The Mystery of Motya

The Motya phenomena we went to see; the ancient submerged road to the mainland (Photo: Geologo Leonardo Nocitra)
The Motya phenomena we went to see; the ancient submerged road to the mainland (Photo: Geologo Leonardo Nocitra)

On our last day in the Sicilian countryside before ending our trip in Palermo, Magellan suggested that instead of going to Marsala, we take a ferry to the tiny island of Mozia. Probably to see an engineering marvel its inhabitants constructed for their large-wheeled chariots—the 1.7 kilometre causeway to the mainland—embedded underwater in the shallow lagoon in the fifth century B.C.! I was happy to oblige, having read about Mozia’s picturesque windmills,  Stagnone Nature Reserve lagoon and Whitaker Museum. But sometimes, like in Mozia (Motya in Punic times, which is what I’m going to call it here), what you travel to see is superseded by a marvel you discover.

It was hot that April morning, the breeze on the small ferry most welcome. A lot of people headed for the museum straight off but we decided to leave it for later to escape the afternoon heat and crowds.

Only 45 hectares in size, Motya (pronounced MOATZ-ee-ah), more islet than island, was inhabited even before the Bronze Age, as early as the seventeenth century B.C. By the eleventh century B.C., it was likely used as a trading post by the Punic people, the Western Phoenicians whose largest settlement at the time was Carthage. These people were renowned engineers, shipwrights and traders. They sailed by night, invented an alphabet of 22 consonants and cremated their dead. They also invented the colour purple, using secretions from dead mollusks. In the eight century B.C., they founded a permanent settlement on Motya, their primary contact between North Africa and Sicily and a stronghold for controlling trade routes. To ward off rival attacks from the Greeks, they ringed the town with a thick wall nearly two-and-a-half kilometres long with a watchtower every 20 metres. Island space was limited, so houses were built up to six storeys high. Soon Motya became the artistic, military and commercial base of Carthaginian Sicily.

After several centuries of prosperity, in 397 B.C. Motya was besieged by Dionysius the elder, the tyrant of the city-state of Syracuse. He destroyed the causeway, sacked the town and killed most of its 10,000 residents, despite the valiant efforts of its citizens and a counterattack by the Carthaginians. Motya’s survivors went to Lilybaeum (now Marsala), which became the new base of Carthaginians in western Sicily. Motya was largely abandoned save for a few farmers. Never rebuilt, it fell into total neglect for 23 centuries.

Little interest in the island was shown until the early eighteenth century when Giuseppe (also called Joseph and Pip) Whitaker, a wealthy Marsala wine merchant from a prosperous family, bought Motya. Interested in botany, ornithology and archeology, he grew grapes, built a villa and began systematic excavation. His archeological discoveries, published in 1921, included the northern gate, a place used for religious sacrifice, a necropolis with tombstones and villas (some with basements!), household pottery and ancient mosaics made from black and white pebbles. The Whitaker house is now a museum showcasing his discoveries, supplemented by Carthaginian and Greek findings uncovered in subsequent digs.

Although it had been a good morning to be outside looking at ruins we were ready to escape to a cool place, the Whitaker Museum. The surprise was how cool it really is.

In a case of serious understatement, the Insight guidebook says that in the museum “One particular treasure is a remarkably fine Greek statue from the early fifth century B.C. of a sinuous youth, possibly a charioteer, known as The Man in a Tunic.” (In the Whitaker museum, it is called The Youth of Motya.) Entering the second room in the museum and catching our first glimpse of the statue—beneath a skylight in a room of its own—we let out a collective “Ohhhhhhhhhhh.” You can see why. This amazing sculpture is regarded as a national treasure by Sicilians and thought by many to be one of the finest surviving examples of a classical sculpture—anywhere in the world.

Few marble statues were found in Greek colonies, so you can imagine the emotion in October 1979 when The Youth of Motya was discovered. The statue was excavated from what appeared to be hastily constructed fortifications, maybe those built when Dionysius attacked. In ancient times when under siege it was common to use whatever stonework was at hand, including beloved statues.

The Youth of Motya however, has created problems. Its location and style cause questions of patron, creation and date of production. Too languid to be an athlete, too feminine to be a warrior, too young to be a priest. The head is austere, in the style of the first half of the fifth century B.C. while the body is more the mannerism of the second half…

Is it a Punic statue? The Carthaginians wore similar belts with two frontal holes to hold a metal brooch. But there are no other freestanding sculptures from Punic sites have been discovered. And the harmonious figure is in keeping with the ideals of Greek beauty. Plus, The Youth of Motya is carved from a single block of marble from the island of Paros, Greece. And furthermore, the Carthaginians commonly confiscated art they liked from the cities they conquered.

The statue may be a mythological character or a god, but why would either be crowning himself as a charioteer as the position of the right arm indicates he’s doing?

