Because Sicily is at a strategic point in the Mediterranean, on a route where east meets west, it's unsurprising that everyone wanted a piece of this fertile land. Yet to understand Sicily's complex history you have to understand the many peoples who have come and gone from the island, and their legacies that are still embedded in the architecture, the culture, and the language. Sicily has been inhabited since the megalithic times, as evidenced by graffiti and etchings in caves near Palermo and on the Egadi Islands. Before recorded Greek colonization took place, the island had its own "indigenous" people, but even they came from elsewhere: The Sikanians, the oldest of the natives, are said to have come from the southeast Iberian peninsula sometime between 3000 B.C. and 2000 B.C., settling predominantly in southwest Sicily. Around 1000 B.C., other settlers made their home here: The Sicels (after whom the island is named), an Italic people thought to have come from the southern Italian peninsula to settle along the east coast; and the Elymians, who, according to myth, were led by Aeneas after the Trojan War to a small patch of land in western Sicily (not much greater than 65 sq km/25 sq miles). Historical evidence, however, indicates that the Elymians were likely a people from present-day central Anatolia. The fact that they would have made their way here long before the first Greek colonizers is not so far-fetched: There are traces of Mycenaean and Minoan artifacts and architecture that attest to a Greek presence on the island. These were probably people primarily interested in trade since the island was on such a bustling commercial route. It is known that these Greek merchants traded with the Ausonians, another Italic people who settled predominantly on the Aeolian Islands.
Greeks & Carthaginians
The first recorded colonization of the island began in 800 B.C., in quests for greener pastures and more elbow room. The Phoenicians (master sea-farers from present-day Syria) landed in a natural harbor in northwest Sicily; the place they dubbed Zyz (flower) would go on to become modern-day Palermo. They also established trading posts in Solunto and on the island of Motya, off the coast of Marsala. When their strength faded, the Carthaginians became the heirs of their civilization. They took control of Erice and expanded the Phoenician settlements on the island.
Meanwhile, on the east coast, settlers from Greece were sowing the seeds of what would become Magna Graecia: The Chalchidians founded Naxos (735 B.C.), the Corinthians, Syracuse (734 B.C.), and the Rhodians and Cretans, Gela (689 B.C.). The Megarans, who would go on to found Selinunte around 650 B.C., occupied a small area of land not too far from Syracuse; Akragas (Agrigento) was a subcolony of Gela founded in 581 B.C. This corner of the world became known as Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece, as it was more Hellenized than Greece itself.
The growing power of Carthage in North Africa threatened all of Sicily. By the 7th century B.C., Carthage had started an expansionist campaign, eyeing the colonies of Magna Graecia. However, as the Greek colonies grew more powerful in Sicily, they fought each other out of greed and jealousy; the cliché of Athens versus Sparta is a notable example.
The Rule of the Tyrants
In ancient times, the word "tyrant" described men who grabbed power instead of inheriting it, as in a royal lineage. Tyrants ruled over the Greek city-states of Sicily. Some were so-called enlightened tyrants, such as Dion, while the most ruthless was Agathocles. Tyrants were good at protecting what was theirs. In 480 B.C. the Carthaginians, lead by Hamilcar, mounted a massive attack on the western possessions of Greece, and sailed into Himera on the northern coast with an army of roughly 30,000 soldiers. The Carthaginian general led the siege on behalf of his old friend Terillus, who had been ousted as tyrant of Himera. This prompted the tyrant of Akragas (Agrigento) -- the new the tyrant of Himera -- to appeal to Syracuse for help. Syracuse sent about 25,000 men. Hamilcar, still not satisfied, wanted additional reinforcements, and asked Selinunte on the south coast for help.
The Carthaginians, according to some historians of the time, mistook the Syracuse forces for reinforcements from Selinunte. When it was too late, some 15,000 soldiers were slain and their ships torched. As a result, the winner of that battle, Gelon, the tyrant of Syracuse, became a force to contend with in the Greek world. It is said that Hamilcar threw himself to the flames with embarrassment. Seven decades would pass before Carthage would return to invade Sicily.
