It was mid-November and I found myself sitting in a class room well past the completion of my semester two exams. I was in the midst of a weeklong series of lectures for our impending class trip to Italy. While I was both intellectually exhausted and frustrated at the Australian summer for being so hot, I could not help but feel optimistically excited. For one thing, I was going to the northern hemisphere winter. But most importantly, a month full of amazing experiences awaited me.
As part of the course, we were told we had to do an onsite presentation. Meaning, we would be in Italy, at an ancient site presenting and discussing it with our fellow students like a TV show presenter. We had plenty of appealing choices, which would each hold their own merit. But it was the mystery and beauty of the temple of Segesta (discussed during our lectures) that truly grabbed my attention. The city of Segesta had a captivating history.
Being a bit of a mythology buff myself, I was delighted to find that there were several myths surrounding the establishment of the city of Segesta (also referred to as Egesta). It was said by the Greeks that the river god, Crimisus, fell in love with a local nymph named Egesta. Their son, Egesto, was said to have founded the city of the Segesta. In Roman myth, the Trojan hero, Aeneas, founded Segesta on his way home from the Trojan War. In another version, the hero is man named Acesto, who is from Sicily. Acesto goes off to fight in the Trojan War, and upon his return, settles and establishes the city of Agesta, which later becomes Segesta. These awesome myths, combined with mention of the city in ancient texts, made me and my co-presenter, Miriana, extremely excited to see what other secrets the mystic Segesta had to share with us.
Segesta the city and the temple were built by indigenous Sicilians known as the Elymians. It was fascinating that a temple was built in the Greek Doric style, yet the builders were not Greek. It begs the questions: Were the Elymians trying to copy the Greek style? If so, why? And why did they build this temple in the first place? Miriana and I wanted answers. The first point of research was of course, ancient texts. What we found was compelling. Ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, asserts:
“On the fall of Illium, some of the Trojans escaped from the Achaeans, came in ships to Sicily, and settled next to the Sicians under the general name of Elymi; their cities being called Eryx and Egesta.” (History of the Peloponnesian War, VI.2. Translation by C. F. Smith)
How intriguing that we found a text referencing the story of one of the myths! In addition to the fact that coin currency for Segesta was found depicting images of dog’s head, which is a symbol for the aforementioned god Crimisus and coins were also found with images of Aeneas escaping Troy, as mentioned in the Roman myth. One thing is for certain, the inhabitants of Segesta in ancient times were in touch with the essence of the city’s mythology.
Then there is the structure of the temple itself. It doesn’t have a roof. Why? Is it unfinished? No one can say for sure. One theory was that it was meant to be a courthouse for the city of Segesta. Then there is the more popular theory is that it is simply unfinished. Miriana and I leaned towards the unfinished theory. The columns of the temple were unfluted, yet the style was Doric. There were also no cella, metopes or altar – important stylistic elements of a Greek temple. The city may have run out of funding, or had more important matters to use funding for.
What is for sure is that the structure remaining today is beautifully preserved. And has a presence of commanding majesty upon the hill where it is stationed and still holds many secrets that it may yet keep from us forever.