Tag Archives: ancient history

Graffiti of Pompeii

There are thousands of graffiti recorded in the time capsule town on Pompeii, the town destroyed and buried by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD. They offer a glimpse into everyday ancient life in an unprecedented way. I hope you will find this list an amusing diversion or a useful resource for research.

Note – technically this list is a mixture of graffiti and dipinti. A dipinto is a drawn message or doodle, either made with paint, charcoal etc. A graffiti is incised into the surface, perhaps with a nail or tool. For the sake of simplicity, I’m using the word graffiti as a catch-all term, in keeping with the majority of guidebooks and websites.

I shall provide the location of each graffito wherever possible. Not only will this help tourists find them (if still visible,) but noting which types of graffiti appear where is a fascinating insight into the different neighbourhoods of the town. When I provide a building code, it breaks down into 3 sections. The first part notes the Regio, one of 9 zones of the town carved up by archaeologists. The second number notes the insula, or city block. The final number is the door number. So the House of the Surgeon is categorised as vi.1.10 – Regio 6, block 1, door 10. Some houses are known by a number of names, I’ll use whichever I think is the better known. A lot of buildings have multiple numbered entrances, I shall use the entrance closest to the graffito.

Where I can, I’ll also provide the catalogue number of each graffito in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. Volume IV is dedicated to graffiti recorded in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. The online database I use is the Epigrafik-Datenbank Clauss-Slaby. This will be handy if you wish to read any of these in the original Oscan, Greek or Latin. If I can’t find a translation or attempt a clumsy one myself, I won’t include an example. This list is intended to be accessible for everyone (or at least those who don’t mind sexual themes or naughty language…) I’m not going to shy away from graffiti that use ‘naughty’ language as some books/sites do. The Pompeians weren’t prudes so I see no reason why I should be. However, perhaps you may wish to bookmark this page to read away from school/work…

If you spot any mistakes, can fill in some missing information or think I’ve missed a great example, just let me know.


If the graffiti is anything to go by, Pompeiians loved politics. The huge number of electoral slogans reminds me of my clogged Facebook timeline during our own modern elections. Official dipinti were written by professional scriptores, usually in red paint in an elegant script. Some of the others may be a teensy bit sarcastic…

  • I ask you to elect Numerius Barcha, a good man, as duovir. May Venus Pompeiana be favourable to your offerings. – CIL IV 00026, House of the Anchor vi.10.7
  • Numerius Veius, a good man. Colonists, I ask you to elect him duovir. – CIL IV 00045 Facade of a shop, viii.5.29
  • Numerius Veius Barcha, I hope you rot! – CIL IV 00075
  • Nymphodotus with Caprasia asks you to elect Marcus Cerrinius Vatia aedile. CIL IV 207
  • All the late drinkers ask you to elect Marcus Cerrinius Vatia aedile. Florus and Fructus wrote this! – CIL VI 581, Taberna Hedones, vii.2.44
  • I beg you to elect Marcus Epidius Sabinus duovir with judicial powers, he is worthy. May you elect one who is a protector of the colony according to the opinion of Suedius Clemens, the worshipful judge, and by agreement of the council on account of his merits and his honesty, worthy of public office. Sabinus, the theatre official, elects him with applause. CIL IV 768, Shop of Sabinus, i.4.18
  • Popidius Natalis, his client, with the worshipers of Isis, call for the election of Cuspius Pansa for aedile.  CIL IV 1011, Bakery of Felix, viii.4.27
  • The ball players ask that you elect Aulus Vettius Firmus aedile, worthy of public office. CIL IV 1147, Estate of Julia Felix, ii.4.4
  • Elect Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus aedile, worthy of public office. Masculus and all those who have a tail recommend him… CIL IV 7240 Caupona of Masculus, i.7.14
  • All the late sleepers ask for Marcus Cerrinius Vatia for aedile. CIL IV 575
  • Vatia for aedile: supported by the petty thieves… CIL IV 576
  • Vote for Isidorus for aedile, he licks cunts the best! CIL IV 1383, Brothel of Aphrodite, Secunda, Nymphe, Spendusa, Veneria, Restituta, Timele vi.11.15
  • Lucius Popidius Ampliatus, son of Lucius, for aedile: supported by his client Montanus in conjunction with the brigands.  CIL IV 7851
  • Valens, you’re sleeping; you’re asleep and dreaming; wake up from your slumber and make Helvius Sabinus aedile. 
  • The neighbours of Lucius Statius Receptus urge you to elect him duovir with judicial power. He is deserving of the office. Aemilius Celer, his neighbour, wrote this. If you deliberately deface this sign, may you fall gravely ill! CIL IV 3775 House of Primigenia ix.8.8
  • Statia and Petronia beg you to elect Marcus Casellius and Lucius Albucius as aediles. There are excellent citizens for the perpetuity of the colony.  CIL IV 3294
  • Bruttius Balbus for duumvir. His actions will be fiscally responsible. Genialis supports this. CIL IV 3792 Shop, ix.2.20


Pompeiians loved a good gladiatorial spectacle. Theirs is the oldest surviving permanent amphitheatre in the Roman world. Politicians hoped to win over the citizens by sponsoring lavish spectacles and certain gladiators became ancient celebrities. It seems that ancient Campanians were quite willing to travel to see a good show, following their favourite troupes in the same way that modern sports fans go to away matches. That explains why the amphitheatre at Pompeii is so large for such a small town. Keen fans scribbled the results of fights alongside doodles of their favourite fighters.

Note – the term ‘Neronian’ indicates the gladiator trained at the Imperial training school in Capua.

  • The gladiatorial troupe of Aulus Suettius Certus, aedile, will fight at Pompeii on 31st of May. There will be a hunt and awnings. CIL IV 1189 The Eumachia, vii.9.1
  • At the dedication of the Games of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius… There will be a hunt, athletics, aprinklings, awnings. Good fortune to Maius, leader of the colony. CIL IV 1177 Forum Baths vii.5.2
  • 20 pairs of gladiators of Decimus Lucretius Satrius Valens, perpetual priest of Nero and 10 pairs of gladiators of his son Decimus Lucretius Valens, will fight at Pompeii on 8,9,10,11,12 April. There will be a regular hunt and awnings. Aemilius Celer wrote this on his own by the light of the moon.  CIL IV 3884 Shop facade, ix.8.1
  • Celadus, belonging to Octavus, fought 3 won 3. CIL IV 4297 House of the Gladiators, v.5.3
  • Rusticus Malius – 12 fights, 11 wins. Marcus Terentius – 3 fights, 3 wins. CIL IV 4302 House of the Gladiators v.5.3
  • Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls! CIL IV 4289 House of the Gladiators, v.5.3
  • Mansuetas the provocator will dedicate his shield to Venus if victorious! CIL IV 283, Quadriporticus viii.7.16
  • Faustus, slave of Ithacus, Neronian, at the amphitheatre; Priscus, Neronian, fought 6, victor; Herrenius, fought 18, killed CIL IV 1421 House of the Labyrinth vi.11.10
  • Asteropaeus, Neronian, 107 victories, victor. Oceanus, freedman, 6 victories, reprieved CIL IV 1422 House of the Labyrinth vi.11.9
  • In honour of the Safety of the Emperor Vespasian Caesar Augustus and his House, on the occasion of the dedication of the altar, the gladiatorial troupe of Gnaeus Allius Nigidius Maius, Flamen of Caesar Augustus, will give games at Pompeii on July 4. Beast hunt. There will be awnings. CIL IV 1180 Large Theatre exterior
  • Oceanus, of free status, victorious 13 times, won. Aracintus, of free status, victorious 4 times, earned a reprieve. CIL IV 8055 House of the Ceii i.6.15
  • Severus, of free status, victorious 13 times, earned a reprieve. Albanus, left-hander, of free status, victorious 19 times, won CIL IV 8056 House of the Ceii i.6.15 Left handed gladiators were quite rare and would have drawn a large crowd.
  • Marcus Attilius. Marcus Attilius, fought 1, won 1, victor. Lucius Raecius Felix, fought 12, won 12, reprieved. CIL IV 10236A Tomb 14 Porta Nuceria necropolis
  • Marcus Attilius, novice, victor; Hilarus, Neronian, fought 14, 12 victories, reprieved CIL IV 10238A Tomb 14 Porta Nuceria necropolis
  • Games at Nola given by Marcus Cominius Heres over 4 days. ‘The Chief’, Neronian, fought 13, 10 victories, victor. Hilarus, Neronian, fought 14, 12 victories, victor. Creunus, fought 7, 5 victories, reprieved.  CIL IV 10237 Tomb 14 Porta Nuceria necropolis
  • Twenty pairs of Gladiators, belonging to Aulus Suettius Antenio and to his freedman Niger, will fight at Puteoli on the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th of March. There will also be a beast hunt and athletic contests. CIL IV 9970
  • Sold to the wife of Decimus Lucretius Valens: Onustus, horseman of prime quality, Sagatus, Thracian murmillo, prime quality! CIL IV 8590 It would be extremely odd for a wife to buy gladiators on her husband’s behalf. It seems likely that this matron was in fact buying/hiring these gladiators for her own entertainment…
  • 20 pairs of gladiators of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius, quinquennial, and their substitutes will fight without any public expense at Pompeii. Greetings to Gavillius Tigellus and Clodius. Greetings to Telephus, head gladiator instructor. Good luck, Diadumenus and Pyladio CIL IV 7991 House of Trebius Valens iii.2.1
  • Good fortune to Gnaeus Alleius Maius, the prince of the games! CIL IV 7990 Palaestra ii.7.7
  • Marcus Casellius Marcellus, a good aedile and a great giver of games CIL IV 4999 House of M Casellius Marcellus ix.2.26
  • Felix, belonging to Cassius, 13 fights 13 wins. Florus, belonging to Octavius, 14 fights 14 wins CIL IV 4378 House of the Gladiators v.5.3
  • On the 28th of July, Florus won at Nuceria, on the 15th of August, he won at Herculaneum CIL IV 4299 House of the Gladiators v.5.3
  • On the … Of May, the gladiator troupe of Ampliatus will fight at Formia. There will be a beast hunt, sprinklings and awnings. As the whole world desires to see my troupe, I shall provide games everywhere. CIL IV 1184 Gladiator Barracks viii.7.16
  • You have been victorious in every single one of your bouts! It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World! CIL IV 1111 Amphitheatre ii.6
  • Chariot fighter Philippus from the school of Tettius. 8 fights, 8 wins! CIL IV 4280 House of the Gladiators v.5.3



  • A small problem gets bigger if you ignore it… CIL IV 1811, Basilica, viii.1.1
  • What’s happening? Oh, eyes, you forcibly dragged me into the fire;
    Now, unforced, you flood my cheeks.
    But never can the tears extinguish the flame, t
    hey inflame the face and melt the spirit. Tiburtinus composed this. IV 4966, Odeon, viii.7.19
  • Once you are dead, you are nothing CIL IV 5279 House of the Centennial, ix.8.3
  • Nothing can last for all time: When the Sun has shone brightly it returns to Ocean; the Moon wanes, which recently was full. Even the fierceness of Venus often becomes a mere puff of wind. CIL IV 9123 Shop of Successus ix.13.4
  • Avoid giving killer looks to the wives of others with desirous expressions, harbour modesty in your mouth. CIL IV 7968A House of the Moralist iii.4.2
  • Remove lustful expressions and a flirtatious gaze from another man’s wife; may there be modesty in your expression. CIL IV 7968B House of the Moralist iii.4.2
  • Postpone your tiresome squabbles if you can, or leave and take them home with you. CIL IV 7968C House of the Moralist iii.4.2
  • When an old man lies on his back, his bollocks cover his arsehole. CIL IV  4488
  • The one who buggers a man on fire burns his penis CIL IV 1882 Basilica viii.1.1
  • He who despises life easily spurns god CIL IV 5370 House of the Arches ix.7.20
  • Beware of wives! CIL IV 4238 Caupona V.2.3
  • The doorman should be awake for those who come bearing gifts. If, however, someone should knock on the door empty handed, the doorman should be deaf or sleeping with the latch firmly shut… CIL IV 1894 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Now, when anger is still fresh, it is time to leave. When grief has departed love shall return. Trust me! CIL IV 4491 House of Sextus Pompeius Axiochus vi.13.19


