A Brief History of Sicily

Between marvels and time travel.

At the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Sicily has variously been:
• Phoenician/Carthaginian (210 BC–110 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)

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 Phoenicians colonies with which they shared Sicily.

Sicily only became part of the Kingdom of Italy when Garibaldi landed there with his 1,000 red-shirts in 1860 to drive out the Bourbons (and even that conquest took nine months).
But Sicily’s past goes back well beyond history.
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 north-western 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 Temples Valley, Agrigento. Sicily –

Despite the early Phoenicians 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 and theaters. 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 “Hellenistic” style (which means Greek-inflected Roman), and later a Roman Imperial style. However, very little of Roman-era Sicily remains.

– Thermae della Rotonda, Catania, Sicily –

The post-Roman Byzantine empire held onto parts of Sicily from the 6th century to the 9th century, 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 island’s capital in the 9th century.

– Palermo, heart of the Norman Sicily –

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-Scandinavian fashions.

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

– Syracuse Baroque Cathedral –

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 1980’s and 90’s that the criminal organization we call the Ma仙a began to lose its dominance over corrupt local governments.

– Traditional Sicilian Kart Art, detail –

If “what doesn’t kill you makes you strong” is an agreed upon statement, then we definitely have strengthen our DNA at least. eh eh…. 😉

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