Visitors to Sicily are often overwhelmed by the richness of the history of this small island. Some of the best Greek archaeological sites are to be found here, as well as Roman catacombs and aquaducts, resplendent Byzantine mosaics, and stunning Arab and Norman architecture. Whilst its heartland, deforested by the Greeks to provide arable fields, is home to some of the poorest peasant lifestyles left in Western Europe. To get under the skin of Sicily you need to dissociate it from its modern character as a province of Italy, and explore each of the diverse cultures that have prized this fascinating island, for whom it has been seen as a precious jewel in the Mediterranean whilst delving into its abundant history and learning some invaluable Sicily facts to take away with you.
Maps of Sicily today will normally show its position only as a triangular island floating off the toe of the boot-shaped Italian peninsular. However, to really experience Sicily, you need to find a larger Sicily map, and see its strategic location relative to the whole of the European continent, and particularly to Greece to the east, Spain to the west, and North Africa to the south as well as to Italy to the north. Lapped by three seas, and with an ideal climate and diverse and fertile landscape where you can drive from snow peaks to orange groves in dazzling coastal sunshine in a few hours, it is easy to see why Sicily has proved so irresistible to its neighbours throughout its long history. Colonized by the Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Saracens, Normans, Swabians, French, and Spanish, each new invading force found some way of reaping benefit from the wealth of the island, and each left its distinctive imprint, in its towns and cities, countryside, language and cuisine. Sicily is a true melting-pot of myriad, diverse cultures and unlike anywhere else in Europe.
Earliest times – the Ice Men, the Sikels, Sicanians, Elymi, and Phoenicians
Archaeologists suggest that the earliest known inhabitants of Sicily left their imprint in cave paintings and incised drawings such as at the Grotta dell’Addaura on the north side of Monte Pellegrino, near Palermo on the island’s northern coast during the last stage of the Ice Age (7000BC). These earliest settlers did not move inland from the coast of Sicily, but we know little else about them. The earliest people of Sicily whose lifestyles and cultures are understood, and from whom the name of the island derives, were the Sicanians and the Sikels, and the Elymians and the Phoenicians, who together inhabited Sicily from about 1500-800BC. The Sicanians inhabited the north and the interior, Sikels the east, the Elymi the north-western tip, and the Semitic Phoenicians, the west and rest of the north-west. These peoples were themselves settlers rather than indigenous to the island, variously coming to Sicily as Etruscans from the Italian mainland, Greece, Anatolia, and northern Africa (from what is now Tunisia), the last of these perhaps driven here by the progressive desiccation of the Sahara region. Although the Sicans were more belligerent than the generally pacific Sikels and Elymians, and the Phoenicians in Sicily more interested in trade than colonization, these culturally and racially diverse peoples lived in comparative harmony in their respective areas of the island. Their existence the beginnings of Sicilian Italian history. They were almost certainly the traders and adventurers on the island referred to by Virgil in the Odyssey.
The Greeks (733BC-241BC)
The first real colonizers of Sicily were the Greeks, who, according to the Greek historian, Thucydides, established their presence here in 733BC, at Naxos, north of modern-day Catania. They began to exploit the rich, comparatively virgin lands around the then-dormant volcano, Mount Etna, which dominates this region of the island, introducing the vines and olives, which still thrive in the fertile volcanic soil. Over the next few hundred years, the Greeks built numerous towns and fabulous temples, the remains of which can be found all over the island today. They gradually set about occupying by force a large part of the island, eventually conquering the existing peoples, and pushing out the Phoenicians who had continued to ply trade routes with the rest of Europe. By 400BC, the Greeks had made Syracuse, on Sicily’s south eastern coast, the most important city in the world. However, as with many civilizations before and after them, greed and the lust for autocratic power by petty, parochial city tyrants eventually led to the downfall of the Greeks. Their constant battles with their neighbours, which required a great fleet of ships, effectively deforested large swathes of Sicily, changing its climate, alternately creating huge areas of arid land in the summer and frequent land slides in the winters, leading to a silting up of the island’s ports. Decline set in, which was exploited by the Romans.
