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The Altar of Hieron II

April 21, 2021
Maurizio Formati
April 22, 2021
Ara di Ierone II © Regione Siciliana Ph. Giuseppe Mineo

The Altar of Hieron II

To at least partly relive the glorious past of Siracusa, you must visit the Neapolis archaeological park with its unique, spectacular theatre, the charming latomie, and its amphitheatre, a prime example of imperial Roman architecture, all together an extraordinary concentration of history and beauty.
Hardly ever, or at least not often enough, does one stop along the way to the theatre to observe, on the left of the path, one of the greatest symbols of prosperity of the city of Siracusa: the Altar of Hieron II, one of the largest known examples in the Greek world.
Unjustly sidelined, the monumental altar was built to commemorate the fall of Trasibulus in 466 B.C. and was dedicated, most probably, to Zeus Eleutherios (the Liberator), as commanded by the then tyrant Hieron II.
L'Ara di Ierone II ©Regione Siciliana Ph. Giuseppe Mineo
The enormous structure is nearly 200 metres long (an olympic stadium according to the measurements of the time), 22m wide and roughly 15m tall, but what is left today, unfortunately, is only the base of the structure, carved out of the bedrock of the Colle Temenite. Barely understandable for unguided visitors of the Park, the altar was in fact looted during the XVI century by the Spanish under Charles V who had the bright idea of using its materials for their villas and perhaps even for the fortifications of Ortigia, a common destiny of many monuments of the Neapolis. Either way the remains offer an idea of the dimensions of the original altar.
With the aid of Diodorus Siculus (I century B.C.) who tells us that 450 bulls were sacrificed to entertain the people, it is easy to imagine the great (and grandiose) festivities in honour of Zeus Eleutherios (the Eleutheria) that with every probability took place around this monumental structure, and for the inauguration and anniversaries of the fall of the tyrants (Diodorus, XI 72, 2), information that also gives us an idea of how large and populous the city must have been back then.
Ipotesi di ricostruzione © Realizzazione a cura di Space S.p.A (Denis Mior) per il Museo Regionale Paolo Orsi di Siracusa
Ipotesi di ricostruzione © Realizzazione a cura di Space S.p.A (Denis Mior) per il Museo Regionale Paolo Orsi di Siracusa
Access to the great altar was via two ramps, situated respectively at the north and south ends, and in the centre was the podium where the sacrificial fire burnt. To protect and support the architrave of the access of the northern ramp were two telamon figures; only one of these remains, carved into the rock, with the base with the feet barely visible (if you know where to look) from Via Paradiso.
The altar must have stood on one side of a large square, surrounded on three sides by a porch with 14 columns on the short sides and 64 on the long side, with a central propylaeum (access) maybe built in the Augustan age, that obliterates the space of a previous road carved into the rock. In the middle of the square was a large pool, with in its centre a base probably destined to hold a statue.
A draining canal built of blocks extends from the pool, crossing the porch.

L'Ara di Ierone II ©Regione Siciliana Ph. Giuseppe Mineo

Lastly, the whole square is pitted by many cavities which suggest plenty of hypotheses. These square holes are placed at regular distances and are no longer very visible; some believe they were meant for trees, so ornaments of a hypothetical public garden/square, while others suggest they were slots for posts to tie up the bulls before sacrifice.
This corner of Siracusa, filled with history with that capital H, tells us of emotions and events that have origins in a distant past. In the collective imagination, this history survives only in pictures and faded memories or words in books, but in a place like this, it comes to life and appears in front of your eyes.
March 2021
L’Ara di Ierone II è un sito del Parco archeologico e paesaggistico di Siracusa, Eloro, Villa del Tellaro e Akrai. Foto su concessione dell’Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana con divieto di duplicazione, anche parziale, con qualsiasi mezzo.


Calabrian-Sicilian Archaeologist with a feisty character and a passion for defending her profession which led her to become the Director of the Associazione Nazionale Archeologi. She specialised in Aerial Topography at the Università del Salento, with previous studies in Numismatics and Greek Ceramography at the Università di Catania. With the latter she led excavations in Cyprus for many years. After a Master’s degree in Preventive Archaeology and Management of Archaeological Risk at the Luiss Guido Carli University of Rome, she takes care of designing and preventive archaeology as a freelancer. She studies the smuggling of cultural heritage and curates projects of academic archaeology.
Translation: Marco Messina
Ricostruzione dall'alto dell'ara di Ara Ierone © Realizzazione a cura di Space S.p.A (Denis Mior) per il Museo Regionale Paolo Orsi di Siracusa