History of Akrai, Girratana and Casmene

See Akrai guide for highlights and historic monuments

The original settlement at Akrai was founded in 664 BC, on the flat top of a hill to the west of Palazzolo Acreide. This site, chosen for military defensive reasons, allowed Akrai to dominate the upper reaches of the Anapo River.

Ancient Akrai

With regard to the ancient history of Akrai, the only direct reference to a city with this name is found in the treaty between Rome and Syracuse, dating back to 203 BC. The Akrai name is kept in this form by Thucydides (490-395 BC) and Diodorus (1st century BC), while Stephanus Byzantinus (6th century AD) wrote "Akra".

Because of the lack of sources, scholars believe that the town was founded as a simple fortress with a typically military feature, in support of the defense of Syracuse. Moreover, Thucydides mentioned the town as being perhaps:

“[…] a 'phrourion' [piccolo castello] controlling Syracusan dominion, though it 'may' possibly have been a dependent 'polis' founded as a fortress (...) but the size of Akraian territory is uncertain, and it was in any case part of the Syracusan dominion […]” [1].

Over time, studies have re-affirmed the importance of Akrai as a sub-colony and military-strategic hub of Syracuse. In fact, Akrai was founded on a plateau of the Iblean mountains at an altitude of about 700 meters. The considerable importance and the role of this Syracusan sub-colony can be illustrated by the fact that the city minted coins with the inscription "ΑΚΡΑΙΩΝ," which were minted by the city itself, or by Syracuse. The coins of Akrai are represented by a well-known type of bronze coin dated after 210 BC (11).

Akrai enters the Roman republic

In the peace treaty concluded between the Romans and Hiero II (308-215 BC), Akrai was included among the possessions of the monarch, and that was probably the period of its greatest prosperity (Diodorus, XXIII 4), because the greatest monuments of the town were built in this period.

During the second Punic War Akrai followed the fate of Syracuse; after the war, it was included by the Romans among the “Stipendiaria” cities (that is, towns subject to an annual tribute, called a “Stipendium”) and this suggests that Akrai had resisted the occupation by Rome, together with troops of Syracuse.

Although it was mentioned by several Roman and Greek writers (such as Pliny [23-79 AD], Ptolemy [100-175 AD] and Stephanus Byzantinus), little is known about Akrai during Roman and Byzantine times. The Romans maintained the town with the duties of a strategic military outpost in the area, and it certainly enjoyed a great economic prosperity (as did Syracuse).

In this sense, the numismatics offer us some interesting supporting evidence; we know for example that in Roman times Akrai minted bronze coins:

"[...] That the town retained at least some economic importance in Roman times is confirmed by the fact that at that time it began to mint bronze coins, like Lilybaeum, Hybla Magna, Caracte and Assorum ... One of these coins, probably dating to 212 BC, "on one side shows the head of Persephone on the right with a crown of ears, and Demeter on the other side" [2].

Byzantines and Arabs

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Akrai was occupied by the Byzantines. Despite the absence of direct sources, studies by Bernabò Brea have shown that Akrai became an important town for spreading Christianity, as evidenced by numerous archaeological finds.

With the destruction by the Arabs that occurred in 827 BC, the ancient town was abandoned by the inhabitants, who moved into the area where the current “Palazzolo” is found.

Bernabò Brea wrote that:

“certainly Akrai did not survive the terrible destruction suffered by the Arabs and that marked the dissolution of the ancient town. What remained of it was allegedly used as a quarry for the construction of the new Palazzolo, founded by the Normans, at close range from Akrai. But the plunder continued in later centuries, up to now. In the archives of the Superintendency of cultural heritage is the record of interventions made in 1874 and 1932 to stop the removal of the old blocks on the ‘Acremonte’" [3].

Origins of the name Akrai

With regard to the etymology of Akrai, both ancient and modern studies refer to the concept of "height" and hence of a "city situated on a high place." This concept is indeed simple, but how the scholars have come to this conclusion is quite complex and full of erudite references.

We can say that the idea that "Akrai" corresponded to a "city situated on a high place" was already present in the 16th century. In fact, already Lorenzo Giustiniani [4] wrote:

"[...] The town is very old, and it is so named because is situated on a hill. G. Barrio writes: “Akrai means 'peak', since it is situated on a hill. In fact, G. Barrio in 1571, observed that “Internally there is the walled city of Akrai, as ‘acra’ means peak" [5].

Subsequent studies followed this approach, but linked the concept of “height” to the worship professed in the temple of Hera-Aphrodite in Akrai, the 'goddess of the heights', in turn connected with the worship of  “Zeus Akraios” (“Zeus of The Heights”).

In the 19th century, Baron G. Judica (1760-1835) began a series of investigations at the archaeological site of Akrai, identifying many archaeological finds, among which an inscription that was presumably referring to Zeus “Akraios.” A. Bernard Cook wrote:

" [...] At Akrai (Palazzolo) in Sicily the Museum of Baron Judica had a base inscribed 'DIOS [...] RAIOI' [6]. But W. Wilamowitz-Moellendorf [7] with great probability quotes [AK]raion” [...] [8]. Hera-Aphrodite revered at Akrai were therefore related to Zeus Akraios ("Zeus of the Heights"). In fact, Hera (Aphrodite) is herself called 'Akraia' in some places such as as Perachora and Byzantium (…) Hera is also called 'Akraia' because she shares with Zeus the role of holder of the highest peaks.”

