Selinunte—the Greek Dream of Life in Ancient Sicily

Selinunte, a city built with the Greek traditions that Evaggelos Vallianto describes, “reason, the good, the beautiful, and the ecological”
Selinunte, a city built with the Greek traditions that Evaggelos Vallianto describes, “reason, the good, the beautiful, and the ecological”

Do you think of Greece at Eastertime?

My association goes back to the 70s when I began the tradition of cooking lamb, Greek-style, for Easter dinner. 

Easter five years ago we were in Sicily where there’s more concentration of monumental and well-preserved Greek temples than anywhere else in the world—more than in Greece itself. Many are at Selinunte, the largest archeological park in Europe.

Not everyone has ruinenlust, “delight at seeing a rubble of temples.” But before you stop reading and return to Easter egg hunting, Ruinenlust also means, 

“the power to put the present into perspective and induce a pleasing melancholy at the passage of all things.”

At which Selinunte excels. 

Most Greek ruins we visited in Sicily were dusty, crowded, noisy with hawkers selling T-shirts and trinkets, boom boxes blaring. Not Selinunte.

In the countryside above a golden beach on the Mediterranean, the ruins of Selinunte sit on a promontory between two rivers, the vegetation lush and fragrant.

There is a stillness here. A quiet respect, like you see in a graveyard. 

Map of ancient Greek site (photo: Athena Review Image Archive)

The Greek settlement at Selinunte had three main temple zones, including the Acropolis at centre, the Eastern Temple Group and the Sanctuary of Demeter Malophoros. 

Residents lived north of the Acropolis in the Ancient Greek Town. Selinunte dates from 650-409 BC, ending when it was destroyed by a Carthaginean (Punic) invasion.

Here without a guide, we had only a paragraph of info I’d copied to our itinerary from CN Traveller:

Selinunte stands in its own park, town on one ridge, temples on the other, with a river valley running between them, down to the shore. There is no sight or sound of modern time, there is only the stirring of grass, the flicker of lizards and the cling-clonk of sheep bells. We walk the streets and alleys of a ruined city, a world conceived and inhabited as a work of living art, harmonious with its landscape, its Gods and its situation, overlooking what Pirandello called ‘the African sea’. The harbour is now a reed bed, and the temples fell to earthquakes, but it is easy to imagine what a pleasure it would have been to live and worship here, and what a nightmare it surely was when all was sacked and stolen, when the Carthaginians came. ‘If the Selinuntines cannot defend their liberty, they deserve to become slaves,’ said the victor, Hamilcar, sounding slightly guilty. He slaughtered and enslaved them, and gave their town to his people. Temple E, the magnificent temple to Hera, is one of my favourite places on the island. It has been resurrected,  and stands open once more to the sky. Aligned to the rising sun, with a treasury at the far end where offerings were kept, and Hera on an altar, presiding over all. Its name comes from Selinus, the celery that grew wild here.

We wandered alongside wild celery, tall fennel and showy flowers to the Acropolis overlooking the sea, to magnificent temples, along streets lined with the remainders of houses and shops (water was piped from the rivers), among jumbles of columns fallen upon each other, to the sanctuary and into the small museum.  

I bought a guidebook at the entrance, but the ruins were so compelling we rarely bothered to flip through it to identify what we were seeing. Though it is a good reference and excellent at showing what is present, what is missing (like temple roofs painted in vivid reds and blues) and what it used to look like (grand and artistic).

“Of all peoples, the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life best.” Goethe

You sense the dream of the Greeks who came here from another colony in Sicily.

The land was fertile, the river water was plentiful, the sea was rich with fish. In its lifetime, less than 250 years, Selinunte became one of the most flourishing civilizations, “the Italian goddess of the ancient world.”  

Archaeologists found imported glass and bronzes from as far away as Egypt, Turkey and France, goods exchanged for wheat and olive oil produced by Selinunte and transported to foreign markets in the city’s terracotta amphoras, for which they were renowned.

Here was the largest agora in the ancient world, twice the size of the leading one in Rome. Imagine coming here to buy your olive oil, a ceramic jug, maybe a votive charm.

