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The oldest rock paintings and tools found date back to the Old and Middle Ages (approx. 35,000-5,000 B.C.). This shows that the earliest inhabitants lived in caves and supported themselves by fishing and hunting. During the young Stone Age (5,000-3,000 B.C.), the inhabitants of Sicily began to settle in settlements and supported themselves by means of cattle breeding, arable farming and mining.

The best known Neolithic culture is that of Stentinello, north of Syracuse. The Copper and Bronze Age (3,000-700 BC) were periods when peoples from Africa, the Middle East and the Iberian Peninsula settled on the island. Famous cultures from these periods were the Conca d'Oro culture, the Capo Graziano culture and the Castelluccio culture.

Greek rule

Archaeological findings have shown that there were already trade contacts with the Greeks around 1500 BC. Prior to the colonisation of Sicily by the Greeks, three important peoples lived on Sicily: the Sicanians of Iberian (Spain, Portugal) origin in the centre and west, the Elymians of uncertain (Anatolia?) origin in the west, and the Siculians, from the Italian mainland in the east. The Phoenicians, a seafaring people, were the first real settlers who, at the beginning of the 8th century B.C., established a number of trading settlements on the west coast.

In the same century, the Greek colonisation of the island began. These Greeks had left Greece due to numerous problems (e.g. overpopulation, political tensions) and settled all over the Mediterranean, including Sicily. The first Greek city on Sicily was Naxos, founded in around 735 BC. Many other cities followed, including Syracuse, Katane (now Catania) and Acragas (now Agrigento). In addition to the introduction of Greek culture, independent city-states (poli) were soon founded which formed the basis of the Greek state system in Greece itself.

These city-states were characterised by an aggressive expansion policy and therefore often came into conflict with the indigenous population, but also with each other. Finally, from 491-478 BC, Gelon became the most powerful ruler in Sicily and made Syracuse the largest and most important city in the western Greek world. During this period, the Phoenician colonies in Sicily had been taken over by the Punics, Phoenician settlers from the city-state of Carthage in North Africa. These Punic colonists tried to break the power of the Greeks but were defeated by the Greeks in the battle of Himera and from then on did not have much influence anymore on the island. This was the heyday of Greek culture on Sicily. The population rose to the gigantic size of 5 million, about the same number as live on Sicily today. For the entire Greek world this is called the classical period. The Greeks led the way, both militarily and in terms of literature, architecture, sculpture, philosophy and science. Sicily also reaped the benefits of this and was little inferior to Athens. Stesichorus, Empedocles, Gorgias, Theocritus and Archimedes, among others, came from Sicilian cities or worked there for long periods.

This period also marked the end of the powerful rulers of the city-states. Just as in Greece itself, democracy was introduced in Sicily: power to the people. Nevertheless, many armed conflicts were fought out in the golden 5th century BC. The conflict between Syracuse and Segesta was seized upon by Athens to make Sicily sing a different tune. Syracuse was besieged for two years, but managed to keep the Greeks at bay. However, these wars weakened Syracuse and its allies to such an extent that the Punic army of Carthage saw an opportunity to destroy several city-states. In 403 BC it was agreed with Syracuse that Sicily would be divided into two spheres of influence. At the beginning of the 4th century, Syracuse was the only remaining power due to all the wars and conflicts and was led by Dionysus I. He gave Syracuse a period of prosperity again and even managed to recapture territory lost to the Carthaginians.

After the period of Dionysus I, a family succession crisis led to civil wars that severely affected Sicily. In 344 BC the Greeks sent an army led by Timoleon to Sicily to restore peace. He soon succeeded in restoring the situation on Sicily to normal and prosperity quickly recovered. After Timoleon's death in 336 BC, chaos reigned again on the island until Agathokles seized power. Agathokles was a dictator and fought many wars with all the Greek city-states of Sicily.

Roman rule

However, the Greeks increasingly lost their hold on Sicily and the Carthaginians and the increasingly powerful Romans began to interfere. Only the Greek Pyrrhus attempted to seize power, but was eventually defeated by the Romans. One of Pyrrhus' generals, Hieronymus, formed an alliance with the Romans and founded a kingdom on eastern Sicily with Syracuse as its capital. From the 3rd century B.C., the Romans and Carthaginians fought each other for control of the Mediterranean. After the three Punic Wars, the Romans were victorious. The second Punic War was even partly fought on Sicilian territory. Syracuse was besieged by the Romans for two years because they had sided with the Greeks.

