Ben Kane takes us on a whistle-stop tour of Sicily and the nearby island of Ortygia as he describes his research for the third book in his Hannibal series – Clouds of War…
When visiting historical locations that will feature in my novels, it’s uncommon for me to be as blessed, say, as a writer working on a book about the Russian revolution in 1917. They can visit the grand palaces of St. Petersburg, and huge museums, and mine those places for information. It’s more common for me to have to use my imagination. This is both a blessing and a curse. What I would sometimes give to see how an ancient fortress might have looked, or to visualise the exact layout of a battlefield!
Clouds of War, the third novel in my Hannibal series, is set on the island of Sicily. For several years during the second Punic war, it was the scene of intense fighting. Local Syracusan forces had allied themselves with Carthage and together these armies battled Roman legions for the control of the massive city of Syracuse, and then for the rest of the island. It was inevitable that I should visit the place.
Syracuse was founded in the eighth century BCE by Greek settlers. By the fifth century, it had become an impressive walled city. In the following two centuries, the Carthaginians seized control of much of Sicily, but they could not conquer Greek-speaking Syracuse. During the first Punic war (264-241 BCE), the city allied itself with Rome, a bond that was maintained until after the second war had begun. The city then changed sides, joining forces with Carthage. Rome acted at once. Whoever controlled Syracuse exerted huge influence on the island. If the Carthaginians ruled Sicily, they would be able to move supplies and soldiers from their home city (a mere eighty miles away) to the island, and thence to the Italian mainland. Syracuse had to be taken – at all costs. A mighty siege resulted, and which dragged on for nearly two years.
Today Syracuse is called Siracusa. It’s a bustling maritime city on the southeast corner of Sicily. Two and a half millennia of human inhabitation has ensured that little remains of the original Greek city, but traces remain here and there. In addition, some of the geography is unique and still identifiable. This makes it possible to stand in various places and know that the defenders and attackers also stood at that exact point during the incredible siege. Doing that feeds my imagination like you would not believe.
First on my list of places to seek out was the leaf-shaped island of Ortygia, which yet forms the heart of the old town of Siracusa. In one location on Ortygia, a section of the foundations of the ancient Syracusan fortifications remains. The freshwater spring that rises by the sea’s edge, and which has been the only place for papyrus to grow in Europe for two thousand years, is still an attraction there too. Close by, I loved the stone “herring bone” remnants of dry docks for Syracusan triremes.
Even more amazing, however, was the great stone altar erected west of Ortygia by the Syracusan dictator Hiero. There more than two hundred bulls were sacrificed around the time of the siege. Close to the altar is an immense cave, the so-called “Ear of Dionysus”, where stonemasons’ chisel marks from the fifth century BCE can be seen. There it really felt as if the breath of history was blowing upon my cheeks. Some miles to the west of the old centre, on a windswept plateau that overlooks the city, I walked among the ruins of Castello Eurialo. It was once the strongest part of Syracuse’s great defensive wall. The “V” shaped walls there would have funnelled attackers towards the gate under withering fire from the artillery positions which can still be seen. Gazing down on the city, it was easy for me to imagine the sea covered with Roman ships, and the countryside to the north, south and west dotted with legionaries’ camps.
Yet my job was made even easier when I travelled to Agrigento, a city on Sicily’s southwest coast. It’s the location of some of the best preserved Greek temples in the world. At the beginning of the second Punic war, the city was known as Akragas. It was renamed after the Romans took it, but the walls and stunning buildings that remain to this day date to some centuries before that time. In other words, they would have been standing when the Carthaginians retook it, and when it too was besieged by the legions. Bathed in glorious sunshine, with few others around, I stayed on the site for hours, soaking up the history, and taking so many pictures that my phone ran out of battery. Hopefully, the pictures I took do some justice to Sicily’s amazing historical locations.
Ben Kane, for Waterstones.com/blog
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