historians would later claim that it was founded by colonists from the Greek city of Troy. This wasn't the only legend to argue for an ethnic connection between Greece and Sicily and it may have had political motivations.
Whatever its exact origins, Segesta became a thriving trade center. By the time it reached the peak of its wealth and power in 5 BCE, it controlled one of the most important mints in the region, featured a massive market that attracted traders from all over, and some impressive fortifications to defend from invaders. It also seems to have heavily assimilated many Greek cultural practices, suggesting a strong Greek presence.
It was at this time that the Temple of Segesta was built. The traditional date for its initial construction is held to be around 417 BCE, right around the time when Sicily was drawn into international conflicts between Athens, Sparta, and Carthage. So, the Temple of Segesta represents the city at the end of its zenith, right before the city would start to decline.
The Temple of Segesta is a classic example of Doric Order architecture, the oldest of the three Greek styles. The columns are tapered and topped with a simple, convex capital. The frieze (the horizontal band above the capitals) is decorated in the traditional Doric style, with alternating panels of triglyphs (with three vertical lines) and metopes (which could be decorated in any fashion). The dimensions of the temple also conform to Greek mathematic ratios. There are 14 columns on each side, and 6 along the facades. Archaeological evidence also suggests that this temple, like most Greek temples, was originally brightly painted.
The Temple of Segesta has been cited as the best surviving example of the Doric Order in Europe. So, what's it doing in Sicily? The Elymi had their own architectural traditions, after all. The presence of this temple suggests that Greek cultural influences were pretty strong in Sicily. It's not too surprising; the Greeks made some of the best stuff in the Mediterranean and all the trading cities kept it in stock. The Greeks controlled the trade, and thus their culture became pretty well recognized in trade centers like Segesta.
The Unfinished Temple
At first glance, this is a perfect Greek temple. However, as we take a closer look we begin to notice that some things are missing. None of the columns are fluted (carved with lines of vertical grooves), which is very unusual. The metopes in this temple are blank, and while that was a legitimate style in some Doric temples, it was rare in this time period. Usually, the metopes were carved with reliefs of the gods or heroic figures.
The inside of the temple also raises questions. There's nothing here, which isn't itself that odd for ruins but there's also no evidence there ever anything here. There are no remains of walls or altars or statuary. In fact, archaeologists don't even know which god this temple is dedicated to.
When we add in the fact that the frieze was never plastered, the front steps are missing, and the base blocks between columns were never added, one thing becomes clear. This temple was never finished. It was abandoned mid-construction. Why? The most likely answer is warfare. In late 5 BCE, Athens began an assault on Segesta which failed, but also pulled the Sicilian city into ongoing conflicts between Athens and Sparta. So, Segesta reached out to Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) for support. Carthage was an ally of Segesta, but ended up taking control of all western Sicily. The Elymi people probably didn't have the stability or resources to finish their temple.
An Alternative Theory
There is at least one other major theory that has emerged. Many scholars are now questioning whether or not the Temple of Segesta was ever meant to be finished. The theory states that the temple wasn't really a temple at all; it was more of a courtyard that was simply modeled on a Greek temple. The Doric design reflected the assimilation of Greek architectural practices but the Elymi weren't Greeks in practice. They may have used this design to house their own open-air altar for the worship of their own deities. We may never know for sure what happened in Segesta, but the fact remains that it is an excellent example of Doric architecture, even if it is unfinished.
The Temple of Segesta in north-west Sicily was built in late 5 BCE, when the trade city was at the height of its prosperity. Segesta was the home of the Elymi people, but Greek cultural influences seem to have been prominent in this trading city. The Temple of Segesta was built perfectly in the Greek Doric Order, save for the fact that it was never finished. Invasions by Athens or Carthage could have contributed to the abandonment of the project. Still, it's a great example of Greek Doric architecture, perhaps the best. Just don't expect to find it in Greece.
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