History of Sicily Part I

by | June 8, 2021

For those interested in history, Sicily is a must with a background completely different from the rest of Italy. Some turbulent millennia have left their mark in the form of numerous notable buildings scattered scattered across the island. The Greeks found Sicily early on, as evidenced by the breathtaking temples and theaters – some of the best-preserved buildings in the entire Mediterranean. In the centuries around the beginning of our era, the Romans gained power over Sicily. And there are plenty of historic Roman buildings – perhaps most impressive in the form of the imperial villa at Piazza Armerina. Later, most colonial powers took turns having power over Sicily, which has left its mark in the form of a very diverse architecture. It was not until 1860 that Sicily was incorporated into Italy.

The various occupying powers had plenty of internal problems, which resulted in power-hungry and cynics having almost free rein. The “small” in society quickly learned to address these “large” unscrupulous in society. It created fertile ground for the so infamous Sicilian mafia. The Mafia is nowadays almost unnoticed – apart from a romantic thrill of being in Palermo or being in the places where big mafia movies like “The Godfather” were shot.

Politically, Sicily has had periods when the island was of great importance, while at other times it has been of no major importance. In general, it must be said that many states through the ages have wanted to rule the island. At the same time, Sicily’s history is a tale of how Europe’s richest and most fertile island ended up as one of Europe’s poorest areas.
To find the oldest evidence of humans in Sicily, we must go back to the last period of the Old Stone Age, when man was still a caveman and lived by hunting and gathering wild fruits. From that time, weapons and tools have been found carved in stone. They have appeared in several areas along the northern coast and on a smaller scale in the south along with remains of fossilized, extinct animals, such as the dwarf elephant.

The island was originally divided between three peoples: the Sikuls, the Sikhs and the Elymns. The seculars were located at the eastern end of the island. It is they who have given name to the island then called Sikelia. In the middle of the island the Sikhs stayed and the elymnars were furthest to the west. The Greeks invaded a large part of the island in the year 735 BC, and all the way to the year 220 BC. belonged this part to the Greek great Magna Grecia.

Around the island you will find well-preserved ruins from Greek times, including in the Valley of the Temples, Selinunte and Segesta. Today, however, these are only ruined cities. Another Greek-built city, Taormina, located on the east coast, however, has continued its development and is inhabited to this day.

A Phoenician group called the Marbles conquered this year approx. 564 BC the western part of Sicily by plundering and expelling the Hellenes. Thereafter, Selinunte was the westernmost city of the Greeks. There were countless wars over the demarcation between the Greeks and the Phoenicians, including was there in 409 BC. a mighty massacre at Selinunte in which 16,000 Greek soldiers were killed, 5,000 were taken as slaves, while only 3,000 escaped to the nearby Greek city of Agrigento.

Slightly simplified, it is to say that the Greeks had power over the entire eastern part of the island. They had their troubles in the east, where Sparta, Athens’ arch-rival in antiquity, was trying to get a piece of the pie. The Spartans had power in Syracuse, in Italian: Siracusa, who from 6.-4. century BC was the world’s largest city with over 1 million inhabitants! Around Siracusa there is a large plain over which the Spartans also had dominion. Here they grew wheat, which was sold and thereby gave them great wealth. The Punic Wars were three wars between the Roman Empire and the Phoenician city-state of Carthage, which took place from 264 BC. to 146 BC. The wars were a result of Rome’s expansion and gave i.a. the victorious Romans seized power over Sicily. But how did wars between the Roman Empire and Carthage lead to the Greeks losing Sicily? After approx. 300 years of internal war between Carthage and the Greeks, the Greeks sought help from the powerful Roman Empire. Rome thought tactically that if the Phoenicians, who also suffered from the desire for expansion, gained power over all of Sicily, they would be able to use the island as a “bridge” to the Roman Empire and thus try to exterminate them. Rome therefore chose to “help” the Greeks. The first Punic war from 264 BC. was mainly fought at sea. It started with a major naval battle off Sicily, then continued off the coast of Carthage and later led to the Roman coast. Rome won the war in the year 241 BC, and then took power over Sicily, which the Greeks, who had themselves summoned the Romans, had to leave. However, the Spartans retained power in Syracuse, where they remained until 212 BC.

During the Romans, many valuable shiploads were carried from Sicily to Rome, for the Romans were great admirers of Greek art, which they now embraced and began to copy. Grain was also sent from the fertile island to the capital. In the beginning, the grain was sold by Sicilians; but the Romans soon seized the opportunity to make good investments and confiscated the fields of the free peasants to set up the so-called “latifondis,” properties owned by wealthy Romans who used prisoners of war as slaves to do the work. Grain prices were set by the Senate in Rome and were not at all high enough for the free, Sicilian peasants who did not use slaves to survive. These latifondis are considered to be the beginning of the island’s poverty.

History of Sicily Part I