The history of Sicily has seen it usually controlled by greater powers—Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, Islamic, Hohenstaufen, Catalan, Spanish—but also experiencing periods of independence as under the Greeks and later as the Emirate then Kingdom of Sicily. Indeed, most of Sicily's early existence is marked by periods of foreign domination, perhaps in part due to the island's fertility. Although today part of the Republic of Italy, it has its own distinct culture.
Sicily is both the largest region of the modern state of Italy and the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Its central location and natural resources ensured that it has been considered a crucial strategic location due in large part to its importance for Mediterranean trade routes. For example, the area was highly regarded as part of Magna Graecia, with Cicero describing Siracusa (Syracuse) as the greatest and most beautiful city of all Ancient Greece.
At times the island has been at the heart of great civilizations, at other times it has been nothing more than a colonial backwater. Its fortunes have often waxed and waned depending on events out of its control, in earlier times a magnet for immigrants, in later times a land of emigrants. On rare occasions, the people of Sicily have been able to wrest control of their island and live through fleeting moments of political independence.
The first people in Sicily are thought to have arrived by sea around 20,000 B.C.E., likely from Western and Central Europe. The indigenous peoples of Sicily, long absorbed into the population, were tribes known to ancient Greek writers as the Elymians, the Sicani and the Siculi or Sicels (from which the island gets its name). Of these, the last were clearly the latest to arrive on this land and were related to other Italic peoples of southern Italy, such as the Italoi of Calabria, the Oenotrians, Chones, and Leuterni (or Leutarni), the Opicans, and the Ausones. It is possible, however, that the Sicani were originally an Iberian tribe. The Elymi, too, may have distant origins outside of Italy, in the Aegean Sea area. Complex urban settlements become increasingly evident from around 1300 B.C.E.
From the eleventh century B.C.E., Phoenicians begin to settle in western Sicily, having already started colonies on the nearby parts of North Africa. Within a century we find major Phoenician settlements at Soloeis (Solunto), present day Palermo and Motya (an island near present day Marsala). As Carthage grew in power, these settlements came under its direct control.
Sicily was colonized by Greeks from the eighth century B.C.E., initially this was restricted to the eastern and southern parts of the island. The Greeks used the natives for labor and also intermarried among them. The most important colony was established at Syracuse in 734 B.C.E. Zancle and Megara Hyblaea were established around the same time as Syracuse. Other important Greek colonies were Gela, Acragas, Selinunte, Himera, and Zancle or Messene (modern-day Messina, not to be confused with the ancient city of Messene in Messenia, Greece). These city states were an important part of classical Greek civilization, which included Sicily as part of Magna Graecia - both Empedocles and Archimedes were from Sicily.
These Greek city-states enjoyed long periods of democratic government, but in times of social stress, in particular, with constant warring against Carthage, tyrants occasionally usurped the leadership. The more famous include: Gelon, Hiero I, Dionysius the Elder Dionysius the Younger, Timoleon, and Agathocles. Sicily was becoming Greek in makeup, and the island maintained almost constant contact with the mother country.
As the Greek and Phoenician communities grew more populous and more powerful, the Sicels and Sicanians were pushed further into the centre of the island. By the third century B.C.E., Syracuse was the most populous Greek city in the world. Sicilian politics was intertwined with politics in Ancient Greece itself, leading Athens, for example, to mount the disastrous Sicilian Expedition in 415 B.C.E. during the Peloponnesian War.
The Greeks came into conflict with the Punic trading communities, by now effectively protectorates of Carthage, with its capital on the African mainland not far from the southwest corner of the island. Palermo was a Carthaginian city, founded in the 8th century B.C.E., named Zis or Sis ("Panormos" to the Greeks). Hundreds of Phoenician and Carthaginian grave sites have been found in a necropolis over a large area of Palermo, now built over, south of the Norman palace, where the Norman kings had a vast park. In the far west, Lilybaeum (now Marsala) was never thoroughly Hellenized. In the First and Second Sicilian Wars, Carthage was in control of all but the eastern part of Sicily, which was dominated by Syracuse. However, the dividing line between the Carthaginian west and the Greek east moved backwards and forwards frequently in the ensuing centuries.
The constant warfare between Carthage and the Greek city-states eventually opened the door to an emerging third power. In the thirdrd century B.C.E. the Messanan Crisis motivated the intervention of the Roman Republic into Sicilian affairs, and led to the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage. By the end of the war in (242 B.C.E.), and with the death of Hiero II, all Sicily was in Roman hands (except for Syracuse), becoming Rome's first province outside of the Italian peninsula.
The success of the Carthaginians during most of the Second Punic War encouraged many of the Sicilian cities to revolt against Roman rule. Rome sent troops to put down the rebellions (it was during the siege of Syracuse that Archimedes was killed). Carthage briefly took control of parts of Sicily, but in the end was driven off. Many Carthaginian sympathizers were killed - in 210 B.C.E. the Roman consul M. Valerian told the Roman Senate that "no Carthaginian remains in Sicily."