  • Stranger, my bones beg you not to pee at my tomb: if you want to do the deceased an even bigger favour: take a dump! You see the tomb of Urtica [= ‘Stinging Nettle’]: go away, shitter! It is not safe for you to open your buttocks here. CIL IV 8899 iii.5.4
  • Secundus took a shit here.  (This was written three times on the same wall…) CIL IV 5243 House of the Centenary ix.8.3
  • Lesbianus, you poop and you write, ‘Hi, everybody!’ CIL IV 10070 Shop of Nicanor ii.3.9
  • This is Martha’s dining room, as she shits in this dining room. CIL IV 5244 House of the Centenary ix.8.3 The graffito was found in what is thought to be the slave’s quarters.
  • One day you will understand how I feel. When I need to have a shit I’ll come and shit! CIL IV 5242 House of the Centenary ix.8.3
  • Shitter! Beware misfortune! CIL IV 3832 Caupona of Tertius ix.7.2
  • To the one defecating here.  Beware of the curse.  If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy! CIL IV 7716 House of Pascius Hermes iii.5.1
  • We have pissed the bed, I confess. We have erred innkeeper, though if you ask us why; there was no chamberpot! CIL IV 4952 Unnamed house viii.7.6


  • Gaius Pumidius Dipilus was here five days before the nones of October in the year that Marcus Lepidus and Quintus Catulus were consuls (2nd October 78 BC) CIL IV 1842 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here.  The women did not know of his presence.  Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion.  CIL IV 8767 Large Palaestra ii.7
  • Glyco was here with Martialis while the sun was boiling, we were thirsty. CIL IV 89 Tomb 18 Porta Ercolano necropolis
  • We two dear men, friends forever, were here.  If you want to know our names, they are Gaius and Aulus. CIL IV 8162 Bar i.7.8


  • Sabinus, my beauty, Hermeros loves you! CIL IV 1256 House of the Tragic Poet vi.8.5. This is just one of many graffiti about love/sex between two men.
  • No young buck is complete until he has fallen in love CIL IV 1787 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Let everyone one in love come and see.  I want to break Venus’ ribs with clubs and cripple the goddess’ loins.  If she can strike through my soft chest, then why can’t I smash her head with a club? CIL IV 1824 Basilica viii.1.1
  • If you are able, but not willing, why do you put off our joy and kindle hope and tell me always to come back tomorrow.  So, force me to die since you force me to live without you.  Your gift will be to stop torturing me.  Certainly, hope returns to the lover what it has once snatched away. CIL IV 1837 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Love dictates to me as I write and Cupid shows me the way, but may I die if the god should wish me to go on without you! CIL IV 1928 Basilica viii.1.1
  • I’m hurrying to you, my Sava. Try to love me! CIL IV 2414 Corridor into the Large Theatre viii.7.20
  • Methe of Atella, slave of Cominia, loves Chrestus. May Venus Pompeiana smile favourably on their hearts and let them always live in harmony. CIL IV 2457 Corridor into the Large Theatre viii.7.20
  • Whoever loves, let him flourish.  Let him die who knows not love.  Let him who forbids love die twice over.  CIL IV 4091 House of Caecilius Jucundus v.1.26
  • If you felt the fires of love, mule-driver, you would make far more haste to see Venus.  I love a charming boy; I ask you, goad the mules; let’s go!  Take me to Pompeii, where love is sweet.  You are mine… CIL IV 5092 House of Poppaeus Sabinus ix.5.11
  • Oh, if only I could grasp my gentle arms around you and and give kisses to your delicate little lips. Come now, my little darling, entrust your pleasures to the winds. Believe me, the nature of men is fickle. Often as I have lain awake in a wasted night, I think on these things: many whom Fortuna raised high, now suddenly rush headlong, and fall, overwhelmed by her. Thus, just as Venus joins the bodies of lovers in a moment, daylight divides them and you will separate their love. CIL IV 5296 ix.9.f
  • Marcellus loves Praenestina, but she doesn’t care for him CIL IV 7679 House of Pinarius Cerialis iii.4.b
  • (Written by Severus) – “Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris, She, however, does not love him. Still he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye”(Answer by Successus) – “Envious one, why do you get in the way. Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking”(Answer by Severus) – “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you!” CIL IV 8258 Bar of Prima i.10.2
  • Secundus says hello to his Prima, wherever she is.  I ask, my mistress, that you love me. CIL IV 8364 House of the Cabinetmaker i.10.7
  • My Ceres, may he who loves prosper, who forbids love may he perish badly. I loved Leda, but in a manner in which it was acceptable. Greetings, Tiberius Claudius. I loved Leda – the girl from Samos. CIL IV 9202 House of Caecilius Jucundus v.1.23
  • A blonde girl taught me to scorn brunettes. I will scorn them if I can; if not… I will reluctantly love them CIL IV 9839 Vineyard wall i.11.10
  • Blondie has taught me to hate dark-haired girls.  I shall hate them, if I can, but I wouldn’t mind loving them.  Pompeian Venus Fisica wrote this CIL IC 1520 House of the Scientists vi.14.43
  • Lovers are like bees; they live a honeyed life! CIL IV 8408a Bar of Astylus and Pardalus ii.2.1
  • If only that were true… CIL IV 8408b Bar of Astylus and Pardalus ii.2.1
  • I don’t want to sell my husband, not for all the gold in the world! CIL IV 3061 House of Caprasius Primus vii.2.48
  • If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should take a look at my girl friend! CIL IV 6842 House of Pinarius iv.16.15
  • Greetings to Primigenia of Nuceria.  I would wish to become a signet ring for no more than an hour, so that I might give you kisses dispatched with your signature… CIL IV 10241 Tomb, Porta Nocera necropolis
  • Sarra, you are not being very nice, leaving me all alone like this! CIL IV 1951 Basilica viii.1.1
  • A woman has borne a son of her own; he isn’t mine and doesn’t look like me, but I wish he was mine and I was wanting him to be mine. CIL IV 1877 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Juvenillia was born on Saturday in the second hour of the evening, Aug 2nd. CIL 294 vii.3 Juvenilla was therefore 3 weeks old when Vesuvius erupted.
  • Let him constrain the winds, he who rebukes lovers! And let him him forbid the waters of a stream from continuing to flow! CIL IV 1649 Shop, vii.6.35


  • Hedone says, “You can get a drink here for only one coin.  You can drink better wine for two coins.  You can drink Falernian for four coins.” CIL IV 1679 Bar of Hedone vii.2.44
  • Whoever wants to serve themselves can go on an drink from the sea! CIL IV 3494 Bar of Salvius vi.14.36
  • What a lot of tricks you use to deceive, innkeeper. You sell water but drink unmixed wine!  CIL IV 3498 Workshop of Potitus vi.14.37
  • I fucked the barmaid! cil iv 8442 Caupona of Sotericus i.12.3


Whilst the Romans did have an unwritten code of morality, it seems that their attitude to sex was open, not to be matched until, perhaps, the 20th century. Erotic images taken to the museum in Naples were kept in a secret, locked room that was only opened up to the public in 2005. Whilst the modern idea of constant orgies is inaccurate (and influenced by the early Christian church,) erotic images and graffiti were not limited to brothels and dive bars and were found in the grandest of houses. There is no Latin term for homosexuality as it was not seen as particularly remarkable (even Julius Caesar had an affair with the King of Bithynia,) although a Roman citizen should always seek to be the penetrator, not the penetratee. Fellatio, cunnilingus and heterosexual anal sex were common and frequently advertised by prostitutes. Hookers could be hired for the price of a loaf of bread or beaker of wine, although those with particular talents or services could charge a lot more. Prostitution was legal and regulated and by no means a career solely for women. Visiting prostitutes was not frowned upon and was vastly preferable to seducing another man’s wife/daughter. Some clients even left glowing (and not so complimentary) reviews!

  • Thrust slowly!  (found above a doodle of doggy style sex) CIL IV 794 House of the King of Prussia vii.9.33
  • Atimetus got me pregnant CIL IV 10231 Tomb, Porta Nuceria necropolis
  • I don’t care about your pregnancy, Salvilla; I despise it. CIL IV 8384 House of Minucius i.10.8
  • Fortunatus will fuck you really deep. Come and see, Anthusa! CIL IV 1230 House of the Surgeon vi.1.10
  • Here I’ve finally screwed a beautiful girl, praised by many, but inside there was a mudhole. CIL IV 1516 House of the Scientist vi.14.43
  • My life, my sweetheart, let’s play for a moment, let’s imagine that this bed is a field and that I am your horse… CIL IV 1781 Basilica viii.1.1
  • It is much better to fuck a hairy cunt than a smooth one: it both retains the warmth and stimulates the organ. CIL IV 1830 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Take hold of your servant girl whenever you want to; it’s your right. CIL IV 1863 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Order your cock, it’s time for love! CIL IV 1938 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Restitutus says: “Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy cunt!” CIL IV 3951 Tavern of Verecundus i.2.23
  • Fortunatus, you sweet soul, you mega-fucker. Written by one who knows. CIL IV 4239 House of the Silver Wedding v.2.e
  • My lusty son, with how many women have you banged? CIL IV 5213 House of the Centenary ix.8.3
  • Cock, you are enormous! CIL IV 7089 v.7.4
  • Matrenia with the hot ass CIL IV 8473 Caupona of Hermes ii.1.13
  • Palmyra, you horny beast! CIL IV 8475 Caupona of Hermes ii.1.1
  • Dionysios is allowed to fuck whenever he wants CIL IV 8897 Shop iii.5.3
  • Crescens declares his penis hard and huge! CIL IV 10085b Imperial House ii.1.10
  • Jucundus fucks badly. CIL IV 8715b Large Palaestra ii.7
  • Here I have penetrated my lady’s open buttocks; but it was vulgar of me to write these verses. CIL IV 9246b Villa of the Mysteries
  • Virgula to her friend Tertius: you are so dirtyminded! CIL IV 1881 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Fortuna licks arseholes. CIL IV 4954 House viii.6.5


  • If anyone sits on this bench, let him read this first of all: if anyone wants a screw, he should look for Attice; she costs 4 sestertii. CIL IV 1751 Porta Marina
  • If anyone’s looking for tender embraces in this town, he should know that here all the girls are available. CIL IV 1796 Basilica viii.1.1
  • 15 June, Hermeros fucked here with Phileterus and Caphisus CIL IV 2185 Lupanar (Brothel) vii.12.18
  • Phoebus the perfumer is the best fuck CIL IV 2184 Lupanar (Brothel) vii.12.18
  • Garlicfarticus’ fucked well here whom he wished CIL IV 2188 Lupanar (Brothel) vii.12.18
  • Here Harpocras had a good screw with Drauca for a denarius. CIL IV 2193 Lupanar (Brothel) vii.12.18
  • He butt fucks Aplonia, gives it good, Nonius, fucking… CIL IV 2197 Lupanar (Brothel) vii.12.18
  • When you hand over the money, Batacarus, then I’ll fuck you in the arse! CIL IV 2254 Lupanar (Brothel) vii.12.18
  • Restituta with the pretty face CIL IV 2202  Lupanar (Brothel) vii.12.18
  • Mola the fucktress CIL IV 2204  Lupanar (Brothel) vii.12.18
  • Felicla, slave born of the household, costs 2 asses CIL IV 4023 unnamed house v.1.15
  • Menander, nice manners, costs 2 asses CIL IV 4024 unnamed house v.1.15
  • Successa, slave born of this household, costs 5 asses. She has pretty manners. CIL IV 4025 unnamed house v.1.15
  • Felix costs four asses. Florus ten. CIL IV 7339 unnamed house i.10.3
  • Afillia costs 2 and a half asses CIL IV 7764
  • Communis: 3 asses, Successus: 3 asses, Nicephorus: 2 asses, Amunus: 4 asses, Cresimus, house born slave: 4 asses CIL IV 3964 Bakery i.3.1
  • I’m yours for 2 asses CIL IV 5372 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Athenais costs 2 asses. Sabina costs 2 asses CIL IV 4150 House of Jupiter v.2.15


  • Amplicatus, I know that Icarus is buggering you.  Salvius wrote this. CIL IV 2375 House of the Citharist i.4.5
  • Let Damoetas surrender to me and he will be happier than Pasiphae.  Zosimus wrote this. CIL IV 3299 House of M Casellius Marcellus ix.2.26
  • Weep, you girls.  My penis has given you up.  Now it penetrates men’s behinds.  Goodbye, wondrous femininity! CIL IV 3932 Bar of Innulus and Papilio i.2.20
  • I have buggered men CIL IV 4523 House of Orpheus vi.14.20
  • Albanus takes it up the arse CIL IV 4917 House of L. Caecilius Phoebus  viii.2.36
  • Lucius Habonius injures Caesonius Felix when he makes him suck his cock CIL IV 10232a Tomb 12 Porta Nocera necropolis
  • Vesbinus is catamite, Vitalius fucked him CIL IV 2319b between vii.2.16 and vii.2.17
  • Cosmus, slave of Equitia, is a great catamite and cocksucker who keeps his legs apart! CIL IV 1825 Basilica viii.1.1
  • I want to bugger a boy CIL IV 2110 Lupanar (Brothel) vii.12.18


There dozens of references to cunnum recorded in Pompeii. Here are just a few…

  • Satyrus, don’t lick cunt inside the opening but outside the opening. CIL IV 2400 House of M Epidius Sabinus ix.1.22
  • Saturninus, don’t lick cunts! CIL IV 3925 Caupona and brothel of Demetrius and Helpis Afra i.2.19
  • Isidorus, slave born in the household, from Puteoli, muff diver. CIL IV 4699 between vi.15.22 and vi.15.23
  • Theophilus, don’t lick cunts against the city wall like a dog! CIL IV 8898 Shop, iii.5.3
  • Asbestus licks cunt CIL IV 763 viii.4
  • Centius licks Dionusia’s cunt CIL IV 1425 House of the Labyrinth vi.11.10
  • Fronto openly licks pussy CIL IV 2257 Lupanar (brothel) vii.12.18
  • Glyco licks cunts for two asses. CIL IV 3999 Bakery i.3.27
  • Maritimus licks cunt for four asses. Virgins are free of charge CIL IV 8940 Shop, iii.7.1


It’s not a shock to find scores of graffiti mentioning blow jobs, ranging from tips, reviews and prices.

