The foundation of the city of Motya probably dates from the eighth century BC, about a century after the foundation of Carthage in Tunisia. It was originally a colony of the Phoenicians, who were fond of choosing similar sites, and probably in the first instance merely a commercial station or emporium, but gradually rose to be a flourishing and important town. The Phoenicians transformed the inhospitable island, which they called Motya, into one of the most affluent cities of its time, naturally defended by the lagoon as well as high defensive walls. Ancient windmills and salt pans were used for evaporation, salt grinding and refinement, and to maintain the condition of the lagoon and island itself. Recently the mills and salt pans (called the Ettore Infersa) have been restored by the owners and opened to the public.
The Greeks, however, according to their custom, assigned it a legendary origin, and derived its name from a woman named “Motya”, whom they connected with the fables concerning Heracles. According to coin-finds the name “Motya” is derived from Phoenician Mtw and is said to mean “wool-spinning center”. It passed, in common with the other Phoenician settlements in Sicily, at a later period under the government or dependency of Carthage, whence Diodorus calls it a Carthaginian colony; but it is probable that this is not strictly correct.
As the Greek colonies in Sicily increased in numbers and importance the Phoenicians gradually abandoned their settlements in the immediate neighbourhood of the newcomers, and concentrated themselves in the three principal colonies of Soluntum, Panormus (modern Palermo), and Motya. The last of these, from its proximity to Carthage and its opportune situation for communication with North Africa, as well as the natural strength of its position, became one of the chief strongholds of the Carthaginians, as well as one of the most important of their commercial cities in the island. It appears to have held, in both these respects, the same position which was attained at a later period by Lilybaeum.
Notwithstanding these accounts of its early importance and flourishing condition, the name of Motya is rarely mentioned in history until just before the period of its memorable siege. It is first mentioned by Hecataeus of Miletus, and Thucydides notices it among the chief colonies of the Phoenicians in Sicily which existed at the time of the Athenian expedition, 415 BC. A few years later (409 BC) when the Carthaginian army under Hannibal Mago landed at the promontory of Lilybaeum, that general laid up his fleet for security in the gulf around Motya, while he advanced with his land forces along the coast to attack Selinus. After the fall of the latter city, we are told that Hermocrates, the Syracusan exile, who had established himself on its ruins with a numerous band of followers, laid waste the territories of Motya and Panormus; and again during the second expedition of the Carthaginians under Hamilcar (407 BC), these two cities became the permanent station of the Carthaginian fleet.
Siege of Motya
It was the important position to which Motya had thus attained that led Dionysius I of Syracuse to direct his principal efforts to its reduction, when in 397 BC he in his turn invaded the Carthaginian territory in Sicily. The citizens on the other hand, relying on succour from Carthage, made preparations for a vigorous resistance; and by cutting off the causeway which united them to the mainland, compelled Dionysius to have recourse to the tedious and laborious process of constructing a mound or mole of earth across the intervening space. Even when this was accomplished, and the military engines of Dionysius (among which the formidable catapult on this occasion made its appearance for the first time) were brought up to the walls, the Motyans continued a desperate resistance; and after the walls and towers were carried by the overwhelming forces of the enemy, still maintained the defence from street to street and from house to house. This obstinate struggle only increased the previous exasperation of the Sicilian Greeks against the Carthaginians; and when at length the troops of Dionysius made themselves masters of the city, they put the whole surviving population, men, women, and children, to the sword.
After this, the Syracusan despot placed it in charge of a garrison under an officer named Biton, while his brother Leptines of Syracuse made it the station of his fleet. But the next spring (396 BC) Himilcon, the Carthaginian general, having landed at Panormus with a very large force, recovered possession of Motya with comparatively little difficulty. Motya, however, was not destined to recover its former importance; for Himilcon, being apparently struck with the superior advantages of Lilybaeum, founded a new city on the promontory of that name, to which he transferred the few remaining inhabitants of Motya.
From this period the latter altogether disappears from history; and the little islet on which it was built, has probably ever since, as now, been inhabited only by a few fishermen. By the time the Romans conquered Sicily, during the First Punic War (264–241 BC), Motya had been eclipsed by Lilybaeum.
It is a singular fact that, though we have no account of Motya having received any Greek population, or fallen into the hands of the Greeks before its conquest by Dionysius, there exist coins of the city with the Greek legend “ΜΟΤΥΑΙΟΝ”. They are, however, of great rarity, and are apparently imitated from those of the neighboring city of Segesta.
