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Sicily: The Island over the Centuries

Sicily: The Island over the Centuries

Due to its central position in the Mediterranean, Sicily has been fought for by enormous empires and kingdoms, fiefdoms and Mafia bosses. All these wars in which it has been involved, the conquests and changes of powers have left a pastiche of religions, architecture, food and customs.

First inhabitants

Today visitors to the island can take a look at the paintings from the Stone Age that the inhabitants etched in caves of the Egadi Island (Levanzo) and Monte Pellegrino.
There are traces of the settlement of the Stentillenians who originate from the Middle East and were on the island in the 30th and 40th centuries BC.
In the second millennium the island saw the division of the island between the Sicanians who came to the north and west of Sicily, the Elymians, of Greek origin, in the south and the Siculians on the Ionian Coast. Later on the north African Carthaginians came to the west (9th century BC) and the Greeks in approximately the 7th century.The obsidian commerce began and ports flourished along the west coast.

Greek expansion

It began in the 8th century BC when the Calcicians arrived and founded Naxos. Immediately the Corinthians also came and founded Syracoussai. One after the other they established  new settlements and the island was mostly conquered by their culture. Megara Hyblaea, Gela, Selinunte, Messina and Agrigento came later.
The struggle for power began between the Phoenicians (on the western side) and the Greeks (south and east dominance). Hamilcar the Carthaginian general supporting the Phoenicians landed in Sicily but was defeated in Himera by Gelon.
Growth and prosperity are proven by the great monuments of the Greeks on the island. Towns became powerful and thriving yet rivalries and ill treatment of the original settlers counteracted the Greeks’achevements and brought about struggle on the island.
For the first time a Sicilian colony, Syracoussai, became a rival of Athens. Defeating the Greek army it became the most powerful city in Sicily. When Syracuse was still savouring the Greeks’ defeat Carthage invaded again led by Hannibal who destructed Selinunte, Himera, Agrigento and Gela.
Even though peace prevailed over the following two centuries,Tymoleon and Hieron’s era, in the towns in Sicily, the Greek domination on the island did not have much longer to remain.

The Romans‘ first colony

Conquering Sicily meant a bridge to the whole of the Mediterranean. The Romans enslaved Sicilian inhabitants in enormous estates and denied their right to citizenship bringing about two rebellions.
Over the following centuries Sicily experienced a commercial rebirth and the grandest monuments were erected. In the 3rd century AD Sicilians became citizens of the empire.
After Rome’s fall to the barbarians, the vandals took over for a short while and the Byzantine came later inspired by the idea of getting all the land the Saracens had conquered.
In the 9th century the Moors decided to extend their power over the Mediterranean commercial routes. Sicily was obviously essential and was where they started their conquest.
The Saracens invaded and took Palermo and Syracuse, the most powerful towns in Sicily.
It was a flourishing period as the Saracens made changes to land distribution, encouraged trade, agriculture and mining, brought citrus trees and sugar cane and created an irrigation system.

The Normans arrive

Robert Guiscard, the conqueror and mercenary, had gained territory on the peninsula.
In exchange for being given the title of duke, Robert Guiscard promised to return Sicily to the Christian world. And so he did with the help of his brother Roger, who, being invested with the title of count of Sicily turned the island into a prosperous land and ordered the creation of magnificent buildings. His power was marked by the acceptance of difference in language, acceptance of different cultures and blending of east and west.
His successor, Roger II, was an intellectual who brought Greek and Arab advisers into his court, favoured the arts and expanded his kingdom.
Roger II’s successors’ struggles for power, the eviction of the Arab inhabitants leaving the bureaucracy without resourceful employees, and tension between the Roman Catholic church and throne undermined the efficient and prosperous kingdom created by Roger.
After struggle for the crown the Hohenstaufen house reigned in Sicily. Frederick I of Sicily turned the island into a centralized power, enlightened by the arts and fortified on many sides with a splendorous city as Palermo, an important trade and cultural centre.
The disadvantages of his kingdom were the imposition of official limits to free trade and the underlying enmity of the barons and Allies and popes.

The French period and the Sicilian Vespers

Pope Urban IV proposed that Charles of Anjou took power, the Hohenstaufen ‘s heirs were killed in battle or beheaded. High taxes, religious intolerance, persecution of those favouring the Hohenstaufen were features of this period. The Angivian was deposed in the Sicilian Vespers that lasted 20 years. When the Spanish took Sicily it became a kingdom based on a real feudal system characterized by its lack of religious tolerance and the control of the Inquisition.

The Spanish era

The Turks in the east, the Italian Renaissance which could not reach the island due to the monopolistic policy of the Spanish and the crown favouring America over Sicily as the commercial route, left the island in an unfavourable position. The king did not even know the island.
Poverty, ignorance, cruel and dishonest viceroys, capricious nobility and religious intolerance marked the Spanish dominance. The 17th and 18th centuries were characterized by earthquakes and volcanic activity and following wars and the demands of reforms were neglected.
The arrival of Napoleon on the mainland made Ferdinand  head for Sicily. To bring everything back to normal, the commander of the British forces insisted on a constitution that annulled feudal privileges and created a parliament and a new court in Palermo.


When Ferdinand’s kingdom was reunited, 12 years had to pass until Garibaldi’s heroic arrival on the island to take over and establish the much desired unification. It took place in 1860, almost 6 centuries after the Spanish took control of Sicily.
Garibaldi did not lead social reform by giving land to workers. Soon after, by referendum the Savoy house became the crown of the kingdom.

The Kingdom of Italy, Fascism and Mafia activity

Only a select group could vote, high taxes and the much expected but unfulfilled reforms created a tense atmosphere after the Unification.
So the mafiosi appeared. They were the middlemen between agrarian tenants and owners, solving any problem because of the lack of a resourceful and fair legal system.
Their job was handed down in  families that divided the territory and did what the state did not.
The fasci (the agrarian trade union) were pressing for reform, which brought about the repression on the part of the state.
Emigration and unfulfilled agrarian reforms marked the beginning of the 20th century. Mussolini established Fascism in Italy and Sicily. He almost erased Mafia organizations. His decision to enter WWII caused great damage to the island. It was a Mafia don  who, helping the Allies, took the island back.

Post war era

The separatist movement went on thriving, and the Communists went on with protests of the agrarian sector demanding land reform. The Mafia was asked to help crush the protests of Communists in the country.
The Mafia has made sure that the Christian Democrats led the polls to favour their interests. This system is known as political patronage.
Mafia activities have helped keep Sicily in a state of poverty compared to the north of the country in spite of the national government to develop the region.
The institutionalization of bribery as the order of the day was a scandal that rocked the country. Even the prime minister in 1995 was tried after the “Clean Hands” investigation.
The two magistrates that led the investigation were murdered. This opened the door to the Sicilians unveiling their opinions about the Mafia freely.

Current century

In spite of a real unemployment of 30 %, with salaries which are half of the northern inhabitants,’ Sicily has improved its conditions. Industry is quite poor and agriculture still the base for its economy. Modernity is still scarcely welcomed by its majority.
The last decades have seen the prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on trial and three main notorious Mafia figures arrested.