  • Rufa, may life be as good as your cocksucking! CIL IV 2421 Corridor of Large Theatre viii.7.20
  • Sabina, you suck cock, but you do it so badly! CIL IV 4185 House of the Silver Wedding v.2.1
  • Secundus, a cocksucker of rare skill CIL IV 9027 House of the Peristyle vii.6.28
  • Lick, girl!the mouth is not despised by anyone who is ready to come with the hand! CIL IV 10197 House of the Ship Europa i.15.3
  • Romula sucks her man here and everywhere. House of Marcus Fabius Rufus vii.16.22
  • Veneria sucked the cock of Maximus through the whole grape harvest, leaving both of her holes empty and only her mouth full! CIL IV 1391 Lupanare of Aphrodite, Secunda, Nymphe, Spendusa, Veneria, Restituta, Timele VI.11.15
  • Go down with your mouth along the shaft, then still licking, withdraw it upwards. Ah, there, I’m coming! CIL IV 760 Stabian Baths
  • Euplia sucks cock for 5 asses CIL IV 3330
  • Narcissus is the greatest cocksucker CIL IV 1825a Basilica viii.1.1
  • Felix sucks cock for one as CIL IV 5408 Tomb, Porta Nocera necropolis
  • Lais sucks cock for 2 asses CIL IV 1969
  • The man who shits a dick, what would you think he dined on? CIL IV 1884 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Myrtis, you give great head CIL IV 2273  Lupanar (Brothel) vii.12.18


  • Epaphra, you are bald! CIL IV 1816 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they every have before! CIL IV 1820 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Phileros is a eunuch!  CIL IV 1826 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Samius to Cornelius: go hang yourself! CIL IV 1864 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Epaphra is not good at ball games. CIL IV 1926 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Good fortune to the Puteolans; good luck to all Nucerians; the executioner’s hook to Pompeians and Pithecusans CIL IV 2183 Amphitheatre
  • Euplia is slack and has a huge clitoris CIL IV 10004 House of the Floral Cubicula i.9.5
  • Lucius Statius Philadelphus, freedman of a woman, is a thief! CIL IV 3990
  • Servilius is n love, he shouldn’t be allowed the chance. Go lick a cunt, Servilius. CIL IV 4304 House of the Gladiators v.5.3
  • Chloe says goodbye to Symphorus. Naeve should drop dead, he really should. CIL IV 4430 House vi.7.1
  • Erotaria, you jealous old bitch! CIL IV 9945 Tomb, Porta Nocera Necropolis


  • A copper pot has gone missing from my shop.  Anyone who returns it to me will be given 65 sestertii.  20 more will be given for information leading to the capture of the thief. CIL IV 0064 Shop viii.5.33
  • On April 20th, I gave a cloak to be washed.  On May 7th, a headband.  On May 8th, two tunics CIL IV 1393 Unnamed house vi.11.13
  • It took 640 paces to walk back and forth between here and there ten times CIL IV 1714 vii.1.40
  • Epaphra, give the paintbrush back CIL IV 1787 Basilica viii.1.1
  • Health to whomever invites me to lunch! CIL IV 1937 Basilica viii.1.1
  • On April 19th, I made bread CIL IV 8792 Large Palaestra ii.7
  • If you wish to waste time, spill millet and pick it up again CIL IV 2069 House of Holconius Rufus viii.4.4
  • Since 14 days before the Kalends of April our wages have been overdue CIL IV 6733 Bakery 6733



O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin. CIL IV 1904 Basilica, viii.1.1



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Ancient Athletics – The Events

The modern Olympics have a raft of events that would have had the ancient Greeks discombobulated. There were no aquatic events, ball games or team sports. Racewalking and beach volleyball would have been a mystery.

That said, the ancient Greeks had a few events and customs that would seem equally utterly bizarre in Rio 2016. For a start, all athletes competed naked unless stated otherwise. No brightly coloured team shell suits or lycra shorts, but some athletes did wear a kynodesme (“dog leash”) to compete in. This consisted of a leather cord that was tied around the protruding tip of the foreskin (the akroposthion) and pulled up to be tied to a waistband or the base of the penis. The idea was to prevent the foreskin riding up and exposing the glans of the penis. That was an absolute taboo, only slaves and barbarians didn’t worry about flashing their glans accidentally. Regular use of a kynodesme possibly permanently stretched the akroposthion which would have pleased the wearer as a large akropisthion was considered highly desirable. There may have been some practical aspects of wearing a kynodesme whilst competing but comfort seems to have been very much the secondary purpose. They were also worn by men of other professions whilst in public, such as actors. Even in private situations like drinking parties, respectable men would be wearing their kynodesme, so seeing athletes wearing them during their events would not only have been unremarkable but expected.


Races were the oldest events at the Olympic Games. In fact, the first 13 Olympics consisted of a single foot race called the stadion. It simply involved sprinting from one end of the track to the other. The length was standard across all Greek games and was set at 600 feet (mythically determined by Heracles.) The length of a foot varied from region to region; the tracks at Olympia and Isthmia are 192 modern metres long. At Nemea the track is a more gentle 178 metres and competitors in the Pythian Games at Delphi had a mere 177 metres to run. The word stadion not only referred to the track but as a standard of measurement for 600 feet.

At the Olympics the winner of the stadion gave his name to the entire Games and of that Olympiad period of four years. Everyone in the Greek world knew that Coroebus of Elis was the first Olympic victor (776 BC.) If you were to ask an ancient Greek when the Battle of Thermopylae took place, he would tell you it was the year when Astyalus of Croton won the stadion race for the third time in a row at the 75th Olympiad (480 BC.) Even late into antiquity a Greek would think that dating everything by the birth of an obscure eastern preacher would be a bizarre idea.

The diaulos was added at the 14th Olympic Games in 724 BC and simply doubled the length of the stadion requiring the athletes to turn at the far end and run back to the starting line.

At the 15th Olympics four years later the dolichos race was added to the programme. This race was not a sprint, lasting a whopping 20 stadia (10 full laps clocking in at 12,000 feet.)

So far, so recognisable. One race that is quite odd to modern spectators is the hoplitodromos race added in 520 BC at the 65th Olympic Games.

Each runner wore a helmet and greaves and carried a shield, elements of the full armour of a hoplite infantryman. The race made perfect sense to the ancient Greeks; armies were made up of citizen soldiers who needed to be able to display speed and agility in heavy armour. Shields weighed 7 kg alone (standard weight shields were kept at Olympia in the Temple of Hera to prevent cheating. The helmet and greaves would add another 3kg and the weight was not exactly conveniently distributed for running long distances in scorching summer heat. The race appealed to the war mongering Greeks who, when they weren’t fighting invaders like the Persians were constantly squabbling with rival city states. The race had what modern HR managers would call ‘transferable skills;’ with Greek hoplites fiercely charging at a Persian army at Marathon only three decades after the first hoplitodromos race.

Contact Sports

If the runners were lean and agile, the wrestlers and boxers were enormous. With shaven heads (to prevent hair pulling,) and flaunting scars from previous fights, these men were formidable. After qualifying rounds before the Games began, the cream of the crop would fight in out before the braying crowds. At Olympia, 16 athletes qualified for each event meaning that the victor would have to win four fights in a single hot, summer afternoon. There were three contact events and two classes, men and boys.


OK, so the modern Games have boxing. What the boxing in our Games also has is a long list of rules. Not so much in Greece.

There were no boxing rings to fight in, the contenders used the entire stadium. Bouts ran until a boxer signalled defeat (by raising his middle finger of his right hand,) or until someone was knocked unconscious. Greek boxers only aimed for the head and were allowed to strike in any way, whether it be a fist, open palm or jabbing fingers. A good boxer would use a mixture of punches to keep his opponent on the back foot, only gouging is forbidden. If a boxer fell to the ground, his opponent was allowed to keep punching him. All holds were banned.

There were no weight classes and it was entirely possible to see a wiry, lean man take on a human mountain, although Greek boxers were generally thickly built with broad, muscled shoulders and huge arms. Opponents were drawn at random, so tactics played an important part of each bout. A smaller, faster man may try to tire out a larger foe and wait to land a knock out punch, a heavy man may attempt to get his opponent down onto the ground and simply punch him repeatedly until he surrenders.

Ancient boxers didn’t fight their bouts in rounds with a short break for a drink and a pep talk from their trainer. Fights were continuous and lasted as long as they needed to. Neither did they use large, padded gloves. Ancient boxers wound 4 metres of leather softened with oil called himantes around each hand and wrist, leaving the fingers free. This protects the hands of the wearer but certainly not the skin of the opponent. Himantes caused such stinging cuts that they were nicknamed ‘ants.’ Certain boxers boasted that their faces were still unmarred because of their great skill. One, named Meloncomas of Caria,  remained undefeated for his entire career without ever throwing or receiving a punch, relying on nimble footwork and the ability to keep his guard up for up to two days at a time. Otherwise, veteran boxers would have been instantly recognisable from their cauliflower ears, broken noses and numerous scars, perhaps with a few teeth knocked out for good measure. Eurydamas of Cyrene lost every single one of his teeth in a single fight. Apparently an aristocratic Roman entered the Olympic Games and when he got home was disowned by his family, losing his inheritance. He was so badly disfigured during his bout his family didn’t recognise him.


The fact that all blows were aimed at the head made boxing the most deadliest of all ancient contact sports. There is a memorial at Olympia from the 1st century AD to a boxer known as the Camel of Alexandria. It reads

He prayed to Zeus, “Give me victory or give me death!” And here in Olympia he died, boxing in the Stadium at the age of 35. Farewell!”


After oiling their hulking bodies and dusting themselves with coloured powders (to provide grip,) ancient wrestlers entered the stadium for their chance at glory. Wrestling was generally quite sedate in comparison with boxing and pankration, with far more rules to ensure a graceful(ish) match. Victory was earned by throwing an opponent three times so that either his shoulders, back or hip touched the ground. Punches were forbidden as were kicks, although tripping up opponents was allowed (unlike modern ‘Greco-Roman’ wrestling.) There were several throws and above-waist holds in the repertoire and skill was just as important as brute strength. Perhaps moreso, as conserving energy was essential if an athlete was to have the stamina to succeed in successive rounds.


Pankration was a mixture of boxing and wrestling with more possibilities and fewer rules. To a modern eye, pankration is utterly savage. To the ancient audience it was a highlight of the Games and a masterful display of skill, strength and determination.

Pankration needed a special court as the stadium floor was too hard. Instead it was played out on freshly turned earth, muddied with water until it was sticky, nicknamed keroma – ‘beeswax.’. Pankratiasts fought naked and didn’t bother with the leather himantes. 

A bout didn’t end after three throws. The only way to win is for your opponent to concede, although sometimes even the death of a opponent did not secure a victory. Holds (including below waist,) arm and head locks, punches to the body as well as head and kicks were all allowed. Throws were used liberally and strangulation was seen as a perfectly logical way to ensure an opponent submitted. Genitals were a legitimate target not only for punches but for twists. The only forbidden moves are biting and eye-gouging.

With such freedom came a host of fighting styles within the event and the random lots must have made bouts between famous pankratiasts with differing techniques a must-see event. Determination and the endurance of pain were seen as honourable in the eyes of spectators and, as we often do now, crowds would sometimes cheer for underdogs if they showed fortitude.

To die fighting was often seen as preferable to admitting defeat and those who chose to die rather than give up were greatly admired. It was a brutal sport for men who lived in brutal times and pankratiasts were among the most revered of the celebrity athletes.

There have been several attempts to get a watered down version of pankration introduced as an event in the modern Olympics in recent years, hopefully with fewer broken bones and dislocated limbs…


Little has changed from the ancient pentathlon to the modern. Athletes of diverse talents competed in the discus, long jump, javelin, stadion race and wrestling.


