The second city on Serra Orlando

In its history of approximately a thousand years, Morgantina successively occupied two sites, initially the hilltop known as the Cittadella (33.6 acres or 13.6 hectares), later the adjacent series of hills called Serra Orlando (192 acres or 78 hectares).  The move to Serra Orlando took place in the politically tumultuous middle years of the fifth century BCE, perhaps as an initiative of Douketios, the Sikel leader who captured Morgantina in 459 BCE and held it until his exile ten years later (Diodorus Siculus).  The new city or polis was laid out, however, with an orthogonal plan typical of Greek urban planning; the archaeological evidence argues that the plan dates to ca. 450 BCE.  Space was reserved for a very large agora occupying 7.4 acres or 3.0 hectares; residential blocks were divided into the equal house lots characteristic of an isonomic, presumably democratic political system.  When the city reached its maximum extent, some 1,000 house lots were occupied. With six/seven persons per dwelling, the city’s urban population may eventually have reached 7,000; some citizens undoubtedly lived outside in the large rural territory, which was used mainly for the cultivation of wheat and barley.

Twenty-five years after the defeat of Douketios by Syracuse, the nascent second city at Morgantina came under the control of Kamarina on the south coast (424 BCE; Thucydides), but not long after the destruction of Kamarina by Carthage in 405 BCE Morgantina again fell into the hands of Syracuse (396 BCE; Diodorus). In the fourth century the town expanded slowly into the hills and valleys of Serra Orlando, following the guidelines of the original grid plan.  In 1998-99 a house of this period was excavated on West 9th Street.  During a period of apparent autonomy toward the middle of the fourth century the city minted both silver and bronze coins in several issues.

In 317 BCE the military leader Agathokles took power at Syracuse with crucial assistance from Morgantina (Diodorus), and from this time forward, for more than a century, the city’s history was bound up with that of the coastal metropolis. The city’s mint now closed and Syracusan coins began to circulate locally in increasingly large numbers; a deposit of discarded Punic amphorae that had contained salt fish indicates extensive trade with North Africa.

From 275 until 215 BCE Syracuse and many cities in eastern Sicily were ruled by Hieron, a military figure who was chosen king ca. 269 BCE.  Along with Macedonia, Egypt, Syria, and Pergamon, Syracuse thus became a Hellenistic kingdom, albeit the smallest one. Today referred to as Hieron II (to distinguish him from the earlier Syracusan tyrant of the same name), the king designed a comprehensive agrarian law known as the lex Hieronica that regulated the economic and political relationship between Syracuse and the other cities of the kingdom.  As described admiringly by Cicero in the first century BCE, the chief feature of the law consisted of payment by the cities of a grain-tithe to the royal treasury; the king in turn appears to have reinvested part of the tithe in public works back in the cities. Recent research at Morgantina suggests the agrarian law called for a standard coinage and a uniform set of measures of volume throughout the kingdom.

There is good reason to believe that Morgantina and its large grain-producing territory were a part of Hieron’s realm. This was an era of remarkable prosperity when the city reached its greatest extent and population.  The agora was the setting for a carefully designed building program that included stoai or porticoes, meeting places for assembly and council, office buildings for the administration of the tithe and other purposes, a fountain house, a theater, altars to the gods, a sanctuary of Demeter and Kore, and two granaries for the storage of wheat and barley produced in the large territory– these last no doubt serving to house the tithe of wheat and barley owed to Syracuse. From the scale of this building program it seems likely that the sounds of building construction were heard in the agora of Morgantina throughout the second half of the third century BCE.

In the city’s residential neighborhoods the former policy of “one citizen-one house lot” was relaxed, and mansions encompassing two or more lots were constructed. These were often embellished with both decorated walls and floors paved in opus signinum (a sort of terrazzo) or mosaics; among the latter are some of the earliest known examples, as in the House of Ganymede (ca. 225 BCE).  Several much-frequented sanctuaries of Demeter and Kore occupied lots in the residential neighborhoods, and on the farthest outskirts of the city plan, at the intersection of West 14th St. and Avenue B, two public bath buildings were constructed. Under renewed excavation and study since 2003, the well-preserved North Baths contains remarkable vaulted spaces including a cupola and two barrel vaults that are among the very earliest known above-ground examples of these building forms. Like the contemporary central Fountain House in the agora at Morgantina, which relied for its water supply entirely on the collection of rainwater, the North Baths reflect an age of architectural experimentation. The source of local innovation in architecture, sculpture, mosaics, and the minor arts was undoubtedly the metropolis of Syracuse, which in this period was home to such figures as Theokritos and Archimedes.

– Malcolm Bell, June 2012 –