A Brief History of Sicily
As we mentioned in Part 1, Sicily was visited by many different groups. If you look at a modern map of the Mediterranean Sea, it’s easy to see why Sicily was so popular. (You can click on any picture to see a larger version.)
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, and is also right in the middle. It’s not known when the first boats were built, but many thousands of years ago early sailors were making their way around the Mediterranean, usually staying within sight of shore so they could easily land if a storm came up. Sailing along the coast of Sicily was the safest way to get back and forth between Italy and Africa. The Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy is only two miles wide, and it’s less than 90 miles from Sicily to Africa.
As we learn about the people visiting Sicily; traders, settlers, conquerors, and slaves, we review much of the history of Western Civilization.
Neolithic and Bronze Ages
The earliest settlements in Sicily date back before 9000BC with agriculture appearing by 5500BC.
We didn’t see any sites this old, but we did visit the island of Lipari in the Aeolian Islands where early people mined and traded obsidian with people around the Mediterranean around 4000BC. Obsidian is great for making stone knives so it was in high demand. It feels like glass and breaks to form very sharp edges.
The Aeolian Islands, above the northeast corner of Sicily, are volcanic with cliffs and steep slopes defining their coastlines. From Lipari, we could see the steam rising from the island of Volcano. We cruised to Stromboli, arriving about 10PM, and watched volcanic explosions of red lava shooting into the night sky.
By 1500BC, most of the Mediterranean Islands were inhabited by advanced agricultural societies. We saw remains of foundations, towers that were over 3 stories high, and ceremonial sites on Lipari as well as Sardinia and Menorca.
Phoenicians & Greeks
The Phoenicians and the Greeks were the next major waves of people coming to Sicily, both arriving in the 8th century BC.
The Phoenicians, the Canaanites of the Bible, were fantastic seamen and traders. They traveled throughout the Mediterranean, into the Atlantic as far as England, and perhaps even circumnavigated Africa (speculation). Their home cities were along the coasts of northern Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Around 800BC, they created colonies in Sicily and founded the city of Carthage in what is now Tunisia in North Africa. In Sicily, the Phoenicians mainly settled the western end, founding Palermo. There are not many Phoenician remains in Sicily today. We saw parts of the city wall around Palermo (See Part 1), and a few simple mosaics.
The Greeks concentrated their colonies in eastern Sicily. By the 6th century BC, there were a number of large, prosperous Greek cities. They built temples and theaters whose remains can still be seen throughout Sicily. The Greeks often enslaved the people captured or conquered in wars. There is a large limestone quarry in Syracuse that also served as the living space for the slaves who built the cities.
Syracuse, the most prominent Greek city, had a population of at least 100,000, and possibly many more. The theater, carved out of solid rock, seated 15,000 or more. Syracuse was the home of one of the great Greek scientists, Archimedes, who was killed by a Roman at the end of their siege in 212BC.
The Phoenician and Greek colonies lasted 600 years, but they weren’t peaceful times. Phoenicians and Greeks fought one another, and the Greeks also fought amongst themselves. Ancient Greece was a collection of independent city-states (e.g. Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes), and rivalries between them often led to wars.
The Romans became interested in taking control of southern Italy in the 3rd century BC. They fought the Greeks off and on for most of the century, and finally conquered Sicily in 210BC. The Romans destroyed Carthage at the end of the 3rd Punic war in 146BC ending any interference by the Phoenicians. Sicily was a major bread-basket for Rome, growing grains, grapes, and other crops. The Greek cities became Roman cities and many continued to prosper. By the 1st century AD, Sicily was supplanted by North Africa as the premiere grain-producing region, concentrated in what is now Tunisia and Western Libya.
By the 5th century AD, after controlling Sicily for nearly 700 years, Rome was in steep decline. The Vandals took Spain and North Africa and began raiding Sicily, eventually conquering it. The Goths held it for a while, then the Byzantines sailed from Constantinople to capture the island in 535AD, led by the great general Belisarius.