Piazza Armerina has just over 20,000 inhabitants. The town is located at an altitude of 700 m on the slopes of Monte Ereis. The city is lively with many narrow streets. It is beautifully situated, surrounded by a number of eucalyptus forests.
Several archaeological finds show that the site has been inhabited since prehistoric times.
From the 14th century you will find a fortress, Castello Aragonese.
The town was not known by many until in 1950 Villa Romana del Casale was found, a 3,500 m2 imperial villa probably built in 285-305, ie. in late Roman style. The palace disappeared during a great earthquake in 1100 and only appeared when in 1820 a pillar was accidentally found. Now there are so many pillars in Sicily, so you didn’t pay much attention to that. Only 100 years later, when a mosaic floor was exposed, the interest of archaeologists awoke.
It was the archaeologist Gino Vinicio Gentili who, after listening to the locals, set about exploring the site. He found 40 rooms with almost intact and very elegant mosaic floors. The floors are now covered with glass roofs and corridors have been built around all the rooms, so you can admire the fantastic mosaic without stepping on it.
But why a Roman villa here?
At the time the villa was built, a road had just been built from Catania on the east coast to Agrigento on the south coast. Piazza Armerina was on this road. The beautiful natural areas of the city were known as a fine hunting area – and hunting was a favorite occupation of the Roman aristocracy.
During the first two centuries of Roman rule in Sicily, the island went through a period of decline, culminating in the Roman exploitation of the Sicilian population as slaves to the Roman latifondi. Life in the cities deteriorated and in the countryside large areas were deserted. The wealthy proprietors did not live here on the island, but lived a luxurious life in Rome. The Roman government abused the area, which became a hiding place for slaves and robbers.
But as the Romans gained more possessions on the African continent, the situation changed. Rome had previously received grain from Egypt, but as Constantinople grew, the bulk of Egyptian grain went that way and the Roman landowners of Sicily saw the opportunity for good profits.
At the same time, taxes and other compulsory expenses rose sharply in Rome and many wealthy Romans therefore moved out to their land holdings, where they spent considerable sums on having the estates expanded, beautified and made up-to-date.
It has been difficult to find out who owned the fantastic villa in Piazza Armerina. The first assumptions were that it was the tetrarch Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximian who was emperor with Diocleziano from 286-305. It was thought that the villa could have been the palace of Emperor Maximian after he abdicated. Other later studies, however, pointed to the fact that he lived his last years in Campania.
They therefore worked on a new hypothesis that the owner of the villa was the son of the above, Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius, who was executed as heir to the throne after proclaiming himself emperor.
In fact, there is nothing in the villa that unequivocally indicates that it has been an imperial residence. The excavations simply tell of a dwelling with a distinct character of representation. If you study the themes in the magnificent mosaics of the floors, you get a picture of Roman aristocracy in the beginning of the 4th century, pagan and tied to the traditions of the senate.
The theory that is now being worked on is by Lucius Aradius Valerius Proculus Populonius as the owner of the villa. The man with the long name was governor of Sicily between 327 and 331 and consul in 340. Before that he had been praetor in Rome and during that period he organized 320 “games” this year – probably something like the Olympic Games. They were very lavish and he garnered great success that made him famous long after. It is believed that some of the mosaics in the villa show scenes from this event.
Another excursion destination in this area is the pottery town of Caltagirone, 32 km southeast of Piazza Armerina.
Caltagirone, which has a population of 37,000, is one of Sicily’s two centers for ceramics. The city is located on three hilltops 600 m above sea level. The history of the city goes back further than the year 1,000 BC.
Scale of Maria SS. Del Monte is a giant staircase that was made in the 17th century as a connection between the old city at the top and the new city at the bottom. The staircase, which is the city’s meeting place, was repaired in 1884 and again in 1956. It is beautifully decorated with ceramic tiles that show 1000 years of ceramic history.
North of Catania towards the coast is Aci Castello, a small town with a Norman castle from the 12th century. It is beautifully situated with the sea as a background.
South of the castle, the cliffs form a plateau at the water’s edge. It was formerly used as a dance floor when there was a ball in town. In the summer you swim from here, and outside the bathing season anglers stay here.
The Gola dell ‘Alcantara is a marvelous, deep gorge that lies where the Peloritaner mountain passes into Mount Etna. The gorge is formed by the fact that the meltwater river Alcantara has for millennia dug itself down through the rock masses, whereby the vertical, stair-like, crystalline walls are formed. The water is always around 100 and is called “the cold river”. Long stairs have been built leading down to the impressive gorge and it is possible to buy tickets for various tours around the area. You can rent waders if you want to go through the gorge; but the current had to be quite strong and it is described as a very demanding trip. The steep rock walls have the most distinctive, jagged shapes imaginable and they rise high, high up in the blue.
Messina, which is Sicily’s newest city because the old Messina was completely wiped out by an earthquake 100 years ago, in 1908. 70,000 of the city’s inhabitants then lost their lives. It was not the first time the city was exposed to this grim fate. Also in 1783, a strong earthquake wiped out the city. Both times the city has been rebuilt and it must have been sour when World War II subjected the city to massive bombings.
Randazzo is a small mountain town with just over 11,000 inhabitants, located 765 m above sea level. In recent times, it has been fortunate, because despite the fact that Mount Etna is only 15 km from the city, Mount Etna’s eruptions have not sent major lava flows this way. The closest was in 1982, when the lava stopped four kilometers from the city. Throughout history, several of Sicily’s rulers have resided in this small town, which is beautifully situated overlooking Mount Etna. The good climate did its part to make them settle here. Another important factor was its location on the old, important Via dei Monti. Until the 17th century, the city was divided into three districts, each speaking its own language: in the San Nicola district, Greek was spoken, in the Santa Maria district it was Latin, and in San Martino it was Lombard. Each neighborhood had their own churches and the cathedral was divided, so every quarter it had one year at a time. Although the city today is not as large as it used to be, it is a fine city that has understood to preserve many buildings and monuments from the last thousand years. The cathedral is built of lava stone.