The claim to fame of many towns, in America and elsewhere, is that somebody famous was born there. In most cases it’s an author or a Civil War general. If the town is very lucky, it might be a movie star. Syracuse, too, has its names to drop, but in a place where history and greatness reach back as far as this one, the situation is a little different. Our guide today quite casually mentioned Syracuse’s favorite son—Archimedes, the greatest mathematician and inventor of the ancient world and the founder of modern science.
Many towns in other parts of the world can only boast of a famous visitor, someone who was passing through on their way to glory—the George-Washington-Slept-Here syndrome. Syracuse’s equivalent was a man named Paul, later known as St. Paul, apostle of Jesus.
Our guide dropped these names as we walked to the entrance to the vast catacombs beneath the city, and into the gaping maw. We left the clean, mellow sunlight of the Mediterranean and descended into the underworld. Here Siracusans of antiquity were interred, on shelves or in niches carved out from the walls of passageways. The passageways led from corridors that branched off from avenues that connected in piazzas. At least 6,000 men, women, and children (especially children, since infant mortality rates were high) were laid to rest here. It was a true city of the dead. Their flesh has all turned to dust, but here and there we found a bit of bone, as well as fragments of frescoes, isolated inscriptions, and patches of mosaics.
Emerging again into the light and air, I couldn’t help but reflect that, while a great name may last through the ages, the person it’s attached to will most certainly not.