The Eclectic History of Sicily

The Early History of Sicily

The history of Sicily is infused with thousands of years of different cultures asserting control over the island. From the Sicans to the Greeks, the Romans to the Italians, Sicily is abundant with a massively broad spectrum of historical events. In this article we will explore a broad sampling that just nicks the surface - a comprehensive study of the history of Sicily could consume an entire lifetime and would certainly fill thousands of pages such as this one.

It was thousands of years ago that the Sicans, largely known as Sicily's indigenous people, inhabited Sicily. Their name is speculated to have derived from the chalcedony - a type of quartz - that is called 'sica' that can be found in the volcanic strata of which the island is composed. This 'sica' is what the Sicans styled their tools from.

The ruins of the Entrance to the Temple of Diana near Cefalu on the island of Sicily. A stone wall with a door opening. Ruines.

The first known non-indigenous people to settle in Sicily were the Sikels. Around BC 1400 these people migrated from the Italian mainland and coexisted peacefully with the Sicans. It was around the same time that the Elymi people also began to settle on the island.

Around BC 1000, the Phoenicians began to settle along the coasts of Sicily. They, too, peacefully coexisted with the Sicans, Sikels and Elymi. The earliest literary mention of Sicily's history and its early inhabitants can be found in Homer's The Odyssey - expressed as the land of the Cyclopes, the land of the Laestrygonians and the island of Aeolus.

Sicily's history took a dramatic turn when the Greeks began to colonize the island, 300 years later.

Around BC 735, the Greeks established Naxos - between modern day Catania and Taormina - as an expansion of Magna Graecia (the Greek colonies in Southern Italy). It was the first Greek colony on the island. The Greeks also established Syracuse around the same time on the southeastern coast of the island. This colonization marked the birth of one of the most influential eras in Sicilian history. As the old Sicilian civilizations were virtually absorbed into Hellenistic culture, the Greeks quickly spread their empire throughout Sicily. During this era, they built the Valley of the Temples, located in Agrigento. Most of this temple complex still stands today and is regarded as one of the most impressive temple complexes outside of Greece.

A beautiful nightime image of the Temple of Concord illuminated in the night. This temple ruin is found in Agrigento's Valley of the Temples on the southern coast of Sicily. Ruines.

The Greeks ruled the island for the next 500 years with Syracuse as their most important city, introducing olives and vines to Sicily's extremely fertile land. During this time, the Ancient Greek culture profited greatly from Sicily.

Around BC 413, Syracuse had become the most powerful city in the Mediterranean. Because of this, the Athenians began the Great Expedition to conquer the city. Syracuse, however, allied itself with Sparta and Corinth and defeated Athens. This sparked the eventual fall of Athens just ten years later.

Around this time, the Greeks reluctantly shared a portion of Sicily with another culture of people, the Carthaginians. Thus, the Punic Wars erupted in BC 264. The Greeks were allied with the Romans, however, and the Carthaginians were defeated just 22 years later. The Romans took control of Sicily thereafter, making it the first Roman province outside of the Italian mainland in BC 242. This marked the beginning of the end of Greek control in Sicily.

The Roman Influence on Sicily's History

In BC 218, the Second Punic War erupted when Carthage attempted to take Sicily from the Romans. Less than two decades later, the Carthaginian aggression proved unsuccessful, as they were again defeated by the Romans. During the war, in BC 211, the Greek mathematician and inventor from Syracuse, Archimedes, was assassinated just as his city fell to the Romans.

An illustration of the philosopher and scientist Archimides. A lithograph print.

Roman control of Sicily lasted almost 700 years. In AD 440, the Vandals invaded the island and asserted control. For the next 600 years, Sicily was controlled by the Vandals, followed by the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines and the Arabs.

Beginning in AD 1060, however, the Normans took control of Sicily. The Norman Era spawned many artistic achievements, due to the Norman's eclectic culture. Modern Sicily is still enriched by Norman architecture in almost every city center on the island.

A view of the cloister and bell tower of the Cathedral at Monreale on the island of Sicily. Still used today for Catholic services.

The Normans ruled Sicily for the next century, until the heiress to the last Norman Emperor, Constance, married Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI of Swabia in AD 1194. Swabian control didn't last long, however. When the last Swabian ruler died, his successors were weak and ultimately gave way to papal control.

In AD 1266, Pope Innocent IV crowned Prince Charles of Anjou as king of Sicily. Charles was not well accepted, though, as he imposed high taxes and practiced religious intolerance in a land of religious diversity. This led to an uprising of the Sicilian people in AD 1282 called the War of the Sicilian Vespers - as it began during evening vespers on Easter Monday. This resulted in the killing of most of the French population in Sicily. With no leader, the Sicilian people turned to Peter III of Aragon for support and direction.

For the next 600 years, the history of Sicily was dominated by the Aragons and the Spanish.

The Recent History of Sicily

It was in 1860 that the Expedition of the Thousand was led by Giuseppe Garibaldi during the Risorgimento, or Italian Unification. A year later, Sicily was annexed by Italy.

Giuseppe Giribaldi.  One of the many statues of this prominent Risiorgimento figure. The father of modern Italy.

The modern era of Sicily has seen much corruption and political instability. The Sicilian Mafia has been a huge part of modern history on the island. In 1925, Benito Mussolini tried to destroy the Mafia by asserting fascist control over Sicily. Eighteen years later, in 1943, Allied troops landed in Sicily and began to remove the fascist rulers from power. Replacing the fascist rulers, the Allied forces inadvertently placed members of the Mafia in control, perpetuating the corruption.

In 1946, Sicily finally became a republic. It is now one of five autonomous regions under Italian control.

History of Sicily Timeline & Chronology

BC 1400

Sikels arrive in Sicily, coexisting with the Sicans

BC 1000

Phoenicians begin to settle in Sicily along the coasts

BC 735

Greeks arrive and colonize Naxos as the first Greek colony in Sicily

BC 413

Syracuse defeats Athens

BC 264

First Punic War erupts between Greeks and Carthaginians

BC 242

Romans defeat the Carthaginians, making Sicily the first Roman Province outside mainland Italy

BC 218

Second Punic War begins

BC 211

Syracuse falls to Roman rule

AD 440

Vandals invade and conquer Sicily from the Romans

AD 1060

Norman Era begins

AD 1194

Swabians take control of Sicily

AD 1266

Pope Innocent IV crowns Prince Charles of Anjou as king of Sicily

AD 1282

War of the Sicilian Vespers

AD 1861

Italy annexes Sicily

AD 1925

Benito Mussolini tries to destroy the Mafia by asserting fascist control

AD 1943

Allied troops invade the island and begin to remove fascist rulers

AD 1946

Sicily is granted an autonomous region and becomes a Republic


"A Brief Overview of Sicily's Fascinating History." The Thinking Traveller Ltd. Web.

"History of Sicily." Web.

"History of Sicily." 2012. Web.

"Sicilian History." Art Dieli. 2013. Web.

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