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The Walls of Dionysius

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February 14, 2021
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The Walls of Dionysius

For Dionysius, the walls weren’t just a project. They were a torment, an obsession.
From the moment in which he bent Siracusa to his will, the tyrant worked to ensure the city would never bow to anyone else. Yes, Siracusa had managed to defeat Athens, it had survived that particular danger, but the athenian siege had left many scars on the city.
One wound especially had never truly healed. It was still open, exposed, at the mercy of all enemies; the Epipole crag, that entrypoint where the Athenians, despite the Syracusans’ best attempts, had been able to enter the city. And now the Carthaginian menace had returned to threaten the city - after 480 BCE, Carthage, despite the defeat of that year, had never stopped trailing and harassing Siracusa. Dionysius, who knew all about bitter medicine, decided that it was time to intervene personally to heal that uncomfortable wound.
And so it was that in 402 BCE, as Thucydides tells us, Dionysius launched a prodigious project that was to give him perennial glory; an imposing ring of citywalls more than 20 kilometres long, a row of ‘stitches to close the wound', all around the pleistocene plateau of Epipole culminating in the marvellous fortification of Castello Eurialo.
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Diodorus Siculus gives a detailed description of the strategy used by the tyrant to create his walls, in particular the five or six kilometres of the northern part. Having drawn up the plan himself, Dionysius summoned the best architects and entrusted each one with a master-builder and a team of sixty workmen for a certain stretch of wall. About sixty thousand peasants were conscripted from the countryside to build the walls, made up of two parallel walls of ashlar blocks about three metres apart, and with the space between them filled in with rubble. The stone, both as blocks and as rubble, was extracted from the latomie or quarries by a team of about six thousand workmen and transported to the building sites by six thousand pairs of oxen.
Dionysius supervised the building personally day and night, and the completion of the walls became a torment, a neurotic obsession for him; his insistence meant that the mighty project was completed in a mere five years (402 – 397 BCE).
These walls have a peculiar characteristic which hasn’t yet been mentioned: unlike the walls of many Greek and Roman cities such as Paestum, the Walls of Dionysius aren’t close to the actual settlement, but surround a peripheral area which was uninhabited. The role of the walls was as a defensive outpost against the Carthaginians, the hated enemies who had to be kept as far as possible from the heart of the city.
Da: H-J Beste, Kastel Euryalos. Baugeschichte und Funktion, in Schwandner Ernst-Ludwig (a cura di), Stadt und Umland, Diskussion zur archaeologischen Bauforschung, bd,7 P von Zaborn edizioni, Mainz am Rhein, 1999.
So I think this is the point - the walls weren't built to defend the city ‘from its enemies’ but from ‘its Carthaginian enemies’; they represent symbolically the determination to keep the Carthaginian cultural model - considered threatening and inferior - as far from Siracusa as possible. Maybe this is why, when the great archeologist Giuseppe Voza talks about the Walls of Dionysius, he evokes the Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s Wall, or even the Berlin Wall: the wall becomes an archetypal model for humanity, one that is repeated in history every time ethnic differences are perceived as dangers against which one must defend oneself.
Built for defence, the walls themselves required protection in recent decades, and Giuseppe Voza, who was Superintendent of Cultural Heritage at Siracusa for many years, is responsible for the decisive action taken to protect them.
Dicembre 2020

Drammaturgo, produttore teatrale, attore, cantante, musicista, educatore siracusano. Il mio più grande difetto è l’impegno che profondo nella missione di allungare questa lista…fino al punto di scrivere per SiracusaCulture.
Da: Dieter Mertens, Città e monumenti dei greci d'Occidente, Roma 2006, p.431
Da: Dieter Mertens, Città e monumenti dei greci d'Occidente, Roma 2006, p.431