During the Middle Ages, Basilian monks settled on the island and renamed it San Pantaleo, and in 1888 was rediscovered by Joseph Whitaker.
The origin and foundation of Segesta is extremely obscure. The tradition current among the Greeks and adopted by Thucydides, ascribed its foundation to a band of Trojan settlers, fugitives from the destruction of their city; and this tradition was readily welcomed by the Romans, who in consequence claimed a kindred origin with the Segestans. Thucydides seems to have considered the Elymi, a barbarian tribe in the neighbourhood of Eryx and Segesta, as descended from the Trojans in question; but another account represents the Elymi as a distinct people, already existing in this part of Sicily when the Trojans arrived there and founded the two cities. A different story seems also to have been current, according to which Segesta owed its origin to a band of Phocians, who had been among the followers of Philoctetes; and, as usual, later writers sought to reconcile the two accounts.
Another version of the Trojan story relaed by in Virgil’s Aeneid, which would seem to have been that adopted by the inhabitants themselves, ascribed the foundation of the city jointly by the territorial king Egestus or Aegestus (the Acestes of Virgil), who was said to be the offspring of a Dardanian damsel named Segesta by the river god Crinisus, and by those of Aeneas’ folk who wished to remain behind with Acestes to found the city of Acesta. We are told also that the names of Simois and Scamander were given by the Trojan colonists to two small streams which flowed beneath the town, and the latter name is mentioned by Diodorus Siculus as one still in use at a much later period.
The belief that the name of the city was originally Acesta or Egesta and changed to Segesta by the Romans to avoid its ill-omened meaning in Latin (Ægesta in Latin means “excements”) is disproved by coins which prove that considerably before the time of Thucydides it was called by the inhabitants themselves Segesta, though this form seems to have been softened by the Greeks into Egesta.
It is certain that we cannot receive the statement of the Trojan origin of Segesta as historical; but whatever be the origin of the tradition, there seems no doubt on the one hand that the city was occupied by a people distinct from the Sicanians, the native race of this part of Sicily, and on the other that it was not a Greek colony. Thucydides, in enumerating the allies of the Athenians at the time of the Peloponnesian War, distinctly calls the Segestans barbarians; and the history of the Greek colonies in Sicily was evidently recorded with sufficient care and accuracy for us to rely upon his authority when he pronounces any people to be non-Hellenic. At the same time they appear to have been, from a very early period, in close connection with the Greek cities of Sicily, and entering into relations both of hostility and alliance with the Hellenic states, wholly different from the other barbarians in the island. The early influence of Greek civilisation is shown also by their coins, which are inscribed with Greek characters, and bear the unquestionable impress of Greek art.
The first historical notice of the Segestans transmitted to us represents them as already engaged (as early as 580 BC) in hostilities with Selinus (modern Selinunte), which would appear to prove that both cities had already extended their territories so far as to come into contact with each other. By the timely assistance of a body of Cnidian and Rhodian emigrants under Pentathlus, the Segestans at this time obtained the advantage over their adversaries. A more obscure statement of Diodorus relates that again in 454 BC, the Segestans were engaged in hostilities with the Lilybaeans for the possession of the territory on the river Mazarus. The name of the Lilybaeans is here certainly erroneous, as no town of that name existed till long afterwards; but we know not what people is really meant, though the presumption is that it is the Selinuntines, with whom the Segestans seem to have been engaged in almost perpetual disputes. It was doubtless with a view to strengthen themselves against these neighbours that the Segestans took advantage of the first Athenian expedition to Sicily under Laches (426 BC), and concluded a treaty of alliance with Athens. This, however, seems to have led to no result, and shortly after, hostilities having again broken out, the Selinuntines called in the aid of the Syracusans, with whose assistance they obtained great advantages, and were able to press Segesta closely both by land and sea. In this extremity the Segestans, having in vain applied for assistance to Agrigentum, and even to Carthage, again had recourse to the Athenians, who were, without much difficulty, persuaded to espouse their cause, and send a fleet to Sicily in 416 BC.It is said that this result was in part attained by fraud, the Segestans having deceived the Athenian envoys by a fallacious display of wealth, and led them to conceive a greatly exaggerated notion of their resources. They, however, actually furnished 60 talents in ready money, and 30 more after the arrival of the Athenian armament.
