With Belfast finally thawed (although still a tad chilly), on 7 March 2018, the Classical Association in Northern Ireland convened for its first public talk of the year. Showing the continued interest in the Ancient world and the calibre of the speakers CANI have been able to attract, the Old Staff Common Room of Queen’s University was once more packed out. We might need a new venue soon!
After a brief CANI update from Helen McVeigh, Dr John Curran introduced Dr Laura Pfuntner (QUB) to speak on ‘A Roman Holiday in Sicily,’ which was framed with a Grand Tour theme and addressed the purported Roman ambivalence to Sicily.
With the island being ‘not Roman, not Italian, not Greek’ (and with some Punic and native Sicels thrown in), could any such Roman ambivalence reflect standoffishness or ignorance? Or was Sicily of less interest because it was a conquered land, with the Roman elite less interested because there was no renown to be won there even with the slave revolts and civil wars of the last century of the Republic? Or is the idea of Roman ignoring of Sicily only a reflection of the limited scope and focus of the sources rather than the political, social and agricultural reality?
As Rome’s first overseas territory, Sicily could be seen as something of an ‘imperial training ground’ with both Marcellus, the captor of Syracuse, and Augustus learning lessons there. The pervasiveness of this idea may be seen in the depiction of Aeneas as something of the ‘first Roman in Sicily’ in Virgil’s Aeneid.
While Marcellus’ brutal siege and capture of the Syracuse saw significant damage and death, including that of Archimedes, the Roman conquest of the city and the island saw a significant boon of Hellenic art and culture in Rome (both a positive and negative according to the sources).
This removal of so many great pieces of Greek art from Syracuse could be construed as a positive in the writings of men such as Cicero, who presents himself (and perhaps Marcellus) as something of a preserver of Syracusan art and culture, particularly through his own rediscovery of the tomb of Archimedes in 75BC.
By the time of Augustus, Syracuse and Sicily was seen as many things – a workshop, a warehouse for trade goods coming in from across the empire, a grain farm for Italy and increasingly as a retreat for wealthy Romans, complete with growing villas and its own tourism industry, displayed by the mystagogi – Syracusan tour guides.
After whetting our appetites about the historical and cultural position of Sicily in the Roman world, Dr Pfuntner also took a variety of questions about the island regarding its geography, size, demographics, resources, slave population, and as an entrance to Hell.
I daresay that some in the audience will be sorely tempted to take up some of Dr Pfuntner’s advice about visiting Sicily and some of the lesser known sites it has to offer!