Sicily is located in the central Mediterranean. It extends from the tip of the Apennine peninsula from which it is separated only by the narrow Strait of Messina, towards the North African coast. Its most prominent landmark is Mount Etna, which is at the tallest active volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world. The island has a typical Mediterranean climate.
The earliest archeological evidence of human dwelling on the island dates from as early as 8000 BC. At around 750 BC, Sicily became a Greek colony and for the next 600 years it was the site of the Greek-Punic and Roman-Punic wars, which ended with the Roman destruction of Carthage. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, Sicily often changed hands, and during the early Middle Ages it was ruled in turn by the Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans. Later on, the Kingdom of Sicily lasted between 1130 and 1816, first subordinated to the crowns of Aragon, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and finally unified under the Bourbons with Naples, as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. With the Expedition of the Thousand, a Giuseppe Garibaldi-led revolt during the Italian Unification process, it became part of Italy in 1860 as a result of a plebiscite. After the birth of the Italian Republic in 1946, Sicily was given special status as an autonomous region.
Sicily has a rich and unique culture, especially with regard to the arts, music, literature, cuisine, architecture and language. Sicily also holds importance for archeological and ancient sites such as the Necropolis of Pantalica, the Valley of the Temples and Selinunte.
Historical Monarchy of Sicily
The original inhabitants of Sicily were three defined groups of the Ancient peoples of Italy. The most prominent and by far the earliest of these was the Sicani, who were claimed by Thucydides to have arrived from the Iberian Peninsula (perhaps Catalonia). Important historical evidence has been discovered in the form of cave drawings by the Sicani, dated from the end of the Pleistocene epoch, around 8000 BC. The arrival of the first humans is correlated with extinction of dwarf hippos and dwarf elephants. The Elymians, thought to be from the Aegean Sea, were the next tribe to migrate to join the Sicanians on Sicily.
Although there is no evidence of any wars between the tribes, when the Elymians settled in the north-west corner of the island, the Sicanians moved across eastwards. From mainland Italy, thought to originally have been Ligures from Liguria, came the Sicels in 1200 BC; forcing the Sicanians to move back across Sicily settling in the middle of the island. Other minor Italic groups who settled in Sicily were the Ausones (Aeolian Islands, Milazzo) and the Morgetes (Morgantina). There are many studies of genetic records which show inhabitants of various parts of the Mediterranean Basin mixed with the oldest inhabitants of Sicily. Among these were Egyptian, Phoenician, and Iberian. The Phoenicians also were early settlers before the Greeks.
Greek and Roman period
About 750 BC, the Greeks began to live in Sicily (Σικελία – Sikelia), establishing many important settlements. The most important colony was Syracuse; other significant ones were Akragas, Selinunte, Gela, Himera, and Zancle. The native Sicani and Sicel peoples were absorbed by the Hellenic culture with relative ease, and the area was part of Magna Graecia along with the rest of southern Italy, which the Greeks had also colonised. Sicily was very fertile, and the introduction of olives and grape vines flourished, creating a great deal of profitable trading; a significant part of Greek culture on the island was that of Greek religion and many temples were built across Sicily, such as the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento.
Politics on the island was intertwined with that of Greece; Syracuse became desired by the Athenians, who during the Peloponnesian War set out on the Sicilian Expedition. Syracuse gained Sparta and Corinth as allies, and as a result the Athenian expedition was defeated. The Athenian army and ships were destroyed, with most of the survivors being sold into slavery.
The Second Punic War, in which Archimedes was murdered, saw Carthage trying to take Sicily from the Roman Republic. They failed and this time Rome was even more unrelenting in the annihilation of the invaders; during 210 BC the Roman consul M. Valerian, told the Roman Senate that "no Carthaginian remains in Sicily".
Sicily served a level of high importance for the Romans as it acted as the empire's granary. It was divided into two quaestorships, in the form of Syracuse to the east and Lilybaeum to the west. Although under Augustus some attempt was made to introduce the Latin language to the island, Sicily was allowed to remain largely Greek in a cultural sense, rather than a complete cultural Romanisation. When Verres became governor of Sicily, the once prosperous and contented people were put into sharp decline. In 70 BC, noted figure Cicero condemned the misgovernment of Verres in his oration In Verrem.
The island was used as a base of power numerous times, being occupied by slave insurgents during the First and Second Servile Wars, and by Sextus Pompey during the Sicilian revolt. Christianity first appeared in Sicily during the years following AD 200; between this time and AD 313 when Constantine the Great finally lifted the prohibition on Christianity, a significant number of Sicilians became martyrs such as Agatha, Christina, Lucy, Euplius and many more. Christianity grew rapidly in Sicily during the next two centuries. The period of history during which Sicily was a Roman province lasted for around 700 years in total.
Early Middle Ages
As the Western Roman Empire was falling apart, a Germanic tribe known as the Vandals took Sicily in AD 440 under the rule of their king Geiseric. The Vandals had already invaded parts of Roman France and Spain, asserting 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.
In the 6th century, 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 under general Belisarius who was commissioned by Eastern Emperor Justinian I, this campaign being part of an ambitious project of restoring the whole Roman Empire, uniting the Eastern and the Western halves. 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.
In 535, Emperor Justinian I made Sicily a Byzantine province, and for the second time in Sicilian history, the Greek language became a familiar sound across the island. As the power of the Byzantine Empire waned, Sicily was invaded by the Arab forces of Caliph Uthman in 652. The Arabs failed to make any permanent gains, and returned to Syria after gathering some booty.
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, 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.