But though the relief of Segesta was thus the original object of the great Athenian expedition to Sicily (415-413 BC), that city bears little part in the subsequent operations of the war. Nicias, indeed, on arriving in the island, proposed to proceed at once to Selinus, and compel that people to submission by the display of their formidable armament. But this advice was overruled: the Athenians turned their arms against Syracuse, and the contest between Segesta and Selinus was almost forgotten in the more important struggle between those two great powers. In the summer of 415 BC an Athenian fleet, proceeding along the coast, took the small town of Hyccara, on the coast, near Segesta, and made it over to the Segestans. The latter people are again mentioned on more than one occasion as sending auxiliary troops to assist their Athenian allies; but no other notice occurs of them.
The final defeat of the Athenians left the Segestans again exposed to the attacks of their neighbours the Selinuntines; and feeling themselves unable to cope with them, they again had recourse to the Carthaginians, who determined to espouse their cause, and sent them, in the first instance, an auxiliary force of 5000 Africans and 800 Campanian mercenaries, which sufficed to ensure them the victory over their rivals, 410 BC. But this was followed the next year by a vast armament under Hannibal, who landed at Lilybaeum, and, proceeding direct to Selinus, took and destroyed the city. This was followed by the destruction of Himera; and the Carthaginian power now became firmly established in the western portion of Sicily. Segesta, surrounded on all sides by this formidable neighbour, naturally fell gradually into the position of a dependent ally of Carthage. It was one of the few cities that remained faithful to this alliance even in 397 BC, when the great expedition of Dionysius I of Syracuse to the West of Sicily and the siege of Motya seemed altogether to shake the power of Carthage. Dionysius in consequence laid siege to Segesta, and pressed it with the utmost vigour, especially after the fall of Motya; but the city was able to defy his efforts, until the landing of Himilco with a formidable Carthaginian force changed the aspect of affairs, and compelled Dionysius to raise the siege.
From this time we hear little more of Segesta till the time of Agathocles of Syracuse, under whom it suffered a great calamity. The despot having landed in the West of Sicily on his return from Africa (307 BC), and being received into the city as a friend and ally, suddenly turned upon the inhabitants on a pretence of disaffection, and put the whole of the citizens (said to amount to 10,000 in number) to the sword, plundered their wealth, and sold the women and children into slavery. He then changed the name of the city to Dicaeopolis, and assigned it as a residence to the fugitives and deserters that had gathered around him.
It is probable that Segesta never altogether recovered this blow; but it soon resumed its original name, and again appears in history as an independent city. Thus it is mentioned in 276 BC, as one of the cities which joined Pyrrhus of Epirus during his expedition into the West of Sicily. It, however, soon after fell again under the power of the Carthaginians; and it was probably on this occasion that the city was taken and plundered by them, as alluded to by Cicero; a circumstance of which we have no other account. It continued subject to, or at least dependent on that people, till the First Punic War. In the first year of that war (264 BC) it was attacked by the consul Appius Claudius Caudex, but without success; but shortly after the inhabitants put the Carthaginian garrison to the sword, and declared for the alliance of Rome. They were in consequence besieged by a Carthaginian force, and were at one time reduced to great straits, but were relieved by the arrival of Duilius, after his naval victory in 260 BC. Segesta seems to have been one of the first of the Sicilian cities to set the example of defection from Carthage; on which account, as well as of their pretended Trojan descent, the inhabitants were treated with great distinction by the Romans. They were exempted from all public burdens, and even as late as the time of Cicero continued to be “sine foedere immunes ac liberi” – a free and immune city. After the destruction of Carthage, Scipio Africanus restored to the Segestans a statue of Diana which had been carried off by the Carthaginians, probably when they obtained possession of the city after the departure of Pyrrhus.
During the Second Servile War also, in 102 BC, the territory of Segesta is again mentioned as one of those where the insurrection broke out with the greatest fury. But with the exception of these incidental notices we hear little of it under the Roman government. It seems to have been still a considerable town in the time of Cicero, and had a port or emporium of its own on the bay about 6 miles (9.7 km) distant. This emporium seems to have grown up in the days of Strabo to be a more important place than Segesta itself: but the continued existence of the ancient city is attested both by Pliny and Ptolemy; and we learn from the former that the inhabitants, though they no longer retained their position of nominal independence, enjoyed the privileges of the Latin citizenship. It seems, however, to have been a decaying place, and no trace of it is subsequently found in history. The site is said to have been finally abandoned, in consequence of the ravages of the Saracens, in 900 AD, and is now wholly desolate.