For the next six centuries Sicily was a province of the Roman Republic and later Empire. It was something of a rural backwater, important chiefly for its grain fields which were a mainstay of the food supply of the city of Rome until the annexation of Egypt after the Battle of Actium largely did away with that role. Rome collected from Sicily a tribute in the form of grain and wheat. The empire made little effort to Romanize the region, which remained largely Greek in tongue as well as in mannerisms. Local affairs were essentially left to Sicily. One notable event of this period was the notorious misgovernment of Verres as recorded by Cicero in 70 B.C.E. in his oration, In Verrem. Another was the Sicilian revolt under Sextus Pompeius, which liberated the island from Roman rule for a brief period.
A lasting legacy of the Roman occupation, in economic and agricultural terms, was the establishment of the large landed estates, often owned by distant Roman nobles (the latifundia). Slave revolts occurred on the latifundias, but the Romans effectively put them down and they failed to elicit any real change in the system. Despite its largely neglected status, Sicily was able to make a contribution to Roman culture through the historian Diodorus Siculus and the poet Calpurnius Siculus. The most famous archeological remains of this period are the mosaics of a nobleman's villa in present day Piazza Armerina.
It was also during this period that in Sicily we find one of the very first Christian communities. Amongst the very earliest Christian martyrs were the Sicilians Saint Agatha of Catania and Saint Lucy of Syracuse.
As the Roman Empire was falling apart, a Germanic tribe known as the Vandals took Sicily in 440 C.E. under the rule of their king Geiseric. The Vandals had already invaded parts of Roman France and Spain, inserting themselves as an important power in western Europe. However, they soon lost these newly acquired possessions to another East Germanic tribe in the form of the Goths. The Ostrogothic conquest of Sicily (and Italy as a whole) under Theodoric the Great began in 488; although the Goths were Germanic, Theodoric sought to revive Roman culture and government and allowed freedom of religion.
The Gothic War took place between the Ostrogoths and the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire. Sicily was the first part of Italy to be taken with ease under general Belisarius in 535 who was commissioned by Eastern Emperor Justinian I. Sicily was used as a base for the Byzantines to conquer the rest of Italy, with Naples, Rome, Milan and the Ostrogoth capital Ravenna falling within five years. However, a new Ostrogoth king Totila, drove down the Italian peninsula, plundering and conquering Sicily in 550. Totila, in turn, was defeated and killed in the Battle of Taginae by the Byzantine general Narses in 552.
Byzantine Emperor Constans II decided to move from the capital Constantinople to Syracuse in Sicily during 660, the following year he launched an assault from Sicily against the Lombard Duchy of Benevento, which then occupied most of Southern Italy. The rumors that the capital of the empire was to be moved to Syracuse, along with small raids probably cost Constans his life as he was assassinated in 668. His son Constantine IV succeeded him, a brief usurpation in Sicily by Mezezius being quickly suppressed by the new emperor. Contemporary accounts report that the Greek language was widely spoken on the island during this period.
In 826, Euphemius the commander of the Byzantine fleet of Sicily forced a nun to marry him. Emperor Michael II caught wind of the matter and ordered that general Constantine end the marriage and cut off Euphemius' nose. Euphemius rose up, killed Constantine and then occupied Syracuse; he in turn was defeated and driven out to North Africa. He offered rule of Sicily over to Ziyadat Allah the Aghlabid Emir of Tunisia in return for a place as a general and safety; an Islamic army of Arabs, Berbers, Spaniards, Cretans and Persians was sent. The conquest was a see-saw affair, they met much resistance and had internal struggles amongst themselves, it took over one hundred years for the conquest of Byzantine Sicily to be completed with Syracuse holding out for a long time, Taormina fell in 902 and all of the island was conquered by 965.
Throughout this reign, continued revolts by Byzantine Sicilians happened especially in the east and part of the lands were even re-occupied before being quashed. Agricultural items such as oranges, lemons, pistachio and sugar cane were brought to Sicily, the native Christians were allowed nominal freedom of religion with jaziya (tax on kafirs imposed by Muslim rulers) for the right to practice their own religion. However, the Emirate of Sicily began to fragment as inner-dynasty related quarrels took place between the Muslim regime. By the eleventh century mainland southern Italian powers were hiring ferocious Norman mercenaries, who were Christian descendants of the Vikings; it was the French-speaking Normans under Roger I who conquered Sicily from the Muslims. After taking Apulia and Calabria, he occupied Messina with an army of 700 knights. In 1068, Roger Guiscard and his men defeated the Muslims at Misilmeri but the most crucial battle was the siege of Palermo, which led to Sicily being completely in Norman control by 1091.
