by Jeremy Dummett

Segesta’s Greek temple, poised on a hill overlooking the countryside, is one of the memorable sights of Sicily. Built outside the centre of the ancient city, it stands in isolation in full view for miles around. It has captivated travellers for centuries and was admired by Goethe on his visit in 1787. It is to be found off the motorway from Palermo to Trapani, close to the town of Calatafimi, the scene of Garibaldi’s first battle with the Bourbon troops.

Segesta was one of the cities of the Elymians, people who inhabited Sicily before the arrival of the Phoenicians or Greeks, and who probably came originally from mainland Italy. Their other city was Eryx (modern Erice), while their port was on the north coast. From the early sixth century BC, they were in almost constant conflict with Selinus (modern Selinunte), a Greek colony on Sicily’s south coast, whose territory bordered their own. Through a shrewd use of alliances, playing one side off against the other, Segesta managed to maintain its independence longer than most of the cities in ancient Sicily.

In its rivalry with Selinus, Segesta appealed for help to Athens. At the time the Athenians were planning an attack on Sicily as part of their struggle with Sparta, during the Peloponnesian War. Segesta’s temple appears to have been built to impress the Athenians, who made a diplomatic visit to Sicily. Despite their hostility towards the Greeks, the Elymians were heavily influenced by Greek culture and their temple was built in the Doric order. Treasure from the Elymian sanctuary at Eryx was promised to help fund an Athenian expedition. When the Athenians invaded Sicily in 415, however, they found that Segesta had no funds to help them. The Athenian expedition ended in disaster after the defeat of its navy in the harbour of Syracuse. In this wartime environment the temple at Segesta was never completed.

Segesta then appealed to Carthage for help against Selinus. The Carthaginians took their opportunity and, invading Sicily at Mazara, captured and partially destroyed Selinus in 409. They went on to lay waste other Greek cities, including Akragas (Agrigento). Greek resistance to the Carthaginians became centred on Syracuse. Segesta maintained its independence for nearly a hundred years, until in 307 BC, it was captured and ransacked by Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse, in revenge for once again supporting Carthage against the Greeks.