The history of Byzantine Agrigento

The history of Byzantine Agrigento

“pitched his tent near the idolatrous temple
which is close to the south wall … then, he restored
that temple in a wonderful way, and named it
after the Princes of the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul… consecrated it … and there celebrated the sacred mysteries after building in the same place comfortable cubicles in which he and his monks lived “

In 535 the armies of the Eastern Roman Empire, led by General Belisarius, during the so-called Gothic war, landed in Sicily and conquered it quickly: thus begins, under the reign of Emperor Justinian, the Byzantine rule of the island, marked, at least in its first century, by a certain tranquility, which however did not stop its decline. Between the sixth and seventh centuries Agrigento shows some evidence of life in the Hellenistic Roman district and its port continues to be used to the years preceding the Muslim conquest. Other populous suburbs such as the Emporion survive in the neighborhoods.

It was in one of these suburbs, said “of the Praetorians”, that in 559 Gregory was born to the wealthy and pious Agrigentans Chariton and Deodata. At the age of eight, they presented him to the bishop Potamione, so that he was brought up ‘in piety and letters’. At the age of 19, feeling attracted to monastic life and driven by the desire to visit the Holy Land, he went to Jerusalem where became a monk and devoted himself to the profitable study of the Holy Books. From there, he moved to Constantinople and then to Rome to the monastery of San Saba where he was able to show his great wisdom and doctrine. When the seat of the Bishop of Agrigento fell vacant and was disputed by different factions, Gregory, at the age of 31, was appointed bishop by the Pope himself. The rival factions of the clergy ceased all hostilities and allied against him, slandering and accusing him of having an affair with a woman of easy virtue. Put in jail in Rome, after a trial that lasted two years, Gregory was acquitted, returned to Agrigento to exercise his ministry as bishop, and died here in 630. San Gregorio of Akragas is certainly the most representative figure of the culture of the Byzantine period in Agrigento, especially for his exegesis of the Ecclesiastes, considered the most difficult book of the Bible, which he interpreted in a very original way showing great learning and deep understanding of Greek philosophy and Aristotle in particular.

It can be attributed to him the transformation into a church of the so-called temple of Concordia, after the pre-existing cathedral had been desecrated by the usurper Lucio; thus, he unknowingly allowed the preservation of that monument to this day, while other temples were systematically destroyed in the same historical period. The Byzantines, in fact, introduced in Sicily an edict issued by Emperor Theodosius in 393, which permitted the destruction of pagan temples, or their possible transformation into Christian churches; in fact, in Agrigento only the Temple of Concordia beefited of this possibility.

As long as the central Mediterannean Sea remained firmly under the control of the Byzantine Empire, Agrigento enjoyed if not prosperity, at least, some security, but when, since the second half of the seventh century, the raids of the Muslims who had settled in North Africa became more intense, the population gradually moved to that part of the city corresponding to the ancient acropolis and along its slopes, giving rise to a troglodyte settlement less conspicuous and more easily defensible (in the district now called “balatizzo”).

Text: Claudio Castiglione