The defeat of the Carthaginians led to a golden age for Sicily, as scientists such as Archimedes, Theocritus, and Empedocles became famous all over the then-known world. Plato and Aeschylus often visited from Greece (the latter visiting for good -- he died in Gela); Plato even surmised that if there were ever a place to put into practice his model of Utopia, it would be in Sicily. Pindar would wax lyrical about the wonders of the island, composing odes to the tyrants. Agrigento boasted the largest (and to this day still best-preserved) temples, while Syracuse had the biggest theater. The period of growth and expansion was set back only by infighting among the city-states. The fierce rivalry between Athens and Sparta back in the motherland sparked off the same sentiments in the new Greek world.
Syracuse became the unrivaled dominant power in Sicily, and the time became ripe to challenge the supremacy of Athens itself. In 413 B.C., Athens sent the largest fleet ever assembled to subdue Syracuse. As recounted by the historian Thucydides, the Great Expedition from Athens suffered a crushing defeat, and 7,000 Athenian soldiers were taken prisoner and condemned to a slow death in the quarries. The great city of Syracuse reached its cultural and political apex, becoming the most dominant force in the Mediterranean.
The Revenge of Carthage
Trouble was brewing from afar. Hannibal Mago, grandson of Hamilcar, arrived on the southern coast of Sicily with his mercenaries in 409 B.C. He destroyed Selinunte, which had been a great city, and a former ally. Its modern-day ruins are a testament to his victory. After the wrath of Carthage, the once-mighty Selinunte faded into history forever.
Hannibal didn't stop there. He then headed north with one thing in mind -- to seek his revenge against Himera. This time around Hannibal and Carthage came out on top. He won a great victory, subsequently torturing and killing all the male survivors.
Hannibal had an appetite for destruction. He came back in full force once again, in 406 B.C., destroying Agrigento, the second most powerful city in Sicily after Syracuse. Hannibal wasn't stopped by a military setback but by a plague that swept through his camp and killed him. Himilkon took over for the Carthaginians, offering his son Moloch as a sacrifice to demonstrate his seriousness. After 8 months of relentless siege, the ancient Akragas finally fell to the Carthaginians. The Carthaginians ultimately set their sights on the mighty Syracuse, but, as had happened before, a plague swept over their troops, forcing them to return home. Still, for the Carthaginians, three out of four wasn't bad.
The Romans in Sicily
The Greek heyday in Sicily was coming to an end. A new threat was rising for the city-states: Rome. Sicily was largely spared during the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.), but the people of Syracuse sided with Carthage during the Second Punic War (218-202 B.C.). For this, the newly emerged powers of Rome did not forgive Sicily, and in 211 B.C. the Romans conquered the island full force. In its defeat, Sicily became a "subcolony," the first outside of Rome, and the formerly proud, enlightened inhabitants of the island became slaves or servants who were mercilessly taxed and lived in abject poverty. Slave revolts broke out periodically but were brutally suppressed by the Romans, who used the island as a breadbasket after felling its trees to make room for wheat crops; the lumber was used to make warships. In the 3rd century A.D., when Sicilians were finally declared free citizens of the Roman Empire, it was a too little too late: The barbarians from the north were on their way to pillage Sicily.
Barbarians, Byzantines, & the Saracens
As the Roman Empire collapsed to the Visigoths in A.D. 410, Sicily came under increasing attack from the Vandals under Genseric. The barbarian invasion of the island was short-lived, but for a brief period Sicily was reunited with Italy under the Ostrogoth Theodoric. Fourteen centuries would pass before this would happen again.
In A.D. 535, the Byzantine general Belisarius occupied Sicily, setting off a second wave of Hellenization of the island. For a brief time in 663, Syracuse became the center of the eastern Byzantine Empire.