Selinuntines lived well. By the middle of the fifth century, the minimum daily salary was equal to $34 today—and living expenses consumed less than a third of that.

The price of a house with a garden was equivalent to 10 years of earnings for a Selinuntine on minimum wage. In British Columbia today, it would take 25 years, the place wouldn’t likely have a garden and living expenses eat up entire the salary of those on minimum wage. Still, putting life in perspective, there’s been so much improvement in our world since the time of Selinunte—in life expectancy, child mortality, poverty, literacy…

The end of Selinunte was sudden, devasting. The Carthaginians destroyed the city in 409 BC, in a single day. 

Archaeologists found bowls of half-eaten meals and dozens of unfired ceramic pots abandoned by citizens fleeing from being butchered or forced into slavery. 

At its peak, Selinunte had about 30,000 inhabitants, excluding slaves—they had them, but they weren’t counted. Slavery was common to the Greeks, although in Athens at this time they were questioning the practice. 

It made me wonder about slavery today. 

The pleasing news is that fewer than 1% of the world’s population is enslaved. Although the number rose significantly to 50 million people in forced labour and forced marriages from 2016-2021. And yet the New York Times has, this month, found underage migrants from Central America working in all 50 states and in the supply chains of well-known US corporations, including Walmart, General Motors and Ben and Jerry’s.

We were fascinated by a delicate mosaic pattern on a temple floor. Not so much when we found out what it was. 

The doll-shaped mosaic was added when the Carthaginians took over. It symbolizes Tanit, their main goddess, the “terrible Phoenician Goddess of fertility.” In front of this mosaic, women invoked the goddess to make them fertile and in thanks, sacrificed their first-born children to Tanit. It is a blessing that this godly horror no longer exists (as far as I know). 

Though occupied from time to time after it was sacked by the Carthaginians, the city became a ghost town, unchanged, making it easier for us to imagine life here a few thousand years ago and for archeologists a first-time opportunity to produce a comprehensive plan of what a classical Greek city looked like. 

Ten years ago the Greek writer Evaggelos Valliantos offered a suggestion:

Dig down through the silt of alarming religious tensions, creeping undemocratic practices, bad science and suicidal public health and environmental policies to rediscover the Greek texts and imitate or emulate the struggle of the Greeks for an honest democratic life lived in freedom and in concert with healthy human beings and a healthy Mother Earth.

In Selinunte, you sense the dream. 

Navigation

“50 million people worldwide in modern slavery.”  International Labour Organization. Sep 12, 2022.

Bezzone, Francesca. SELINUNTE, THE ITALIAN HEART OF THE ANCIENT GREEK WORLD. L’Italo Americano. December 13, 2022.

Keys, David. “Selinunte: Site of ancient massacre yields the secrets of a lost Greek city.” The Independent. November 8, 2015.

Lambertucci, Silvia. “Sneak Preview Into New Archeological Finds in Selinunte.” VNY. July 23, 2022.

Stoll, David. “Why Are Underage Central Americans in US Factories?” Quillette. April 5, 2023.

Valliantos, Evaggelos. “The Greeks Have Dreamt the Dream of Life Best.” HuffPost,Oct 2, 2014. 

Watson, William. “Biden’s State of the Continent address.” The Financial Post, March 28, 2023. Watson notes that Wikipedia says 14.4% of humans live in “full democracies,” 37.3% in “flawed democracies,” and 17.9% in “hybrid regimes.” That leaves 36.9% of the world’s populations in “authoritarian regimes.”

2 Responses

  1. I agree with you that it’s getting hard to separate fact from fiction. However, Quillette is a very reputable source so I don’t doubt the story. What we can do is vote with our dollars by avoiding shopping/eating at places that use child labour, fancy restaurants that expect people to work for free for the “experience,” etc.

  2. It is interesting to hear of slavery in 2023, especially alongside family names like Corleone, although there appears to be no connection in reality, the story is there for the imagination to build upon.
    Of course with child labor a worldwide problem it seems surreal to not believe in the story, hearing too much information it is sometimes difficult to tell fact from fiction.

    For the sake of Easter May we have better thoughts than world slavery, that being the case, let’s not let slavery continue and find ways to remove this blight from our everyday lives.

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