History of Segesta


See Segesta guide for highlights and historic monuments

Ancient Segesta origins

Segesta was a city founded by the Elymians. According to the traditional legend about the foundation of the city the Elymians had a "Trojan" origin.

In fact, legend tells us that Segesta (or Egesta - see etymology further down) was one of the most famous cities of the Elymians, and formerly located on an isolated hill now called "Barbaro", which is washed by the river "Crimiso" (now called "Fiume freddo") and located less than two miles from Calatafimi.

With regard to the river Crimiso, the Elymians-Trojans founded their city on the river banks  - Segesta was  founded by Egesto, also called Acestes, who sailed from Troy a short time before Aeneas, with his consent.

Egesto founded the new city in the land of the Sicans. The Elymians-Trojans, in memory of their origin, called the branches of the river Crimiso by the names of the rivers of Troy, or "Scamander" the branch of the river closer to Segesta, and they gave the name of "Simois" to other that flowed at a site further away. So this is the legend about the foundation of Segesta.

About the question of the Elymians "Trojan" origin, the studies are extremely complex and still evolving. It seems to be established that the Trojan legend about the origin of the Elymians had been "imported" by the Phocidian merchants, who had excellent business relations with the Elymians. The Phocidians merged with the Elymians, giving rise to a mixed community and the Phocidians 'involved' the Elymians in their Greek legends [12].

Thucydides (460-395 BC) told that: “[…] after the fall of Troy (1183 BC) some Trojans arrived at Sicily from the sea with their ships, and they began to live close to the Sicans. The latter called them 'Elymians', and their towns were Segesta and Erice […].”

However, we know little about the Elimians. While historical sources provide significant information, the archaeological evidences show only slight marks of their existence [13]. According to Thucydides, soon after some Phocidians would come from Troy to live alongside them, driven by a storm first to Libya and then to Sicily.

Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman Segesta

The Greek period of the history of Segesta was marked by many conflicts and massacres of populations. For example, Segesta had continual wars against Selinunte, then was destroyed by Agathocles [361-289 BC], the tyrant of Syracuse, at the end of the 4th century BC. It was refounded by the Romans and finally destroyed by the Vandals.

After the destruction by Agathocles, the Tyrant of Syracuse, who wanted to punish the city for the lack of support given to him in the conflict with the Carthaginians, it also changed name, and it was called "Dikaiopolis" (meaning "The right city "). This change of name was ordered by Agathocles.

Regarding the reasons for the Tyrant to change the name there are many hypothesis. A very interesting theory is that of B. Sunseri, who believes that Agathocles changed the name of Segesta perhaps with the intention of creating an "ideal city".

Agathocles, after the conquest of the city, massacred the inhabitants but then gave way to a series of "reforms" that involved the: "[...] reconstruction of the city and the liberation of slaves, with the intention to create in Sicily the project of an 'ideal city' (...) Agathocles would thus appear as a worthy heir to Alexander the Great [356-323 BC], spreading in Sicily some of the key components of the Hellenistic ideology, such as a new function of the Royalty and an egalitarian propensity […]" [14].

The First Punic War [264 to 241 BC] saw Segesta being a faithful ally of Rome, and with its seaport it became an important strategic base for the Romans, who, in the name of the legendary Trojan origin that united the two cities, rewarded it with some taxation privileges.

Arabs and Normans, Vandals and Swabians

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the city suffered serious devastations and carnages with the arrival of the Arabs, and it seems that it had been also badly damaged by the Vandals in the fifth century.

After the expulsion of the Arabs, the Normans built a castle here, later enlarged by the Swabians, which formed the nucleus of a new medieval village, or “Calatafimi”. Under the rule of the Swabians:

"[...] the settlement of the population was between Segesta and Calatafimi, both equipped with strongholds in the higher areas. Around the middle of the 13th century Segesta suffered a violent end and only a small area to the top north continued to be inhabited for some years. The end of Segesta seems to mark the definitive cancellation of the Arabs even in this part of Sicily, and the only town that continued to thrive until our times was Calatafimi [...]" [15].

Calatafimi, called "Qal'at [“Kalat” ('fortress')] Fimi" by the Arabs, follows the name of a Roman owner of the first century BC, "Diocles," also called "Phimes" (in the Byzantine age the fortress was called "Castrum Phimes" [16]. It was also known as  “Eufemio Castle”, after Eufemio from Messina, who led the Arabs to conquest Sicily.