This is a mid 2ndC AD marble copy of the c. 450 BC bronze original #Discobolus ("Discus thrower") statue by #Myron. Many copies were made, this is the most complete. Adolf #Hitler loved this very statue so much that he bought it in 1938 and displayed it in the Munich Glyptothek as a symbol of Aryan perfection (it was returned to Italy a decade later.) It shows a #Greek #athlete drawing back his #discus just before he starts his throw. Myron was famous for his sculptures of athletes and his style was part of an art revolution in ancient Greece, moving away from stiff poses and simple bodies to show something more fluid and idealised. Now on display at the #MuseoNazionaleRomano at the #PalazzoMassimo #igersrome #igersroma #ig_rome #ig_roma #olympics

A post shared by 🏛 Alexandra 🏛 (@tourguidegirl) on

The ancient discus event was not the same as our modern revival.

Firstly, ancient athletes had to be far more accurate with their aim. A modern stadium has a looped track that echoes an ancient hippodrome, the stadiums at Greek sanctuaries usually had straight tracks where sprinters simply turned around a post at the far end.

So in modern stadiums there is a large space in the middle of the track where it’s possible to hold other events and discus throwers have a 35° wedge of field to throw into. Ancient pentathletes had to throw far more accurately as they had only the straight track to aim for, otherwise they risked lobbing a huge piece of metal into the crowd (which wasn’t unheard of.)

There were no standard weights across Greece and athletes needed to adjust their technique for their location. Olympia apparently had the heaviest although none of the three official Olympic discuses have been discovered, so we can’t know exactly how heavy they were. Discuses found across Greece range from 3 to 9 pounds, making the modern discus look modest at 4.4lb.

You wouldn’t see an ancient pentathlete spin as he started his throw. He would stand with his right leg back and raise the discus to eye level in his right hand. He would then twist his body backwards to the right with his weight on the right leg. As he swung his right arm to throw the discus he would transfer his weight to his left leg for extra propulsion. The ancient method allows more control but a shorter distance, perhaps half that of an Olympic discus thrower today.

Competitors would have a few attempts (some Games allowed three, others 5) and their best distance would be marked. Distances don’t seem to have been measured and recorded for posterity, only being the best on the day mattered.


Most Greek men would have been somewhat proficient with a javelin. Javelins were used for hunting and also were a standard aspect of military training in a world where all male citizens were expected to fight for their polis. Athletic javelins were smaller, about 2 metres long and thinner.

Unlike the discus, ancient pentathletes threw their javelins far further than modern pentathletes. This is because they used an ankule, a thin leather thong that was wound around the javelin at the middle with a loop at one end. When the athlete held the javelin he hooked two fingers into the loop. As he threw the javelin the ankule, tethered to his hand, would cause the shaft to spin as it flew forward. This improved aim in the same way a gun with a rifled barrel will shoot straighter than one that is smooth.

The competitors each took a run up being careful not to cross the starting line of the track. Again, the best attempt was marked.

Long Jump

A skamma 15 metres long was created on the stadion floor close to where the judges were seated by raking up and moistening the hard ground. Historians are apparently at odds as to whether ancient long jumpers took a run up or jumped from a standing position. Two things make me plump for the latter:

  • Vase paintings depict long athletes mid-jump with their feet both together.
  • Ancient long jumpers held weights (called halteres,) which they swung backward and forward before they leapt to gain momentum.

Modern athletes have tested these weights and they only give an advantage when used from a standing jump, usually hindering a running one.

The weights weren’t apparently regulated and each athlete had his own personalised pair, carefully weighted to suit his strength and technique. Halteres have been found in stone, lead and bronze. Some are highly decorated, some smooth and basic. Most had finger grooves or were shaped a little like an old fashioned telephone to ensure a firm grip. The weight of halteres recovered by archaeologists vary wildy with some apparently as heavy as 10lbs, so either some athletes were enormous of halteres were also used as dumbbells.

One thing missing from the modern long jump is musical accompaniment provided by a flautist, presumably to help the athletes settle into a rhythm.

So how far was the average jump? As usual, the annals are mainly silent, but two boasting athletes may hold the answer. Chionis of Sparta managed a 52 foot jump. Phayllus claims to have jumped a whopping 55 feet. To put that into perspective, Greg Rutherford won a gold medal at the 2012 London Games with a 8.31 metre jump, just over 27 feet, using the modern run-up method.

Was the ancient long jump more like the modern triple jump? Modern records do surpass Chionis and Phayllus, but again it uses a run-up. Also, halteres have been shown to be actually detrimental when using a running start.

I’m inclined to believe that ancient athletes jumped from standing  3 or perhaps 5 times, either in succession or repeatedly from the edge of the skamma with their distances being totalled.

If one athlete came first in the discus, javelin and long jump, he was immediately declared the victor.

Otherwise, athletes without a win were eliminated, leaving either two or three athletes to run the stadion sprint.

If after 4 events an athlete triumphed in three of them, he was victorious. Only if two athletes were left with 2 wins each did they advance to the wrestling round.

The pentathlete was admired for being versatile as the Greeks loved an all-rounder, but they never achieved quite the celebrity of sprinters or wrestlers.


Forget show jumping and banish all thoughts of dressage, there were no prancing ponies in ancient Greece. Equestrian events were frequently the most lethal events of the Games. They took place in hippodromes, of which few traces survive. We do know that hippodromes were large, flat and had a turning post at each end.


The four-horse chariot race consisted of 12 full laps of the hippodrome which is equivalent to 72 lengths of the stadium. There was fencing around the course to protect the spectators from loose horses or flying bodies. At most Games there were simple starting lines which gave chariots on the outer side a disadvantage, being farther from the turning post. At Olympia there were elaborate starting gates called the aphesis that allowed for staggered starts, ensuring that each chariot reached the turning post at roughly the same time. Deliberate crashing and other acts of sabotage were against the rules, but there were so many accidental crashes that the chance of every chariot finishing was incredibly slim.

There are arguments about how many chariots competed and ancient sources are rarely forthcoming. At the Pythian Games at Delphi in 462 BCthe tethrippon had 41 chariots compete and yet only one, owned by King Arcesilas of Cyrene, managed to finish the entire course.

The chariots were lightweight for speed and quite slim, constructed from wood with wicker panels and tied together with leather thongs. They were similar to ancient war-chariots, though the Greeks had long ceased to use them, considering them old-fashioned and by then, somewhat barbaric on a battlefield. Chariots were often brightly decorated with vivid paint and metal inlays, horses wore decorated reins. Charioteers wore an ankle length chiton.

The inner pair of horses called zugoi were harnessed to the chariot yoke whereas the outer pair, known as seiraphoroi, were harnessed with leather straps. Each horse had a rein and the charioteer had to maintain control of all of them, using one hand to control the zugoi and one hand to control the seiraphoroi.  Some tied the ends of the reins to their belts so as not to drop them, however there was a risk that if a charioteer fell from the chariot he would be dragged along the ground.

Charioteers were sometimes slaves bought by wealthy chariot owners for the purpose. Whereas some were bought and trained by their owners, no doubt trained slave charioteers could fetch a high price. Other charioteers were free men who could be hired out for a single Games or longer. It rarely mattered which city the charioteer was from, it was the owner who won the victory and had their names recorded in victory odes. This is firstly because buying and maintaining a chariot and four thoroughbred horses was cripplingly expensive to all but the very aristocratic, but also because chariot racing had such a high mortality rate that few nobles wanted to risk their lives in pursuit of glory when someone else was willing to do it for them for a handful of drachma. Occasionally a thrill seeking aristocrat would insist on driving their own chariots but they were a rarity. Owning a slave or hiring a driver also allowed women their shot at Olympic glory. The first woman to compete was a Spartan princess named Kyniska and she won not once, but twice in 396 and 392 BC.

Most spectators wanted to be close to the turning posts where there was a greater chance of a multi-chariot pile up. It would have been a brutal, violent, noisy race that claimed several victims and whilst it was never given the same prestige as the stadion sprint, the tethrippon was hugely popular and highly anticipated.

There were also races with two-horse chariots (synoris,) that were 8 laps long and for a short time at Olympia, chariots drawn by mules (apene,) that were 3 laps long. There was a horseback race of 2 laps known as the keles (a name also given to an energetic sexual position offered by the better class of  prostitutes plying their trade at the Games!) In Olympia the equestrian events were important enough to be the first events of the Games, at Delphi they were the grand finale.


Olympia only held the athletic events above, but Nemea, Isthmia and particularly Delphi had further events in music.

There were prizes for playing a pair of auloi, which was a reeded instrument not unlike a modern oboe, and the kithara which was a type of lyre. There was also a prize for playing the kithara with a vocal accompaniment.

Over time more disciplines were added for the writing and recitation of poetry and prose, acting, dancing and even painting.

Olympia held a competition among their own trumpeters and heralds (sent across Greece to announce each Games,) as to which would be the trumpeter and herald of the Games. The trumpeter would perform fanfares to get the attention of the crowds, the herald would announce events and introduce the athlete by stating his name, his father’s name and his hometown. The trumpeter and herald were also indispensable at prize giving ceremonies.


The Prizes

The Panhellenic Games offered a ceremonial crown called a stephanos, becoming known as stephanitic Games. Until the prize giving ceremonies athletes wore ribbons around their heads.

  • Olympia – an olive wreath from a sacred tree in the sanctuary of Zeus
  • Delphi – a wreath of bay-laurel from Thessaly which was a sacred tree of Apollo
  • Nemea – a wreath of wild celery
  • Isthmia – originally celery, later wreaths of pine leaves

Bragging rights were more than a worth prize, along with any gifts showered upon you by a grateful city and your admirers. There were no prizes for second or third.

‘Prize’ games across the Mediterranean offered the chance for financial gain, (Sybaris in Italy once tried to hold a prize Games at the same time as the Olympics in a fit of pique,) with prizes being rather extravagant. At the Panathenaic Games in Athens the victor of the chariot race were given 140 amphorae (about 5,000 litres) of expensive olive oil pressed from Athena’s sacred olive trees.

Another prize was fame that could endure for centuries (and in some cases, millenia,) if an athlete was endowed with (or could afford,) a victory statue in his home town or the sanctuary where he won his event.

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Games in Ancient Greece

This summer millions of sports fans will be watching the Olympic Games, broadcast from Rio to televisions and radios all over the world. There will be huge opening and closing ceremonies and athletes from every continent will compete in a vast array of sports. Hundreds of medals will be won and celebrity status achieved.

Much of this is inherited from the original Games in ancient Greece, but an awful lot would leave ancient Greeks completely baffled. I also imagine that Greek sports fans would be haughtily calling us a bunch of barbarians and finding some of our modern habits ans customs rather perplexing. 

So just how different were the Games in the ancient world? And why were they so phenomenal that we resurrected them over a millennium after they were closed down?

In posts over the next few weeks I’ll talk about a few aspects of athletics in the ancient world;  the recognisable parts that we love to feel familiarity with as well as the events and customs that shock our modern sensibilities and challenge our conceptions about how civilised ancient civilisations actually were. For now, here is a crash course in the most famous sporting events in ancient Greece.

The Olympics were one of four sets of Games held in Greece that collectively were known as the Panhellenic Games, ie Games of the Greek speaking world.

The Olympics were held at a sanctuary of Zeus called Olympia near to the city of Elis and they are the oldest of the four, the first Games being held in 776 BC. There were also Games dedicated to Zeus at Nemea. The Pythian Games were held at Delphi and were sacred to Apollo and the Games at Isthmia near Corinth were dedicated to Poseidon. Whilst undoubtedly highly entertaining, the Panhellenic Games were religious festivals first and foremost. 

These events were open to any competitors from a Greek city or polis. The only prizes were symbolic crowns and there were no prizes for anything but first place; to come second was to lose. A winning athlete may not have won an expensive prize but could expect to be showered with gifts and benefits from his proud home city.

There were other athletic events to compete in; some cities had their own, smaller sacred Games open to their own citizens and many cities also hosted prize games that did offer huge piles of cash to victorious visiting athletes. Success on the professional circuit could make a talented Greek rich for life.

Athletes tended to be affluent anyway, poorer men could not afford to stop working long enough to spend hours each day training or schlepping around on the Games circuit. Families who left the grunt work of their business to slave labour were more likely to have the spare time necessary to dedicate to a proper career in sport. Poorer boys who showed promise could still rise to the top if they were talented enough to secure state funding or handsome enough to catch the eye of an older man with cash to burn. 

But for the rarest of exceptions, athletes were male, the only (respectable) role in public life open to free women being that of a priestess. Competitors were also free, although slaves usually drove in chariot races (and their minted owners were named as victors!) 

