A brief history of Sicily

Sicilian history: From prehistoric tribes to the ancient Greeks and Romans to the medieval Arabs, Normans, Angevins, Bourbons, and mafia

Sicily, at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, has variously been:

  • Phoenician/Carthaginian (11th century BC–210 BC)
  • Greek (750 BC–242 BC)
  • Roman (242 BC–AD 440)
  • Vandal (440–488)
  • Ostrogoth (488–552)
  • Byzantine (535–965)
  • Arab (831–1072)
  • Norman (1068–1194)
  • Holy Roman Empire (1198–1266)
  • Angevin (1266–1282)
  • Aragonese (1282–1713)
  • Savoy (1713–1718)
  • Austrian Hapsburg (1718–1734)
  • Bourbon (1734–1861)
  • Italian (1860–Present)

You'll note many of those date overlap. Sicily was rarely conquered as a whole, but in parts and over time. Many ancient colonies even co-existed for centuries—and rival Greek colonies within Sicily made war upon each other as often as they did upon the Phoenician colonies with which they shared Sicily.

You'll also note that Sicily only became part of the Kingdom of Italy when Garibaldi landed there with his 1,000 redshirts in 1860 to drive out the Bourbons (and even that conquest took nine months).

But Sicily's past goes back well beyond history.

The prehistory of Sicily

Sicily derives its name from two of the three Bronze Age tribes that settled the island starting in the 15th century BC:

  • The Sicani settled the western half of Sicily; they likely emigrated from either Catalonia or Illyria (the ancient region we now call the Balkans—basically the former Yugoslavia).
  • The Elymians (from the Aegean or Anatolia) horned in on Sicani territory, settling the northwestern tip of Sicily and pushing the Sicani more into the interior.
  • The Sikel (or Sicel) arrived from what is now mainland Italy to settle the eastern half of Sicily, bringing with them the Iron Age (and horses).

The Phoenicians: Forgotten rulers of Sicily

So much is made of all those later cultures that at one time or another ruled Sicily (Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and later Normans, French Angevins, Spanish Bourbons, Napoleon, and—only since 1860—Italians) that most people forget its greatest city and capital, Palermo, was founded by a colony of Middle Eastern culture based in North Africa.

The Phoenicians were building cities across what is today the Palestine/Syrian coast back in the Bronze Age five millennia ago. (One of them remains an important capital to this day: Beirut.) The Bibile called them "Cannanites."

They are perhaps most famous for giving us the alphabet (our modern alphabet is a direct descendent of theirs, though the Greeks were the ones to add vowels to it before passing a version along to the Etruscans, which was in turn adapted by the Romans).

In the 11th century BC, the Phoenicians headed out in their galleys and began peppering the entire Mediterranean coastline of what is now Europe and North Africa with small settlements. By the 7th century BC, they had moved up to conquering ports across the Mediterranean: in Corsica, Greece, Egypt, and especially Tunisia, where the Phoenician city of Carthage eventually eclipsed even the motherland and began its own wide-spread colonization, spreading Phoenician culture to the shores of Morocco, Spain, Italy, and, of course, Sicily.

Like the Greeks, who soon came along to compete with the Phonecians, this was not so much an empire as a loose confederation of city-states and their satellite colonies that happend to share a common culture and language.

At the turn of the 4th century BC, the Phoenician metropolis of the west coast, the island city of Moytia, was destroyed by the Greeks of Siracusa as part of an escalating conflict with the Carthaginian leader Hannibal. The city ruins on the island—called Mothia in Italian—have since been excavated as a kind of modest Phoenician Pompeii. (The Moytia survivors moved to the mainland to found Lilybaeum, which we now call Marsala.)

Along the north coast of Sicily, the Phoenicians built two main cities. One, Panormus, lies buried under the strata of later versions of the city we now call Palermo (old downtown Panormus was around Piazza Indipendenza, with the later, Hellenized—of Greco-Roman—sector called "Neapolis" extended down Via Vittorio Emanuele II as far as the Quattro Canti).

The other was Solus, which the Italian style Solunto, which has been excavated and—though much of the visible urban fabric dates from the city's later, Imperial Roman era—is the bit of Punic Sicily that is easiest to visit.

The Phoenicians held on to territories, especially in the western half of Sicily, until the Romans battled Carthage for it all in the 3rd century BC Punic Wars. The Romans won.

Greece and Rome

Despite the early Phoenician presence, it was the Greek influence, through its colonies of Magna Graecia ("Greater Greece") from the 8th to 4th century BC, that left the strongest ancient mark on Sicily.

Thanks to the Greeks, you'll find on Sicily some of the world's most spectacularly sited and remarkably preserved Greek temples (at Agrigento, Segesta, and Selinute) and theaters (at Siracusa, Taormina, and Segesta).

Siracusa (Syracuse) was, in fact, one of the great city-states of the ancient Greek world, home to such luminaries as Archimedes and the chief rival of Athens itself.

As Rome gradually conquered ancient Greece, they took over most of Sicily, leading to first a "Hellensitic" style (which means Greek-inflected Roman), and later a Roman Imperial style.

However, very little of Roman-era Sicily remains, with only one ruin of note. The Roman empire left Sicily the most extensive ancient mosaics in existence (at a villa outside Piazza Armerina).

The Middle Ages - Byzantines, Arabs, and Normans

While the post-Roman Byzantine empire held onto parts of Sicily from the 6th century to the 9th century (some emperors even toyed with moving the capital from Constantinople to Siracusa), at which point a patchwork of alliances and wars brought Arab Saracens to power.

Along with allowing religious freedom and importing such later Sicilian staple crops as lemons, oranges, and pistachios, the Arabs designated the existing ancient city of Palermo as the isand's the capital in the 9th century.

The Normans came along in the early 11th century and set up a syncretic, highly advanced and tolerant monarchy that incorporated the best of Greek, Arabic, Roman, and their own Franco-Scandic fashions.

Under such enlightened Norman rulers as Roger II and the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II, Sicilian literature came into its own a full 200 years before Dante.

Frederick II was such a wise ruler and patron of the arts he earned the nickname Stupor Mundi, “wonder of the world.”

The Normans left the northern coast (Cefalù, Palermo, Monreale) scattered with Norman cathedrals and Arab-style palaces filled with some of the most gorgeous mosaic cycles in Europe.

The long sleep - Spanish and French rule

In some respects, Sicily languished for the 500 years following Norman era, serving (as it had under Roman rule) as a breadbasket and as a source of patronage grants under an ever-changing parade of European rule—French Angevins, Spanish Aragonese and Bourbons.

Sicily mostly missed out on the Renaissance—though it did tune in for the baroque era, when native architects and sculptors developed the Sicilian baroque style to rebuild churches, palaces, and even entire cities after a series of devastating earthquakes.

It wasn't until 1860 that Sicily joined Italy at all, and it wasn't until the 1980s and 90s that the criminal organization we call the Mafia began to lose its dominance over corrupt local governments.

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