The Romans (241BC-318AD)
Greek Sicily eventually fell in 241BC to the Romans, who had gradually been expanding their settlements southwards from Rome. However, the Romans did not have it all their own way on Sicily. Although the Phoenicians had been a largely peaceable people, their culturally-related descendants, the Cartheginians (from modern-day Tunisia and Spain) sought forcibly to wrest Sicily from the Romans, and so began the series of Punic Wars, which take their name from the Greek name for Phoenician, Phoinix, which became Latinized to Punicus, hence Punic. The Punic Wars lasted from 264BC to 146BC, the second of which was led by the most famous of all Carthaginians, Hannibal (who also endeavoured to take on the Romans elsewhere in Italy, initially outwitting them by entering northern Italy via the Alps – on a herd of elephants!).
After the Punic Wars, much of Sicily was left in the hands of the Romans. However, over 120 years of war had left the island depleted and poor. In Sicily the Romans saw a way of rewarding its most valiant and loyal subjects, by awarding them large estates on the island. However, rather than settling in Sicily, these new absentee landlords used their lands to grow grain, which was then shipped in vast quantities to Rome, to feed the populus and make them large financial profits, and making Sicily the bread basket of the Roman Empire. This established the latifundia system of land management, which depended upon slave labour in order to be successful – that labour being indigenous Sicilians, of course, and something to which they were to become accustomed over subsequent centuries.
The Romans built extensively in Sicily, not least the first proper roads along its coasts, establishing Palermo as an important city. Notable also are the remarkably preserved mosaic floors of the Villa Imperiale at Piazza Armerina in the centre of the island. These were miraculously preserved by a mudslide which almost certainly resulted from the Roman’s further deforestation of the island, in their eagerness to exploit its fertility. However, the Romans did not seek to impose Latin on the islands inhabitants, most of whom continued to speak Greek, and all official government announcements were made in both languages; no wonder then that today many Sicilian dialects, which continue to be widely spoken, bear little relation to Italian, especially when one considers that later Arab colonists left their mark, too.
Vandals and Ostrogoths (318-535AD)
The decline and break-up of the Roman Empire, and its extinction in the West, affected Sicily. Initially, it was raided by Vandals, who came from North Africa, and then, around 490AD, reunited with the rest of Italy by the wonderfully-named Gothic count, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who claimed the titles magister militum and patricius of all Italy. Although the Ostrogoths sought not to upset the local inhabitants on Sicily, a great many of whom continued to grow wheat destined for the rest of the Italian peninsular, they were not popular rulers.
The Byzantines (515-827 AD)
In 535, when Belisarius and his army sought to wrest Sicily back in the name of the Eastern Empire in Byzantium, the Ostrogoths did not put up a fight. However, the Byzantines seemed to make little impression in Sicily in terms of domination, or developing its cities or civic administration. Further, around 600AD, the arrival of the deadly, malaria-carrying, anopheles mosquito wiped out huge sectors of the Sicilian population, further debilitating the island, which continued to suffer bellicose attacks from its neighbours, and from the developing battles between Christendom and Islam. Whilst the rest of Italy repelled Arab attacks in the south and remained Christian, Sicily fell to Saracen invasion, first in 827 at Mazara del Vallo in the west of the island, and then Palermo in 831, Cefalù on its northern coast (857) and, eventually, Syracuse in the east (878).
Arab Sicily (827-1060)
The Arabs introduced citrus fruits, cotton and silk, pistachio nuts, date palms and sugar cane to Sicily, and introduced new farming and fishing methods. Many traditional Sicilian dishes retain a distinctive north African flavour from the almond sweetmeats such as the marzipan fruits of Cefalu, and stunningly sweet cassatas, to the combinations of dried fruit, fennel and sardines of Pasta con le Sarde. They also built effective systems of irrigation, and sought to break up the hugelatifundia estates established by the Romans. Mining of silver, lead, sulphur, and alum and rock-salt started, trade with the rest of Italy and Europe and Africa was encouraged, and, popularly, taxes were lowered. The Sicilian city of Palermo, especially, continued to grow, and Arab emirs built themselves a splendid palace complex there, and visitors of the period noted literally hundreds of mosques across the island. As well as leaving a distinctly guttural edge to Sicilian dialect, Arabic echos remain in the numerous place names starting with Gibil (mountain) and Calta (castle). In many towns and villages the maze-like system of streets are a very visual reminder of the island’s Arab invaders. Although Sicily certainly prospered under the Arabs, it was also riven by internal political rivalries and religious factionalism and this led the way open to the Norman invasion of Sicily. Sicily’s many wars has meant that Sicily boasts a fascinating and rich history!
