Ear of Dionysius

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The Ear of Dionysius, or Ear of Dionysius, is one of the most famous monuments in Syracuse and all of Sicily. It is one of the artificial caves that are part of the Latomia del Paradiso, an ancient stone quarry used to build the city’s monuments during the Greek period. Its fame is linked to its incredible acoustic resonance capabilities and to the fifth-century B.C.E. Greek tyrant. According to legend, the Ear of Dionysius was used by Dionysius I to imprison his enemies and listen to their speeches from a small room hidden in the upper part of the cave.

What is the Ear of Dionysius

The interior of the ear of Dionysius in Syracuse
The interior of the ear of Dionysius in Siracusa

The Ear of Dionysius or Ear of Dionysius is one of the artificial caves of the Latomia del Paradiso, within the Neapolis Archaeological Park in Syracuse. The latomie were the ancient quarries from which materials for the construction of buildings in the Greek city were extracted. The cavity is 23 meters high, has a width that reaches 11 and a depth of more than 60 meters. Its unique “S” shape gives it a very special acoustic capacity. Every sound, even the weakest, is strongly amplified up to 16 times and is recognizable anywhere in the cave. Its shape and characteristics have always tickled the imagination of writers and scholars.

The legend of the Ear of Dionysius and the origin of the name

According to legend, the Ear of Dionysius was used by Dionysius I to imprison his enemies and listen to their speeches from a small room hidden in the upper part of the cave.

Who was Dionysius I of Syracuse

The face of Dionysius I of Syracuse on the left and on the right a painting on the episode of the sword of Damocles
The face of Dionysius I of Syracuse (left) – A painting on the episode of the sword of Damocles (right)

Dionysius I, called the Elder, was a tyrant of Syracuse who ruled the polis in the 4th century BC for about 40 years. A very ambiguous description of the tyrant emerges from historical sources. While on the one hand he is described as a man of great culture and patron of the arts, who hosted personalities such as Plato, Philoxenus, and Aristippus of Cyrene in the city, a cruel and evil side of the tyrant also emerges. Cicero, in his work Tusculanae disputationes, reports many anecdotes about the life of Dionysius I. The most important one is recorded by both Diodorus Siculus and Elianus. Dionysius allegedly had the poet Philoxenus locked up “in the most beautiful cave of the Latomies” for not liking his poetic compositions. Of course, it may not necessarily be the Ear of Dionysius itself. In fact, the reference could be to other existing artificial caves, such as the Grotta dei Cordari or the Grotta del Salnitro.

The use of the cave as a prison

However, there are several historical sources that confirm that the Latomie of Syracuse was used as a prison, even before Dionysius I’s rise to rule. Thucydides, in his work Peloponnesian War, relates that during the Athenian expedition to Sicily, which took place between 415 and 413 B.C., 7,000 soldiers were taken prisoners and locked up in the latomie. Several centuries later, Cicero in his work Verrine, describes the latomie thus:

«You have all heard of the Syracusan stone-quarries. Many of you are acquainted with them. It is a vast work and splendid; the work of the old kings and tyrants. The whole of it is cut out of rock excavated to a marvellous depth, and carved out by the labour of great multitudes of men. Nothing can either be made or imagined so closed against all escape, so hedged in on all sides, so safe for keeping prisoners in. Into these quarries men are commanded to be brought even from other cities in Sicily, if they are commanded by the public authorities to be kept in custody.».

Cicero, Verrine, II 5, 68

The Ear of Dionysius and Caravaggio

If this little jewel of Syracuse is known today throughout the world as the Ear of Dionysius, credit is due to Caravaggio. In 1508 the painter was on the run from a death sentence handed down in Rome. He landed first in Messina and then in Syracuse where he painted The Burial of Saint Lucy for the Church of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro. During a visit to the latomie, in the company of architect Michele Mirabella, Caravaggio immediately noticed the cave’s resemblance to an ear and connected it to the episode of the poet Philoxenus. Until that time, we referred to the cavity as “Crypta loquens,” meaning “cave that speaks,” or even “cave of speech.”

Visiting the Ear of Dionysius: where it is located, times and prices

Panorama of the latomia of paradise where the Ear of Dionysius is located.
The Latomies of Paradise

The Ear of Dionysius is located within the Neapolis Archaeological Park in Syracuse. It is part of the so-called Latomia del Paradiso, an ancient stone quarry from which tuff blocks were extracted to build the Greek city. In order to visit the cave, therefore, it is necessary to purchase a ticket for access to the entire archaeological area. The cost of the full ticket is 13 euros and allows you to visit all the other extraordinary monuments such as, for example, the Greek Theater, the Roman Amphitheater and the Grotticelle Necropolis. Access times are highly variable depending on the time of year. It is therefore recommended to visit the park’s official website.

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