The Greeks did not consider team sports of any kind to be a competitive event. If you were to say to an ancient athlete that “there is no ‘I’ in team,” it’s likely that he would assume you were joking or wonder if you were mentally sound. Or worse, that you were a barbarian. Balls were for exercise only and ballgames were merely recreational. There were no aquatic events although swimming pools did exist for athletes to exercise in and soak their tired muscles. The idea of Games being held in winter would have made a Greek shudder. 

The Games drew in spectators from the entire Greek speaking world, and since the Greeks really loved to found colonies that meant athletes and sports fans travelled to central Greece from as far away as North Africa, Spain and the shores of the Black Sea. Cities from southern Italy and Sicily were particularly good at producing star athletes.

The modern Olympics travel, hosted by a different city in a different country each time. The hosts compete to build the cleverest, most attractive stadiums etc to show off their architecture and art to the world (some being more successful than others…) The ancient Panhellenic Games stayed put, so city states erected their buildings at the sanctuaries instead, along with statues of their victorious athletes and greatest military victories. To tour Delphi or Olympia was a little like taking a miniature tour of Greece itself. Visitors to the Games could admire art and architecture from all over the Mediterranean, all in the same place.

Greek men considered it an ambition to attend a Games at least once in their lives, those with enough time and money spent as much time as possible travelling to the sanctuaries to spectate. It’s estimated that nearly fifty thousand people would visit Olympia each Games. Travelling to a sanctuary could sometimes take weeks, but the Panhellenic Games were so culturally important and considered so sacred that sports fans were seen as religious pilgrims. To harm them on their journeys was forbidden. Whilst wars between city states didn’t pause, spectators from every city were expected to travel together in peace and leave their rivalries for the battlefield. Like the terrible events at some of the modern Games, those rules were sometimes broken, but then as now the Games were the perfect time to forget differences and celebrate what we have in common. 

All sanctuaries in Greece were closed down in 394AD by the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I and so the Games were by extension shut down due to their pagan core. 

For nearly twelve centuries, the Panhellenic Games provided the greatest spectacle in the ancient world and continue to inspire today.

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Sicily comes to Blighty

As some readers of my travel journals may know, I visited Sicily in the spring of 2015 for an exhaustive study trip. Sicily is a ridiculously easy place to fall in love with despite her flaws. I’ve grown increasingly fascinated with the rich history of the island and I’ve been lapping up stories from her history since I returned. It’s a place of stark contrasts, irresistable food and dramatic landscapes. However, for my money the main draws are the archaeological sites. In particular, Greek colonists took their homegrown architecture and supersized it, everything seems bigger and ever so slightly flamboyant. A temple on Sicily is a Greek temple on steroids.

Come to Sicily for the temples, stay for the multi faceted history of the peoples who erected them.

Whether you have a penchant for military history, naval warfare, underwater archaeology or even (whisper it) a secret flirtation with medieval history, Sicily draws you in with a warm, lemon scented hug.

I was therefore very pleased to learn that two major museums on my home turf were to have Sicilian themed exhibitions this summer. The British Museum has an exhibition called Culture and Conquest running until August 14th and the Ashmolean has Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas until September 25th.

I decided to visit both in two days with a lecture thrown in for good measure to fondly reminisce and hopefully see some of the pieces that I missed due to the Palermo museum closure. If only Maria Grammatico could also make the trip north my 48 hours would be complete!

And so to the British Museum (as if I ever need an excuse…) for a dose of wide eyed wonder and lots of contented sighs.

The larger exhibition space was taken up by Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds (which I’ll describe later,) and so the Sicily exhibition was rather restricted in scale.

Last year I was cursing the temporary closure of the Regional Archaeological Museum Antonio Salinas in Palermo. At every archaeological site on the western side of the island were signs declaring that the statue/frieze/metope from this temple/sanctuary/city could be found on display in Palermo. I was denied entry to an Aladdin’s cave. This London exhibition would be, I hoped, my chance to catch up on missed treasures.

Not so much…

The exhibition had large posters of Sicilian sites that made me long to return but was, for my insatiable appetite, a little light on actual exhibits. Call me greedy, but the sheer volume of artifacts in even the teeniest of provincial Sicilian museums can spoil a girl. What British museums do increasingly do well is signage. The BM had lots of large maps and info boards to give context to what was on show. Cohesion was sometimes lacking on my trip with some Italian museums preferring to group artifacts by type rather than giving a chronological narrative. I also don’t have to worry about my abysmal grasp of the Italian language…

I would have loved to take a few photos but they were forbidden. I find this policy a bit strange, there were no restrictions on the exact same pieces when they were displayed at their homes in Sicilian museums. For blogging purposes I’ll use my photos from last year.

I enjoyed seeing a few familiar friends like this marble statue of a warrior from Akragas (Agrigento.) The BM has beautifully lit this piece, (far better than Agrigento Archaeological Museum, if I’m honest…) so it was a shame not to be able to photograph him this time around, but for nostalgia purposes it was great to see him again.

Temple of Concord #valledeitempli #agrigento #sicily

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The exhibition is a perfect introduction ti Sicilian history so while I didn’t learn anything new at the BM this time around, I did get to see a few nice pieces that I hadn’t managed to get to last year. In particular there were some lovely exhibits from Gela.

This snake-headed bracelet (one of a pair) and gold ring were discovered on Sicily with hoards of gold and silver coins. All were deliberately buried by their owner, who intended to recover them but never returned. Around this time, about 330–300 BC, there was political unrest on the island and the added threat of attack from invading forces. For much of its history, Sicily was admired and envied for its wealth and fertility. In Greek Sicily, wealth was displayed through sumptuously decorated homes and gold jewellery like this. Learn more about the rise of Greek Sicily and its lasting impact in our #SicilyExhibition, until 14 August 2016. Gold bracelet and ring. Found at Avola, Sicily, about 330–300 BC. #jewellery #bracelet #Sicily #gold #ancientGreece

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These 2,000-year old terracotta figures depict the gods of #love. Scantily clad and casually poised, Aphrodite and winged Eros are typical of the terracotta and pottery workshops of the town of Centuripe in Greek Sicily. Terracotta modellers and potters in Centuripe favoured large, flamboyant, brilliantly coloured figures. Although sometimes found in graves, these may originally have been made to decorate the houses of the rich. Rivalling the most culturally dynamic Greek regions, Sicily became an arena for artists and intellectuals during this period. See these wonderful objects in our #SicilyExhibition, until 14 August 2016. Terracotta figures of the gods of love, painted after firing. Centuripe, #Sicily, about 200 BC. #Italy #history #ancientGreece

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The highlight of the day instead came from the accompanying lecture given by Dr Michael Scott. I had high expectations having been so impressed with his book about Delphi (as I reviewed here) that I eagerly devoured in the weeks running up to my trip to Delphi in May 2014 (insert shameless plug for my travel journal here…) Modern historians can so easily over simplify their subject to patronise their readers/viewers (mentioning no names of course!) or conversely wrap themselves up in a dense fug of academia in an arrogant attempt to repel the casual audience members. Dr Scott mercifully does neither in his books or broadcasts.

Dr Scott chose to talk about ancient Sicily not from what they left behind them at home, but abroad. As an expert on Delphi it was not a surprise that the sanctuary featured heavily along with Olympia. Personally I was thrilled to learn of the many ways my two favourite places in the ancient world were linked.

It’s important to remember that Delphi was the centre of the world for Greeks and if Sicilian cities wanted to make an impression on the world they needed to head to Delphi to do it. One could never set foot on Sicilian soil, but by visiting Delphi they would have been able to see Sicilian art and architecture, read of the exploits of Sicilians tyrants, watch Sicilian athletes, listen to Sicilian musicians and have a chat with any Sicilians also making a pilgrimage.

I visited Delphi 12 months before Sicily, otherwise I may have noticed just how many Sicilian connections are there.

For instance, I didn’t pay that much attention to this base before and I can’t recall reading a sign about it. Even if I had, Gelon was a name that had popped up in my reading but I probably wouldn’t become well acquainted with the tyrant of Gela and Syracuse for another year.

The base once supported a bronze column topped with a statue of Nike with a tripod above her. Gelon had erected this close to the temple of Apollo within a stone’s throw of the serpent column and tripod celebrating the Greek victory over the Persian invaders at Plataia in 479BC. Gelon’s structure was a celebration over his victory at Himera over the Carthaginians. Gelon was apparently very keen for the Greek world to know that his victory over a worthy foe was just as important and deserving of respect as a victory over Persians (which was a war that Gelon coincidentally refused to contribute to…)


On the right, (which to my shame, I did not bother fitting in the frame) can be seen another base of another tripod dedicated by Gelon’s brother and successor, Hieron I. According to Dr Scott, Hieron made sure his monument was ever so slightly more impressive that of his brother, today only the slightly larger base leaves a clue.

Hieron left a greater impression on Delphi than his tripod, however. It seems a little strange that one of the highlights of the Delphi museum should be Sicilian.

Four years after defeating the Etruscans in naval combat at Cumae (initiating the decline of Etruscan dominance in Italy,) Hieron balanced his tyrant duties with being a top ranking athlete. He won the the chariot race in the Pythian Games at Delphi in 470BC, inspiring Pindar to write his 1st Pythian Ode. Hieron continued to compete at Delphi and Olympia picking up further prizes.

Hieron commissioned the bronze statue to commemorate his athletic prowess and installed it close to the temple of Apollo. It originally also featured four bronze horses along with slaves holding their reins, now sadly lost.

The lecture was fascinating and I am now pining to return to Sicily AND Delphi. I could write far more, instead I urge you to keep an eye on the Hellenic Society YouTube channel as everything was filmed.

Should anyone spot a lecture by Dr Scott, I urge you to grab a ticket. Watching anyone talk about a subject they so evidently love is always a joy to watch and Dr Scott is so effortlessly engaging it is impossible not to be swept up with him. I only wish I could persuade him to actually guide me around Sicily and Delphi instead of a lecture room in London.

Should you be brazen enough, Dr Scott was also gracious enough to chat with a few of us afterwards and was a delight to talk to. I left the museum with a spring in my step.

The following day it was the turn of the Ashmolean. I have a deep love of underwater archaeology as I find a certain romance to things being found where they were never meant to be. Little stirs my soul like a shipwreck does, so the Ashmolean exhibition called to me like a siren.

Again, no photography, again, no one in Sicily cared…


Hercules has made the journey from Catania to Oxford for a holiday…


This statue was brought up from the sea floor off the coast of Lilybaeum, now known as Marsala. It’s possible to tell which side of the statue was safely buried and which side was exposed to currents and sea life.

It was lovely to see part of the exhibition dedicated to the work of underwater archaeoligy pioneer Honor Frost. I’d had the pleasure of viewing the jewel of her maritime excavations when I went to Marsala to see the remains of a Carthaginian warship sunk off of the Egadi islands.



The Ashmolean exhibition added to my excitement by including several bronze rams found on the seafloor. One Carthaginian ram displayed the dents made by bashing into a Roman ship, a Roman ram still had a chunk of Carthaginian ship wedged in. It’s strange to think that had they not fallen into the sea, these rams would have been carted off to Rome to adorn the rostrum in the Forum.

The Ashmolean puts on a good show, but so far I’ve yet to see anyone (including the Underwater Archaeology Museum in Bodrum!!!) put on a better exhibition about shipwrecks than the 2014 Antikythera show at the National Archaeology Museum in Athens. I fear I’ve been spoiled for life…


Statue from the Antikythera shipwreck

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The Acropolis (Athens Travel Journal – Day Seven)

14th May 2014

My final day in Athens. I have saved the iconic for last as I plan to see the Acropolis this morning.

The lovely staff at my hotel agree to keep my bags for the day after I check out. I’m happy I chose a chain hotel and I don’t even regret the proximity to Omonia Square, the warm welcome I’ve received from everyone here has been worth it.

I’m up early, I plan to be the first one through the gates at the Acropolis.

On the metro I am admittedly distracted by how much I don’t want to go home. There is so much about Athens to love. Even the metro stations play music on the platforms, something you’d never get in London. I’ll also miss the 70 cent journeys, which make me increasingly resentful of the ridiculously prices charged by TfL at home.

My favourite part of the Athens metro system has to be the mini museums. At various stations archaeological finds have been found during construction. Where other cities may have bulldozed such finds out of the way, Athens has kept them, preserved in situ, with signs explaining what the remains consist of. I doubt the locals notice much, but it’s a  nice touch that I appreciate.

Emerging at Akropoli station, it’s a pleasant walk down the pedestrianised Diontsiou Areoagitou street towards the Acropolis entrance. I’ve so far seen it thronged with people, it’s wonderful to be here so early in the morning and be practically alone.

I’m excited for today. The first (and until now, last) time I was on the Acropolis I was ten years old. My family were staying on Kefalonia and my parents had booked us on an overnight coach tour to the capital. My memories of the trip are a little hazy, but I’d never forget the Parthenon. My mother still remembers the tour guide asking the group if anyone knew any of the Greek myths and being amused that a precocious little girl began reciting them back to her. Now, having grown up a little and read dozens more books I’m more in love with ancient history than ever and I’m looking forward to appreciating my surroundings from an adult perspective.