Pierre Leveque concludes that:

"the goddess Hera-Aphrodite in her presumed Cretan-Mycenaean origin is the protector of the heights" [9].

Finally, R. Pera noted that:

"in some subjects engraved on the coins of Smyrna there are at one moment the Nemesis, then Cybele, and then Zeus Akraios." [10].

In conclusion, Akrai was so named in honor of Hera-Aphrodite "Akraia," the goddess of the heights.

See also the Akrai travel guide.

Historical notes for "Kasmenai-Casmene".

From the historical point of view the name of Akrai was always accompanied by the name of another "frourion" [=fortification] founded by Syracuse, that is to say 'Kasmenai. " This sort of 'twinning' was inaugurated by the most important Greek historian Thucydides, who, speaking of Akrai, also cited Kasmenai:

"Akrai and Kasmenai were founded by the Syracusans, Akrai seventy years after the foundation of Syracuse and Kasmenai twenty years after Akrai"[Thuc., VI, 2-3].

A discussion on "Akrai-Kasmenei" has recently taken place in an article of F. Copani, who has deepened the close relationship that existed between these two cities, underlining that

"the identification of Casmene was uncertain until at least the middle of the twentieth century ... Localization of Casmene was difficult, although today, on the basis of studies of B. Pace and A. Di Vita (2), it can be said with relative certainty that the colony of Syracuse was situated on the top of the "Monte Casale" [near Giarratana] " (3). The position of the two fortified cities testifies unequivocally their strategic and military role (F. Copani).

Despite its "Greek" foundation, the etymology of Kasmenai would refer, according to F. Copani, to an Italic root, strongly linked to the Romans. In fact, the name "Casmene" would not have been Greek but indigenous. Thus, the name of Kasmenai recalls the Roman "Camenae" [water nymphs or spring nymphs] to whom a shrine was consecrated near the "Porta Capena" in Rome by King Numa (753-673 BC). Moreover, the "Camenae" were identified with the Muses by the Romans.

The consequences of this remark are important if we assume that the Latins and the Sikels belonged to the same Indo-European group of languages, so that happens several times to find in Sicily various consonances among the natives and their language and cults with some Latin words. Today the remains of Casmene may be visited in the area of the small town of Giarratana (See below).

Historical notes for Giarratana < "Ceratana"

As we said, the archaeological site of Kasmenai is located near Giarratana, in the province of Ragusa in Sicily. The name seems to derive from "Ceratana": "oppidum 'Ceretana,' vulgo Giarratana, oppidum seu castrum Siciliae " [the fortified town called "Ceretana," commonly known as 'Giarratana,' town or castle in Sicily] (15).

Giarratana has its roots in the plant name "Turkey Oak" [=Italian "Cerro," Latin "quercus cerrus"] (16). Giarratana probably dates back to the Norman period, and later a castle was built in the twelfth century and the small town became a fief of Rinaldo D'Aquaviva (12th century). It was ruled by some powerful families in the Middle Ages, whose the most important were the Gualtieri di Caltagirone (13th century).

In the fifteenth century the feud belonged to the County of Modica, and it was later sold to the family of the Princes Settimo towards the middle of the fifteenth century, who honoured their town with several churches.


1. See M. Herman Hansen, T. Hein, “An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis”, Oxford University Press, 2004, p.108

2. See the article by Bernabò Brea, in “Siculorum gymnasium”, 1950: 39

3. See Luigi Bernabò Brea - Francesco D'Angelo, “Il tempio di Afrodite nell'antica Akrai” [" The temple of Aphrodite in the ancient Akrai "] in “Studi acrensi”, 1980-1983

4. “Dizionario geografico-ragionato del Regno di Napoli”, Naples, 1797, Tomo I: 57

5. See G. Barrii Franciscani “De Antiquitate et situ Calabriae”, Romae, 1571: 398

6. J. Schubring in the 'Jarbuch. F. Philol.', suppl. 1867 IV 67 fig. 2 supplies [AGO]raion

7. in the Insc. Gr. Sic. It. n. 203

8. See A. Bernard Cook, “Zeus. A Study in Ancient Religion”, Cambridge, at the University Press, 1925, Vol. II: 873 footnote 11

9. See“Rivista di cultura classica e medievale”, 2005, n. 47: 26 and 45

10. See R. Pera, “Homonoia sulle monete da Augusto agli Antonini”, Il Melangolo, 1984: 112

11. R. Chowaniec-K. Misiewicz and W. Malkowski, "Rivista di Topografia Antica",  XIX, 2009 (2010), p. 121-138.

12) A. Di Vita, Casmene ritrovata?, in Da Siracusa a Mozia. Scritti di archeologia siciliana,. Padova 1998, pp. 45-46.

13) F. Copani, "Acre e Casmene. L'espansione siracusana sui Monti Iblei", Quaderni di Acme, 2009, pp. 11-12.

14) D. Erdas, "Forme di stanziamento militare e organizzazione del territorio nel mondo greco : i casi di Casmene e Brea" in "Guerra e pace in Sicilia e nel Mediterraneo antico", 2006, Vol. I, pp. 49-50.

15) M. Pasqualino, "Vocabolario siciliano etimologico, italiano e latino", 1785, p. 220.

16) E. Finamore, "Italia Medioevale nella toponomastica: dizionario etimologico dei nomi locali", 1992, p. 104.

17) "Palladio," 1968, p. 151.