12th May 2015
I’m eagerly escaping the noisy, grubby confines of Catania for the posher, more affluent tourist town of Taormina. It’s a relief to get on the bus and it doesn’t take us long before we’re driving through beautiful countryside, my mood getting brighter the greener my surroundings. I defy anyone not to be increasingly elated as the bus leaves the coast at Giardini Naxos to ascend Monte Tauro, providing beautiful views as it passes Isola Bella.
Taormina would bankrupt me if I stayed for the whole fortnight of my trip, but at least they take their wealth here and plough it into making the town as beautiful, tidy and welcoming as possible. My hotel may cost nearly twice as much as the spartan hovel I just left in Catania, but it is cosy, comfy, beautifully decorated and has an air conditioning unit that doesn’t leak. Plus, I’m more than happy to pay extra for a view like these, from the rooftop breakfast terrace:
Strabo writes that the first Greek colonists to Sicily founded their first city at Naxos in 735BC. Diodorus Siculus writes that the tyrant Dionysius I seems to have defeated the Naxians in 403 BC and handed their lands to the native Siculi, who chose to settle on Monte Tauro instead and name the new town Tauromenion. Within a couple of years Dionysus wanted Tauromenion for himself and, unable to successfully capture it through force, managed to acquire it in a peace treaty with the Carthaginians 392 BC and promptly evicted the Siculi.
In 358 BC, after the death of Dionysius, a new ruler named Andromachus virtually refounded Tauromenion by inviting the descendants of the Naxians (who had dispersed all over the island,) to settle there. Andromachus was a fair and wise ruler, a sharp contrast to the war mongering tyrants that Sicily was known for. He welcomed Timoleon, a Corinthian statesman, to Tauromenion in 344 BC so that the latter could use Tauromenion as an operational base from which to travel to the Corinthian colony of Syracuse and try to rectify the political problems caused by tyrants there. Timoleon drove tyrants from much of Sicily but was so impressed with Andromachus and his democratic method of ruling that Andromachus was allowed to remain.
Agathocles succeeded Timoleon in Syracuse and did eject Timaeus, the son and successor of Andromachus, from Tauromenion. Timaeus went to Athens where he wrote histories of Sicily and Greece and invented the method of working out chronology by matching events with Olympiads.
A local leader named Tyndarion took charge instead and was one of the Sicilian city leaders on the Greek eastern half of the island that invited Pyrrhus of Epirus to Sicily in 278 BC in order to drive out the Carthaginians, who had an habitual difficulty in staying content on their western half.
Before long Tauromenion fell under the dominion of Syracuse and remained as such until Sicily became a Roman province in 201 BC following the end of the Second Punic War.
In the First Servile War (134-132 BC,) Tauromenium, as the Romans called it, became a popular stronghold for rebellious slaves, strategically situated as it was halfway up the mountain. The rebels were besieged by the consul Publius Rupilius. The slaves managed to hold out for a long time, teetering on the brink of famine. In the end, a rebel slave leader called Sarapion betrayed the rebel cause and the citadel fell into the hands of Rupilius, who massacred every single survivor.
The strategic placement of Tauromenium was also too tempting to pass over for Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey the Great. Sextus Pompey vehemently opposed the Second Triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Anthony and Lepidus. After the Triumvirs and successfully eliminated Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 BC to avenge their assassination of Julius Caesar, their attention switched to Sextus Pompey who had spent the two years since the death of Caesar building up a strong navy and army on Sicily and was using them to control how much grain was transported from Sicily to Rome. Neither side being able to strike a decisive blow, an uneasy truce was declared. Mark Anthony took the opportunity to attack Parthia, and before long Octavian restarted his initial goal of defeating Sextus Pompey without him.
After many setbacks and near two naval defeats (the first in 37 BC and then again in early 36 BC,) Octavian, assisted by Marcus Agrippa, managed to defeat Sextus Pompey in 36 BC in two naval battles.
Sextus Pompey fled to Miletus where within a year he was assassinated by a Roman commander loyal to Mark Anthony.Lepidus then made the incredibly foolish decision of turning against Octavian and ordering him to leave Sicily, Lepidus claiming it for himself. Knowing who was stronger, Lepidus’ troops abandoned him. Octavian graciously spared Lepidus his life, stripping him of all political power and allowing him to live out his days in exile.
Octavian repopulated Tauromenium with people loyal to him, expelling those who had supported Sextus Pompey. The town thrived under the Imperial age, becoming famous for its wine. Amphorae marked TAVR have been found in Pompeii. Juvenal also points out that Tauromenian fisherman caught the nicest mullets!
The town is small and perfect for strolling around, it’s impossible to get lost here for long.
In 1899 an Englishwoman came to Taormina with a dream to build a large pleasure garden. Florence Trevelyan constructed the Villa Comunale gardens and filled them with follies and rare plant species. It is well worth slowly exploring, especially in the last afternoon.
I’ve left the main draw of Taormina until last, a monumental grand finale to a beautiful day.
Nobody seems to be able to pinpoint how old the ancient theatre at Taormina actually is. What exists today is purely 1stC AD Roman but the older fashioned Greek design and characteristics hint at a rebuild on an earlier structure. I’ve deliberately delayed my visit until late, so that I can be confident of avoiding the hordes of coach groups that notoriously descend on one of the most iconic attractions in Sicily during the middle of the day.