History of Helorus (also known as Eloro)

See Eloro guide for highlights and historic monuments

Regarding both Noto and Eloro (Greek ̀̀Έλωρος, Latin Helorus), which today together form the Archeological Park of Noto, historical studies related to P. Orsi's (1859-1935) work were fundamental. About Noto he wrote:

“The city of ‘Noto Vecchio” [=Old Noto], the ruins of which can be observed about eight kilometres east of the modern Noto, was destroyed in the earthquake of 1693 […] This [location] is now accepted by all surveyors, starting with T. Fazello [1498-1570] and until the last writers. On this identification also all historians agree in authority [...] The mountain of ‘Alveria’ (height m. 420), on which stood ‘Noto Vecchio’ […] is surrounded in every sense by deep valleys with inaccessible sides almost everywhere, into one of which the ‘Fiumara di Noto’ flows […] But before the catastrophe of 1693 several ruins, existing in the north-east of Noto, impressed firstly Fazello, and after him some lovers of local history” (1).

Early studies of Helorus

At the time of Cicero (106-43 BC), Helorus was a federated city and later it obtained the privileged status of the ‘ius Latii’[=Latin Rights]. Helorus fiercely resisted the Normans and in the 19th century had for some time the role of capital in place of Syracuse …

P. Orsi also intervened authoritatively on Helorus, criticizing Fazello who had given confusing and unreliable information about the site of the city:

“Where the small town of Helorus was located and when was founded it is not known with precision. Fazello had spoken at greater length on this city but also with great confusion about its monuments, and indeed in almost four centuries passed from his visit, everything had been destroyed or deleted. Scientifically Helorus was an enigma.

This induced me to a first exploration campaign, which lasted ten weeks, from which I obtained the first and fundamental results for the archaeological knowledge of this small Greek city. First I found its location; it stood on a low hill situated between the seashore and the left bank of the Tellaro river, as this hill was more than half rocky, great works of defense from the south and east sides were not necessary; [...]

...instead to the north and north-west, military architects of Helorus gave a very special development to the fortifications of the city, fortifying it with mighty ramparts, wide around 2,50 meters, with broken rocky terrain, garnished with three large square towers, and preceded by a very large ditch dug in the rock, situated on the site where there was the main Gate, from which the ‘Elorines Odos’ (= ‘Via Elorina’) started, which linked Helorus with Syracuse” (2).

Today, for a thorough understanding of the old Helorus, the recent studies of F. Copani are very important, because he has collected all ancient and modern sources about the city of Helorus.

Etymology of the name Eloro

Regarding the etymology, the hypothesis of F. Copani is convincing and supported by a wide and varied knowledge of the area in ancient times:

“In this regard, because of the undoubted Hellenic origin of the name stressed by G. Alessio, it seems that the derivation proposed by Servius [late fourth-century], according to whom the name derives from a root ‘≤ λειος’(" swamp "), is correct."

Even Virgil spoke of the "stagnantis Helori" [the stagnant Helorus] (Verg., Aen., III, 698). In his commentary on this passage, Servius (in Verg. Aen. III, 698) explained the adjective "stagnant" with the fact that the river, like the Nile, was subject to periodic flooding and poured in the surrounding fields, generating those swamps in which we have to seek the origin of the name Helorus: in fact it derives from the Greek "ele," a word with which ponds were indicated".

Moreover, among the Saracens, the name of the bridge over the Tellaro river was "Bayhachemum," consisting of the word “buqcah,” [= place], and the verb “khumum”, [=decay]. "Bayhachemum" was therefore "the place of decay": obviously, since once the mouth was widely turned into a marsh”(3).

A Mythical etymology has been handed down us by Licofrone, a tragic and erudite Greek author [third century BC], and by John Tzetzes (1110-1180), who inform us about the existence of a bridge over the river that, according to legend, was built by a king Helorus, from whom would then be derived the name of the river and of the city.

History of Helorus / Eloro

Helorus was located a few miles south of Syracuse, and was cited by several ancient authors, albeit without any special insights; in particular, Helorus was mentioned by Thucydides (460-400 BC), during the expedition of the Athenian army in Sicily in 415-413 BC. Other mentions about Helorus were made by the great poet Pindar [522-443 BC] (Nem., IX, 95b), by Herodotus [484-425 BC] (VII, 154, 3), by Stephen of Byzantium (6th century AD), and the Pseudo Scylax [mid-4th century BC] (13, 1).