Me, my incredibly mid 90s leggings and my Dad


Seriously, the leggings were fashionable at the time…


I’m still incredibly early, even though the Acropolis opens at 8am. I therefore attempt to sneak a peek into the Odeon of Herodes Atticus which never seems to be open for tours, only performances.

The back of the skene (background behind the stage areais easily viewed, marking this out as a theatre built with Roman influence. Greek theatres rarely had any permanent buildings behind the performance area, letting the landscape provide most of the scenery. Over time small buildings were constructed to allow for costume and prop changes, but it was the Romans who really kicked skene building up a notch. The fact that it was built by Herodes Atticus will come as no surprise to anyone who has visited archaeological sites in Greece or Italy either, as he was an illustrious builder.


Born in Marathon in 101 AD, Herodes Atticus came from a Greek family with a political background in Athens and Rome. He was educated in Greece and Italy, becoming a great politician himself. He was Archon of Athens in 140 AD and Consul of Rome in 143 AD, naming several emperors among his close friends. He had a penchant for building wherever he went. Already on this trip I’ve seen the stadium at Delphi which was rebuilt for the final time by Herodes Atticus, as well as a nymphaeum I saw a couple of years ago at Olympia.


You can peek at the seats from behind the skene…

Heading up the path to the Acropolis entrance, I’m still really early, so I take the opportunity to climb the Areopagus again when it is practically empty. Only one other person is up there, we share a conspiratorial smile.

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One of the unexpected bonuses of being the first to arrive at the Acropolis is that I get to witness the Greek soldiers perform the ceremonial raising of the national flag above the city, which they do every morning and return to take it down each evening.



I’m smug to be literally the first tourist following them up, greeted by the virtually empty Acropolis.

People started to inhabit the Acropolis about 6,000 years ago, being easily defendable. Buildings and temples started to crop up but the entire hill, along with the city below, was razed by the invading Persians in 480 BC. The Athenian statesman Pericles ordered the destroyed buildings on the Acropolis to be rebuilt, bigger and grander than before. He moved the treasury of the Delian League (a group of city states who had allied with each other to fight off the Persians) from Delos to Athens and essentially used the ‘keep the Persians out of Greece’ fund to pay for his elaborate building project whilst asserting greater and decidedly imperialistic dominance over the other members of the League.

Pericles employed the very best architects and craftsmen to build his grand vision. Mnesicles was chosen to design the Propylaea, Ictinus and Callicrates were the architects of the Parthenon and the designer of decoration was the superstar sculptor, Pheidias. Pheidias also personally created the huge statue of Athena that stood within the Parthenon.

Critics, (of which there were many,) condemned the building programme as unnecessarily expensive, a misappropriation of the defence budget and as a vain display of egotistical arrogance on the part of Pericles. One complained that Pericles was “dressing up Athens like a painted whore.”

Nevertheless, jobs were created for thousands of labourers, skilled and unskilled alike.The results were undeniably impressive.

The Propylaea was the only gateway to the Acropolis, the steep gradient of the slopes leaving only one side of the hill suitable for an ascent up to the flat top of the Acropolis. It is built with the same Pentelic marble as the Parthenon. There were two wings, the one on the left acting as an ancient art gallery.

On the right, as you approach the gate, there is a bastion on the defensive wall that is crowned with a small but beautiful temple to Athena Nike. The temple was erected in thanks for victory over the Persian invaders and housed a wooden statue of the Goddess that was saved from their destruction of the city. Honey cakes and flowers would be left as small sacrifices at the altar within.

Approaching the Propylaea

Approaching the Propylaea

Sunrise through the Propylaea

Sunrise through the Propylaea

Temple of Nike

Temple of Athena Nike

Monument to Agrippa

Monument to Agrippa, originally built to commemorate Eumenes II of Pergamon in 178 BC

Temple of Nike

Temple of Athena Nike

The altar to Athena Nike dates from 566 BC, the year of the inaugural Panathenaic Festival. The temple was build to house it during the middle of the Persian Wars (490-480 BC,) and was remodelled and rebuilt later by Kallikrates in 425 BC.

Once through the Propylaea the Parthenon looms on the right and the Erechtheion on the right.


The triangular space between the Propylaea, the Erechtheion and the Parthenon once featured a colossal bronze statue of Athena Promachos by the superstar sculptor, Pheidias. It was placed in 456 BC and was made from bronze melted down from Persian armour and spoils seized after the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The statue was 9 metres tall and could apparently the sun shining on the spearpoint could be seen by sailors approaching from Cape Sounion. The statue stood over Athens for a millenium before it was moved to Constantinople in the middle fo the 5th C AD where it was eventually destroyed.

The Parthenon basks in the early morning sun

The Parthenon basks in the early morning sun

The Erechtheion was completed in 406 BC on the site of an earlier temple and various shrines. The necessity to preserve these sacred areas, situated over various levels, resulted in a multi-level temple with several dedications.

The Erechtheion viewed from the southwest

The Erechtheion viewed from the southwest

An olive tree stands where the sacred olive tree of Athena once stood in the Pandroseion, an open sanctuary dedicated to Pandrosos by the Erechtheion

An olive tree stands where the sacred olive tree of Athena once stood in the Pandroseion, an open sanctuary dedicated to Pandrosos by the Erechtheion

It stands on the site of the home of Kekrops, the half-man half-snake mythical king of Athens. Legend records that Poseidon and Athena both wished to become patron deity of the city. Athena suggested that they both present the city with a gift and Kekrops would judge the contest and choose who was most worthy. Poseidon struck the rock with his trident and a spring appeared which he named the Erectheis Sea. The citizens were thrilled with the source of water until they tasted it and realised that Poseidon, God of the Oceans, and made it salty. Athena created an olive tree that would produce olives for eating, oil for cooking, heating and lighting and wood for building. Kekrops duly declared Athena the worthy victor for her practical gift and the city is named after her to this day.

The Erechtheion

The Erechtheion

Erechtheion - the entrance to the western portion of the temple that was divided into three sections, dedicated to Poseidon Erectheus, Hephaestus and a hero named Boutes.

Erechtheion – the entrance to the western portion of the temple that was divided into three sections, dedicated to Poseidon Erectheus, Hephaestus and a hero named Boutes.

detail of the Erechtheion

detail of the Erechtheion

The Erechtheion - this entrance led to the eastern part of the temple that was dedicated to Athena Polias, protectress of the city. It housed the cult statue carved of olive wood that received a new set of clothes each Panathenaic Festival.

The Erechtheion – this entrance led to the eastern part of the temple that was dedicated to Athena Polias, protectress of the city. It housed the cult statue carved of olive wood that received a new set of clothes each Panathenaic Festival.



Porch of the Caryatids

Porch of the Caryatids

The circular remains of the Temple of Rome and Augustus stood at the eastern end of the Parthenon, completed in the 1stC BC.

The circular remains of the Temple of Rome and Augustus stood at the eastern end of the Parthenon, completed in the 1stC BC.

The pinnacle of the Periklean building project is obviously the Parthenon. Designed by Iktinos and Kallikrates, the temple building was finished in 438 BC after 9 years of construction. The decorations were concluded six years after that with the pedimental statues by Pheidias. The temple is the largest Doric temple to ever be completed in the Greek world (two would be attempted to dwarf it in Sicily, both would never be finished.) It was built to replace an older temple that was razed by the Persians, Perikles ensured that this new temple would be larger, grander and far more beautiful.

The Parthenon famously has no straight lines in the architecture. Instead, every line is a graceful, subtle curve. This creates an optical illusion that each line is perfectly parallel when seen as a whole.
IMG_9038 The temple housed a gigantic chryselephantine (ivory and gold) statue of Athena designed by Pheidias and completed in . At 12 metres tall, it was an entire 3 metres taller than the Athena statue just outside the Parthenon. The statue would be the downfall of Pheidias. The enemies of Perikles tried to hurt him through his friendship with Pheidias, whom they charged with stealing gold designated for the decoration of the statue and that Pheidias was blasphemous enough to create portraits of himself and Perikles in the decoration on the shield of the statue. Whilst he was able to prove he stole no gold, Pheidias was thrown into prison for impiety. Some believe he died there, although some scholars now theorise that he was exiled to Elis, where he completed an even bigger chryselephantine statue of Zeus which would later be considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Historians can’t seem to decide which statue was completed first, shedding no light on the fate of Pheidias which will apparently remain a mystery.IMG_9066 IMG_9090

Ongoing restoration work

Ongoing restoration work


Restoration workers

Restoration workers

The temple, along with all other pagan temples within the Byzantine Empire, was closed by decree of Theodosius III in 435 AD. The cult statue was removed along with the bronze Athena Promachos to Constantinople where it too was eventually destroyed. The temple was then converted into a Christian church in the 6thC AD, undergoing some structural changes. Ottoman Turks invaded Athens in 1456 and the building soon became a mosque, complete with minaret.

The Venetians were next to attack Athens in 1687. The Ottoman Turks used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. On the 26 September the Venetians fired mortar rounds from the Hill of the Muses toward the fortified Acropolis. One scored a direct hit on the Parthenon, igniting the powder stores and destroying much of the building which had, up until now, managed to survive practically intact.

The Venetians eventually gave up and left and the Ottoman Turks remained, their power eventually declining in the 18thC.   In 1801 the Sultan allowed the British Ambassador, Lord Elgin, to collect statuary from the ruins and transport them to the UK, a decision of which the legality has been debated furiously ever since.

When Greece gained independence in 1832 all traces of the mosque and other medieval structures were slowly removed from the Acropolis. In 1975 a grand scheme of restoration began, which is finally nearing completion. Fallen stone blocks are being slowly rearranged and moved back to their original positions, rebuilding as much of the Parthenon as possible from what remains.

The massive fortification walls of the Acropolis

The massive fortification walls of the Acropolis

The Theatre of Dionysus viewed from the Acropolis

The Theatre of Dionysus viewed from the Acropolis

The Odeion of Herodes Atticus viewed from the Acropolis

The Odeion of Herodes Atticus viewed from the Acropolis

The crowds entering through the Propylaea are getting a lot busier than an hour previously...

The crowds entering through the Propylaea are getting a lot busier than an hour previously…

I'm glad I visited first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds...

I’m glad I visited first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds…

The western gate

The western gate

Temple of Nike

Temple of Nike viewed from the Peripatos road

Visitors descend the Acropolis down the southern slope with another set of gorgeous ruins.


The Asklepion was built in the late 5thC BC, encouraged by Sophocles who was an active worshipper of the healer God.

Choregic monument of Nikias. Nikias won the honour of teaching the chorus of boys for theatrical performances in 320 BC.

Choregic monument of Nikias. Nikias won the honour of teaching the chorus of boys for theatrical performances in 320 BC.

The Theatre of Dionysus

The Theatre of Dionysus

The Theatre of Dionysus is one of the earliest theatres in the Greek world, dating from the 5thC BC. Originally a set of wooden benches surrounding a beaten earth orchestra, it is believed that stone seating was installed and the seating area enlarged in the 4thC BC.

An ancient festival to Dionysus was refounded here in 534 BC by the tyrant Peisistratus and rapidly grew in importance. Theatrical plays were performed here in competition in the month of Elaphebolion (late March.) Over five days the festival celebrated the God of Wine, Dionysus. After processions and sacrifices, the plays were performed. Three writers would each produce a three tragic plays and a satyr play for some bawdy relief. Comic plays were introduced in 487 BC allowing five comic playwrights to submit a single play and compete for a separate prize. In  449 BC a prize was introduced for best dramatic performance.

The first recorded winner is a man named Thespis who entered the winning tragedy in the inaugural 534 BC Dionysia. He performed in his own play and is apparently responsible for characters having their own lines rather than having the chorus explain events to the audience. Thespis would become so famous that all actors would forever be known as thespians in his honour.


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It’s very special to stand in the same theatre where Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles all debuted their tragedies that are still being performed regularly two and a half millenia later.

Aeschylus won in 484 BC with an unknown tragedy, in472 BC with The Persians, in 467 BC with Seven Against Thebes, in 463 BC with The Suppliants and again in 458 BC with the Oresteia.

Sophocles wrote 123 plays of which only seven have survived. It’s believed that Sophocles won the Dionysia about 18 times and never came lower than second. His trilogy of Theban plays following the life of Oedipus were not written for a single festival, but spread out over several years.

Euripides only won on five occasions but has nevertheless secured his place in theatrical history with Alcestis, Medea, Electra, The Trojan Women, Orestes and The Bacchae which won Euripides a posthumous first prize in 405 BC.

