Living in Agrigentum

Valley of the Temples

Discovering the houses of the ancient Agrigentines

The Hellenistic Roman Quarter
The archaeological area known as the Hellenistic Roman Quarter, covers about 10,000 square metres, offering significant insight into the houses of ancient Agrigento. The structures, brought to light during the excavations of the 1950s, date back to the II-I century BC, and present later alterations and modifications carried out during the imperial age. The domus are arranged in three insulae, blocks defined by four main North-South roads, typically called cardi, which closely follow the roads of the Greek period. These were very luxurious houses to unequivocally show off the status of Agrigentum, the city of the Roman period. These were, of course, the city residences of the wealthier classes, who, according to the most plausible hypothesis, grew rich through the sulphur trade, documented by the tegulae sulphuris, clay tablets bearing the trademark inscription which was imprinted on the 'loaves' of sulphur. Around the fifth century there are clear signs of transformation, with the reduction of living spaces, while, during the VI - VII century, groups of cabinet graves made from stone slabs were huddled up close to the houses. Burial places occupying urban spaces testifies to the changing relationship with death which occurred with the advent of Christianity; the spaces of the living and the dead were no longer rigidly distinct as in the pagan community.

Detail of an atrium in a house

Panorama of block I

Detail of 'ambitus' for the disposal of water

Axis road that demarcates the block in the North-South direction

Panorama of blocks II and III

The Domus 
Domestic environments were arranged around an atrium or peristyle courtyard, with smooth or fluted shaft columns, in three different styles: houses with Hellenistic-style peristyles; Roman-style houses, with an atrium with a water collection tank in the centre and a peristyle; houses with a simple access corridor between the atrium and other key areas. Rows of shops (tabernae), warehouses and manufacturing facilities overlooked the roads. There were numerous cisterns to collect water, while the 'ambitus' between the houses acted like a drainage channel.  In general, the building technique followed the tradition of the Greek age with the use of binding-free isodomic ashlars, but there are some examples of brickwork in the herringbone flooring of the courtyards. From the second or third century onwards houses were extended, often merging with other neighbouring buildings, and were enriched with wall paintings and mosaic floors.

The domus and their columned courtyards

View of the peristyle of a house on block II

Counter with holes to hold a tavern or shop amphorae

Ancient Agrigentine houses offer wonderful examples of mosaic floors in black and white, developed in the first imperial age by Italian workshops. Particularly remarkable is the floor of the House of Swastikas, which takes its name from the decorative mosaic pattern. Real mosaic floors, with geometric, plant and animal patterns, laid using the polychrome technique spread by the workshops of North Africa, in late imperial age. For example, the House of the Abstract Artist was so named by archaeologists because of the particular technique used in the mosaic of one of its room, which reproduced a multicoloured marble floor. Also noteworthy is the House of the Rhombus Mosaic, in which a geometric depiction of a series of cubes in perspective, made by combining different coloured marbles, is preserved. Finally, some polychrome 'emblemata', or squares of mosaic, remain; these were inserted into larger compositions, representing fowl, the seasons and a gazelle.

Mosaic in black and white with geometric pattern

Mosaic floor in black and white with geometric pattern

Floor of the House of Swastikas

Polychrome mosaic with animal decoration

'Emblema' in polychrome mosaic with fowl

'Emblema' in polychrome mosaic with gazelle

'Emblema' in polychrome mosaic with depiction of summer

Detail of polychrome mosaic with a ferocious beast inside a wreath

House of the Abstract Artist. Detail of mosaic reproducing marble flooring

Mosaic showing a series of cubes in perspective

Detail of perspective cube motif

Credits: Story

The exhibition was curated by Giusi Messina.
General Coordination: Giuseppe Parello, Director of Archaeological Park and Landscape of the Valley of the Temples.
Texts: Maria Serena Rizzo and Valentina Caminneci
Photos: Emanuele Simonaro, Fabio Florio, Angelo Pitrone.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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