West end of the temple, from SW, Temple C, Selinus

East end of the N peristyle, from NW, Temple E, Selinus

Overall view of the temple with Temple F in foreground, from S, Selinus, T...

Column drum with cutting for an empolion, Temple A, Selinus

View of Belice valley (ancient Hypsas), looking SE from W side of valley, ...

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Interior of Temple E at Selinunte (Selinus), looking NNW

Summary: Wealthy colony on the SW coast of Sicily
Type: Fortified city
Region: Sicily






The city was the westernmost colony in Sicily. The acropolis occupies a low hill along the southern coast of the island, with harbors on either side — the western one formed by the mouth of the river Selinus (modern Modione) and the eastern one by the river Calici (modern Cotone). Neither river is much more than a marsh today. The city extended northwards onto the hill now known as the Manuzza, and to the east onto ridge occupied by three great Doric temples, and was surrounded by fertile agricultural land.

A native Sican settlement had occupied the site of the later Archaic cemetery to the NE, and coexisted with the Greek settlement in its early years. Corinthian pottery of the mid-seventh century as been found on the necropolis (which lay on either side of the river Selinus, extending up to 5 km. from the town) and at the sanctuaries, and there are some traces of temple building in the seventh century as well (Temples X and Y on the acropolis).

A Greek grid-planned town on the Manuzza hill to the north of the acropolis is conspicuous in aerial photographs, and has recently been partly excavated.

A major sanctuary dedicated to the Chthonic deities Demeter, Zeus and Hekate was situated on the west bank of the river Selinus (the Sanctuary of Demeter Malophoros). On the acropolis were four large Doric temples, two of the sixth century, two of the fifth, and a small shrine. None of these has been securely attributed to specific deities, but are identified by letters (Temples A, C, D, and O; Shrine B). Defensive walls girded the acropolis, most of whose standing remains can be dated to the late sixth or early fifth centuries B.C. To the north of the city lay a small Archaic temple and altar.

On the plateau to the east of the city, across the Calici river, were three more sixth-century Doric temples, Temples E, F, and G (also known as R, S and T respectively). The material remains are impressive, particularly the stone metopes and terracotta gorgoneia from Temple C (now in the Palermo Museum) and the massive, unfinished Temple G, attributed to Apollo and one of the largest Greek temples ever attempted.

The city was destroyed by Carthaginians in 409 BC (Diod. Sic. 13.54-62). Though the area of the acropolis was resettled by survivors and by the Carthaginians, Selinus never regained prominence. The city remained under Punic control until 250 B.C. when, after Carthage had again razed the city, the site was essentially deserted. The acropolis was refortified in the Byzantine period, and the sanctuary of the Chthonic divinities was also reused then.


Thucydides asserts that Selinus was founded in 628/7 BC, one hundred years after the foundation of her metropolis, Megara Hyblaea in western Sicily (Thuc. 6.4.2). Pammilos of Megara (Nisaia) in Central Greece led the expedition as oikist (founder), for the Hyblaeans had requested an oikist be sent from their own metropolis. They were following a customary ritual which underlined the continuity of the colony with the original community, even at one remove (cf. the case of Epidamnos, Thuc. 1.24.2). Against Thucydides' conveniently round figure of 100 years after the foundation of Megara Hyblaea, the later authors Diodorus and Eusebius give a discordant foundation date of 651/0 BC (Diod. Sic. 13.59.4). Their date may be borne out by archaeological finds, but here one is always in danger of relying upon circular evidence.

As a rule, a defensible island, promontory or escarpment was the most common site for a new colony, but Selinus had only a fairly low fortified hill (although in antiquity the acropolis was probably more like a peninsula since the harbors on either side extended much further inland than they do today). Pammilos could have chosen a more defensible site with better harbors and with equally fertile land to the east, so it is a puzzle why this site was chosen Similar questions are asked of the site of Himera on the north coast of Sicily, which was founded three years after Selinus according to Diodorus (Diod. Sic. 13.62.56; cf. Diod. Sic. 13.54.1). Both western Sicilian cities may have been convenient stops on the coasting route to and from Spain and north Africa, and Himera to Etruria as well. Both could have been settled to facilitate trade with Phoenician colonies (Selinus with Motya, Himera with Panormus [modern Palermo] and Soloeis), or to block eastward Punic expansion. In any case Greek colonial expedition were unwelcome further west. The Phoenicians and the native Elymi of northeast Sicily repulsed Dorian colonists from Lilybaion, a peninsula overlooking Motya (ca. 570 BC), and from Mt. Eryx, betwen Motya and Panormus (ca. 510 BC). The former had some bearing on Selinus, for the would-be colonists briefly joined the Elymi of Segesta against her (Diod. Sic. 5.9) and the latter had some bearing on Minoa, a Selinuntine colony at the mouth of the Halycus River (modern Platani), for the survivors of the attempted colony of Herakleia at Mt. Eryx captured and refounded it as Herakleia Minoa (Hdt. 5.43-46).

However, there is evidence of mostly amicable relations between the colonists of Himera and Selinus and the Punic colonists to their west. A metrical epitaph for a fallen Greek (Selinuntine?) dated to the first half of the fifth century has been unearthed in Motya, which had a sizable Greek element (Diod. Sic. 46.53.2). Further, Hamilcar of Carthage, called in by the tyrants of Himera and Rhegion, counted upon the aid of Selinus against Theron of Akragas and Gelon of Syracuse in the Battle of Himera (480 BC).

