Altar of Hieron

The Altar of Hieron, or the Great Altar of Syracuse is a monumental altar in the old town of Neapolis, Sicily.

altar of hieron

Located within the ancient streets of Neapolis in Sicily stands a monumental testament to the ancient beliefs and rituals of Europe’s past: the Altar of Hieron, also known as the Great Altar of Syracuse. Built during the Hellenistic period by the tyrant Hierón II between 241 and 215 BCE, this structure is steeped in history and shrouded in myth. Dedicated to Zeus Eleutherios, it remains a significant relic of Hellenistic religion and mythology.

Unraveling the Monument

The Altar of Hieron stretches majestically within Neapolis, slightly southeast of the renowned Greek Theatre of Syracuse. Through the ravages of time, little remains intact beyond the foundation of this colossal altar. Constructed partially with masonry blocks and partially hewn from living rock, its dimensions are awe-inspiring: measuring 20.85 meters wide and 195.8 meters long, precisely the length of a Doric stadium. Resting upon a crepidoma with three steps, its base spans 199.07 meters in length and 22.51 meters in width, earning it the title of the largest known altar from antiquity.

Altar of Hieron

Architectural Marvels

The upper surface of the altar was divided longitudinally into two levels of differing heights: the western half standing at approximately 6.06 meters tall, while the eastern half soared to perhaps 10.68 meters. Adorned with a Doric cornice and frieze embellished with triglyphs, the entire structure was once coated in plaster, smoothing imperfections and accentuating decorative elements. Its design mirrors that of small fire altars, common votive offerings in Sicily.

Exploring the Complex

Adjacent to the altar lay a larger complex. Beneath the eastern side, a natural cave approximately 18 meters deep housed ex-votos dating back to the Archaic and Classical periods, long before the altar’s construction. On the western side stood a rectangular open space, featuring a central waterproof basin surrounded by a U-shaped stoa. A propylaeum on the western side granted access to both the open space and the altar itself. In the era of Augustus, this open area was transformed into a sacred grove, adorned with trees.

Intriguing Features

Ascending the eastern side of the altar were staircases located at the northern and southern ends, leading to the lower level of the structure. Each staircase was flanked by two telamons, with one of the northern telamons’ feet still remaining in situ. It remains uncertain whether access to the upper level was possible.

  • References

    image: “2009-03-22 03-29 Sizilien 534 Syrakus, Zona Archaeologica, Ara di Ierone II” by Allie_Caulfield is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Retrieved from


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