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In the shadow of the Phoenicians

Part of Roman Solunto.To the Greeks it was simply Solus, to the Romans Soluntum. Located about ten kilometers east of Palermo overlooking the coast just outside Santa Flavia, Solunto sits along the upper slopes of Mount Catalfamo, not far from Bagheria. (It's easy to reach from the Santa Flavia train station.) This town was built on the site of a Phoenician village called Kfra founded around 700 BC (BCE) but expanded by the Greeks, who conquered it in 396 BC, making it a satellite of Himera. In 254 BC, during the First Punic War, it fell into Roman hands, and most of the construction visible at Solunto is distinctly Roman. During the third century AD, the town was abandoned for reasons unknown to us. The ruins of Solunto were "rediscovered" in the sixteenth century and excavations have continued since then. It is one of three principal Phoenician settlements in Sicily --the others being Zis (Palermo) and Motya (Mozia). Other Punic cities, such as Eryx (Erice), were simply conquered from the Elymians by the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians' successors based in northern Africa.

From what can be seen, the Greek city of Solus was built on a grid plan. The Romans enlarged the wide central passage they called the "decumanus," known today as the "Via dell'Agorà," the Greek "agora" meaning a marketplace or other large square. Solunto has no complete structures; all that remains of most of the buildings here are floors and the lower portions of some walls and columns. However, a few of the dwellings and public buildings are well enough preserved to provide us with a tangible idea of their construction and purpose. Portions of a few mosaics and fresco paintings are visible, and the (partially-reconstructed) peristyle of one of the houses suggests its former grandeur. There is even a small odeum (theatre) and a meeting chamber.

While Solunto remains a "minor" archeological site, it is certainly easy to reach. From Palermo, Solunto is more convenient than hilltop Tindari to the east toward Messina, though the latter site is better preserved in certain respects. Solunto is interesting for being essentially Roman in character, with little visible evidence of its Phoenician or Greek origins. While Palermo itself has visible traces of Roman architecture (most notably in Piazza Vittoria and near the church of San Cataldo) and some Punic foundations (such as those under the Royal Palace and in the Cassaro district), most of these are not nearly as evident as the paved streets and other features that await you at Solunto, which also offers a nice view of the sea. A hike up to the wooded area near the summit above Solunto will reward you with a more impressive view of the entire Gulf of Palermo.

Solunto has an archaeological museum (Antiquarium), but the larger one in Palermo houses some of the more noteworthy finds from the site.

The town of Bagheria (nearby), which has become an ugly overspill of Palermo, has several interesting villas of the old aristocracy. Villa Palagonia, which is open to the public and conveniently located in the center of town, is famous for the sculpted grotesques of its garden and walls.

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