Dwight Peck's personal website

Sicily in December 2012

On the track of the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, Italians and Commissario Montalbano

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

Piazza Armerina -- with Morgantina and the
Villa Romana del Casale

Our B+B, the Casa sulla Collina d’Oro, a beautiful old house and grounds facing the centre of Piazza Armerina on the next hilltop over -- it wasn't easy to find: we were following the directions from Google Maps which led us in great detail through an extensive residential subdivision which, as it turns out, hasn't been built yet.

Nicely appointed rooms, and our hosts, Luciano and Maria-Grazia, are friendly, knowledgeable, and very helpful.

We're catching up on the news before struggling out through the town centre to find the restaurant recommended to us, which turned out to be awful.

We're on our way down for breakfast, with a reminder that we are here, after all, for the racy mosaics.

An astonishing breakfast, worth the price of admission by itself: the bread, cheese, and salami are products of the territory.

Whilst staring out the window at Piazza Armerina across the way

Piazza Armerina -- frequented in prehistoric times and occupied by Romans, the city really got itself organized in Norman times, in the late 11th and 12th centuries, when it was forcibly settled by a lot of Lombard soldiers from the north of Italy.

The big Cathedral, dating mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, is photogenic sitting up on the hilltop, but it didn't look like the sort of place we'd really like to spend time with, so we didn't.

The truth is, we didn't really like the city very much -- but after our first dinner there, perhaps we didn't give it enough of a chance. There's a large 14th century castle built by the Aragonese that we didn't even trouble ourselves to take a glance at. We're really after racy mosaics at the moment.

A city of only 21,000, it makes a good centre for visiting the sights in the region

The Cathedral, zoomed

Downstairs in our B+B. And now we're off for the day's excitement.


The ticket office -- we've got the place almost to ourselves in mid-December. The excavations of the old city of Morgantina are just outside the small city of Aidone, which in turn is about 10km northeast of Piazza Armerina.

The views from the ridge of Serra Orlando, where most of the excavations are found

Kristin in the theatre, waiting for the show to begin

The central part of the agora or old city centre. Classical authors say that the city was founded by the pre-Roman Italian people called Morgeetes, later captured by the Sicels in 459 B.C., then overrun by Syracuse not long afterward. Under Roman influence as part of the Syracusan kingdom at 263 B.C., during the Second Punic War Morgantina defected and allied with Carthage in 214, which was probably not a smart move.

The sacred area of shrines, etc., in the foreground, the theatre behind on the left. Morgantina had the honor of being the last Sicilian city captured by the Romans, in 211 B.C., but it was then handed off to a squad of Spanish mercenaries for their help in the war. In the Second Servile War, ca. 100 B.C., when slaves in Sicily and southern Italy rose up against the Roman bosses, Morgantina got itself defeated by the slave army, and in the first century A.D. Strabo described the city as having ceased to exist.

Kristin is hiding out in the 2nd century B.C. 'Great Kiln', impossible to say why

Kristin reviewing her speech notes at the ekklesasterion, the public political meeting forum (only for male citizens, actually; democracy)

The ekklesasterion in the centre, and the theatre built back into the hillside to its left. Morgantina lay forgotten until chance discoveries began to get archeological attention in the early 20th century, but since the 1950s Morgantina is said to have been "the principal site of American research on classical Sicily" (Wikipedia), with major projects by expeditions from Princeton, Universities of Illinois and Virginia, Wesleyan University, and many experts from elsewhere.

We're in the residential quarter now, up the hill a bit.

The ekklesasterion to the left and a Roman macellum, an indoor vegetable or meat market, on the flat in the centre. All round that central area were stoas, covered buildings that housed shops and what not and ringed round the centre.

This was somebody's fancy house on the hillside

And another high-class residence of someone important (at the time) -- this is called the House of Ganymede, based on some surviving nasty representations of Zeus (pretending to be an eagle) inventing the classical Greek art of pederasty by fancying the beautiful lad and engaging in inappropriate touching.

The House of Ganymede, minus most of the walls, but with fantastic views of the countryside.

Looking back down over the privileged residences at the Roman macellum and the north stoa

Kristin at the "House of the Arched Cistern", 3rd century B.C. at the top of the hill on the north side

A Morgantina suburb

Looking down at the agora from the north ridge, and on the horizon on the far left, the hill called the Cittadella, site of the first serious settlements here, ca. 1000 B.C.

