Sicily at Last

After enjoying the richness of Olympia, we skedaddled back to Athens and took a flight to Catania, Sicily the next day for the final leg of our trip. Why Sicily? Because the east side of the island was colonized by the Ionian Greeks (e.g. from the coast of Turkey and its islands) long, long ago.

By the way, that explains why the sea on the east side of Italy is called the Ionian! I always wondered about that…

Carthaginians and later, Arabs, colonized the west coast of Sicily, making the dialect and food on that side very different from the Greek/Roman east side.

A side street in Syracuse.

Syracuse is an ancient Greek city, now a World Heritage site of UNESCO. Because of the money it gets from that organization, it is beautifully preserved and clean. A contrast to the old city of Catania, where we lodged. Catania, the Greek colony of Katane founded about 730 BC, has gorgeous 17th century buildings and broad boulevards but garbage and graffiti everywhere. However, it was incredibly cheap and still had much beauty to it!

We had fabulous meals of perfectly cooked Spaghetti Arrabiata or Carbonara, grilled giant shrimp, caponata, wine and bread – for $12 each at the Trattoria del Cavaliere. Our Hotel Valentino was part of a 17th century palace, with 16 foot, carved plaster ceilings and painted tiled floors, breakfast of fresh baked goods, fruit, tomatoes, eggs, bacon, and on-the-spot made cappucino (sorry Greeks, the food and coffee were so much better in Italy!) for $75 a night. From Catania you can go south to Syracuse or north to scenic Taormina and its beach, and across the straits of Messina to Reggio Calabria.

The ferries across the Straits of Messina are so huge they take tanker trucks, tour buses and railroad cars.

The two greats that brought us to Sicily were the genius mathematician and inventor, Archimedes, and the genius of the Riace Bronzes.

We appreciated the beauty of Taormina the day we landed in Sicily. The next day we went south to Syracuse, ripe with Greek and Roman ruins and the home of Archimedes.

Archimedes wrote some 300 books on mathematics, and was famed for finding simple solutions to difficult mathematical problems, such as determining the volume of an irregular solid.

Yeah, he’s the one who said “eureka!” in the bathtub because he realized that water displacement could help him calculate the volume of a gold crown.

His books “taught” Leonardo DaVinci and inspired him to create many, many inventions including THE LIFE PRESERVER!! I found that out while playing with many of Archimedes’ and Leonardo’s inventions at a private museum in Syracuse dedicated to them. Now, every time I see a kid with a plastic doughnut floatie, I think of DaVinci.

It reinforces something I noticed long ago – so, so many life-enhancing inventions, so many simple ones, so many ways of doing things well were invented by ONE person.

They didn’t just “pop up” in the culture, they weren’t “obvious.” Like the wheel, which people in the New World never had, although they had balls. Or the alphabet, which was only invented once, by some Phoenician who figured out that it’s much easier to record language if you can use a small set of symbols to represent all the sounds. Or the principle that something is actually X but potentially Y, with which Aristotle resolved the paradox of Heraclitus, who said “you can’t step into the same river twice” and Parmenides, who said “what is, is, what is not, is not.”

We take such ideas for granted because they’re so pervasive. But some ingenious person thought them up. Archimedes story demonstrates that.

The ancient historian Polybius said:

“Such a great and marvellous thing does the genius of one man show itself to be when properly applied to certain matters. The Romans at least, strong as they were both by sea and land, had every hope of capturing the town at once if one old man of Syracuse were removed; but as long as he was present, they did not venture even to attempt to attack in that fashion in which the ability of Archimedes could be used in the defence.”

Archimedes held off the Romans in this harbor of Syracuse.

In the Life of Marcellus, a great Roman general, Plutarch talks of Archimedes: “Marcellus, with sixty galleys, each with five rows of oars, furnished with all sorts of arms and missiles, and a huge bridge of planks laid upon eight ships chained together, upon which was carried the engine to cast stones and darts, assaulted the walls, relying on the abundance and magnificence of his preparations, and on his own previous glory; all which, however, were, it would seem, but trifles for Archimedes and his machines.

“When, therefore, the Romans assaulted the walls in two places at once, fear and consternation stupefied the Syracusans, believing that nothing was able to resist that violence and those forces.

   “But when Archimedes began to ply his engines, he at once shot against the land forces all sorts of missile weapons, and immense masses of stone that came down with incredible noise and violence; against which no man could stand; for they knocked down those upon whom they fell in heaps, breaking all their ranks and files. In the meantime huge poles thrust out from the walls over the ships sunk some by the great weights which they let down from on high upon them; others they lifted up into the air by an iron hand or beak like a crane’s beak and, when they had drawn them up by the prow, and set them on end upon the poop, they plunged them to the bottom of the sea; or else the ships, drawn by engines within, and whirled about, were dashed against steep rocks that stood jutting out under the walls, with great destruction of the soldiers that were aboard them.

