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Archdiocese of Syracuse (Syracusana) in Sicily. The city is situated upon a peninsula extending into the Ionian Sea, near the mouth of the River Anapus, on the banks of which the papyrus plant is still cultivated. The territory produces all varieties of grains, vegetables, and fruits. Of the two harbours of the city, the principal one is the largest in Sicily and one of the largest of the Mediterranean; two islets, San Marciano and Castelluccio, render it secure without obstructing the entrance. At present the exports exceed the imports. The cathedral is built on the ruins of an ancient temple of Minerva, which was a hexastylo-peripteros with thirty-six columns of which only twenty-two remain. In front of the cathedral are statues of St. Peter and St. Paul by Marabitti; in the interior are several pictures (Madonna of the Pillar; Birth of the Virgin) by Agostino Scilla, who also painted the frescoes of the vault of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and the silver statue of St. Lucy. The baptismal font is fashioned from a large Greek crater, resting upon seven small lions of bronze, found in the catacombs of San Giovanni. Among the furniture is a storiated amber chalice. Other churches are: Santa Lucia, with a "Martyrdom" of the saint by Buinaccia; San Benedetto, containing a picture of the saint by Minniti; San Martino; San Spirito; San Domenico; Il Gesù (the church of the Jesuits), with paintings of the Venetian School and a statue of St. Ignatius by Marabitti; the Church of Santa Lucia dei Riformati without the city, possessing a painting by Caravaggio. Among the civic buildings are the fort of Giorgios Maniakes and Palazzo Montaldo, in the Gothic and Moorish styles. The museum is rich in both Greek and Latin inscriptions (among which are many Christian inscriptions from the catacombs) and fragments of statues, including a Venus leaving the bath. The public library has an important collection of medals. Ancient ruins at Syracuse are much less numerous than one would expect. There are still to be seen: the amphitheatre (epoch of Augustus); the Greek theatre, excavated from the rock; sepulchres also excavated in the rock; the colossal altar of Hiero II, seven hundred and sixty feet long, upon which, after the expulsion of Thrasybulus, four hundred and fifty oxen were sacrificed; the "Latomie", i.e. caves in the rock where condemned prisoners of war and others were incarcerated, of which the most famous is the "Ear of Dionysius". The fountain of Arethusa, which issues forth in the ward of Ortygia (the present Syracuse), in antiquity was sweet but since an earthquake of the twelfth century has become salt. The Catacombs of San Giovanni, of Santa Maria del Gesù, and the catacombs Cassai, similar to those at Rome, are well known; besides these there have been discovered in the environs of Syracuse various tombs (Lentini, Valle del Molinello, Priolo, San Alfano, Palazzolo, etc.) which have rather the character of ancient tombs of the Sicelioti (aboriginal inhabitants). The present Syracuse occupies only a part of the ancient city. The latter was composed of five great quarters: (1) Ortygia, originally an island but afterwards artificially joined with the mainland, the most ancient part of the city, containing the acropolis dismantled by Timoleon, and the palace of King Hiero, where in later days the Roman governors resided; (2) Achradine, the most sumptuous quarter, where most business was conducted, situated on the small port or the Trogilos (now the Gulf of Manghisi). It was fortified and contained the temple of Jupiter Olympicus, the prytaneion, the theatre, and the catacomb of San Giovanni; (3) Tyche, the most populous part, deriving its name from the temple of Fortune and containing the palaces of Diocles and Dionysius, the lighthouse, and the Galeagra Tower; (4) Neapolis or Temenites, containing various temples, the theatre, the amphitheatre, and the Latomie; (5) Epipolai, which arose on the heights dominating the remainder of the city, and contained the fort Euryalos. All the city was surrounded by strong walls and beyond Hippolai was the castle of Labdalon. The circumference of the city was 180 stadia (20 miles). The name Syracuse is derived from the swamps of the valley of the Anapus. The ancient aqueduct is still in use.