The Arabs, Berbers, and Spanish Muslims -- known collectively as the Saracens -- had all set their sights on Sicily, given its geographic proximity. By 700, the island of Pantelleria became theirs. By 827, the Arabs mounted a full-force invasion of Sicily. They set foot on the island at Mazara del Vallo, in the southwest. Four years later Palermo succumbed to the Saracens, and by 965 the invading African forces had moved across the island to the Straits of Messina.
The Arabs made Palermo the capital of their new emirate, decorating it with lush gardens (said to rival those of Baghdad), parks, mosques (hundreds of them), and palaces with innovative ventilation systems. Unlike the Roman occupation that deprived Sicily of any cultural enhancement, Sicily actually prospered under the Arab rulers, who made substantial breakthroughs in agriculture, introducing citrus trees, date palms, cotton, pistachios, eggplants, and other crops. The farming and irrigation methods they introduced to the island are still in use today. Even religious tolerance was practiced, and many Christians converted to Islam.
But the Saracen rule, like so many others before it, would be short-lived. Because of Arab infighting, the Byzantine general George Maniakes wanted to capitalize on the situation. Although he didn't get very far, another invasion was waiting to happen: The Normans were about to lay claim to Sicily.
The Men of the North
If you wonder why not all Sicilians are short, dark haired, and dark skinned, but also tall, blond, and blue eyed, well, it's thanks to the Normans. In 1061, an Arab emir in Messina called on the Norman Roger Hauteville, who was already leading his forces down the peninsula, for help in putting down a rebellion among fellow Saracens. Into this internecine fighting, then, the Normans came, they saw, and they conquered, although it would take them another 30 years to seize the island completely, often enlisting Arab soldiers to fight against other Arabs. The final blow to the Arabs came in 1072, 10 years after they crossed the Straits of Messina, when they captured Palermo and made it their capital.
The Hauteville dynasty ruled for less than a century but left a cultural and social legacy that was unseen and unheard of at the time. This was the true harbinger of the melting pot. Arabs, Jews, and Christians lived in harmony. The multi-ethnic atmosphere so championed by the Normans also lives on in the architecture, especially in Palermo. Sometimes they took over an already existing Arab structure -- houses and buildings didn't last long because they were made of mud and clay -- fortified it, and turned it into the unique "Arabo-Norman" style building, with typical Norman arches surmounted by domes, almost always red. By 1200, the Arabic language, which had been the official court language, was becoming rarer. French and Italian were becoming the lingua franca among the people, while Latin became the language of the erudite.
Count Roger, or Roger I (1031-1101), started the Sicilian branch of the Norman dynasty. He was followed by his son, Roger II (1105-54), one of the most enlightened kings of the Middle Ages. He championed the arts in Sicily (the cathedral in Cefalù and the Palatine Chapel in Palermo were built on his commission), calling in artists and craftsmen from all over the Mediterranean basin. He established the pretext for the first meeting of dignitaries that would eventually become the first known parliament in Europe. His son, William the Bad (1154-66), who had earned his moniker not for any ruthless rule but for his lascivious lifestyle, did not live up to his father's reputation.
The Reign of the Hohenstaufens
When William II (1166-89) -- called William the Good, he of the cathedral of Monreale -- died in 1189 at the age of 36, the throne went to Tancred, his illegitimate son. The ascension to the throne was challenged by King Henry VI, a German Hohenstaufen, or Swabian. Tancred clung to the throne until his death in 1194, surviving a sacking of Messina in 1190 by Richard the Lion-Heart on his way to join the Third Crusade.
William III succeeded Tancred, but by then the Hohenstaufen fleet had already called in at Messina, capturing William and imprisoning him in a castle, where he would eventually die. Henry (later to become the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI) was declared king of Sicily on Christmas Day in 1194, as his wife was giving birth to their only child, Frederick, in Jesi.
