Agrigentum

pierre-henri-de-valenciennes-agrigentum

“I felt more joyful and breathed more freely, when I passed to the southern coast, and saw something Greek. Agrigentum, in its desolation, left much to the imagination, but stirred it deeply. Not so much the ruins as the magnificent site, as if all the seven hills of Rome had been linked together in a chain, doubled in height, and been made to overhang the forum and the lower town in a broad curve. That vast acropolis must have been a sublime thing. Outwards, on the convex side, it is a sheer precipice; inwards its horns descend to the plain and make it accessible. One of these horns is occupied by what remains of the town. I climbed to the top, partly by steps. There was a little square, with a café, but no vestiges of the temples that must have stood there: for a  reward I saw some large white goats, apparently clean as lambs, browsing among the steep lanes or perched upon the stone enclosures that bordered them. These ancient fortresses, in the days of peace, must have been very domestic and country-like in the simplicity and monotony of their ways. Dull, except for the recurring festivals and the frequent wars, yet well fitted, in both aspects, to fix the character of tragedy and comedy, as the Greeks fixed it, limited, monotonous, liturgical, but intensely felt, profoundly human, wonderfully central and final.

Agrigentum was a colony, suddenly rich, like an American mushroom city, short-lived and ruined even more suddenly than it had grown up; but for its day it was enormous, and it gave birth to a great poet-philosopher, the literary model of Lucretius, and a grander personage, with his tragic end soon enveloped in legend. Both Lucretius and Empedocles are said to have killed themselves, or voluntarily become gods: in any case they saw the world as the gods would: that is to say, as we all should, if we could surmount our accidental humanity and let the pure spirit in us speak through our mouths. I wonder if a mushroom civilisation, by its very thinness and sudden brilliancy, like fire in straw, may not be easier for the spirit to profit by and to transcend than a more deeply rooted tradition.”

Text: George Santayana, My Host the World. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953
Image: Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, L’ancienne ville d’Agrigente, 1787, Musée du Louvre

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