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The Fight for Greek Sicily: Society, Politics, and Landscape

July 2021 (125.3)

Book Review

The Fight for Greek Sicily: Society, Politics, and Landscape

Edited by Melanie Jonasch. Oxford: Oxbow 2020. Pp. x + 400. ₤45. ISBN 978-1-78925-356-6 (cloth).

Reviewed by

It is well understood that war was an integral part of Greek Sicily; to what extent this impacted Greek culture and the Sicilian landscape, however, is still being explored. Jonasch has assembled a book with its origins in a workshop on warfare held at the University of British Columbia (“War and Society in Colonial Sicily,” 27–29 April 2018) that chronologically spans the Archaic and Classical periods and geographically encompasses the entire island. The topic is explored via the interwoven threads of literary, historiographical, and archaeological contexts.

Franco De Angelis (preface) initiates the discussions with a short word of welcome that alerts the reader to the geographical similarities between Sicily and British Columbia and illustrates that the cultural encounters that took place within them are analogous. Before summarizing the contents of the book, Jonasch’s introduction reminds us that although the authors—and, it’s expected, most readers—have been fortunate enough not to witness war firsthand, its impact stretches across the globe shaping our actions and environment in our desire for personal safety. Both authors stress that though millennia ago, violent behavior and the aggressive acts that it spawned in ancient Sicily are still relatable today.

In the first chapter, Stefano Vassallo finds evidence of war and conflict through the archaeological record of fortifications, destruction, abandonment, and post-conflict development. Focusing on north central Sicily, the notable appearance of these aspects in sixth-century BCE indigenous contexts coincides well with the actions of Phalaris, the first tyrant of Agrigento, while mass graves serve as an all-too-real reminder of the battles at Himera in 480 and 409 BCE. Geopolitical changes of the late fifth century are also evident in the rise of Termini Imerese and Cefalù, which replaced Himera as political centers, and the abandonment or realignment of local indigenous centers.

Andrew Ward and Clemente Marconi (ch. 2) explore the deposition of spears and arrowheads at Temple R at Selinous. The hill on which the temple stood exhibits evidence of ritual activity in the form of spearheads deliberately thrust into the ground prior to construction and through the life of the temple. While the desire to associate metal weapons (of which an extensive table is included) with conflict is compelling, the authors admit that war was an ever-present reality to the Greeks—so much so that it became a means through which other symbolic acts (such as the creation of civic identity) took place. In the agora of Selinous, the presence of weapons and armor (Holger Baitinger, ch. 3) is interpreted as metal production, scrap material, or a medium of wealth and exchange, underscoring further the saturation of war in the daily Greek experience.

The discussion turns literary in the next several chapters, diving into the effects of conflict among individuals and populations. Randall Souza (ch. 4) traces the diaspora of the Naxians and Motyans after expulsion from their homelands by Dionysius I. Their continued appearance in sources indicates their enduring collective identity, eventually returning home or forming part of a new community elsewhere. Thucydides’ account of the Athenian retreat from Syracuse serves as evidence to Bernd Steinbock (ch. 5) that combat trauma (e.g., PTSD) recognized today was equally prevalent in the Greek society. Lisa Irene Hau (ch. 6) expands the ideas from the previous chapter, dissecting Thucydides’ experiential narrative of the Athenian retreat as opposed to his abstract narrative of Corcyraean civil war, a literary tool of his choosing to emphasize the Athenian actions and traumatic consequences. Ryan Johnson’s (ch. 7) thorough examination of curse tablets at Selinous establishes not only that a multicultural community was present in the sixth and fifth centuries, but that it was a factor in interethnic tensions.

De Angelis (ch. 8) returns with his take on the reciprocal dynamics of warfare and the pre-Roman Sicilian economy. He stresses that more focus needs to be placed on the economy of the Graeco-Roman world, an aspect that, although not emphasized, connects in many ways throughout the book. 

Mercenaries played a large role in tyrannical conquests of the island, but their presence did not end when the battles were decided. Jason Harris (ch. 9) reviews the use of mercenaries in the Classical period before demonstrating their impact on and integration within communities, drastically altering the sociocultural networks of the island. Spencer Pope (ch. 10) considers the effects of the distribution of mercenaries within settlements, ultimately leading to the disbursement of indigenous groups into a marginalized population. A more focused follow-up comes in Michela Costanzi’s (ch. 11) inspection of the formation and re-formation of settlements in the fifth and fourth centuries, centered on Halaesa Archonidea. These chapters effectively highlight the drastic changes that the warfare of the Greeks imposed on the Sicilian settlement landscape.

The editor’s own chapter (ch. 12) introduces a much-needed turning point. While admitting that Greek Sicily can be defined as a militarized landscape, modern scholarship too often looks for conflict in the placement of settlements and their relationship with surrounding populations. Her dissections of eastern Sicilian Greek settlements in the Archaic and Classical periods establish a pattern of Greek mobility rooted in a social and economic landscape, only later becoming militarized and defensive in nature.

Monumental construction in the Greek settlements of Sicily can also be seen as a by-product of warfare. Diodorus comes under critique in Giulio Amara’s archaeological and architectural analyses of the so-called “victory” temples constructed after the Battle of Himera in 480 BCE, namely the Athenaion of Syracuse (ch. 13). Evidence leans more toward a shared architectural language than simultaneous constructions of triumph. A dichotomy of warfare is evident in the next two chapters. Internally, Syracuse’s urban landscape evolved through the expansion of fortifications under Gelon and Dionysius I (Valentina Mignosa, ch. 14), with political, social, and economic effects. Externally, Syracuse modified the urban landscape of Leontinoi (Massimo Frasca, ch. 15), where archaeological evidence both confirms and refutes the literary accounts of the history of that settlement. Mignosa and Frasca complement one another well, augmenting both examinations.

The focus then shifts chronologically toward the pre-Roman period and geographically beyond the island itself. The western Sicilian settlement of Eryx underwent sociopolitical changes under indigenous, Greek, Punic, and Roman occupation (Salvatore De Vincenzo, ch. 16), for which the fortifications of the site bear testimony. Claudio Vacanti (ch. 17) delivers an entirely new perspective on the western Mediterranean with maps illustrating the geopolitical environments of the Italian peninsula, Sicily, and Carthaginian territories. Useful for heuristic and hermeneutic purposes, these maps provide visual depictions of the dynamics of Greek–Roman–Punic relations prior to the First Punic War. 

The book ends with a summary by Stefania De Vido in both Italian (ch. 18) and English (ch. 19), outlining how this book is a key text to view Sicily through war, not as a battlefield but as a lens through which other aspects of Greek life can be better understood.

Following the bibliography, Jonasch includes a historical timeline and a useful map of the island with all places mentioned in the text. Before each chapter in English an abstract is given in Italian, and for those by Vassallo, Costanzi, and Amara, which are written in Italian, an English abstract is provided. The bilingual emphasis breaks down some of the barriers that can prohibit cross-cultural research, though unfortunately, not all the non-English quoted sections are translated; but this is not necessarily a major hindrance, with translation technology now available to a wide audience. In fact, the multilingual foundation of this book is to be lauded, as is the book itself for looking past the wars that plagued Sicily to examine the sociopolitical effects of warfare on the island and its populations.

Jerrad Lancaster
Department of History
University of Akron

Book Review of The Fight for Greek Sicily: Society, Politics, and Landscapeedited by Melanie Jonasch
Reviewed by Jerrad Lancaster
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 3 (July 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1253.Lancaster

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