So, at the foot of the fortress, Calatafimi was born and developed, belonging to royal property until the Aragonese age.

Segesta from medieval times to the present

In 1336 the city was a stronghold of William of Aragon (1360-1380), and subsequently passed to the Peralta, De Prades, Cabrera, Enriquez, and finally to the Dukes of Alba.

Calatafimi is famous in the history of the Italian “Risorgimento”, because as part of it there was a battle between troops led by Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) and the Bourbon soldiers (1860), a battle that brought the city into the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Origins of the name Segesta (or Egesta...)

In Cannes, in 1790, an inscription was found, which tells us the name of Segesta, a protective deity of the harvest, whose cult was very rare among the Romans. However, according to T. Mommsen the inscription was a forgery.

This name also returns on a some coins in the Age of Gallienus [218-268 AD] which have the image of the Empress Julia Cornelia Salonina (died 268 AD), and on the reverse a female deity in a temple with the legend "Deae Segetiae" ("Goddess Segesta"). 'Segesta' is an old and poorly documented Roman patron goddess of the harvest (...), and in literature it is suggested that the name 'Segesta' derives from 'seges' (trans: “crop”) [1].

Although the inscription is a forgery, it is nevertheless true that in ancient times Segesta was honoured as the goddess of harvest and abundance. Nicola Leoni said:

"[...] Among the Ancients, Segesta was a name of a shepherd, like Flora, Matuta (...) Through S. Augustine, we know that the ancients called the wheat  'sata' (...) which was in the charge of the Goddess 'Seia'. When they had seen the swaying grass and spikes, the Romans called them 'segetem', from which came the name of the Goddess ‘Segezia’, or ‘Segesta’. (...) Pliny [23-79 AD] wrote [2]: "The Romans called 'Seia' after ‘seed’ ('serere') and 'Segesta' from the crops" [3].

Segesta was therefore a goddess that made "rich crops", and her name was a good omen, because it implied the idea of an “abundant and rich” harvest.  However, it would seem that the name "Segesta" was also really a forgerly! Indeed, the old name of "Segesta" seems to have actually been "Egesta", but because the Latin word "egestas" means "poverty", the Romans, who were very superstitious, changed the name of the town, transforming it from "Egestas" (“poverty”) to "Segestas" ("rich" implied " of crops").

According to Sextus Pompeius Festus [later 2nd century AD] the Romans always acted like that with the names of cities. For example, they changed the name of "Maleventum" ('bad event') to "Benevento" ('good event'). A. Tedeschi in this regard stresses that: "[...] prudently, the Romans tended to avoid the unlucky names (...) There were some real taboo words that were carefully observed; for example, (…) Segesta, of which the original name was  'Egesta', was changed because the term referred to the idea of 'egestas' ('poverty') [ ...]" [4].

In essence, according to some scholars, the Romans "modified" the Greek name of the city, which was “Aighestos”, “Aighéstes”, “Eghéstes”,  “Eghesta” and “Aighesta.” M. Paschalis stressed that “[...] 'Egestus' and 'Egesta' later changed to 'Segesta', because the former evoked 'egestas' ('need', 'shortage'), and the latter 'seges' ('crop'). The Greek forms for the hero's name are 'Aighestos', 'Aighéstes', 'Eghéstes', and for the town 'Eghesta' and 'Aighesta'” [5].

Therefore, the Romans appear responsible for a name change. According to other scholars, things stand rather differently. E. A. Freeman, for example, after observing that "Segesta" was a city of the Elymians [Latin “Elymi”], stresses that the ancient name of the city was not "Egesta", but "Segesta" and that the Greek name "Eghesta" is a Greek “corruption” of the  ancient name:

“[...] We have seen that the chief town of the Elymians is called on its own coins 'Segesta'; the Greek form 'Egesta' comes in only gradually in late times (...) But the Greek corruption is one which has a philological interest (...) On the the name 'Segesta', as used by the Latins, Festus (340) has a strange remark: "Segesta, which is now called “oppidum” [“walled city”] is located in Sicily, and it seems to have been founded by Aeneas through ‘Egesto’, who called it ‘Egesta’. But before the name the letter "S" was placed because it was called with an unfortunate and ominous name.” (...) But 'Segestas' was the real name from the beginning. The Latins simply called the place by its true name, not by its high-polite Greek name [...]” [6].

More recently, also G. Nenci believes that “the city's original name was 'Segesta', early Graecised into 'Egesta’” [7].