The Normans (1060-1194)
Around 1015, Normans knights under the leadership of Robert Guiscard d’Hautville began making their way through mainland Italy, passing as pilgrims, and lending their considerable military skills as mercenaries, fighting with the Lombards against the Greeks, and with the Greeks against the Saracens, as they made their way southwards through the Italian peninsula. Although, ostensibly, Roger d’Hautville (one of Robert’s ten younger brothers) conquered Sicily in the name of his brother and the papacy, he took the title of Count of Sicily and was its de facto ruler. Thus began the most glorious period in Sicily’s history, when it could be said to have most deserved Goethe’s description as, “noble, beautiful, and incomparable”.
Count Roger’s deft administrative skills were perhaps his greatest asset. Shrewdly, he allowed Sicily’s diverse inhabitants to continue practicing their respective religions, languages, and cultures, but in such a way as to strengthen the Norman stronghold on the island. His was the ‘first modern state’, founded on an appreciation of what the pre-existing, diverse peoples on the island could contribute to its continued well-being. Roger d’Hautville died in 1085, but such was the effective administration and sense of comparatively peaceful ‘convivence’ which he left, that his infant son was able eventually to inherit and develop Sicily during his reign. Although a strict and efficient ruler like his father, his court in Palermo became renowned as a meeting place of Greek, Arabic, Jewish, and Christian scholars of the arts and sciences, and the conduit through which their learning passed to the rest of Western Europe.
The greatest legacy of the Normans: their magnificent churches!
The meeting of cultures was not purely theoretical or theological – and the Norman rulers were happy to engage builders and craftsmen from every background and to enjoy and exploit the very best that each had to offer. Despite the relatively short period that the Normans held sway over the island, their influence over Sicily history and Sicily architecture is arguably the most profound. The most visible lasting legacy of Roger II’s reign are the great palaces and churches, such as Sicily’s famous Cappella Palatina and Royal Palace in Palermo and Cefalù’s Cathedral, which fuse Sicily’s different cultures and traditions, creating beautiful architectural forms, colours, and artistic techniques. The high Norman vaults and apses, easily recognized from Northern Europe, are covered in glittering mosaics, redolent of the Eastern tradition from which the artists who wrought them came. The tradition of cultural tolerance was continued by King Roger’s successors, most notably by his grandson, William II (ruled 1166-89), the last of the great Norman kings of Sicily. William founded the wonderful cathedral, monastery, and royal palace at Monreale, which many consider to be Sicily’s greatest artistic achievement. It is perhaps most famous for its stunning, 20 metre high, apse mosaic of Christ Pantocrator (Christ in the act of blessing), and the speed with which it was built – just 11 years! – which contributed the stylistic uniformity of its design and decoration. It is said that nearly 5,000 pounds (2,200 kilos) of gold-leaf was applied to the polychromatic mosaics – the result is simply magnificent! As so often before, despite the strength and cultural flowering of Norman rule, infighting amongst local tyrants eventually led to an erosion of power, and, as ever, predatory forces were eagerly waiting in the wings.
The Hohenstaufen years (1194-1268)
The House of Hohenstaufen came from Swabia in south western Germany. Their leader had been Frederick the Great, the Holy Roman Emperor (also known as Barbarossa by virtue of his red hair and beard), whose power-base extended into Italy. His territorial master-stroke was to marry his son, Henry, to Constance, the sister of King Roger II of Sicily, who then inherited Sicily for the Swabians. Henry had little time to develop what had the makings of a ruthless, despotic reign, as he died of a sudden attack of dysentery in 1197 – although, had he not died, he would surely have been murdered, possibly with his wife’s consent! However, it was their son, Frederick (born in 1195), who sought to re-establish something of Sicily’s former glory, when he inherited his debt-ridden kingdom upon reaching maturity, aged fourteen. He forcefully stamped out corruption and reformed the island’s laws and administration, effectively creating a ‘federation’ of self-governing communes, with himself at their head, as Emperor.
Frederick II was a great intellectual, said to be learned in law, medicine, natural history, and philosophy, spoke fluent Arabic, French, German, Greek, and Latin, and established a cultured court in Sicily in which Arabic science, Greek literature, Hebrew biblical studies, and vernacular Italian poetry, were all revered. To many, Frederick was stupor mundi– literally, the Wonder of the World – and Sicily was the most beloved part of his kingdom. Unfortunately, though, Frederick’s continual efforts to maintain a degree of control over his sprawling empire (which included parts of Italy and Germany) and his frequent disagreements with consecutive popes, meant he was unable to spend much time on the island. After his death a power-struggle between the papacy and various pretenders to Frederick’s crown (most notably, Frederick’s illegitimate, but militarily skilled, son Manfred), led to the installation by the Pope of an Angevin ruler, namely Charles, Duke of Anjou, brother of King Louis IX of France.