A closer look -- this is the centre of a city that was significant from about 450 B.C. to A.D. 50 or so and then forgotten utterly.

The Villa Romana del Casale

Here we are -- three kilometres southwest of Piazza Armerina, the UNESCO World Heritage site celebrated, not only for the finest mosaics in situ extant in the Roman World but also as an example of a luxury Roman villa in the culture of the latifundia, the large agricultural estates that were the basis for the rural economy of the Western Empire.

From the carpark to the good stuff, we must run the Commercial Gauntlet.

It's winter, most of the stalls are closed up, but can you imagine, in the midsummer heat and crowds?
("Hey, Nice Lady, you look! I speak Inglisch! We make good deal!")

This, presumably, is what happens when a site gains World Heritage status.

Post Card's are on sale here (in summer)

Our first sight of the villa, an elaborate system of luxury baths, as only the Romans could make them, dating originally from the 1st century AD, but apparently destroyed by an earthquake during the time of the tetrarchy in the late 3rd century.

At that time the villa seems to have been owned by Maximian, the military strongman who was (off and on) Augustus in the Tetrarchy and co-emperor with Diocletian. In the very early years of the 4th century, he retired from kicking butt all over Europe and established himself here. Apparently sparing no expense.

The ladies' bath. Maximian unwisely supported his son Maxentius in his tussles with Constantine over the emperorship and was requested by Constantine to commit suicide in 310, in which he obliged. Maxentius himself ended badly, drowned in the Tiber whilst losing the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 to Constantine, who decided that Jesus had helped him win the battle and so made Europe become Christian; so now we get Benedictus XVI, the 265th pope, to guide us through our travails (that's the short form).

It's not clear who inherited the villa (that's the group latrines, by the way), but it was still being improved until about 340. It was treated badly by the Vandals and the Visigoths, however, when they passed through, occupied by Arabs after their invasion in the 9th century, and finally destroyed by the Norman William the Bad around 1155.

The villa layout: the baths complex down front, the central peristyle or courtyard (greenish), with private family rooms to the left, the basilica at the far end with the long hall of the Great Hunt just in front of it, and the great dining hall (with 3 apses) at the upper right.

In the 12th century, the villa and nearby village were trashed in a landslide and the survivors moved to Piazza Armerina, and the whole thing was forgotten until pieces of mosaics began to pop to the surface in the 19th century and professional archeological investigations began in 1929.

The central peristyle -- when Kristin was last here it wasn't separated from the viewers and people could walk round on it, a horrible idea.

Throughout the villa many of the mosaics have a hunting motif, and the place probably served, not only as a getaway for stressed-out co-emperors, but also as a hunting lodge.

The present arrangements for us tourists involves walking round on scaffolding along the top of the walls . . .

. . . like this. With clear and sophisticated signage in Italian and English.

Charioteers on the loose

The room of the Lesser Hunt

The "Ambulacrum of the Great Hunt", a fascinating great hall running 70m behind the central courtyard across in front of the basilica.

The theme of the entire mosaic construction in this hall is large-scale big game hunting, from capturing wild animals, to getting them to ports and loading them onto ships, to getting them off the ships again and figuring out what to do with them, zoos or gladiator fights or Cheney-style caged hunting or what (not feeding Christians to them, that era ended with Diocletian).

African antelopes being loaded aboard

The basilica of the wavy floor, at the head of the whole establishment

Seventy metres of expensive mosaics by the best North African craftsmen devoted to wrestling with, buying and selling, and loading animals onto ships. Okay; priorities.

A peek through the door at the "Bikini Girls"

The "Chamber of the Ten Maidens" -- universally known as the Bikini Girls -- shows young ladies training for sports, including running, discus throwing, weightlifting, and handball, and one of them (with the palm frond) having won.

Girls never work their arms right when they're running.

Match point

The triclinium or dining hall, showing the Labors of Hercules

The "Vanquished Titans" in the middle apse of the triclinium

The "cubiculum of the amatory mosaic" (no kidding)

The Imperial has got everything the modern tourist requires.

Driving back from the Villa Romana del Casale along what was once the privileged consular road between Catania and Agrigentum -- there's Piazza Armerina.

And its cathedral (which we ought to have stopped in to see just for a moment)(but didn't)

But first we needed to browse the wine store, and then there wasn't any time left.

Breakfast the next day. What a breakfast at the Casa sulla Collina d’Oro.

And now we're on our way across Sicily to the western coast. See you in Erice.


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 29 January 2013.