Henry died of dysentery in 1197, the throne passing to Frederick I of Sicily, his son, who was only 3 years old. His mother, Constance, acted as queen regent, but she died 18 months later. When Frederick grew up, he proved to be a strong yet wise king. As a promoter of science, medicine, and law, he was called Stupor Mundi, or "Wonder of the World." When he became Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Palermo became the most important city in Europe, a cultural center without equal in the Western world, continuing the precedent set by his Norman grandfather, Roger II. In 1231, he issued the antifeudal Constitution of Melfi, stripping the barons of much of their power. Upon his death in 1250, Sicily entered a period of decline.
All too willing to strip the anti-papist Hohenstaufens of their power, a French pope awarded the title of king of Sicily to Charles of Anjou, the brother of Louis IX, the French king. Under Charles, in 1266 Angevin forces fought and beat the armies of the Hohenstaufen rulers, killing all the heirs. Once enthroned, Charles of Anjou launched a cruel attack against those Sicilians who were loyal to the Hohenstaufens.
The War of the Vespers
The harsh rule of the Angevins sparked an uprising, known as the Sicilian Vespers, which began on Easter Monday in 1282. After a French soldier insulted and molested a local woman in Palermo near the church of Santo Spirito, the Sicilians decided that they had had enough of this 20-year despotism. The tolling of a church bell for evening services, or vespers, set off a riot. Every French soldier in sight was slaughtered, the rebellion fanning out to cover the island. Any man who pronounced the word "cicero" with a guttural accent was killed on the spot.
The Sicilians were able finally to send the French packing -- for a while, at least. A group of noblemen appealed to Peter of Aragon, as they were now without a king, and offered him the crown of Sicily on dynastic grounds: He was a descendant of Constance of Aragon, the wife of Frederick II. He landed in Trapani 5 months after that initial riot of the Sicilian Vespers, and within just a few days he was proclaimed king.
The actual War of the Vespers was fought between the armies of Aragon and Anjou, the latter based in Naples, over a period of two decades. Spain was tightening its grip on Sicily, paving the way for (yet another) domination. Although the Sicilians had offered the crown to Peter on the condition that Sicily be made an independent nation after his death, that didn't happen; in fact, it was another 500 years before the Spaniards would leave the island.
Rule by the Spaniards
In 1302, the Peace of Caltabelotta concluded the war between the papist Angevins and the imperial Aragonese. The Kingdom of Two Sicilies was created, the Angevins retaining the territories around Naples, with Sicily itself going to the Spaniards. The Aragonese kings ruled from Palermo directly until 1458.
Isolated and no longer the great crossroads of civilization, the great artistic and cultural movements sweeping mainland Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, such as the Renaissance, never made it to Sicily. If anything, Sicily was going backward as the rest of the continent was going forward. The Spanish Inquisition, introduced to Sicily in the early 1500s and lasting over 150 years, put a muzzle on any questions posed by luminaries.
The 17th & 18th Centuries
As the Spanish Empire faded, Sicily likewise declined. The rule of corrupt and indifferent viceroys only enhanced this. Meanwhile in the countryside, bands of outlaws, protesting against vast estates and inhumane work conditions, started retaliating. They butchered livestock, burned crops, and slaughtered local bailiffs to protest against the outmoded feudal system. It was this climate that paved the way for the most infamous criminal organization in the world, the Mafia, "founded" in Sicily.
As if the suffocating feudal system weren't enough, in the 17th century Sicily was struck by natural disasters. Mount Etna erupted in 1669, causing massive damage to the east coast and destroying Catania. The eruption was followed in 1693 by earthquakes along the same coastline, killing about 5% of Sicily's population and completely destroying nearly everything in sight. The bubonic plague also made its way here, decimating the population. Politically, the island had become nothing more than an insignificant pawn among the powers of Europe. After the death of Charles II of Habsburg in 1700, Spain plunged into the Wars of the Spanish Succession. In 1713, Sicily was handed to the House of Savoy, according to the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. In 1720, the uninterested Savoys traded it to the Austrians for Sardinia.