The Angevin and the Sicilian Vespers (1268-1282)
Once crowned, however, King Charles of Sicily did little to endear himself to the papacy to whom he owed his crown or to his Sicilian subjects. He imposed high taxes and maintained a severe, authoritarian rule, which made him and his officials and troops very unpopular. The seething discontent amongst the indigenous Sicilians erupted violently on Easter Monday 1282, when an insult made by a French soldier to a Sicilian women as the bells were ringing for vespers, resulted in the entire French garrison and Charles’s administration being slaughtered – as were all other inhabitants of the island who had a French accent! This is notable as the only occasion on which the Sicilians rose up against their oppressors. King Charles escaped, but his reign was over, and the leaders of the revolt found a champion for their cause, namely, Peter of Aragon, who was the husband of Constance, the daughter of Manfred, Frederick II’s illegitimate son, whom many Sicilians had considered their rightful monarch. Thus began centuries of Spanish interest in Sicily, which, although it started comparatively well, ultimately did much to stagnate the island’s development, wealth, and international significance. However, the most lasting legacy of Spanish rule is the wealth of very ornate Baroque churches, which litter the island and provide yet another cultural counterpoint to all that had gone before and cement the intrigue surrounding Sicily’s history.
The Aragonese, Hapsburgs, and viceroys (1282-1734)
In choosing Peter of Aragon, the Sicilians asserted their independence by effectively setting up a parliament to elect their King, a system which remained in place, symbolically at least, until the beginning of the 19th century – however, it is arguable that, even today, there remains a sense of distinctly Sicilian national pride and identity, which is quite separate to anything Italian.
One Aragonese king followed another, as King of Sicily, including some of the most famous of all, such as, Alfonso the Magnanimous, Ferdinand the Catholic, Emperor Charles V, and Philip II. None of them set up court on the island, but instead sent viceroys to rule, whose allegiance was to their king and not to the Sicilians. In 1487, King Ferdinand of Aragon introduced the Inquisition to Sicily. It was surprisingly popular, mainly as a means of pursuing personal vendettas, because it offered the opportunity of anonymously making false denunciations against one’s neighbours – such denunciations were ten times more common in Sicily than they were in Spain! However, the Sicilians were vehemently opposed to the death penalty for religious crimes.
The insular nature of the Inquisition seems also to have culturally cut off Sicily from the intellectual and cultural developments taking place in the rest of Renaissance Italy, with a few notable exceptions, such as the Gagini family of sculptors and the artist Antonello da Messina. Moreover, Spanish rule meant that unlike mainland Italy, Sicily did not benefit from liberation from feudalism; indeed, feudal bonds were strengthened as large portions of land were awarded to Spanish nobles, as reward for service to the Aragonese throne.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Sicily remained under constant threat by Turkish invaders and the occasional attempt by the Angevin to reassert their authority on the island. Sicily experienced relative economic prosperity in the 1600s, but exports and agricultural yields plummeted during the next century, which combined with outbreaks of plague and earthquakes led to a decline from which it never really recovered. The political carving up of the Mediterranean islands following the division of the Habsburg empire in the early 1700s initially awarded Sicily to the House of Savoy, and then to the Austrians. However, in 1734, the young heir to the Spanish throne, Charles of Bourbon, successfully made claim to the kingdoms of Sicily and Naples.
The Bourbons (1734-1860)
Charles and his Bourbon successors preferred Naples to Sicily, and established their courts there. They did little to develop the island, although many Bourbon rulers liked the extensive game hunting the Sicily afforded. By the end of the eighteenth-century, with revolutionary ferment changing the monarchical and political landscape across the European continent, and especially in France, Sicily also came close to ridding itself of its monarchy. By the late 1840s, corruption, mutiny, and violence effectively ended the rule of the Bourbons. This made Sicily into the ideal starting point for Garibaldi’s campaign to unify Italy, and he arrived on the island with his 1,000-strong army of Red Shirts in 1860.