When in 734 the Corinthian Archias approached the isle of Ortygria, it was inhabited by natives whom he expelled. The colony flourished amid continual petty wars with the natives, whose greatest leader, Ducetius (450 B.C.) voluntarily surrendered to the Syracusans, who sent him to Corinth. The government was in the hands of the landowners (geomoroi), against whom in 484 the slaves revolted. The landowners were expelled, but were conducted back into the city by Gelon, tyrant of Gela, who in this manner became lord also of Syracuse. It being easier, as he said, to govern one hundred rich than a single poor man, the poor were sold. Otherwise Gelon was an excellent ruler. He conquered the Carthaginians at Himera, aspired to dominion over the whole island, and was an object of wonder to all the aristocrats of Syracuse. It was he who aggrandized the city by bringing in the inhabitants of Camarina, of Megura, of Eubæa, and part of those of Gela. In 478 he was succeeded by his brother Hiero, who held a splendid court, favoured poets, orators, and philosophers. He contrived to avoid a war with Girgenti, aided the Cumaneans to conquer the Etruscans by sea (474), and established his dominion as far as Mt. Etna. He should have been succeeded by his son, but his brother Thrasybulus assumed the government, which he carried on with such cruelty and perfidy that he was expelled after a year. Syracuse was again free, and the government then became a democracy. Following the example of Athenian ostracism they introduced the practice of "petalism", according to which each man wrote on an olive leaf the name of the most powerful citizen; whoever obtained the greatest number of leaves was banished for five years. At first the democracy was favourable to the greatness of the city, which obtained a sort of hegemony over the Greek cities of Sicily, and also of Magna Græcia. The arts and literature flourished. The ambitious designs of the Syracusans at the expense of the Leontines (427) and of Egesta (416) caused the intervention of the Athenians, instigated especially by Alcibiades. In 415 a splendid fleet sailed for Sicily and anchored in the great harbour. The city would perhaps have fallen if the Spartans, lead by Gylippos, had not come to the rescue. Finally, in September, 413, the Athenian army and fleet were totally destroyed. The prisoners were either slain or thrown into the Latomie. Syracuse received from Diocles a new constitution and new laws which were most severe. But soon the interference of Syracuse in the quarrels of Egesta and Selinus provoked the intervention of Carthage. The victories of the Carthaginians at Himera (409) gave the opportunity to Hermocrates, then an exile, to attempt to overturn the Government, an attempt which cost him his life (407). Dionysius, proceeding more craftily, first had himself elected among the judges. By flattering the common people and discrediting his colleagues he obtained for himself the sole command of the army and succoured Gela against Hannibal the Elder (405). On his return the people gave him unlimited powers. He surrounded himself with a bodyguard, fortified and enlarged the city, combatted with varying fortunes the Carthaginians, who were conquered at Motye in 397, and obliged to retreat from Syracuse, which they had besieged by land and by sea (396). Every reverse of the tyrant was followed by revolts, which were, however, always crushed with extreme severity. Having made peace with the Carthaginians in 392, he attempted the subjection of Magna Græcia as well, until the activities of the Carthaginians called him back to Syracuse (383-68). Dionysius perfected the science and technic of war, favoured poets and philosophers, and was a wise ruler, but he was suspicious and cruel.

He was succeeded in 368 by his son Dionysius II, a vicious young man, upon whom his uncle Dion and Plato in vain attempted to exercise a beneficent influence. Dion deposed him in 356, but imprudently rendered himself unpopular and was slain (354) by the Athenian Callipus. The latter was in turn expelled by Hipparinus, another son of Dionysius I (353-51). Nysæus followed in succession (350-47), but in 346 Dionysius II, who had remained in exile at Locri, expelled Nysæus, and resumed the government with greater tyrrany than ever. The nobility conspired against him, and summoned Hicatas, tyrant of Leontini, who succeeded in conquering and imprisoning Dionysius. Others, however, had applied for aid to Corinth, which in 345 sent Timoleon, who conquered Hicatas and the Carthaginians (340), and re-established the constitution of Diocles. In 317 Agathocles, an able general, by the slaughter of six hundred of the richest Syracusans obtained the appointment to the command of the troops and the government. A good ruler, he warred with the Carthaginians, who in 311, for the third time, entered the port of Syracuse. By an act of supreme audacity, Agathocles shifted the scene of the war into Africa and thus liberated his country. His star afterwards declined and he was killed by his nephew Archagathus (289). The city fell into a state of anarchy, ended in 288 by Hicatas, who was in turn deposed by Tinion (280). In 271 it was found necessary to summon the aid of Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, who raised the siege of the city, but soon retired. The ravages of the Mamertines gave occasion to Hiero II to oppose them successfully, and thus to acquire the government of Syracuse (269). This war brought him into opposition with the Romans, with whom he finally concluded peace by becoming their tributary, and even aided them after their disaster at Cannæ. His nephew and successor, Hieronymus (216), changed this policy, forming an alliance with Hannibal, which policy was continued after his murder by the popular government. For this reason the city was besieged and blockaded in 214 by Claudius Marcellus, and finally taken and sacked in 212. The statues and other objects of art of value were transported to Rome. Syracuse became the seat of the Roman government in Sicily, and remained such until the Byzantine epoch. During the Roman period the Latin language replaced the Greek, which was restored under the Byzantines. From 663 to 668 the Emperor Constantine II resided here until he was slain by his general Mezenius, who in his turn was killed by the soldiery of Italy. News of these events brought over the Saracens from Africa, who sacked the city. A century later (878) the city was taken and pillaged for forty days by the Arabs. Its decline, which began during the Roman period, progressed more and more, particularly after Palermo became the capital. In the attempted reconquest by the Byzantines, George Maniakis, after having taken Messina, captured Syracuse (1038). In 1086 it was taken by Count Ruggiero, and from this time it followed the fate of Sicily. In 1104 it was besieged and captured by the Emperor Henry VI; on the other hand, in 1298, it successfully resisted the Aragonese fleet, and in like manner the blockade by the French admiral, Vivonne (1677). In 1504 it became the residence of the Spanish viceroys, but after a century this honour was given to Palermo, whither the noble families were also transferred. In 1542 and again in 1693 it was damaged by earthquakes. In 1798 and 1805 the port of Syracuse was of great importance for the operations of the English fleet against the French.