Palermo continued on as the capital under the Normans. Roger died in 1101, and his son, Roger II of Sicily, was ultimately able to raise the status of the island, along with his holds of Malta and Southern Italy to a kingdom in 1130. During this period the Kingdom of Sicily was prosperous and politically powerful, becoming one of the wealthiest states in all of Europe; even wealthier than England.The Normans introduced Romanesque architecture, and had many Medieval style stone castles built across the island.
The Norman kings relied mostly on the local Sicilian population for the more important government and administrative positions. For the most part, initially Greek remained as the language of administration while Norman-French was the language of the royal court. Significantly, immigrants from Northern Italy and Campania arrived during this period and linguistically the island would eventually become Latinized, in terms of church it would become completely Roman Catholic, previously under the Byzantines it had been more Eastern Christian.
The most significant change the Normans were to bring to Sicily was in the areas of religion, language and population. Almost from the moment Roger I controlled much of the island, immigration was encouraged from both Northern Italy and Campania. For the most part these consisted of Lombards who were Latin-speaking and more inclined to support the Western church. With time, Sicily would become overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and a new vulgar Latin idiom would emerge that was distinct to the island.
Roger II's grandson, William II (also known as William the Good) reigned from 1166 to 1189. His greatest legacy was the building of the Cathedral of Monreale, perhaps the best surviving example of siculo-Norman architecture. In 1177 he married Joan of England (also known as Joanna). She was the daughter of Henry II of England and the sister of Richard the Lion Heart. When William died in 1189 without an heir, this effectively signaled the end of the Hauteville succession. Some years earlier, Roger II's daughter, Constance of Sicily (William II's aunt) had been married off to Henry VI of Hohenstaufen, meaning that the crown now legitimately transferred to him. Such an eventuality was unacceptable to the local barons, and they voted in Tancred of Sicily, an illegitimate grandson of Roger II.
Tancred had died by 1194 just as Henry VI and Constance were travelling down the Italian peninsula to claim their crown on Christmas Day 1194 with no real resistance. Henry rode into Palermo at the head of a large army unopposed and thus ended the Norman Hauteville dynasty, replaced by the south German (Swabian) Hohenstaufen. Just as Henry VI was being coroneted as King of Sicily in Palermo, Constance gave birth to Frederick II (sometimes referred to as Frederick I of Sicily).
Henry had died by 1197, and his son Frederick inherited the position at the age of three. Frederick, like his grandfather Roger II, was passionate about science, learning and literature. He created one of the earliest universities in Europe (in Naples), wrote a book on falconry (De arte venandi cum avibus, one of the first handbooks based on scientific observation rather than medieval mythology). He instituted far-reaching law reform formally dividing church and state and applying the same justice to all classes of society, and was the patron of the Sicilian School of poetry, the first time an Italianate form of vulgar Latin was used for literary expression, creating the first standard that could be read and used throughout the peninsula. In 1224, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and grandson of Roger II, expelled the few remaining Muslims from Sicily. Frederick is remembered for the scientific and artistic innovations that he introduced to Sicily.
Frederick was succeeded firstly by his son, Conrad, and then by his illegitimate son, Manfred, who essentially usurped the crown (with the support of the local barons) while Conrad's son, Conradin was still quite young. A unique feature of all the Swabian kings of Sicily, perhaps inherited from their Siculo-Norman forefathers, was their preference in retaining a regiment of Saracen soldiers as their personal and most trusted regiments. Such a practice, amongst others, ensured an ongoing antagonism between the papacy and the Hohenstaufen. The Hohenstaufen rule ended with the death of Manfredi at the battle of Benevento (1266).
Throughout Frederick's reign, there had been substantial antagonism between the Kingdom and the Papacy, that was part of the Guelph Ghibelline conflict. This antagonism was transferred to the Hohenstaufen house, and ultimately against Manfred.
In 1266 Charles I, duke of Anjou, with the support of the Church, led an army against the Kingdom. They fought at Benevento, just to the north of the Kingdom's border. Manfred was killed in battle and Charles was crowned King of Sicily by Pope Clement IV.
Growing opposition to French officialdom and high taxation led to an insurrection in 1282 (the Sicilian Vespers) which was successful with the support of Peter III of Aragón who was crowned King of Sicily by the island's barons. Peter III had previously married Manfred's daughter, Constance, and it was for this reason that the Sicilian barons effectively invited him. This victory split the Kingdom in two, with Charles continuing to rule the mainland part (still known as the Kingdom of Sicily as well). The ensuing War of the Sicilian Vespers lasted until the peace of Caltabellotta in 1302, although it was to continue on and off for a period of 90 years. With two kings both claiming to be the King of Sicily, the separate island kingdom became known as the Kingdom of Trinacria. It is this very split that ultimately led to the creation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies some 500 years on.