Spain rose from the ashes again in 1734, reclaiming Sicily and this time placing it under a Bourbon king, Charles I (1734-59), who was to visit Sicily only once. In time he gave up the kingdom to assume the title of King Charles III of Spain. He was succeeded by Ferdinand IV, who assumed the throne as Ferdinand IV of Naples in 1806. The island's so-called noblemen were living parasitically off the people of Sicily while they tightened their feudal grip on the island, yet new ideas unleashed by the French Revolution brought in winds of change.
The Coming of Napoleon
Although Napoleon Bonaparte never actually invaded Sicily, his new repartition of the lands of Europe had an impact on the island. When Napoleon conquered Naples in 1799, The Bourbons were forced out and the crown was passed to Napoleon's brother, Joseph. King Ferdinand sought refuge in Sicily, where he found protection with British troops. Pressured by the commander of British forces in Sicily, Lord William Bentinck, Ferdinand was forced to draw up a constitution for Sicily in 1812 similar to the one that governed Britain. The constitution put an end to feudal power in Sicily, creating a two-chamber Sicilian parliament in Palermo. The court established in Palermo was independent of the one presiding in Naples.
Once Napoleon was defeated in 1815, and British forces left the island, Ferdinand went back to Naples. He declared himself Ferdinand I, king of the Two Sicilies, in 1816, and abrogated the constitution he had been forced to draw up. Sicily rebelled against the repeal, but resistance was quelled with the aid of mercenaries from Austria. Ferdinand died in 1825, and life on the island only worsened under Ferdinand II (1830-59), who was named Re Bomba (King Bomb) after his 5-day bombardment of Messina to suppress uprisings there and in Palermo in 1848. Although the king suppressed the rebellions, the spirit of revolution was gaining more ground. By April 1860, the name Garibaldi had become the buzzword across the island.
Garibaldi & Unification
On April 4, 1860, an island-wide revolt against the Bourbon regime broke out. Capitalizing on the situation, the revolutionary leader Giuseppe Garibaldi decided the time was right to intervene. Along with his famous mille, 1,000 red-shirted soldiers, he arrived at Marsala on the west coast of Sicily on May 11, 1860. He set about to free the island from the Bourbons, aided by the lower classes that joined his ranks.
A Bourbon army of 15,000 soldiers was defeated at Calatafimi on May 15, and within 2 weeks the capital at Palermo was taken. By the time Garibaldi declared victory at the port of Milazzo on July 20, the Bourbons were in serious retreat. For the first time in nearly 600 years, Sicily was no longer in the chokehold of the Bourbon regime.
On October 21 of that same year, an island-wide referendum was held and, as was expected, 99% of the eligible voters (only a marginal number of the population) opted to follow Garibaldi's plan and unify with mainland Italy. Many poor and illiterate Sicilians who were not allowed to vote saw no good in this outcome, viewing the Piedmontese House of Savoy, which had traded them for Sardinia years earlier, as just a new "occupier" of the island.
Fascism & Wars
The peasants and lower classes were right: Under the House of Savoy, Sicily indeed found itself back to square one and in the same conditions it had endured over the centuries under their predecessors. The so-called aristocracy remained firmly in charge of the economy, and the peasants got nothing, not even the right to vote. In 1866, Turin crushed a rebellion in Palermo.
If that weren't enough, the Mafiosi acted as regents for the landowners, extracting exorbitant rents from the peasant farmers. Exasperated by these living conditions, some 500,000 Sicilians emigrated to Australia, North America, and South America. Many of these people came from the Messina area, which was devastated in the earthquake of 1908, leaving over 80,000 people dead. The 20th century brought even harsher realities, with the Italian conquest of Libya in 1912, followed by World War I, which devastated the economy of Sicily and took the lives of many of its young men.
The aftermath of World War I was followed, in 1922, by the emergence of Benito Mussolini, who had gained power in Rome after his infamous march on the city. The Italian dictator decided to crack down on Sicily's Mafiosi so that they knew who was boss. Mussolini sent his agent, Cesare Mori, to restore law and order to Sicily, a move that simply drove the criminals into hiding until the Allied forces came to shore in 1943.