Among the illustrious Syracusans of antiquity were: the poets Theocritus, Callimachus, and Moschus; Epicharmus, the writer of comedies; the philosopher Philolaos; the orators Ctesias, Dion, and Lysias; the historian Flavius Vopiscus, and St. Methodius, monk and Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 847). Syracuse claims to be the second Church founded by St. Peter, after that of Antioch. It also claims that St. Paul preached there. As the first bishop it venerates St. Marcianus, the date of whose life is not an easy matter to establish, since too little authenticity can be assigned to the list of the seventeen bishops who were predecessors of Cherstus, to whom the Emperor Constantine wrote a letter. In the times of St. Cyprian (the middle of the third century), Christianity certainly flourished at Syracuse, and the catacombs clearly show that this was the case in the second century. Besides its martyred bishops, Syracuse boasts of not a few other martyrs, such as Sts. Benignus and Eugarius (204), St. Bassianus (270); and the martyrdom of the deacon Eupilus and the virgin Lucy under Diocletian are beyond doubt true. The names of the known bishops of the following century are few in number: Germanus (346); Eulalius (465); Agatho (553), during whose rule Pope Vigilius died at Syracuse; Maximianus and Joannes (586), who received letters from St. Gregory the Martyr; while another bishop was denounced by Pope Honorius for the protection which he accorded to women of the streets; St. Zozimus (640), who founded the monastery of Santa Lucia fuori-le-mura; St. Elias (d. 660). Of Marcianos II it is related that he was consecrated not at Rome, but at Syracuse, since the Emperor Leo the Isaurian (726) had removed Southern Italy from the jurisdiction of Rome, and had then elevated Syracuse to the dignity of a metropolitan see, over the thirteen other dioceses of Sicily. Stephen II (768) carried to Constantinople the relics of St. Lucy for safety against the Saracen incursions. Gregorios Asbestas (about 845) was deposed by St. Ignatius, Patriarch of Constantinople, and then became the principal abettor of the schismatic Photius. In 878 St. Sophronius, together with the monk Theodosius, was thrown into prison at Palermo where he died in a dungeon. Until the Norman Conquest the names of further bishops are not known. The series reopens in 1093 with Bishop Rober, who received the pallium from Urban II; in 1169 the Englishman Richard Palmer was also invested by papal authority. In 1188 the see became suffragan of Monreale. Among the bishops of this period are: Rinaldo de Lusio, killed in 1154; Pietro de Moncada (1313) and Ruggero Bellomo (1419), who restored the cathedral; Jacopo Venerio (1460), afterwards cardinal; Pietro de Urries (1516), ambassador of Charles V to the Lateran Council; Gerolamo Bononi (1541), a distinguished reformer at the Council of Trent; Jacopo Orozco (1562), who introduced the Roman ritual in place of the Gallican, and who founded the seminary. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, celebrated synods were frequently held at Syracuse. Bishop Annibale Termini (1695) rebuilt the church, thirty-five monasteries, and the seminary, which had been destroyed by an earthquake. In 1816 the Diocese of Caltagirone was detached from Syracuse. Piazza Armerina and Noto were made its suffragan sees, but the latter was detached in the same year.

The archdiocese has 31 parishes, 400 secular and 70 regular clergy, with 300,000 souls; six monasteries for men and eight convents for women; it publishes a Catholic weekly and "Il Foglio Ecclesiastico".


     CAPPELLETTI, Le Chiesa d'Italia, XXI (Venice, 1857); PRIVITERA, Siracusa antica e moderna (Naples, 1879); CAVALLARI AND HOLM, Topografia archeologica di Siracusa (Rome, 1884); LUPUS, Syrakus im Altertum; FÜHRER, Forschungen zur Sicilia sotteranea (Münich, 1897); STRAZZULLA, Dei recenti scavi eseguiti nei cimiteri di Sicilia (Palermo, 1896); Museum epigraphicum seu inscriptionum quæ in Syracusanis catacombis repertæ sunt corpusculum (Palermo, 1897); ORSI in Notizie degli Scavi. Antichita (Rome).

About this page

APA citation. Benigni, U. (1912). Syracuse. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Benigni, Umberto. "Syracuse." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. In memory of Fr. John Hilkert, Akron, Ohio — Fidelis servus et prudens, quem constituit Dominus super familiam suam.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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