Hubby and I are just back from a trip to Sicily, highlighted by four nights in a lovely B&B with a view of the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento. If you’re not familiar with this site, well, you’re not alone. I suspect it’s one of most under-appreciated places in the world — a true candidate for one of the Seven Wonders. The Valley boasts a complex of enormous temples built in the fifth century BCE when the area was a Greek colony. (The Parthenon in Athens was built around the same time.) It’s the largest archaeological site in the world.
At the Valley’s best-preserved temple, dedicated — I’m guessing — to Athena
We entered the archaeological park (10 euros to get in) from the lower end. The first temple we encountered, traditionally ascribed to Castor and Pollux, has only four columns and a corner standing. But as I walked up to the towering reconstructed remains, the beauty of the architecture and the immensity of its purpose brought tears to my eyes. It’s unclear now which deities were worshiped in which temples in the Valley, but votive offerings to Demeter and Persephone show they were important in this zone, and despite extensive robbing out of the structures for Dark-Ages building projects, the sacred atmosphere lingers.
The largest of the temples, in a very poor state, is firmly connected to Zeus. Next up the hill comes Hera’s sanctuary, followed by the best preserved temple, called Concordia (a Roman name, not Greek). Oddly, I haven’t read any theories about which deity it celebrates, but knowing that Roman cities typically had their main sanctuary dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, my guess is “Concordia,” juxtaposed by temples to Zeus and Hera, was dedicated to Athena. 😉
If, like me, you’re a lover of sacred places, Agrigento is a pilgimmage I can’t recommend strongly enough. Also, if you’re interested in Hellenistic religion (and romance!), please check out my time-travel adventure Templum.
I love coming across unexpectedly modern (seeming) things that the Romans had or did. That’s why I included details about ancient central heating in my Regency romance Lord St Leger’s Find and about 2,000-year-old flush toilets in my contemporary, The Five-Day-Dig.
Recently, I stumbled across this cute depiction on the left of cherubs playing hide-and-seek. This scene is from a fresco found in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii. It’s so reminiscent of kids playing the game today.
In the carved relief seen below of slaves helping a wealthy Roman woman with her toilette, I was surprised to notice that the woman is sitting in a wicker chair. Fortunately, we no longer have slaves, but the wicker chair looks just like one you could still buy new.
And shown in this last photo are ancient Roman pots and pans on display in the Museo Archeologico in Naples, Italy. I have almost all of these in my own kitchen.
For more intriguing examples like these, check out the collection of photos posted in the discussion here.
At one point in my archaeological mystery/romance, The Five-Day-Dig, Chaz speculates that the building he and Winnie are excavating is an ancient purgatorium, like the one (shown below) that visitors to Pompeii can see on the grounds of the Temple of Isis. A purgatorium isn’t as scary as it first may sound. The name has the same root as the word purge, and this type of building was used for ritual cleansing with water from the Nile — sort of a pre-Christian baptism.
Though Isis is an Egyptian goddess, her worship spread to ancient Greece after Alexander conquered Egypt in the fourth century BCE. From there, the goddess reached the Roman Empire. At the time of Vesuvius’ big eruption in the year 79, she was a popular deity, and her temple in Pompeii is the best-preserved one in town. An inscription records that it had been rebuilt after an earthquake about a decade before the eruption.
What made Isis so popular in the Greco-Roman world? Well, she is often pictured with baby Horus — a mother-and-child image that many people are instinctively drawn to. Her mythology as the reassembler of her murdered husband’s body parts also paints her as a devoted wife and connects her to the idea of resurrection and eternal life. She was also a patron deity of sailors, an important occupation in the ancient economy.
The original paintings and sculpture from her temple in Pompeii are now a half-hour away by train in Naples at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Wouldn’t you know that Hubby and I missed them while we were there? But that gives us a reason to go back. 🙂
The first time you visit Pompeii, it’s easy to miss the Villa of the Mysteries unless you know to look for it (and you should). One of the best preserved houses in the ancient town, it’s a little outside the city walls, beyond the Herculaneum gate. (When it looks like you’ve left the ruins, keep going — you’re almost there.)
What gives the villa its intriguing name is a series of frescoes showing an initiation ritual. No one knows what type of initiation is shown, but a depiction of Bacchus/Dionysus in the center suggests it had to do with his cult.
The story, which unfolds kind of like a comic strip, follows a young woman through a reading of text, an offering of sacrificial cakes, a scary encounter with mythological beings, and the verge of unveiling some covered object that we never get to see (after all, it’s a mystery cult). After the ordeal, the initiate is shown pulling herself back together, combing her hair. She has made it through the night.
Besides the cult room, the villa features other beautifully painted rooms and corridors. Curiously, one room is adorned with Egyptian symbols. Other cool things to see are plaster casts of window shutters and doors, still in place — you can even spot some of the original 2,000-year-old hinges and wood. The house also has an enormous kitchen. And near the back of the property are a few plaster cast of victims of the volcano eruption on display — sad.
On the beautiful spring day that Hubby and I visited, accompanied by chirping birds and shy little lizards, it was easy to envision the house in happier times. You can do the same with the help of computer-enhanced photos on this website. For speculation of what the rites might have been like, check out the reenactment scene in Chapter 15 (Quindici) of my book, The Five-Day-Dig).
Hubby and I spent the last week in Italy (just yesterday morning we were in Ostia Antica!), so I had a chance to revisit some of the sites that inspired details in The Five-Day-Dig. For example, at one point in the book, the archaeological team comes across an ancient bath complex. On our last trip, Hubby and I visited a large bath complex at Ostia, outside of Rome. This time, we must have visited half-a-dozen of them among Ostia, Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Roman public baths were pretty impressive buildings, and they seem to have been less of a target for scavengers than temples and government offices. (Makes you wonder how fabulous those buildings must once have been!) One of the most well-preserved complexes we saw was the newly reopened Stabian Baths (seen to the left) in Pompeii.
The beautifully adorned room in the pic is the entrance to a changing room (apodyterium in Latin) featuring benches and shelves with niches for storing clothing. These days, the room also houses a couple of plaster casts of unfortunate people who died there in the year 79 volcanic eruption that buried the city. Other highlights of the complex include hot and cold plunge baths and an open-air exercising area (called a palaestra) surrounded by a colonnaded portico.
The Stabian baths are located on the main drag in Pompeii, Via dell’Abbondanza, at the corner of Via Stabia. The huge complex takes up a whole block’s worth of space. For a more detailed description, including a floor plan of the site, check out the extensive AD 79 web site.