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History of Sicily

From ancient to modern Sicily

A brief synopsis of Sicily's history

In addition to being the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and the largest region inItaly,Sicilyhas a very distinct culture from mainlandItaly. Thousands of years of rule by greater powers, including Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Norman, Hohenstaufen, Catalan, Spanish, interspersed by short periods of independence, have all played their part inSicily’s fascinating history and contributed considerably to so many aspects of the island’s heritage.

The Sicani, Elimi and the Siculi were the first powers to influence Sicilian soil, followed by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians and the Greeks. Sicily was colonized by the Greeks in the 8th century BC with the most important colony established at Syracuse. Greek domination ended in 212BC with the siege at Syracuse in which Archimedes died but the Greek colonies at Selinunte and Himera are still in evidence today.

There then followed six centuries of Roman rule in which Sicily was utilized primarily for its grain fields, but this domination came to a crashing end after the barbarian invasion which resulted in Byzantine, and later Arabic, rule. This was the period in which citrus fruits, pistachio and sugar cane were brought to Sicily.

The Norman stook possession of Sicily in 1071 resulting in a period in which the Kingdom of Sicily was both wealthy and politically powerful. A continued acceptance of Arab administration and Arab and Byzantine craftsmen left behind a phenomenal legacy of art and architecture, still evident in the Norman Palace and Palatine Chapel and the Royal Palace in Palermo and the cathedral at Monreale. 

Subsequent centuries saw the arrival of the Hohenstaufen, the Angevin French and latterly, the Aragonese, who initiated five centuries of Spanish domination of Sicily from 1282. The Bourbon influence in Sicily began in 1734, included the merging of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily in 1816, and lasted until 1860 when Garibaldi embarked upon his unification of Italy, including the defeat of the Bourbons.  



Modern Sicily

The twentieth century started badly, marked by a disastrous earthquake in Messina in 1908, a reluctance to adapt to unification and ultimately mass emigration of around 1.5 million. The Mafia became an intrinsic element of life in Sicily with the Italian state unable to impose its own legal constraints. In 1946, the island was established as an autonomous region ofItaly.

Over the years, several locations – Aeolian Islands, the Villa Romana del Casale, the baroque towns of the Noto Valley, the Etna Volcano and the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento – have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.