The Greek period in Agrigento. The history of Akragas: apoikia and polis
“I beseech you, splendor-loving city, most beautiful on earth, home of Persephone; you who inhabit the hill of well-built dwellings
above the banks of sheep-pasturing Akragas…..”
The foundation of Akragas concludes the vast colonizing movement from Greece towards the West, begun in 8th century B.C. with the arrival of the Eubean settlers at Naxos in Eastern Sicily. According to the historical tradition the city was founded, around 582 B.C., by a group of Greek settlers from Gela (with reinforcements coming from their own mother-city or metropolis, Rhodes). The oikists or leaders of the expedition were Aristinoous and Pystilus.
The choice of the site, along the ancient Mycenean sea- route towards North Africa and the West, was probably determined by a desire of the Rhodians and Cretans not to be excluded from commerce in this region. But, also, by their familiarity with this area , fruit of previous frequentations as it shown by recent archaeological finds and by the legend of Dedalus and Minos in Sicily. The choice of the historical moment , however, appears dictated by the attempt to contrast the expansion towards east of the Megarians of Selinus.
The happy geographic position, the fertility of hinterland that yielded cereals, wine and olive oil in abundance and the hilly nature of the territory that allowed stock- breeding favored the extraordinary development and prosperity of the new polis. In less than two centuries from the foundation, Akragas became one of the largest Greek cities and one of most thriving centres of Greek civilization.
The history of Greek Agrigento is remarkable: the city burnt out hastily a number of experiences and patterns of growth that elsewhere “were elaborated and developed within the span of many generations” (Lorenzo Braccesi).
Here are the main historical events from the foundation until the Carthaginian sack of the town in 406 B.C.
• tyranny of Phalaris (from 571 to 556 B.C) – notorious for his cruelty and his hollow brazen bull in which he tortured his enemies- remembered by Dante in the Commedia; he expanded the city’s territory at the expence of the mother-city Gela and the local Sican population.
• tyranny of Theron (488- 472 a.C.)- descendant of the illustrious family of the Emmenids and twice winner of the chariot race at Olympia. He continued the expansionist policy of his predecessor, Phalaris, and pushed the city border to the Tyrrenean Sea by taking Himera in 480 B.C. and subsequently defeating the Carthaginian army led by Hamilcar; his tyranny marks the beginning of an age of splendor for Akragas and of great public works.
•democracy (471- 406 a.C.), the time of the philosopher Empedokles, aristocratic talent but active democrat in politics. He refused the post of tyrant offered to him by his fellow-citizens. It is the time of the so- called eudaimonia or well-being, ensured by trade with Carthage, in which Gellias, Exenetus and Antistene lived.
• period of decadence, towards the end of 5 century B.C., marked by the rivalry with Syracuse, that culminated in 406 B.C. with the pillage of the city by the Carthaginians led by Hannibal, after an 8- month – siege. The inhabitants were moved to Gela and, after the fall of the latter , to Leontini.
As a result of the peace- treaty signed by the Carthaginians and Dionysius of Syracuse, Akragas and Gela were allowed to being inhabited but not being fortified and they had to pay taxes to Carthage. The victory of the Corinthian general Timoleon against the Carthaginians at Crimiso, (in 339 B.C.), brought back the Sikeliot towns under the Syracusan influence and engendered a period of rebirth and development for Greek culture in Sicily. Akragas was resettled by Greek colonists from Velia under the leadership of Megillo and Feristo.
This period of peace did not last long: when Agatocles seized the power in Syracuse (311 B.C.).Agrigento resumed its anti- Syracusan policy; taking advantage of the absence of the tyrant engaged in his military campaign in North Africa, it founded a league of Greek cities that was twice defeated by the Syracusans. Later, it fell into the hands of Phintias. During his tyranny (from 289 to the 270 B.C.), Akragas’ mother-city, Gela, was destroyed by the Mamertines. Phintias moved its inhabitants to a new city, near modern Licata, named in his honour Phintias.
After the fall of Phintias, Agrigento sided with Pirrus, king of Epirus and, during the first Punic war (264), with the Carthaginians. It was a bone of contention between the Carthaginians and the Romans until the definitive fall to the consul Levinus in 210 B.C.