Finally, the city was destroyed and that meant the end of Greek civilisation in Sicily. In 212 BC, the island belonged definitively to the Roman Empire and was governed by a governor and with the help of a number of large landowners. The production of grain on Sicily was very important to the Romans and ensured great prosperity. The entire Roman period was characterised by calm on the political and military fronts.

Only two slave wars in the 2nd century B.C. caused much unrest. In 395 AD, the Roman Empire fell apart into the Western Roman and Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empires. Large-scale migration also took place at this time. Sicily was occupied from 468 to 476 by the Vandals under the leadership of Geiserik, who were succeeded by the Eastern Goths. In 535 Sicily was again conquered by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

Arabs and Normans

The successors to the Byzantines were the Arabs who, after the death of Mohammed in 632, rapidly conquered large parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Sicily was gradually conquered by the dynasties of the Aghlabids and Fatimids from 827 onwards. The last Byzantine stronghold, Syracuse, fell in 878. By 965, the whole of Sicily was under Islamic domination and most Byzantines had fled the island.

In the 11th century, the Normans, descendants of the Vikings from Scandinavia, came into the picture. They came to the aid of the Greeks in the fight against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire and founded an empire in Southern Italy. From there, Sicily was also conquered by the brothers Roger and Robert Guiscard between 1066 and 1091. Under the Normans, especially in the first half of the 12th century under Roger II, Sicily flourished in the fields of architecture, fine arts, philosophy and science.

Militarily and politically, it was also a quiet period, allowing all the peoples and cultures present to live peacefully alongside each other. This changed under the influence of the Crusades in the second half of the 12th century and led to a large-scale emigration of Jews and Muslims.


In 1194, the Norman domination of Sicily came to an end. The island was annexed after fierce fighting by Henry VI of Hohenstaufen, a son of the German emperor and married to a daughter of Roger II. Sicily developed very rapidly under the Hohenstaufens, especially under Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, nicknamed "stupor mundi" (= shaker of the world). In Sicily, by the way, he is called Frederick I.

Despite problems with the Pope of Rome, Sicily became the centre of trade and culture one more time. The "Constitution of Melfi", a modern constitution for the time, and the Sicilian school of poetry, among others, date from this time. After the death of Frederick II, he was succeeded by his son Manfred, the last of the Hohenstaufen family, who was killed in 1266 by the troops of Charles of Anjou of France. Charles was crowned King of Sicily and Naples and ruled as a tyrant.

In 1282, a major rebellion, the "Sicilian Vespers", followed which resulted in a real war of independence. The Sicilians asked for help from Pedro III of Aragon (Peter I) in Spain, but it took another twenty years before the French were finally driven out.

Spanish rule

With the arrival of the Aragonese, the Spanish rule began, which would last 600 years. After the death of Peter I, Aragon and Sicily were ruled by different princes. In 1314, Frederick II proclaimed himself king of an independent Sicily. This lasted until 1406 when Sicily again became a region of Aragon. After that, Sicily would be governed by 78 viceroys of Spain. The Spanish rule eventually led to the cultural and economic decline of Sicily. The Spanish rulers, with a few exceptions, exploited Sicily. For example, Sicily was practically deforested for shipbuilding and agriculture. The University of Catania was founded under Alfonso I in 1444.

The unification of Spain in 1479 did not do Sicily much good. Jews and Muslims were chased away and Spain abandoned Sicily altogether after the discovery of America in 1492. Sicily was still visited by Charles V, but many viceroys after him depleted the island further and further. Only the rich became richer, the population impoverished, which inevitably led to several rebellions, of which the 1647 rebellion led by Giuseppe d'Alesi was the most famous. The natural disaster of Mount Etna struck Sicily in 1669 and 1693. All the towns in south-east Sicily were destroyed.

In 1700, a dispute arose over the succession to the throne of the childless Charles II, which led to the War of the Spanish Succession that ended with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Philip V of Bourbon was the lucky one and was allowed to ascend the throne. Sicily was awarded to the Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus. Amadeus exchanged the island for Sardinia, another Mediterranean island, a few years later. The Austrian Emperor Charles VI then gave Sicily to the Spanish Bourbons, who crowned Prince Charles V king of Sicily and Naples. He was succeeded by his son Ferdinand IV. Ferdinand appointed Domenico Caracciolo as Viceroy of Sicily. He saw to it that the powerful Jesuit order was expelled in 1767 and that the Inquisition was curbed in 1782. However, the social situation remained the same, the people remained poor and the nobility and the church became richer.