Selinus could also have been founded to open commercial contacts with the native Elymi in the northeast corner of the island (at sites such as Segesta). In support of this, Early Corinthian pottery has been found at the Elymian town of Segesta and at a Selinuntine sanctuary to Herakles up the Hypsas river near Poggioreale (close to Elymian Entella), and the pottery can be dated as early as any found at Himera or Selinus. Fostering good relations with the neighboring peoples, Sicans, Elymi, and Phoenicians, would have allowed the Selinuntines to become prosperous through agriculture and commerce while occupying a not particularly strong site, similar to the position of their metropolis (Megara and Hyblon, Hdt. 6.4.1).

Pammilos as oikist would have overseen the division of the land into kleroi (allotments) of relatively equal size or value for each colonist. He would also have set aside land for the gods in sacred precincts, where monumental stone temples would later be built. Cult practice in these precincts probably reflects the continuity of institutions from the original mother city to later colonies. Demeter and her daughter Persephone (possibly worshipped in Selinus as Pasikrateia, "all-powerful", Meiggs & Lewis, no. 38) held particular prominence in agriculturally rich Sicily, the site of Persephone's abduction. Demeter's cult title of Malophoros is attested only here and at Megara (Nisaia) (Paus. 1.44.3), and is confirmed by inscriptions and several thousand terracotta statuettes of the goddess carrying a pomegranate. Hers was one of the first sanctuaries established (quadrangular, 50 x 60 m.) and here some of the earliest finds of pottery at Selinus have been unearthed. The main structure within the precinct is her megaron with an altar in front.

Also within the precinct wall was a shrine to her consort, Zeus Meilichios, whom farmers would invoke with chthonic Demeter at the time of sowing. Subterranean Zeus was dreadful and beneficent — he offered purification after blood-feud and ensured the growth fo crops. His epithet ("Gentle One") may be a euphemism in the way that the treacherous Black Sea was called the Euxine ("Kind to Travelers"), or it may indicate his role in appeasing the dead. Inscribed stelai, sometimes with two heads sculpted at the top, were dedicated to Meilichios — perhaps remnants of primal aniconic stone-worship (cf. Jeffery 1990, 255, 270-1, 277:31-2), or perhaps the result of Punic influence. His cult seems to have been under the care of an aristocratic Selinuntine genos, the kleulidai, in the same way that in Megara his cult was under the care of an (unrelated) genos. There was also a temple of Hekate (cf. Jeffery 1990, 271, 277.41) and an elaborate propylon to the whole complex. The precinct seems to have served both Greeks (from the mainland as well as colonists) and natives. The propylon was partially remodelled during the Punic/Hellenistic period, and the megaron of Demeter was modified in the Byzantine period.

The colossal Temple X, on the acropolis south of Temple C, and the smaller Temple Y (from which some decoration survives — metopes and cornice decoration) were leveled to their foundations by the sixth century, when Selinus undertook an impressive series of temple-building projects, the first of which was Temple C (mid-sixth century; see Selinus,Temple C). It was built upon the highest point of the acropolis, and now lies in ruins. This is one of the earliest examples of Archaic temple building in the Doric style: hexastyle (six columns on the fronts), constructed on a notably elongated plan, with a narrow cella and with large, tapered columns (some monolithic, some drums). Carved metopes from the Doric frieze survive, as well as two painted terracotta gorgoneia from each pediment (a Western Greek phenomenon, with other examples found at Syracuse, Gela and one in stone at Corcyra). The limestone of the friezes and columns was covered with plaster and painted as well. The first altar of the temple lies to the southeast and the later altar is to the east.

Not much later are Temple D on the acropolis and Temple F (S) on the eastern plateau (both second half of the 6th century BC). Both are about the same width as temple C; both are hexastyle, and both have narrow cellas, but they are not as elongated as Temple C. The sculptured metopes of Temple F have survived. This temple also has enigmatic intercolumnar screen walls.

The massive Temple G (T), dedicated to Apollo, was begun not much later on the eastern plateau, the first colossal temple in the West to vie with the great Ionic temples of Asia Minor. It measures some 50.1 x 110.36 m. Like the Ionic temples, it is octastyle (8 columns on the fronts). The work was begun on the east side in the lh century, and moved slowly west, until finally the west side was nearing completion in the fifth century BC; different parts of the temple thus show markedly different styles. The interior was so vast that it was probably never intended to be roofed. The ambitious project was abandoned some time before (or because of) the Carthaginian attack of 409 BC, and column drums of matching proportions have been left half-carved in the quarries 9 km to the northwest at Cusa/Campobello.

While work on Temple G was in progress, the Selinuntines began Temples A and O on the acropolis and Temple E (R) on the eastern plateau (ca. 480 BC, after the defeat of Hamilcar at Himera). The temples exhibit a more developed Doric style, with the spacing between columns contracting as they reached the corners. The sculptured metopes of Temple E were made of limestone covered with plaster, but with marble inserts for heads, hands and feet of female figures ("acrolithic" sculpture). The ruins of Temple F have been restored, while Temples A and O were joined together in the medieval period and rebuilt as a fortified tower.

Pammilos would have erected at least a wooden palisade on the acropolis, and this was replaced by stone fortifications, much of which survives. Most of the remains of the extensive circuit wall can be dated to the late 6th/early 5th c. BC, with evidence of repairs made by Hermocrates ca. 408 BC. The fortifications and gate complex at the northern end of the acropolis, leading out to the Manuzza hill and residential quarter, are particularly impressive.

Sources Used:

See especially recent articles in ASAtene 62 (1984)