Megale Hellas – Greater Greece

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Recently, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles has returned to the small Sicilian hilltop town of Aidione, a large cult statue of Aphrodite, which the museum bought in 1988 for $18 million, but which was subsequently proved by the Italian authorities to have been excavated, exported and bought illegally. The statue was welcomed home by a brass band and cheering crowd and will eventually go on display in Aidione archaeological museum.

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The modern town of Aidione is near the ancient site of Morgantina, from where the cult statue seems to have originated. Morgantina formed part of a wide number of settlements in Sicily and Southern Italy that the Greek geographer Strabo, in the 1st century AD, called ‘megale Hellas’ – greater Greece. This whole area had, since the 8th century BC, been populated by an increasing number of ‘new’ Greek foundations – most often referred to as colonies – including famous cities like Acragas, Gela and Syracuse.

These settlements played an important role in the ancient world in several ways. They were trading ports and many grew incredibly wealthy. Their rulers, like Gelon and Hieron of Syracuse, or Theron of Acragas (modern-day Agrigento) constructed magnificent temples – indeed temples which dwarf most of the temples of mainland Greece. The temple of Olympian Zeus at Acragas for example, is thought to be the biggest Doric temple ever constructed, standing over 20m tall.

But it is not only their architecture that made them important. As the mainland Greeks were battling the Persians in the early 5th century BC at Marathon, Salamis and Plataea, the Greeks of Sicily were battling the Carthaginians with victories at Himera and Cumae, which were subsequently portrayed to be of equal importance to the mainland Greek victories.

At the same time, Sicily, and particularly Syracuse, played host to one of the crucial, if not the crucial, turning point in the Peloponnesian war, which pitched the Greek world against itself in prolonged civil war at the end of the 5th century BC. The Athenian ‘Sicilian expedition’, narrated in books 6 and 7 of Thucydides, proved a disaster for Athens as they were comprehensively defeated at Syracuse.

In the following century too, the powerful dynasts of Sicily, like Dionysius I of Syracuse, were courted by cities like Athens and Sparta in an attempt to win their support, as well as admired by writers such as Plato and Isocrates, who thought that mainland Greece need a similar strong hand to guide them through difficult times.

Yet the irony is that some of the writers who link these Greek foundations in Sicily and Southern Italy most closely to mainland Greece, like Plutarch and Pausanias, were writing at a time when Sicily and Italy were now firmly under the control of Rome. Indeed, it was during the process of Roman occupation and subjugation that many of the cities of Sicily were destroyed. By the time of Strabo, Morgantina, for example, the home of the fabulous Aphrodite statue recently returned, had ceased to exist.

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Reprinted from Neos Kosmos www.neoskosmos.com