Mori won the support of the landed gentry. To reward these large estate holders for their help, he revised all the agrarian reforms that were favorable to the land workers. By the 1930s, Mussolini, emulating the ancient Romans, designated Sicily as a breadbasket to feed his armies in his quest for empire.
In 1939 Sicily found itself caught up in a new war, World War II. Preceding the invasion with aerial bombardments, the Allies attacked most of Sicily's major cities. Catania, Messina, and Palermo were heavily bombed, and much of the damage is still visible today.
In July 1943, General Patton and the American Seventh Army landed at Licata on the southern coast, as Montgomery's British forces put ashore at a point to the east. The Sicilians offered little resistance and welcomed the Allies, but the Nazis fought back with a vengeance, hoping to delay the Allied advance until they could move their men and equipment across the Straits of Messina into Calabria.
Palermo fell to the Allied advance, followed by Messina. On September 3, as the Germans escaped to southern Italy, Sicilian authorities signed an armistice at Cassibile, becoming the first region of Italy to be freed by the Allies, long before the invasion of Normandy in 1944. Ironically, the Allies were aided by the Mafiosi, who resurfaced for the occasion, eager to rid Sicily of the Fascists who had tried to wipe them out.
49th State for the U.S.?
With the devastation of World War II behind them, Sicilians reviewed their link with the Italian mainland, with thousands deciding the union had been a disaster, as had been foretold by the lower classes. A Separatist movement gained hold, demanding complete independence for the island.
Sicilian Communists called for massive land redistribution. In an unlikely marriage, the landed gentry allied itself with the Mafia to snuff out the "dangerous left-wing uprisings" throughout the land.
In 1946, the government in Rome agreed to give Sicily limited independence. Regional autonomy called for Sicily to have its own assembly and president. The role is similar to what Scotland enjoys with England.
Many of the Separatists were even lobbying to be linked to the United States, becoming the 49th state. But with the coming of the elections of 1951, the Separatists faded into history.
For most of the latter part of the 20th century, Sicily was dominated by the Christian Democrats, a political party founded by Father Luigi Sturzo of Caltagirone. This was the party more or less of the Catholic Church, with right-of-center to conservative leanings. In an unspoken, almost hidden alliance, the Christian Democrats worked with the Mafia, as clientilismo -- political patronage -- became the rule of the land. Many a developmental fund ended up in the pocket of a Mafia don.
Even in the late 20th century and early 21st century, the Mafia has remained a strong influence on the island, in spite of a campaign against it by the governments presiding in the 1980s and 1990s. Many anti-Mafia lawmakers were gunned down, and in 1992, the Mafia-fighting magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were killed within months of each other, sparking island-wide indignation. In 2004, the annual report of the Interior Ministry to the parliament in Rome claimed that the Mafia in Sicily was experiencing "a moment of renewal to overcome a structural crisis following the arrest of many top-ranking elements." The report also concluded that the so-called Cosa Nostra was trying to "regain credibility and competitiveness." The ministry report ominously concluded that the Cosa Nostra was pressing ahead with its traditional activities, such as gaining control of public-works contracts and practicing widespread extortion of Sicilian businesses for "protection" money.
One novel approach to dealing with the Cosa Nostra is taking place in the town of Corleone, home of the most sanguinary Mafia bosses. Corleone has been confiscating the property of some of the more notorious Mafiosi and making this blood-soaked land bloom. Agronomists are planting melons, lentils, wheat, grapes, and chickpeas on estates once owned by the Mafia, and selling the products from these lands. And how is the mob striking back at this agricultural bounty? To this point, retaliation has been relatively minor.
In 2006 the Italian government continued its relentless pursuit of Mafia leaders, arresting Italy's reputed number-one Mafia boss, Bernardo Provenzano. The don was found 60km (37 miles) south of Palermo in Corleone, even though his former lawyer was telling newspapers that the elusive Mafia leader was dead. He was found very much alive after 43 years on the run, living on a diet of ricotta and chicory; he's now incarcerated in total isolation.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.