Also with regard to the etymology there is an intricate problem. We must consider the fact that the name "Segesta" was widespread in Italy, from north to south; so it goes back to an ancient root "-sego" ("strong" and in the broad sense "a fortified high place").

For example, the compound nouns with “-sego” were also included in the area of Liguria; "Segusium" (Susa) is a name from Liguria, not to mention 'Segesta', which takes us from Spain to Pannonia on the one hand and to extreme Sicily on the other hand. With regard to the relationship between Liguria and Sicily, already Hellenic of Mytilene, in the sixth century BC, observed that the Elymians, an ancient Mediterranean Ibero-Ligurian people, came from Liguria to Sicily.

G. Semeraro observed that "[...] Segesta in Sicily, in fact, recalls 'Segesta Tigulliorum', or 'Sestri Levante' and this is related to the settlement on a high place (... ) Segesta and Erice have similar meanings. Erice corresponds to the Akkadian term ‘arktu’ (...) in Latin 'arx', ('fortified place'), while Segesta also has the original value of ‘Acropolis' such as the Akkadian 'Saqua asitu', i.e. 'high' [...]" [8].

But things are not so simple! G. Alessio, for example, returned to the ancient etymology, for which Segesta is derived from "seges":

"[...] How  is it possible to speak about the 'Illyrian' character of the place names with '-este', if a name like 'Segesta' is documented not only in Pannonia, but even in Sicily and Liguria? For the anti-historical 'Pan-Illyrians' we can now contrast the likely connection of 'Segesta' with the Latin term 'seges', a word which for its isolation and its meaning can be considered a remnant of the Mediterranean substratum [...]" [9]

Other contemporary scholars agree with G. Alessio; in fact, M. Perfigli observes: "We know that in reality Goddess Seia and Segesta derived their name from 'seges', which had the meaning of ‘land to be sown’ or ‘land that has already been sown’ or "rich in harvest" [10]. Of the same opinion is I. Scaturro, who notes that: "the Romans changed the name of the city from the Greek  Egesta (Latin 'poverty') to Segesta (from 'seges')" [11].

See also our Segesta travel information.

References

1. See M. Silvestrini, “Epigrafi false”, in “Le epigrafi romane di Canosa”, edited by M. Chelotti, V. Morizio, M. Silvestrini, Edipuglia, 1990, vol. II: 42

2. Pliny lib. VIII. Chapter II

3. See Nicola Leoni, "Della Magna Grecia e delle Tre Calabrie”, Naples, 1845: 40 footnote 3

4. See A. Tedeschi“Lo storico in parola”, "Edipuglia, 1998: 73, note 93

5. See M. Paschalis, “Virgil's Aeneid”. Semantic Relations and Proper Names”, Clarendon Press Oxford, 1997: 182 footnote 5

6. See E. A. Freeman, “History Of Sicily”, Oxford, 1891: 551

7. See G. Nenci, "Segesta e Calatafimi", Napoli, 1996: 479-488

8. See G. Semeraro, “The origins of European culture”, Olsckhi, 1984: 607-611

9. See G. Alessio, “Appunti sulla toponomastica pugliese”, in “Japigia”, Organo della Regia Deputazione di storia patria, New Series, Year XIII (1935), fasc. III: 169-170

10. See M. Perfigli, “Indigitamenta. Divinità funzionali... nella religione romana”, ETS, 2004: 140

11. See I. Scaturro, “Storia della Sicilia”, Raggio,  1951, Vol. II: 16

12. About the old question of the "Trojan origins” of the Elymians, see especially L. Antonelli, “Traffici Focei di età arcaica”, Roma, 2008: 37 ff.

13. See AA. VV AA. VV. “Il territorio di Segesta fra l'età arcaica e il Medioevo”, in “Terze Giornate”: 91 ff.

14. For the assumptions about Agathocles and Segesta-“Dikaiopolis”, See G. Bruno Sunseri, “Agatocle e la trasformazione di Segesta in Dikaiopolis”, in “Terze Giornate Internazionali di Studi sull'area Elima”, (Gibellina - Erice - Contessa Entellina, 23-26 ottobre 1997), Atti, I, Pisa - Gibellina 2000, 181 ff.

15. About the birth of Calatafimi, See A. Molinari, in “Terze Giornate …”:  124

16. See G. Nenci, “I toponimi Segesta e Calatafimi …”