The island easily gave in to Spanish rule. Peter III rule from 1282 until 1285. His son, Frederick III of Sicily (also known as Frederick II of Sicily) reigned from 1298 to 1337. For the whole of the fourteenth century, Sicily was essentially an independent kingdom, ruled by relatives of the kings of Aragon, but for all intents and purposes they were Sicilian kings. The Sicilian parliament, already in existence for a century, continued to function with wide powers and responsibilities.
During this period a sense of a Sicilian people and nation emerged, that is to say, the population was no longer divided between Greek, Arab and Latin peoples. Catalan was the language of the royal court, and Sicilian was the language of the parliament and the general citizenry. These circumstances continued until 1409 when through marriage, the Sicilian throne became part of the Crown of Aragon.
The island's first university was founded at Catania in 1434. Antonello da Messina is Sicily's greatest artist from this period.
With the union of the crowns of Castile and Aragon in 1479, Sicily was ruled directly by the kings of Spain via governors and viceroys. In the ensuing centuries, authority on the island was to become concentrated amongst a small number of local barons.
Sicily suffered a ferocious outbreak of the Black Death in 1656, followed by a damaging earthquake in the east of the island in 1693. Mount Etna an active volcano, erupted again in 1669 causing further devastation to the island. Sicily was frequently attacked by Barbary pirates from North Africa. The subsequent rebuilding created the distinctive architectural style known as Sicilian Baroque. Periods of rule by the crown of Savoy (1713-1720) and then the Austrian Habsburgs gave way to union (1734) with the Bourbon-ruled kingdom of Naples, under the rule of Don Carlos of Bourbon who later ruled as Charles III of Spain).
The Bourbon kings officially resided in Naples, except for a brief period during the Napoleonic Wars between 1806 and 1815 when in the royal family lived in exile in Palermo. The Sicilian nobles welcomed British military intervention during this period and a new constitution was developed specifically for Sicily based on the Westminster model of government. The Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily were officially merged in 1816 by Ferdinand I to form the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (although the term had already come into use in the previous century). This single act effectively put an end to Sicilian aspirations of independent responsible government.
Simmering discontent with Bourbon rule and hopes of Sicilian independence was to give rise to a number of major revolutions in 1820 and 1848 against Bourbon denial of constitutional government. The 1848 revolution resulted in a 16-month period of independence from the Bourbons before its armed forces took back control of the island on May 15, 1849. The bombardments of Messina and Palermo earned Ferdinand II the name "King Bomba."
Sicily was joined with the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1860 following the expedition of Giuseppe Garibaldi's Mille; the annexation was ratified by a popular plebiscite. The Kingdom of Sardinia became in 1861 the Kingdom of Italy, in the context of the Italian Risorgimento.
In 1866, Palermo revolted against Italy. The city was bombed by the Italian navy, which disembarked on September 22 under the command of Raffaele Cadorna. Italian soldiers summarily executed the civilian insurgents, and took possession once again of the island.
A limited, but long guerrilla campaign against the unionists (1861-1871) took place throughout southern Italy, and in Sicily, inducing the Italian governments to a severe military response. These insurrections were unorganized, and were considered by the Government as operated by "brigands" ("Brigantaggio"). Ruled under martial law for several years, Sicily (and southern Italy) was the object of a harsh repression by the Italian army that summarily executed thousands of people, made tens of thousands prisoners, destroyed villages, and deported people.
The Sicilian economy did not adapt easily to unification, and in particular competition by Northern industry made attempts at industrialization in the South almost impossible. While the masses suffered by the introduction of new forms of taxation and, especially, by the new Kingdom's extensive military conscription, the Sicilian economy suffered, leading to an unprecedented wave of emigration.
In 1894 labor agitation through the radical left-wing Fasci dei lavoratori led again to the imposition of martial law.
Ongoing government neglect in the late nineteenth century period ultimately enabled the establishment of organized crime networks commonly known as the mafia, meaning "family". The mafia offered assistance to the rich and the poor, thus it proved appealing across social class boundaries. These were gradually able to extend their influence across all sectors over much of the island (and many of its operatives also emigrated to other countries, particularly the United States). The mafia was partly contained under the Fascist regime beginning in the 1920s under, but recovered quickly following the World War II Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943.
Following some political agitation, Sicily became an autonomous region in 1946 under the new Italian constitution, with its own parliament and elected President. Sicily benefited to some extent from the partial Italian land reform of 1950-1962 and special funding from the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, the Italian government's development Fund for the South (1950-1984). Sicily returned to the headlines in 1992, however, when the assassination of two anti-mafia magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino triggered a general upheaval in Italian political life.
In the past decade, Sicily, and its surrounding islets, has become a target destination for illegal immigrants and people-smuggling operations.
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