Garibaldi, Unification, World War II, through to today (1860-to date)
Once Giuseppe Garibaldi had landed at Marsala in June 1860, his army was joined by increasingly large numbers of dissident Sicilian fighters, whose loyalty no longer rested with their Bourbon rulers. United, with a strong sense of patriotic purpose, a fair degree of strategic cunning and bare-faced bravura, and a good dose of luck, they eventually defeated the Bourbons. In 1870, Garibaldi officially handed Sicily over to the king of the rest of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II, of the royal house of Savoy, and Sicily became part of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy. However exuberance was quickly dispelled, when the nature of the new order became clear, with only 1% of Sicilians being entitled to vote in the new Italian Parliament. Sicily was once again the outpost of an empire, with absentee rulers who understood little and cared less about the Sicilians who struggled to make a subsistence living from agriculture and fishing.
Over the following century, the poverty of the island led to mass emigration. One and a half million Sicilians found their ways to the Americas, and it was in America that they were recruited to be willing participants in the final invasion of the island, by supplying US Intelligence with detailed information on the topography of the island, its towns, and the names of those in Sicily who would assist their cause. In July 1943, the US Army and allied forces, under the five-star leadership of Generals Patton and Montgomery, landed at Gela and Pozzallo, respectively. They numbered over 160,000, which was larger than any invading force, at any point in Sicily’s long history! Making use of the information gleaned from the Sicilian émigrés, by August, the Allied forces had advanced from the coast to the centre of the island at Enna, and then on to Messina, where they finally defeated the last of the occupying Germans. From there, they went to take on the rest of Italy.
Immediately after the war, the Italians held a referendum on whether to maintain or scrap the monarchy; the republicans won by a paper-thin majority. The House of Savoy went into exile from the whole of Italy, including Sicily. However, Sicily was left impoverished, and with little prospect of work, the island’s inhabitants continued to leave in their tens of thousands, some still to America and Australia, but many travelled to the newly-industrialized northern Italian cities of Genoa, Turin, and Milan, where companies such as Piaggio scooters, Fiat cars, and Pirelli tyres, were rapidly expanding.
Despite this mass emigration, and relative lack of industrial development, Sicily has continued to maintain a degree of self-governance from the rest of Italy, and, even today, remains one of the few autonomous regions of Italy, responsible for its own agriculture, education, and industry, taxation, and sustainable tourism. Further, rather like the system of government under Ferdinand II, Stupor Mundi, regional control is ceded to local agencies.
No history of Sicily would be complete without a word about the Sicily Mafia, perhaps Sicily’s most infamous export. For all that modern Mafiosi are simply just another brand of organised criminals, the original Mafia, or cosa nostra, began life as a local solution to the problems of being governed by generations of absentee rulers, and is as much a legacy of the centuries of foreign invasion, as are the astonishing architectural monuments that cover the island. Indigenous Sicilians had for generations been subsistence farmers and even minor judicial matters such as theft or disagreement could be quite literally a matter of life and death. Waiting for justice to be despatched from a distant seat of power in some far flung and mysterious foreign country was ineffective. It is easy, in this context, to understand the rise of local ‘godfathers’ who understood ‘cosa nostra’ (quite literally “our stuff”) and could dispatch a form of easily understood justice at a local level. What started as an ‘honourable society’, as it grew in strength and power, inevitably became less ‘honourable’, until during the Fascist era the Mafia was known as ‘the Sicilian Problem’ and Cesare Mori was sent to Sicily by Mussolini to weed it out. Mori’s ruthless campaign was relatively successful, however, the Sicilian-American’s recruited by US intelligence for General Patton’s invasion force included a new brand of Mafioso. These had developed a new set of interests in the US and they took the opportunity to strike deals with the Americans in return for their assistance and regained a foothold on the island. The affairs of the modern day Mafia are simply those of any organised crime fraternity anywhere in the world, and should be of little concern to visitors to the island.
The Sicilian language, the ultimate fusion of the incredible diversity of this island’s history, and quite incomprehensible to even fluent Italian speakers, famously has no future tense – the ultimate testimony to centuries of oppression. Modern Sicilians are a complex race, dispossessed for centuries, they now find themselves custodians of the cultural and historical monuments of their oppressors, and in the strongest situation in their history. The visitor to Sicily today senses a resurgence of interest and pride in their past and the beauty and richness of their island, with visitors all year round it provides the locals with a source of sustainable tourism. Now, more than ever, it is time to explore and discover for yourself the unique, precious jewel that is Sicily.