7th May 2015
There is little that gets me more excited than a shipwreck. It is with great excitement then, that I board an early train from Trapani to Marsala.
Some tourists may flock to Marsala for the famous wine, I’m instead itching to see the earliest warship ever found on the sea floor.
Marsala is the modern town that sits on top of the Carthaginian settlement of Lilybaeum. After the tyrant Dionysus of Syracuse razed the nearby Phoenician settlement of Motya in 396 BC , the Carthaginian Himilco took the Motyan refugees and turned Lilybaeum from a small village into a naval stronghold and thriving port. The city was so well fortified by 350BC that in 278BC Lilybaeum was the only city not to fall to Pyrrhus of Epirus as he attempted to drive all Carthaginians from Sicily.
In 264-241BC it was the turn of the Roman Empire to try and oust Carthage from power. In 242BC Rome decided to tae the fight from land to sea and built up a powerful fleet to match the notorious naval power of Carthage. Under the control of the consul Gaius Lutatius Catulus, assisted by the praetor Quintus Valerius Falto, the Roman fleet blockaded Lilybaeum and nearby Drepana (Trapani.) Carthage sent a fleet of 250 ships to break the blockades but lost the crucial element of surprise. The Roman fleet sailed out to meet them in battle by the Aegates Islands (now known as the Egadi Islands) on March 10th, 241BC. The Romans smashed the Carthaginian forces, sinking half of their fleet. Soon after Carthage forced Hamilcar Barca to sign a humiliating peace treaty with Rome bringing the First Punic War to a conclusion. The Romans celebrated by building a temple that I saw last year in Rome, and Hamilcar’s son Hannibal began to dream of revenge…
Fast forward to 1969. Amphora, bronze battering rams and even armour still litter the sea floor off of the Egadi islands. The captain of a dredging ship finds rare wooden fragments, and within two years the hull of the ship becomes exposed. A four year rescue mission followed, bringing the ship to the surface for the first time since 241BC.
It’s a pleasant walk from Marsala train station down to the Baglio Anselmi museum which is situated on the seashore on the edge of the archaeological park.
The admittedly scant remains of the ship are displayed in a large hall. The fact that the majority of the ship has been lost is so unsurprising that few could surely be disappointed, particularly when they see what is exhibited from the wreck in cabinets alongside.
Archaeologists have been able to learn a huge amount about the ship despite only recovering a portion of it. There are marks along the wood suggesting a pre-fabricated design, the wood itself being young and freshly cut when the boat sank. Knowing that the Carthaginians built a brand new fleet in haste to respond to the new Roman naval threat it makes sense that they would build their boats IKEA style!
Lack of equipment for long voyages and no sign of cargo also rules out the possibility of an unlucky merchant ship. The design suggests it is a liburnian, a smallish military kind of ship that was light, fast and equipped with a bronze ram. It would have had a bank of oarsmen and one mast with a single sail.
I’d love to see someone plough some money into this museum and reconstruct a scale model of the ship that could easily be displayed in the large courtyard of the museum building. It would be magical to see the wreck and then wander around a complete boat to compare. Perhaps if I ever win the lottery I shall offer!
The rest of the museum houses finds from Marsala (Lilybaeum) herself, from the Punic era through to Roman occupation. The Romans continued to use Lilybaeum as a prosperous port and town. Cicero served here and throughout western Sicily as quaestor in 75BC. Cicero made such an impression on the locals that in 70BC they chose him to prosecute Gaius Verres, their former governor. Verres had extorted the Sicilians, despoiled their temples, stolen any artworks and possessions that caught his fancy, and used the Spartacus revolt to illegally charge perfectly loyal (and valuable) slaves with sedition, sentence them to crucifixion and demand huge amounts of money from their masters to expunge their ‘crimes.’
Cicero made such a blistering attack on Verres that Hortensius, his advocate and at that point the most respected orator in Rome, suggested that Verres should make no reply and slink off into voluntary exile as even Hortensius couldn’t hope to salvage his reputation. Verres fled to Massilia (Marseilles) and Cicero became famous overnight as the greatest public speaker in Rome. Cicero would become a legend, Verres would never see Rome again, both men would be added to the proscription lists by Mark Anthony and executed within months of each other in 43BC, (Cicero for being a very real threat and vocal critic of Mark Anthony and the power that he was accruing, Verres, fittingly enough, for possessing some statues that Mark Anthony coveted!)
Heading out into the blazing sunshine I was excited to visit the archaeological remains of the ancient city. The Archeological Park is large but unfortunately badly signposted. Most signs have faded and cracked under the Sicilian sun and are completely illegible, I can’t even tell if they once displayed English translations. As before when I’ve travelled in May, the site gardeners have not yet cut the meadowy grass and flowers which in places reach shoulder height and often obliterate the views of the ruins. The one mercy for the traveller is the regular fountains with potable water spread across the site. I lost count of how many times I refilled my water bottles with cool, clean water, hot as it was in the middle of the day. Still, can’t complain much as what I did see made me happy.
Ruins seen, I take the pleasant walk through Marsala back to the train station. It is ridiculously pretty!
It’s time to head back to Trapani. My crippled kidney must be making me even more sluggish than usual in the Mediterranean heat, because as soon as I get back to Trapani I need a nap.A siesta later and I’m ready to get gloriously lost wandering the streets of the old town.
Trapani was founded by the Elymians as a port for Eryx (modern Erice) which was situated on a nearby mountain. It was known in antiquity as Drepana as it is located on a curved promontory (Drepanon being the Greek word for ‘sickle.’
Nothing remains of the ancient city, but Trapani is too beautiful for me to mind. It is wonderfully pleasant to wander through Baroque streets in the early evening whilst sipping a granita di limone.
After a pleasant walk and some pasta ‘con il pesto alla Trapanese’ it’s time for an early night, as tomorrow I continue the Elymian theme of this afternoon…