Other mentions of Helorus-Eloro were given by Diodorus Siculus [90-27 BC] (X, 28) and Livius (59-17 BC): Livy informs us that in 213 BC Helorus voluntarily handed itself over to Marcellus when he arrived in Sicily to regain the cities that since had passed under the Carthaginians (XXIV, 35). Something more we could deduce from a couple of hints by Pliny the Elder [23-79 AD], who spoke of a ‘castellum Siciliae’ [=Castle of Sicily] (Nat. hist., XXXII, 16), and Claudius Aelianus [170-235 AD] (Hist. an., XII, 30), who specified that Helorus was a "frourion" [= landward outpost] of Syracuse."

In fact, according to tradition, Helorus was founded by Syracuse as a landward outpost for the control of territory against possible Sikel attacks.

This aspect of the territorial policy of Syracuse was already widely known by scholars of the 19th century. Indeed, E.A. Freeman wrote in the late 19th century a history of Helorus that did not differ much from modern interpretations:

“Of Heloron on the coast there is as little to say as of Neaiton among the hills; but its importance is marked by the frequent mention of the road near the coast that led to it. Its ruins are still to be traced on a hill above the sea on the left bank of the river from which it takes its name. That river, the modern Tellaro, has received various epithets from the Latin poets … It was a landward outpost to defend Heloron and its district against the attacks of inland enemies...

...In these settlements, whose date is unknown but whose traces are there to speak for them, we see a policy which led to the later extension of Syracusan dominion in other directions. Syracuse, shut in to the north by the foundation of Megara and other Greek cities, had secured to herself all that part of her own coast which remained unoccupied. Her next ambition was to spread her possessions over the whole south-eastern corner toward of Sicily. She would be a power at once by land and by sea. But the work was to be done gradually; a settlement on the African sea was not to be attempted till the inland districts which came within such a scheme were fully secured”( 4).

However, according to studies by F. Copani, at the beginning of the foundation of Helorus there was not only an attempt of Syracuse to stand against the local natives, who, among other things, according to the scholar, from the military point of view, could not compete with the Greeks, but also the concern of Syracuse to defend a strategic place "against" the Greeks themselves, who, of course, managed to get hold of Helorus, which could be an excellent port for trade in the Mediterranean Sea.

Cicero himself informed us that Helorus was equipped with an important port. Therefore, the reasons for the foundation of Helorus were twofold: on the one hand, the control of the territory against the local population, on the other hand the attempt by Syracuse to "contain" the lusts of other Greeks:

“But, if the competitors of the Syracusans were not the natives, whom shall we believe? The question would seem a nonsense because of at that time in the south east of Sicily there were no other historical agents, but in fact perhaps the answer can be found thinking about the environmental characteristics of the region of Helorus: here we had a hill jutting out into the sea, near the mouth of a great river, and especially close to a wide and fertile plain.

These were ideal conditions to permit the installation and development of a polis and probably the fear of the Syracusans was precisely what other Greeks, attracted by the favourable conditions of the place, could elect Helorus as the seat of their Apoikia "[= colony]" (5).

See also the Eloro travel guide for deals of the monuments at the site

Works cited

1) P. Orsi, “Noto Vecchio”, in “Notizie degli scavi di antichità”, Accademia dei Lincei, 1897, p. 69 ff.

2) P. Orsi, “Eloro , Ubicazione della città ...”, in “ Notizie degli scavi di antichità”, Accademia dei Lincei, 1899, p. 241 ff.

3) F. Copani, “Alle origini di Eloro”, in "ACME", 2005, pp. 245 ff.

4) E. A. Freeman, “The History of Sicily”, Oxford, At the Clarendon Press, 1891, Vol. II, pp. 18-19.

5) F. Copani, “Greci e Indigeni ad Eloro” in “Grecs et indigènes de la Catalogne à la mer Noire : actes des rencontres du programme européen Ramses2 (2006-2008), édités par Henri Tréziny”, Paris, Errance, Aix-en-Provence, Centre Camille Jullian, 2010, pp. 689-693.

6) F. Longo, “Eloro, Akre and Kasmenai”, in “The Greek Cities of Magna Graecia and Sicily”, 2004, p. 216 ff.

7) G. Voza, “L'attività della Soprintendenza alle antichità della Sicilia orientale: Eloro”, in “Kokalos”, 1980-1981, p. 685 -688.

8) G. Voza, “La Villa del Tellaro”, in “Nel Segno dell'Antico”, Lombardi, 1999, p. 121.

9) G. Voza, “Attività della Soprintendenza alle antichità per la Sicilia Orientale”, in "Kokalos," 1973, p. 190.

10) F. Copani, “Paesaggio e organizzazione territoriale nel territorio della colonia siracusana di Eloro”, in “Annuario della scuola archeologica di Atene”, 2005, [Estratto], Vol. LXXXII, Tomo I, pp. 276-280.