by Jeremy Dummett
The Euryalus Castle (Il Castello Eurialo) is situated some seven kilometres from the centre of the city, to the north, on the western edge of the Epipoli ridge, close to the modern residential quarter of Belvedere. It is a large and fascinating site with walls, towers and underground passages, the remains of formidable fortifications dating back to the ancient Greek era. From the furthest point you get a view of the open sea, the harbours and Ortygia, giving an idea of the size of the ancient city, for the walls extended from the castle right down to the harbour. It is a complex site and on a first visit it is a good idea to come with a guide.
Euryalus means “broad nail” in Greek, being roughly the shape of this part of the hillside and use of the term preceded building of the castle. It was not fortified during the Athenian war and was a weak point in the city’s defences. Dionysius I built the fortifications during a lull in fighting the Carthaginians and the north wall, as far as the Hexaplon Gate to the east, and the basis of the Euryalus Castle, were constructed in the six years 402-397 BC. The Sicilian Greek historian Diodorus, writing around 50 BC, tells us that 60,000 men were brought in from the countryside to carry out the work.
Dionysius was a military innovator and the design of the Castle revolutionised methods of defence. He introduced the concept of an active and mobile defence system that allowed the garrison to hit back at a besieging army. This was achieved by building watchtowers with permanent platforms to hold catapults capable of firing missiles a hundred metres, underground passages for moving troops safely from one sector to another and by constructing a pincer-style gate below the castle from which to make sorties to harass the enemy. In front of the walls and the five towers of the Castle, deep ditches were dug to make the area inaccessible to siege towers and rams. The Castle’s high position meant it also acted as a look out point for enemy ships and as a base from which to send cavalry down to prevent a landing.
Archaeologists and historians have pored over the remains of the Castle, one of the finest from ancient Greek times, and have published their findings, from Mirabella in 1613 to Cavallari in 1881, and in the early part of the twentieth century, Paolo Orsi and Luigi Mauceri. From this work, much of which makes fascinating reading, it is clear that while Dionysius built the basis of the Castle, additions and alterations were made later, probably in the times of Timoleon, Agathocles, Pyrrhus and Hiero II. Archimedes may also have played a part.
While the Euryalus Castle was put to some use in later periods, its heyday was in the Greek era when it played a central role in the defence of the city. From when the work under Dionysius was finished in 397 until Syracuse fell to the Romans in 212, a period of 185 years, despite major attempts, it was never taken. When the Roman general Marcellus eventually entered the city, we know from Livy that at first he saw no possibility of the Euryalus Castle being either surrendered or captured. Only when the quarters of Neapolis and Tyche had been captured, isolating the castle, did the captain of the garrison, Philodemus, finally surrender and with a guarantee of safe passage, lead his garrison out of the Castle.
Diodorus Siculus: Library of History, Book XIV, 18 (Loeb Classical Library), for the story of Dionysius building the Castle and fortifying Syracuse for the coming war with Carthage.
Livy: Hannibal’s War, Book 25 (Oxford World Classics), for the Roman siege of Syracuse.
Luigi Mauceri: Il Castello Eurialo nella storia e nell’arte (Edizioni Dafni Catania) for a detailed review of the Castle, its origins, history and the remains to be seen today.