It’s amusing to imagine Euripides watching tight lipped from the cavea seating as the comic poet Aristophanes skewered him in at least three comedic plays. It must have been quite the experience to be a renowned tragedian and have to sit through watching yourself as the character in a comedy written to poke fun at you whilst thousands of Athenians laughed to see your satirised and parodied.

If it was any consolation to Euripides (and it probably wasn’t,) Aristophanes was infamous for taking aim at prominent Athenians in the thirty comedies he penned. Plato accused him of slandering Socrates so badly in The Clouds that he considered the play instrumental in Socrates’ trial and subsequent execution.

Tragedians and comedians alike used their plays as a platform to discuss politics and current events, offering morality tales and provoking discussion. Playwrights helped shaped Athenian history, right here in this theatre.

The festival continued for around 300 years.

After a break in the shade for lunch, I decided to head to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and enormous structure that took a mammoth 638 years to complete. The Arch of Hadrian marks where the ancient road led from the centre of Athens to the sanctuary.


The Arch of Hadrian was built circa 132 AD, either to welcome him on a visit to the city or to thank him for patronising the city with his building projects


The Acropolis viewed from the sanctuary

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The temple was probably started by Peisistratus or his son, Hippias in the 6thC BC. They never got near to finishing it and in the Classical period it was deliberately left uncompleted to warn against hubris. In the 3rdC BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted to continue with the building work when Athens was under Seleucid control. Under the Romans, Sulla stole two columns in 86 BC and sent them to Rome to incorporate into the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline hill. Hadrian finally managed to complete the temple in 131 AD. The temple didn’t stay pristine for long, being seriously damaged in the Herulian sack of Athens in 267 AD and there are no signs that attempts at repairs were made. The temple turned into a medieval quarry and remnants are scattered amongst the walls of many a medieval Athenian church.

None of the tourists surrounding me seemed to bother with the lower half of the site which includes sanctuaries erected along the banks of the Ilissos river. A shame, as the ruins are quite atmospheric and the area was a popular haunt of Socrates. It was a notorious ‘pick up’ spot in Athens for men seeking men, and whether Socrates indulged in homosexual activities with men he met here or not (and he probably did,) he definitely enjoyed spending considerable time here striking up philosophical conversations.

Parilissia Sanctuaries

Parilissia Sanctuaries

Temple of Apollo Delphinios - mid 5thC BC

Temple of Apollo Delphinios – mid 5thC BC

Final stop of the day before my flight home is the Panathenaic Stadium.

A stadium has stood on the site since about 565 BC, rebuilt in marble in 329 BC by Lycurgus and enlarged by Herodes Atticus in 140 AD bringing the spectator seating area to a capacity of 50,000.

The ruins of the stadium were rebuilt in 1870 and used in the first modern Olympics in 1896. Olympic events were also held here in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

It’s fabulous seeing a building in situ, looking as fresh as it did to ancient eyes.

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With a heavy heart, the time has come for me to reluctantly return home to the UK.

I’ve fallen in love with Athens, no longer the smoggy, congested mess that I vaguely remember from the mid nineties. I will be back…

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The Sicilian Expedition Travel Journal – Day 14

18th May 2015

5.30 am

Oh sweet baby Jesus, that alarm is early. My bus to Piazza Armerina leaves in one hour. Thankfully I deliberately sacrificed a nicer hotel for a spartan one situated a short walk from the bus terminals. This gives me ample time to puke in the bathroom sink, apparently. Terrified that I’ve caught some horrible disease from my mosquito bites the day before my flight home, I nevertheless decide to drag myself to the bus terminal and force myself to Piazza Armerina, refusing to spend another afternoon cooped up in the hotel watching Grey’s Anatomy dubbed into Italian like I did yesterday afternoon. It will be worth it. I hope. And the weather seems to have cleared up, the storm clouds having spent themselves out overnight.

The journey from Catania to Piazza Armerina takes 1 hour and 45 minutes. Arrival at Piazza Aremina can be confusing, especially as everyone else on the bus was a Sicilian using the service to commute. Don’t expect an announcement that you’ve arrived at the right place and don’t assume that the stop is at a terminal. I miss my stop and have to walk back to it, if you’re going to Armerina as a tourist, get off at the large square that has a yellow petrol station.

From there you can catch a minibus service that shuttles you to arguably the only reason to visit at all, the Villa Romana del Casale.

The villa is late 3rdC AD and evidently belonged to someone with wealth and status. Landslides covered up the entire complex in the 12thC and it wasn’t rediscovered until the 1920s. What archaeologists found was a collection of mosaics so beautiful and masterfully created that they’ve become world famous.

When I visit, only the triclinium seems to be closed off. Not bad considering how many things I’ve been blocked from so far on the trip…


The octagonal frigidarium, the cold pool of the private baths

The octagonal frigidarium, the cold pool of the private baths

Slaves depicted on the floor of the massage room where they would have worked.

Slaves depicted on the floor of the massage room where they would have worked.

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The Palaestra. The floor is designed to show a chariot race featuring the four teams competing in the Circus Maximus

The peristyle

The peristyle

The highly decorated floors of the porticoes around the peristyle

The highly decorated floors of the porticoes around the peristyle

Mosaic floor of the 'Room of the Dance' - a guest bedroom

Mosaic floor of the ‘Room of the Dance’ – a guest bedroom

The Room of the Fishing Cupids - part of the guest wing

The Room of the Fishing Cupids – part of the guest wing

The Diaeta of the Small Game Hunt - a south facing winter living room

The Diaeta of the Small Game Hunt – a south facing winter living room

Detail of the Small Game Hunt depicting a wild boar. I adore the expression of the man at the top...

Detail of the Small Game Hunt depicting a wild boar. I adore the expression of the man at the top…

The Ambulatory of the Big Game Hunt separates the peristyle from the Basilica and the private quarters of the owners

The Ambulatory of the Big Game Hunt separates the peristyle from the Basilica and the private quarters of the owners. It depicts exotic animals from all over the empire being captured and transported to Ostia

Ostriches being loaded onto a ship at Carthage

Ostriches being loaded onto a ship at Carthage

A rhino being captured on the Nile Delta

A rhino being captured on the Nile Delta

An  elephant being loaded onto a ship at Alexandria

An elephant being loaded onto a ship at Alexandria

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A tiger and a gryphon are caught in India

A tiger and a gryphon are caught in India


The Vestibule of the Little Circus - an amusing image of chariot racing, only with birds instead of horses. The four factions are represented by child charioteers

The Vestibule of the Little Circus – an amusing image of chariot racing, only with birds instead of horses. The four factions are represented by child charioteers

A semicircular atrium with an impluvium for collecting rainwater

A semicircular atrium with an impluvium for collecting rainwater

The portico around the semicircular atrium depicts cupids fishing

The portico around the semicircular atrium depicts cupids fishing

Vestibule of Eros and Pan

Vestibule of Eros and Pan

The Diaeta of Arion - the private living room of the mistress of the house features a beautifully intricate depiction of the myth of Arion. Arion was a bard from Lesbos who, whilst travelling by sea, was robbed and beaten by the sailors. They granted him one last wish and Arion asked to play his lyre one last time. The music he produced was so beautiful that dolphins were attracted to the noise. Arion threw himself into the sea where the dolphins saved him and took him to safety on the Peloponnese.

The Diaeta of Arion – the private living room of the mistress of the house features a beautifully intricate depiction of the myth of Arion. Arion was a bard from Lesbos who, whilst travelling by sea, was robbed and beaten by the sailors. They granted him one last wish and Arion asked to play his lyre one last time. The music he produced was so beautiful that dolphins were attracted to the noise. Arion threw himself into the sea where the dolphins saved him and took him to safety on the Peloponnese.

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Arion doing his thang

Arion doing his thang

This vestibule depicts Ulysses (the Latin name for Odysseus,) offering the cyclops Polyphemus wine. Once drunk, Ulysses  will blind Polyphemus in retribution for devouring some of his shipmates.

This vestibule depicts Ulysses (the Latin name for Odysseus,) offering the cyclops Polyphemus wine. Once drunk, Ulysses will blind Polyphemus in retribution for devouring some of his shipmates.

The Basilica, the largest room in the house, is where the master would conduct official business

The Basilica, the largest room in the house, is where the master would conduct official business

Cubicle with an erotic scene

Cubicle with an erotic scene

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The villa has a shop and cafeteria area, it’s well worth buying the hefty guidebook by Luciano Catullo to help you make sense of the villa and the mosaics. Otherwise there is a little collection of stalls and food trucks by the coach car park for small, cheap souvenirs and panini.

If, like me, you’re travelling independently, the shuttlebus back to Piazza Armerina will pick you up at the same bus stop as you were dropped off. A nice little touch is that it also has a little stop outside the cathedral of Piazza Armerina for your daily dose of Baroque.

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The Sicilian Expedition Travel Journal – Day 13

17th May 2015

After a blissful daytrip visiting Noto yesterday from Syracuse, I’d returned to Catania in the evening for the final hotel.

I’d planned to wake early today and ascend Mount Etna, but I feel horrifically nauseous and tired. I desperately hope I’m not falling ill… Besides, the weather has taken a turn for the worse and even if I make it up the volcano, I won’t be able to see anything more than three feet in front of me. After attempting to sleep in for a while longer I’m loathe to waste and entire day, so I venture tentatively out into rainy Catania to sample some ancient delights.

The Roman amphitheatre is largely covered by urban sprawl, but at least I can see some of it which is more than I managed in Syracuse. There is a sign that suggests that it’s possible to go down onto the arena floor, but the chain and padlocks on the gates indictae that once again Sicily has thwarted me. Still, what’s left does give an impressive hint at what the 16,000 seater amphitheatre would have looked like.

IMG_5098 IMG_5093 IMG_5101 IMG_5104 There is also a theatre. It’s thought to be originally Greek, but the Romans renovated it in the 2ndC AD. It survived by the gradual covering of medieval houses that used the seating as foundations. They’ve since been slowly removed.

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Looking sideways at the staging area, the remains of the skene (backdrop building) on the left

The aditus (in Greek) or vomitorium (in Latin,) - the entrance tunnels for the audience to reach the seating in the cavea

The aditus (in Greek) or vomitorium (in Latin,) – the entrance tunnels for the audience to reach the seating in the cavea

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I don’t know if the orchestra area dries out in high summer, but I’m rather pleased to see it partially submerged like this. It’s definitely atmospheric!

The weather worsens and I’m forced to retreat to my hotel before the skies open. Just as well, I have a ridiculously early morning wake up call for tomorrow, my last full day, and I am still feeling strangely peaky. An early night will have me feeling better, surely…

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The Sicilian Expedition Travel Journal – Day 10

14th May 2015

I’d arrived at Siracusa the previous night. Not being able to afford accommodation on the prettier Ortygia, I’d found my run down hotel on the mainland after a bit of searching and swearing at my map. I had planned to spend today on the Siracusa mainland and the next day on Ortygia. Little yet did I know what a contrast the two districts would be.

Mainland Siracusa isn’t as much of a garbage dump as Palermo and certainly nowhere near as depressing as Catania, but boy does it give them a run for their money.

I only have myself to blame for the dreadful hotel. Even though my funds are extremely limited this trip I was unable to resist the pull of one of the most famous ancient cities in the world. The hotel tariffs do soar here and I’ve decided to stay for three whole nights. Hopefully the sites of Siracusa will make up for my tiny, inexplicably tomato-soup-orange room and the fact that if I want wifi signal I have to sit in the stairwell two floors below my room.

A restless night of sleep in my soup room has left me grumpy. A sure fire way to alleviate my grump is to head to a museum. Mercifully, the museum in Siracusa is brilliant.

To begin with there is a gallery of prehistoric finds (mainly pithoi burial urns,) leading up to the arrival of the Greek colonists.

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The second room has archaeological finds from the earliest Greek cities arranged by colony, including Syracuse herself. As the main city in south east Sicily, the museum here is the largest and creme de la creme of artifacts are displayed here, with the smaller local site museums managing to retain a key piece or two. Seeing as many of the sites are difficult to get to without a car or bloody inexplicably closed, it’s great to see exhibits from places I didn’t actually manage to get to.

Large terracotta Gorgon mask from a Naxos temple

Large terracotta Gorgon mask from a Naxos temple, early 5thC BC

Head of a female goddess found in Syracuse, dating back to the early 6thC BC

Head of a female goddess found in Syracuse, dating back to the early 6thC BC

Fragments of the top half of a terracotta metope dating to the end of the 6thC BC. It may depict Demeter and Kore, being found in a sanctuary dedicated to them on Ortygia

Fragments of the top half of a terracotta metope dating to the end of the 6thC BC. It may depict Demeter and Kore, being found in a sanctuary dedicated to them on Ortygia

Early 4thC BC terracotta bust

Early 4thC BC terracotta bust

Model recreating the Temple of Apollo on Ortygia

Model recreating the Temple of Apollo on Ortygia

Then, a section devoted to Agrigento and Gela.