However, the ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in 1789 made the population of Sicily aware of its hopeless situation and it would not be long before strong nationalistic feelings emerged. The first rebellion dates back to 1795, but was put down by Ferdinand. In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Naples, forcing Ferdinand to flee to Palermo. With the help of the English, he returned in 1802, but was later forced to flee to Sicily again, this time until 1812. Although the French never occupied Sicily, Ferdinand was forced to agree to a new constitution for Sicily. Among other things, this provided for the independence of Sicily from Naples, the separation of powers, the creation of a two-chamber parliament and an increase in the rights of the population.

From 1815, after the final defeat of Napoleon, followed the period of the Restoration: an attempt by the major powers in Europe to return to the situation before the French Revolution. By the Treaty of Vienna, the Bourbons gained control over Sicily and Ferdinand IV restored the former bicommunal unity under the name "Kingdom of the two Sicilies" and called himself Ferdinand I. The constitution was again annulled and all this led to Sicily becoming one of the poorest areas in Europe. But the Sicilian nationalists remained active and in 1820 the revolt of the "carbonari", a liberal-nationalist society, followed. The successors of Ferdinand I tried to turn the tide with some reforms, but the bear was definitely loose.

In the revolution year 1848, there was another uprising and independence was even declared. This situation lasted only until 15 May 1849, when Naepolitan troops took Palermo after bombing the city of Messina. In 1860, a new uprising followed and the freedom fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi came into the picture. With a small army, he landed near Marsala from Genoa on 11 May 1860 and, after a brief battle with the armies of the Bourbons, the six centuries of Spanish rule came to an end.

Sicily united with Italy but still autonomous

Garibaldi ruled for a time over Sicily in the name of King Vittorio Emanuele II of Italy. On the initiative of Prime Minister and leader of the Italian unity movement Cavour, a popular vote was held. The aim was to join the kingdom of Sardinia and many people voted in favour. Six months later, however, the unity of the whole of Italy followed. The new Italian government showed little interest in the south of Italy and thus also in poor, agricultural Sicily. This led to labour revolts in Palermo in 1866 and a peasant revolt in 1893, which ended in a bloodbath. A massive emigration was the almost logical consequence: between 1880 and 1950, more than 1.5 million Sicilians emigrated, mainly to the United States and mainland Italy. The rise of the Mafia around 1860 can also be explained by this.

After the First World War, Benito Mussolini and fascism dominated life in Italy for several decades. After he came to power, he made sure that the Catania plain was drained, malaria was banished from the island and the large landowners were expropriated and the land was divided among the landless peasants. On 10 July 1943 the Allies landed at Gela and in September of that year Sicily was liberated from the German and Italian troops.

This was followed by a period in which the mafia and separatists prevailed. In February 1944, a struggle for independence began that would last until 1947. In 1947, Sicily partly got its way. Together with Sardinia, Sicily was given a separate status (regione a statuto speciale) with far-reaching autonomy. Elections that year resulted in a victory of communists and socialists, to the displeasure of the mafia and the church. Under pressure from these powerful institutions, the Christian Democrats won the elections in 1950.

Also in 1950, the economic stimulus fund "Cassa del Mezzogiorno" was established to support the economy of Southern Italy and Sicily. Due to, among other things, corruption and mafia practices, many liras ended up in the wrong place and all the money yielded very little in the end. Also the oil that was found off the coast, for instance near Syracuse, only caused a modest economic revival. At the beginning of June 1955, Sicily was the centre of international attention during the Messina Conference. Here the foundations were laid for the European Economic Community, now the European Union. In the sixties and seventies, the Italian government and the European Community poured billions of lire into poor Sicily, including into housing construction, which, however, was another example of corruption.

In 1980, Sicily's regional president, Piersanti Mattarella, was assassinated by the mafia. In the 1980s, the struggle between the various mafia clans was central to Sicily. Since 1992, there have been great successes in the fight against the mafia despite the murder of the investigating judges Falcone and Borsellino in 1992.

In October 2006, the Italian parliament decided to halt plans for a bridge connecting Sicily to the mainland. A majority considered the plan too expensive and risky. The bridge across the Strait of Messina, with a length of 3 kilometres, was supposed to be the longest suspension bridge in the world and was meant to give Sicily an economic boost. The sum of EUR 4.4 billion already set aside was invested in other infrastructure projects on the island.

Rosario Crocetta has been President of Sicily since 10 November 2010. He will be succeeded by Nello Musumeci in November 2017.

See also History of Italy.


Scholten, J. / Sicilië: met de Egadische en Eolische eilanden
Van Reemst

Bausenhardt, H. / Sicilië
Van Reemst

Haan-van de Wiel, W.H. de / Sicilië

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
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