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The Ancient Greek City of Syracuse

Syracuse, Italy

In the fifth century BC, Syracuse was a major Greek power, with 100,000 people. Its theater held 15,000. Citizens rerouted a stream 15 miles to get running water. And its quarry was a living hell for prisoners of war who cut and carried the stone that made the city great.

Complete Video Script

The ancient Greek city of Syracuse is long gone. But wandering through its scant remains in the city’s archeological park, you pick up hints of its former power.

At its peak around the fifth century BC, Greek Syracuse had roughly the same population it has today: over 100,000 people. It was the dominant military and economic power in this corner of the Greek world.

With a commanding harbor view, the ancient Greek theater originally sat 15,000. While it dates from 500 BC, it’s still in use today.

The terrace above the theater functioned as a grand lobby, covered by a wooden roof and decorated with fine statues. The waterfall is part of an aqueduct — a man-made underground river carved out of the rock — allowing fresh water to flow 15 miles from a mountain spring into the city.

The stone that built ancient Syracuse was quarried on-site by enslaved prisoners of war. Today that quarry’s overgrown with lush vegetation, and, while it’s called the “Garden of Paradise,” it’s filled with tragic memories.

It’s easy to forget, when marveling at these ancient theaters and temples, that slave labor quarried and carried the stones that made it all possible. Back then, many soldiers willingly fought to the death because they knew that life as a prisoner of war — or slave — was even worse.

The quarry was like a huge underground concentration camp, a hellish place where slaves lived out their miserable lives cutting stone. Gazing at the one tower of stone still standing, imagine that this was a pillar helping support the roof of a giant man-made cavern. That roof collapsed with an earthquake in 1693.

A surviving quarry cavern is nicknamed “the Ear of Dionysus.” Venturing in, you can still see the chisel lines showing how it was cut, over the generations, from the top...down.