   “A ship was frequently lifted up to a great height in the air (a dreadful thing to behold), and was rolled to and fro, and kept swinging, until the mariners were all thrown out, when at length it was dashed against the rocks, or let fall.
   “At the engine that Marcellus brought upon the bridge of ships, which was called Sambuca, from some resemblance it had to an instrument of music, while it was as yet approaching the wall, there was discharged a piece of rock of ten talents weight, then a second and a third, which, striking upon it with immense force and a noise like thunder, broke all its foundation to pieces, shook out all its fastenings, and completely dislodged it from the bridge.

   “So Marcellus, doubtful what counsel to pursue, drew off his ships to a safer distance, and sounded a retreat to his forces on land. They then took a resolution of coming up under the walls, if it were possible, in the night; thinking that as Archimedes used ropes stretched at length in playing his engines, the soldiers would now be under the shot, and the darts would, for want of sufficient distance to throw them, fly over their heads without effect.
   “But he, it appeared, had long before framed for such occasions engines accommodated to any distance, and shorter weapons; and had made numerous small openings in the walls, through which, with engines of a shorter range, unexpected blows were inflicted on the assailants.

   “Thus, when they who thought to deceive the defenders came close up to the walls, instantly a shower of darts and other missile weapons was again cast upon them.

   “And when stones came tumbling down perpendicularly upon their heads, and, as it were, the whole wall shot out arrows at them, they retired. And now, again, as they were going off, arrows and darts of a longer range inflicted a great slaughter among them, and their ships were driven one against another; while they themselves were not able to retaliate in any way.

   “For Archimedes had provided and fixed most of his engines immediately under the wall; whence the Romans, seeing that indefinite mischief overwhelmed them from no visible means, began to think they were fighting with the gods.” (emphasis mine)

On Friday, we went north from Catania over the water to Reggio Calabria for the express purpose of seeing its Riace Warriors.

These rare bronze statues were found off the Calabrian coast of Italy, near Riace, and are now housed in the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia.

No sunken ship was found near them, and they were in a location that once could have been land, so there is much doubt as to how they arrived in the ocean. “Statue A” was probably created between the years 460 and 450 BC, and “Statue B” between 430 and 420 BC. I am not sure how the historians figured that out.

Merely known as ‘Statue A’

They’re thought to have been created during the early years of classical Greek sculpture, perhaps by Phidias, or his student Alcamenes, or Myron, or Polykleitos. We have almost no bronze statues of the Greeks, but mostly Roman copies in marble, perhaps copied in marble to insure they, too, wouldn’t be melted down for other uses. The bronze shows details of hair, veins, skin, eyes, mouth, lashes and expression rarely recreated.

I’m enthralled by the magnificence of the figure and artistry, in particular the detail of the feet.

No picture captures the full power of these figures.

Statue B, which likely had a helmet originally. Isn’t it ironic that such distinguished pieces don’t have better names?

These warriors convey a sense of power and self-confidence beyond other sculptures, even in the great Discobolus. These are Man AS god.

Sicily was a marvelous vacation spot. If you ever go, don’t miss the chance to see these one-of-a-kind pinnacles of human beauty and power.

Our last dinner together, at the Trattoria del Cavaliere, we were craning our heads to figure out if we were looking at birds or bats swooping around. The food was exceptional.

After dining together, and then sharing our favorite quotes, some of us went to a hipster bar down the block. I found it very amusing that the same hat, beard, and mustache styles I’ve seen in the States live in Catania, along with exotically mixed pricey drinks. They were delicious. Sharing our favorite quotes from the readings was a revelatory and touching affair. What called to each person in the readings brought my attention to aspects of the writing I hadn’t focused on before. And hearing what was important to each of these dear friends deeply moved me. This is why we use the classics, or “Great Books” at The Great Connections, because the readings from “the best that has been thought and said” calls to the best within us.

The trip was loaded with learning, about the  ideas, the land, the history, the people, the art, and each other in our discussion after discussion.  And loaded with laughter.

A convocation of Matt, Ray, Scott, Bill, and Ian came up with the idea of taking or giving the names of Greek gods and heroes to each person on the trip. Liz Parker put together this lovely video capturing the results:

To enjoy these beautiful lands with others who wanted to plumb the most meaning from everything they read and did, this is travel at its best.

Read another traveler’s perspective and see her beautiful pictures here where guest-blogger Vickie Oddino posted.

Most of us agreed we wanted to do a trip like this again! The Enlightenment in Northern Europe, or the Roman Republic may be next…stay tuned!

It was a sad affair when we said our goodbyes the next morning.

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