Solus or Soluntum was one of Sicily’s three Punic towns, along with Motya and Palermo; it enjoys a splendid position on the slopes of the Monte Catalfano with views over the sea beyond Capo Zafferano. It was founded by the Carthaginians in the 4th century BC, possibly beside or among the ruins of an old Phoenician town; about a century later, it became a Roman dominion. Its name has a double origin: one is legendary, it having been related to the evil creature Soluntus who was defeated by Heracles in this very area; the other links it to the Carthaginian word Selaim, meaning ‘crag’.
The urban layout conforms with the Classical principles upheld by Hippodamus of Miletus, arranged orthogonally around a decumanus maximus and perpendicular side streets enclosing insulae (blocks); a network of intersecting narrow passages was here inserted to drain away water. The precipitous site required terraces to be built, and for additional living space to be accommodated in tall houses. Although the upper storeys no longer survive, the flights of steps providing access are still visible.
Access and visit – Starting from Bagheria, cross the level crossing near the station and turn down the SS 113 towards Porticello. A minor road forks left towards the hill. The way up to the ruins passes the Antiquarium just inside the gate, which displays artefacts recovered from the site, including a fragment of fresco with a tragic mask.
Baths – Via delle Terme. The thermal baths complex preserves the under-floor brick supports which enabled hot air to circulate and heat the rooms from below, and a small room with a mosaic floor which served as a bath.
Via dell’Agorà – The decumanus maximus is partly paved in stone and, rather unusually, in terracotta. It bisects the town on a south-west to north-east axis, extending to the forum, here designated with the Greek name agorà.
Gymnasium – This is the name commonly given to the patrician house with an atrium and a peristyle, from which there remain three Doric columns and part of the entablature, complete with
architrave, frieze of metopes and triglyphs and cornice. At the rear, a staircase would have provided access to the floor above.
Via Ippodamo da Mileto – This is a cardo: from the bottom, a magnificent view extends over the bay of Palermo and Monte Pellegrino.
Casa di Leda – This large patrician house is so-called because it contains a wall frescoed with Leda and the Swan. The house is arranged around a peristyle (as indicated by the stump of a corner column and cavities for the other columns) indicated with an impluvium in which rain water was collected (surrounded by a mosaic cornice with black and white volutes) before being piped to an oval cistern set before and below it. One of the rooms facing out onto the peristyle is frescoed in the fourth Pompeiian style. At the sides of this room, probably a triclinium, steps would have lead to the first floor.
Agorà – The square, enclosed on all sides by public buildings, was lined with shops (at the far end). On the east side, there was a large public tank: note the bases of the 26 columns that supported the roof.
Theatre – Little survives of the theatre; its shape, however, is still discernible from the air. It was built with rows of seating cut in part from the bedrock – as with the theatre at Segesta. The original building dates from Hellenistic times, although this was substantially altered in Roman times; note how the orchestra is now semicircular; the Greek orchestra would have been larger and formed almost two-thirds of a circle. The small round construction on the eastern side may probably have constituted a small temple used for initiation rites associated with the cult of the gods.
Odeon – The small theatre was intended for musical performances of council meetings; the parts still in evidence include the orchestra and a few rows of cavea seating.
Villa Romana – This spacious two-storey house was graced with a peristyle. The stairs indicate the way up to the first floor.
From the villa, there is a beautiful view of Capo Zafferano and the little town of Sant’Elia. On the right, at the far end of the bay, crowning the tip of the headland stand the ruins of the medieval castle of Solanto.