Three large late 5thC BC busts of three females divinities, found at Agrigento

Three large late 5thC BC busts of three females divinities, found at Agrigento

Limestone finial of a funerary monument found in Gela. 6thC BC

Limestone finial of a funerary monument found in Gela. 6thC BC

The Mendolito Ephebe, a small bronze statuette of an athlete circa 460 BC

The Mendolito Ephebe, a small bronze statuette of an athlete circa 460 BC

Late 6thC BC terracotta goddess found in Grammichele

Late 6thC BC terracotta goddess found in Grammichele

A mould from Monte Casale, used to create terracotta faces for female statues. Late 6thC BC

A mould from Monte Casale, used to create terracotta faces for female statues. Late 6thC BC

Moving upstairs there is a section devoted to Hellenistic exhibits.

Early 3rdC BC Greek marble depicting Herakles resting.

Early 3rdC BC Greek marble depicting Herakles resting.

Mid-late 3rdC BC limestone statue of Priapus

Mid-late 3rdC BC limestone statue of Priapus

Late 4thC BC torso of a youth

Late 4thC BC torso of a youth

late 3rdC BC marble female head found in the Neapolis (mainland) area of Syracuse

late 3rdC BC marble female head found in the Neapolis (mainland) area of Syracuse

Syracuse fell to the Romans in 212 BC after three years of siege. The Romans turned it into the capital of Sicily as a Roman province. Consequently much Roman art has been found here, whereas a lot of the Greek artwork was inevitably seized and transported to Rome to provide grand villas with some classy, ancient art.

This large statue of Asklepios is a late 1stC AD Roman copy of a Greek original and was found in Ortygia in 1530 where it was displayed in the Castel Maniace. The inscription across the chest is not original, it describes the dedication of Castel Maniace to St Jago (James) and the castle towers to the patron saints of Ortygia, Pete, Catherine, Philip and Lucia.

This large statue of Asklepios is a late 1stC AD Roman copy of a Greek original and was found in Ortygia in 1530 where it was displayed in the Castel Maniace. The inscription across the chest is not original, it describes the dedication of Castel Maniace to St Jago (James) and the castle towers to the patron saints of Ortygia, Pete, Catherine, Philip and Lucia.

Venus 'Landolina' - Roman 2ndC AD copy of a Greek 2nd BC original

Venus ‘Landolina’ – Roman 2ndC AD copy of a Greek 2nd BC original

Marble goddess, probably Aphrodite, Roman copy of an Hellenistic original

Marble goddess, probably Aphrodite, Roman copy of an Hellenistic original

Massive head of Asklepios in marble. Found in the Neapolis amphitheatre. Augustan copy of an Hellenistic original by Phyromachos

Massive head of Asklepios in marble. Found in the Neapolis amphitheatre. Augustan copy of an Hellenistic original by Phyromachos

The museum is a short walk from the Neapolis Archaeological Park, which I am itching to get to. First though, lunch is calling. I expect there to be a few restaurants to choose from along the way, even if they do only offer a menu turistico. There is nothing. What’s the deal, Syracuse? At the Park entrance there is a tiny cafe, the type with a few slices of hours old pizza and cheap plastic seating. I’m flummoxed, to be honest. After a quick, if bland, panino (and a couple of arancini shoved into my bag for emergencies,) I head into Neapolis Archaeological Park.

Neapolis is Greek for ‘new city’ as Syracuse was originally founded and limited to the island of Ortygia. The Neapolis area is where the population gradually spilled onto the mainland. The park boasts the theatre, amphitheatre, famous Latomie quarries and the monumental Altar of Hieron II.

Such a shame then, that I was only truly able to see one of the above.

The Roman amphitheatre is completely closed off. There are signs that indicate this may be for restoration purposes, although that’s little consolation to me by this point on my trip. My guidebook is teasing me with photos of what I’m missing and I’m not convinced that restoration work would or should close off the entire huge building. It’s the biggest amphitheatre in Sicily and the only one that looks fairly in tact on my itinerary. As a final middle finger to the coach loads of tourists here, the gateway that leads down to the amphitheatre is covered in plastic sheeting so that we can’t even peek at what lies beyond. There’s not even a sign with a photo.

Next along the road is the altar of Zeus Eleutherious (the Liberator) which was built by Hieron II of Syracuse.

If you’ve heard his name before, it’s probably because of his dealings with Archimedes, the Syracusan genius.

Hieron had commissioned a votive crown to donate to a temple. He suspected that the goldsmiths had cheated him and tainted the purity of the gold with a cheaper metal. He asked Archimedes to devise a method with which to test the purity of the crown without having to melt it down. Archimedes knew the weight of the crown but also needed to know the density to make his calculations.

Archimedes cracked his conundrum in the bath tub. He noticed that when he got into the water the level rose. Archimedes knew then that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of how much of his body was immersed in the fluid.

Suitably pleased with himself, he ran straight out of the bath and ran around the streets of Syracuse, naked as the day he was born, shouting “Eureka! Eureka!” (“I have found it! I have found it!”)

Turns out, Hieron was also right to be suspicious of the goldsmiths, they had mixed the gold with cheaper silver after all.

The altar was half built on existing rock and is a stadium long. It was designed for the ritual sacrifice of bulls in honour of Zeus.

It’s apparently only visible from the road and is fenced off. I’m not sure if that’s usually the case, but when I visit it is simply yet another thing I have to view from a distance.

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Still, the theatre is next up and surely that won’t be underwhelming…

… apart from the fact that they are apparently preparing for a concert/performance and all the ancient seating is covered by opaque wooden and plastic modern seats. I was really excited to see the orchestra section, where Roman adaptations produced interesting pools and channels for the putting on of water games (colymbetra.) The entire orchestra was covered with modern staging, obscuring absolutely everything. Three out of four sites closed or obscured so far. I was beginning to resent paying full price…


At the top of the cavea is a sepulchre area containing Hellenistic votive niches and Byzantine rock cut tombs.

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There is also the Cave of the Nymph, an artificial cave with fountain dedicated to the Muses that was sacred to actors.

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Last up are the Latomie, one of the enormous quarries that provided Syracuse with the stones to build her monuments. The most beautiful, (as as far as I can tell the only one accessible,) is the Latomia of Paradise. It is 45 metres deep and produced 850,000 cubic metres of rock. IMG_4757 IMG_4767 IMG_4768

Within the quarry is the famous Ear of Dionysus, which is 23 metres tall and 65 feet deep. When Caravaggio visited it he noticed that it follows a curve just like the human ear and coined the name.



I leave the Archaeological Park seriously disappointed and underwhelmed and decide to cheer myself up with some early Christian catacombs.

I have a little while to wait until the San Giovanni catacombs reopen following their midday closure and there is still nowhere to eat a proper meal. I am reduced to sitting on the doorstep of a closed shop along the street from San Giovanni church. I am red, sweaty and tired. I take my slightly squashed arancini out of my bag and devour them as if I have been starved. Not an attractive tableau, yet still I notice a local man standing astride his bike watching me.

I’m embarrassed, I must look like a right state. He slowly draws a sausage from his trouser pocket. He keeps it close. I wonder why on earth someone would keep meat products in their trousers, especially on such a hot day. He starts to rub the sausage slowly. I push my prescription sunglasses further up my nose. Bugger me, that’s not a sausage he’s rubbing…

This is the second penis I have witnessed in Sicily. It’s important that I reiterate that my husband is at home in Berkshire…

I march towards the church and he throws me a look of regret. Heaven help me.

The catacombs are thankfully fascinating (and cool!) Entry is by guided tour only and thankfully my guide is happy to translate into English for the very few non-Italians that have bothered to visit. Photography is not allowed, something the Italians ignore completely whilst the rest of us scowl at them disapprovingly.

Cheered up and without any genitalia in sight, I refuse to give up on the rest of the day and head to Ortygia a day earlier than planned, just to wander a bit.

The island on which Syracuse was originally founded is a little shabby but has an air of graceful, charming dilapidation that contrasts sharply to the mainland. This is where most of the hotels and restaurants are located and if I could have afforded it I would have loved to have stayed here.

Soon after crossing the bridge I was immediately buoyed with the sight of a temple.

Temple of Apollo, Ortygia #sicily

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After a well needed proper evening meal I reluctantly head back to the mainland, keen to return first thing the next morning…

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The Sicilian Expedition Travel Journal – Day 9

13th May 2015

Mazzaro #sicily

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Thank the Lord for Tripadvisor, or more specifically, Vagabonda on the Sicily forums of Tripadvisor. In the Trip Prep stages of this holiday Vagabonda proved to be a wealth of helpful advice and information. Today makes no difference.

I want to leave Taormina for Syracuse, but before I do I want to descend the mountain and visit Giardini-Naxos. As a backpacker, this is not going to be easy without a left luggage office at Giardini-Naxos train station. Luckily, Vagabonda has come up trumps again and pointed me towards the B&B Sottocoperta across the road from the station who are very happy to take my luggage for the entire day for only 5 euro. As I’ve decided to trek to Naxos Archaeological Park from the stations at the other end of the bay on a swelteringly hot day, I’m glad of it.

Still, the walk is along the coast and there is little more pleasant than being next to the sea.

I’m here a little before the tourists descend for beach season, which I’m informed turns this quiet little fishing town into a thriving destination. At the moment the karaoke bars etc are still shuttered up, which I have to admit is how I like Giardini Naxos.

The first hint to the historical importance of this little town comes in the form of a statue along the promenade.

Thucles the Chalcidian

Thucles the Chalcidian

Thucydides records that the first Greeks to send colonists to Sicily were from Chalcis in Euboea. Their leader, Thucles, chose a spur of volcanic rock as the site of his colony and founded Naxos in 734 BC. He’d soon also found Leontini and Catania, both becoming more important than Naxos would ever be. Still, Naxos was remembered by all Greeks in Sicily as an important site, and all sacred journeys back to Greece (such as competitors travelling to the Olympics,) would depart from here after leaving a sacrifice at the altar of Apollo Archegetes.

The Naxians backed the Athenian forces during the Sicilian Expedition. This turned out to be a mistake and the town was razed by Dionysius I of Syracuse in retribution. The Naxos never truly recovered and Tauromenion (Taorminia,) up on the nearby mountain became the dominant settlement.

Consequently there are no grand temples or dazzling mosaics to be seen in the Naxos Archaeological Park. It’s nearly deserted compared to the more glamourous Taormina theatre or the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. I doubt it ever sees hordes of coaches and buses like Piazza Armerina. However, the Naxos site has a quiet dignity all of her own, the tranquility here being a welcome refreshment if you prefer to visit your archaeological sites in peace.

These buildings date back to the late 8thC BC

These buildings date back to the late 8thC BC

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The parallel walls suggest a granary or storeroom in one of the oldest houses in Naxos

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Houses developed into large insula blocks alongside wide avenues, each house with a courtyard

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An ancient avenue looking towards Etna

There is a sanctuary to be seen at Naxos, although it is unlikely to be the one dedicated to Apollo. Archaeologists have tentatively suggested the shrine and temple are instead dedicated to Aphrodite as ancient sources mention a famous temple to her in Naxos.

A propylon (gate) leads into the walled sanctuary

A propylon (gate) leads into the walled sanctuary

Early 6thC altar

Early 6thC altar

The scant remains of Temple B, thought to be dedicated to Aphrodite

The scant remains of Temple B, thought to be dedicated to Aphrodite

There is little to no shade and no water fountains in the archaeological park and for yet another day of my trip I was feeling inexplicably sluggish and tired. Halfway through the walk back up the bay to the train station, I sit down for a meal at one of the many beachside restaurants. Not one to normally photograph my food, (and usually only then to send to my mother,) this tomato and basil rose was too cute to pass up. Thank you, restaurateur, for perking me up!

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Bag retrieved, it’s time for a two hour train journey to Siracusa…

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The Sicilian Expedition Travel Journal – Day 8

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:

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My hotel balcony, directly above the Porta Messina

My hotel balcony directly looks onto the Porta Messina

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.

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Piazza IX Aprile gives such breathtaking views of the coast and Mount Etna

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Piazza IX Aprile, with the Torre dell’Orolorgio on the left and the church of San Giuseppe on the right

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Gorgeous mosaic within the walls of the Torre dell’Orolorgio


The 13thC Cathedral San Nicola

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Corso Umberto


The fountain in the Piazza Duomo

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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.

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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.


The retaining wall to the seating area (analemmata) gives a hint as to how huge the theatre is. It has steps leading to the seating areas (cavea.)


Gazing up at the back of the building behind the stage (skene.)


View from the stage (pulpitum)


The only surviving skene building on Sicily, originally with a second level, now lost


The modern, wooden stage seems to replace an ancient one that was probably removed in the late Imperial age to accommodate circus games and gladiatorial combat.

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