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Mégara Hyblaea 7: La ville classique, hellénistique et romaine

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

Mégara Hyblaea 7: La ville classique, hellénistique et romaine

By Henri Tréziny (Collection de l’École française de Rome 1,7). Pp. 518. École française de Rome, Rome 2018. €110. ISBN 978-2-7283-1282-5 (paper).

Reviewed by

The archaeology of Sicily is a paradox, presenting many unresolved challenges and unanswered questions, although it is one of the richest and most intensively investigated contexts in the Mediterranean. Despite intense activity in the field, however, a large amount of data has remained unpublished. Only in the last two decades has the turn of the tide finally come, with the appearance of scientific publications that try to fill some of these gaps. One should mention important studies of sites such as Soluntum, Selinus, Agrigentum, Halaesa, Tyndaris, and, of course, Megara Hyblaea.

In the book under review, Tréziny, with the aid of his collaborators, provides the scientific community with a long-awaited archaeological account of the development of Megara’s townscape. This has been no easy task. Excavations at this site were carried out intermittently over a span of almost 50 years, between 1949 and 1992, sometimes with little attention paid to the stratigraphy and with some of the excavation records, documents, and archaeological materials now missing. This volume engages with the Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman phases of Megara, following publication of the Archaic phase in 2004. 

The aim of the book is to present a synthetic review of the old excavation reports and documentation, when available at all, thus updating and often revising the picture of the site as it was briefly outlined in the volume edited by Vallet et al., Mégara Hyblaea 3: Guide des fouilles (Rome 1983). One has to take into account the limitations of a study that is published almost 26 years after excavation ceased, but Tréziny and his colleagues deserve credit for this praiseworthy attempt. The high quality of photographs (most of which are in color), newly drawn illustrations, multiphase plans, plates, and reconstructions throughout the book is particularly appreciated. 

After a short description of the history of Megara and of the excavations (3–8), the book engages with the evidence of the Classical period, fifth to early fourth century B.C.E. (9–54). The analysis mainly looks at assemblages of pottery (red-figure vessels and terracotta figurines, most of which, unfortunately, are now kept in storerooms and with little information known about the exact context of discovery. Remarks on some houses and the cemeteries dating to this phase also enter the discussion. After the inhabited area shrank in the fourth century B.C.E.some Hellenistic burials overlapped with the earlier cemeteries, while some others can be located in parts of the previous Archaic settlement (55–87).

The most substantial section of the book deals with the town during the Hellenistic period, particularly in the third century B.C.E. A comprehensive account of Megara’s fortifications draws from both the excavations of the École française de Rome and the earlier works by P. Orsi in the 1920s (89–134). The conclusions of this study seem to suggest that the Hellenistic walls were built around the middle of the third century B.C.E., in connection with the building programs promoted by Hieron II at Syracuse and in its region. This account is a useful complement to the recently published survey of Sicilian city walls by De Vincenzo, Tra Cartagine e Roma: I centri urbani dell’eparchia punica di Sicilia tra VI e I sec. a.C. (Berlin 2013; see esp. 131–60).

Together with the walls, a significant building phase inside the town can be roughly ascribed to the same period (135–201), although Megara’s urban area at this stage corresponded only to a portion of the space that had been occupied by the Archaic town, the “quartier de l’agora archaïque.” The layout and decoration of private buildings remained rather modest. Houses at Megara can be grouped into five types according to their plan: “à cour centrale,” “à deux cours,” “à pastas,” “à cour d’angle,” and “à péristyle.” Only one example of the fifth type is attested, the “maison à péristyle XV B.” A new architectural survey of this house was carried out in 2010 to supplement the older records, which allowed a more detailed reconstruction of the building’s plan and of its transformations (figs. 272–74). With regard to the monumental district and the environs of the Hellenistic agora, particular attention is paid to the analysis of the baths, the palaestra, and especially the Doric temple (203–57). This small sacred building was initially dated to the fourth century B.C.E. by Vallet and Villard (Mégara Hyblaea 4: Le temple du IVe siècle [Rome 1966]), but more recent scholarship has convincingly argued for a date toward the middle of the third century B.C.E. The decorative similarities with Hieron’s Altar of Zeus at Syracuse provide strong arguments in support of this hypothesis (see M. Wolf, “Architettura sacra di III secolo a.C. in Sicilia orientale durante il regno di Ierone II,” in L.M. Caliò and J. des Courtils, eds., L’architettura greca in occidente nel III secolo a.C. [Rome 2017], 189–203).

The study of pottery and architectural remains has confirmed that the site was still occupied during the Roman era, though on a reduced scale (259–301). A series of structures dated to the Republican period were built in various spots of the Hellenistic agora. For one of these, provided with three adjacent rooms and probably of public function (fig. 385), it would be tempting to suggest the identification as a Capitolium, but this can only remain a subject of speculation. The last part of the book presents a brief concluding overview (303–6) and three useful appendices: a catalogue of Hellenistic pottery, fourth–third century B.C.E. (307–76); an outline of the results of a geophysical survey and of archaeomagnetic analyses carried out in 2010–2012 (376–89); and an illustrated atlas of the Hellenistic town (391–489).

As the author himself admits, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions because of the patchy nature of the data after such a long hiatus since the excavations. It is particularly regrettable that it is now impossible to identify the original associations between most of the pottery and the archaeological layers or contexts. However, a careful study of these materials has allowed identification of the different types of vessels and their chronology. The survey of the architectural remains has also provided information on the transformations that Megara underwent throughout the Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods. 

On the basis of this data set, a rather sharp contrast emerges between historical accounts and the archaeology. Ancient sources report that Megara was completely destroyed by the tyrant Gelon in 483 B.C.E.; it was still uninhabited in 414; and, after a period of reoccupation around 309, it was to be deserted once and for all following its destruction by Marcellus in 213 B.C.E. In contrast, the archaeological record appears to show only a short gap ca. 480–460 B.C.E., while pottery of various kinds is documented at the site almost continuously afterward. As to the exact form of this apparent longue durée of occupation, many questions remain to be answered. At the moment, it is not possible to understand whether Megara can still be defined as a “town” or an “urban center” after the Archaic phase, nor what happened to it after the sack of Marcellus. More broadly, it remains to reconstruct the role of this site within the post-Hieronian Syracusan region, its organization and settlement pattern, and how this system might have worked as part of the new Roman province. These are tasks for future researchers.

Niccolò Mugnai
British School at Rome

Book Review of Mégara Hyblaea 7: La ville classique, hellénistique et romaine, by Henri Tréziny

Reviewed by Niccolò Mugnai

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.mugnai

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