The more common scholarly theory is that The Youth of Motya is a charioteer. Firstly, he is clothed—in Ancient Greece, male statues were nude, except for charioteers and musicians (and statues of women). Like a charioteer’s tunic, his covers his entire body, fastens with a simple belt and has two straps crossing at the back to prevent the fabric from ballooning during the race. There are two holes in his broad belt onto which the reins would have been fastened so they wouldn’t be pulled out of his hands and he wouldn’t be thrown free if he crashed. Some scholars say the way the veins of his upper arms stand out and how the cloth is shown, virtually transparent and clinging to his body, is a result of the effort of the race. Chariot racing was hugely popular; winners were treated like today’s Max Emilian Verstappen. The Youth of Motya also resembles the Charioteer at Delphi (though that one is if older and made of bronze) and Krithios at the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

But… statues of athletes habitually depicted the strength and perfection of warriors: stiff, frontal and non-seductive, not displaying the sensuality we see in The Youth of Motya. There are stories of female charioteers in Homeric times, Amazons are shown driving their own chariots, and there are depictions of charioteers more androgynous than this one. So maybe the (renegade?) artist took liberties and created a more feminine representation to challenge the limits of acceptable representation.

This statue is not of a woman. The design of the tunic clearly reveals a phallus underneath—and much larger than those of typical Greek statues. Apparently, the Greeks often depicted foreigners as well-endowed and in feminine-looking clothing. But the Carthaginians didn’t participate in Greek chariot races. Unless some talented Sicilian was forced to compete and to show that he wasn’t Greek, the sculpture was designed like this…

Here’s another theory. Women in these times couldn’t be charioteers, but they could own chariots and horses. The driver wasn’t necessarily considered the winner of the race—that privilege went to the owner of the chariot and horses, kind of like the Triple Crown today where accolades are lavished on both the victorious jockey and wealthy owner. Is this statue the male/female owner of the chariot and horses, maybe even a Sicilian?

Or was the statue commissioned by a rich Carthaginian, or a Motyan magistrate, or by the town itself?

Your thoughts?

Hilah Loewenstein, ends her thesis on The Youth of Motya with this statement:

The deeper one delves into his mysteries, the more complicated and confusing he becomes. While we may never know his exact story, it is easy to see that he is a unique Greek male sculpture. His carving style appears to be Greek, his body language female, his position is that of a victorious athlete, and his physical location was in a non-Greek city. It may never be known why he was made the way he was, whether due to his clothing or the fact that he was foreign, and whether or not this made him better- or worse-received by his contemporaries. Like the barely concealed body, perhaps that only adds to his appeal.

The causeway? In use until the 1970s, the roadbed is no longer visible, except from satellite imagery.


Loewenstein, Hilah. “The Motya Charioteer in the Feminine Mode.” Shift. Graduate Journal of Visual and Material Culture, Issue 5 I 2012. A superb scholarly thesis for more on The Motya Youth.

Maggio, Theresa M. “Carried by the Wind in Sicily.” The New York Times. April 12, 1998.

McDowall, Caroline. “Motya Charioteer—Ancient Greek Sculpture at its Finest.” The Culture Concept. September 1, 2012. Another excellent reference.

Nocrita, Leonardo.  “The underwater route of the Stagnone of Marsala.” A great source of information about the underwater road and the source of our feature photo.

From Oxford’s research (thanks for the link Greg), here’s an article to make you glad you weren’t the first-born in Carthaginian times. 

Volpi, Aldo, and Toti, M. Pamela. Translated by Cristina Negroni. Motya…in the world of the Phoenicians. Rome: La Medusa Editrice, 2015. A wonderful guidebook we purchased at the Whitaker Museum.




6 Responses

  1. What a fascinating enigmatic object, made all the more intriguing by the quality and beauty of the sculpting!

    So many significant details to study and explore!!

    I find art like this so intriguing because it is not immediately obvious and has so much complexity of possible interpretation.

    Very interesting and wonderfully described Gloria..

    Thank you.


    1. Thanks Wade. This story has been posing in my mind for almost four years because I knew it would take a fair amount of research to uncover what the scholarly thinking is on its origin. And to think we were going there to tilt at windmills!

      1. Anyway; good job; there is obviously a tremendous amount of research on this ‘block of marble’ that you have studied.

  2. Very interesting story, had to break out my maps app to locate Sicily as it’s been too many years since I have even thought about where it is located. See a few names that remind me of the Corleone’s of “The Godfather” films. Lots of the towns/cities I have never heard of before and the spelling of same is quite intriguing, a geography lesson, in itself.
    Interesting that the underwater road is no longer in use.

    1. Every time I go to write about Sicily I want to say “the country of Sicily;” it is so diverse, complex, storied…, one of the most fascinating places we’ve ever visited. There is an inherent pride and lingering independence of having once been a country.

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