By 826, Euphemius the commander of the Byzantines killed his wife in Sicily and 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' head. 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; a Muslim army of Arabs, Berbers, Spaniards of Al-Andalus (which was then an Islamic region), Cretans and Persians was sent. The conquest was a see-saw affair and met with much resistance. It took over a century for Byzantine Sicily to be conquered. Syracuse held out for a long time, Taormina fell in 902, and all of Sicily was eventually conquered by Berbers and Arabs in 965.
Arab Sicily (965–1072)
The Arabs initiated land reforms which in turn, increased productivity and encouraged the growth of smallholdings, a dent to the dominance of the landed estates. The Arabs further improved irrigation systems. A description of Palermo was given by Ibn Hawqal, an Arab merchant who visited Sicily in 950. A walled suburb called the Al-Kasr (the palace) is the center of Palermo to this day, with the great Friday mosque on the site of the later Roman cathedral. The suburb of Al-Khalisa (Kalsa) contained the Sultan's palace, baths, a mosque, government offices, and a private prison. Ibn Hawqal reckoned 7,000 individual butchers trading in 150 shops.
Throughout this reign, revolts by Byzantine Sicilians continuously occurred, especially in the east, and parts of the island were re-occupied before being quashed. Agricultural items such as oranges, lemons, pistachio and sugar cane were brought to Sicily. Under the Arab rule the island was aligned in three administrative regions, or "vals", roughly corresponding to the three "points" of Sicily: Val di Mazara in the west; Val Demone in the northeast; and Val di Noto in the southeast.
As dhimmis, the native Christians (Eastern Orthodox) were allowed freedom of religion, but had to pay a tax, Jizya, and had limitations placed on their occupations, dress and ability to participate in public affairs. The Emirate of Sicily began to fragment as intra-dynastic quarreling fractured the Muslim regime. During this time there was also a minor Jewish presence.
Norman Sicily (1068–1194)
By the 11th century, mainland southern Italian powers hired Norman mercenaries, who conquered Sicily from the Arabs under Roger I. After taking Apulia and Calabria, he occupied Messina with an army of 700 knights. In 1068, Roger was victorious at Misilmeri, but the most crucial battle was the siege of Palermo, which in 1072 led to Sicily coming under Norman control.
The Normans, the Hautevilles, who were descended from the Vikings, came to appreciate and admire the rich and layered culture in which they now found themselves. Many Normans in Sicily adopted some of the attributes of Muslim rulers in dress, language, literature, and even in the presence of palace Eunuchs and according to some accounts, a harem. Like the multi-ethnic Caliphate of Córdoba, then only just eclipsed, the court of Roger II became the most luminous center of culture in the Mediterranean, both from Europe and the Middle East. This attracted scholars, scientists, poets, artists and artisans of all kinds. In Norman Sicily, still with heavy Arab influence, laws were issued in the language of the community to whom they were addressed: the governance was by the rule of law so there was justice. Muslims, Jews, Byzantine Greeks, Lombards and Normans worked together to form a society that historians have said has created some of the most extraordinary buildings the world has ever seen.
Kingdom of Sicily
Palermo continued on as the capital under the Normans. Roger's son, Roger II of Sicily, having succeeded his brother Simon of Sicily as Count of Sicily, was ultimately able to raise the status of the island to a kingdom in 1130, along with his other holdings which included the Duchy of Apulia and Calabria and the Maltese Islands. 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 the Kingdom of England.
Significantly, immigrants from Northern Italy and Campania arrived during this period. Linguistically, the island became Latinised. In terms of church, it would become completely Roman Catholic; previously, under the Byzantines, it had been more Eastern Christian.
Germanic Holy Roman Emperor
After a century the Norman Hauteville dynasty died out; the last direct descendant and heir of Roger, Constance, married Emperor Henry VI. This eventually led to the crown of Sicily being passed on to the Hohenstaufen Dynasty, who were Germans from Swabia. The last of the Hohenstaufens was one of the greatest and most cultured men of the Middle Ages, Frederick II, the only son of Constance. His mother's will had asked Pope Innocent III to undertake the guardianship of her son. The pope gladly accepted the role, as it allowed him to detach Sicily from the rest of The Holy Roman Empire, thus ending the specter of the Papal States being surrounded. Frederick was four when, at Palermo he was crowned King of Sicily in 1198. Frederick received no systematic education and was allowed to run free in the streets of Palermo. There he picked up the many languages he heard spoken there, such as Arabic and Greek, and learned some of the lore of the Jewish community. He grew familiar with different peoples, garb, customs and faiths, so that he became unusually tolerant for that period. At age twelve, he dismissed Innocent's deputy regent and took over the government; at fifteen he married Constance of Aragon, and began his reclamation of the imperial crown.
Sicilian Vespers and Aragonese Sicily
Strong opposition to French officialdom due to mistreatment and taxation saw the local peoples of Sicily rise up, leading in 1282 to an insurrection known as the War of the Sicilian Vespers, which eventually saw almost the entire French population on the island killed. During the war the Sicilians turned to Peter III of Aragon, son-in-law of the last Hohenstaufen king, for support after being rejected by the Pope. Peter gained control of Sicily from the French though the French retained control of the Kingdom of Naples. A crusade was launched in August 1283 against Peter III and the Aragon Kingdom by Pope Martin IV (a pope from Île-de-France), but it failed. The wars continued until the peace of Caltabellotta in 1302, which saw Peter's son Frederick III recognised as king of the Isle of Sicily, while Charles II was recognised as the king of Naples by Pope Boniface VIII. Sicily was ruled as an independent kingdom by relatives of the kings of Aragon until 1409 and then as part of the Crown of Aragon. In October 1347, in Messina, Sicily, the Black Death first arrived in Europe.
While the Austrians were concerned with the War of the Polish Succession, a Bourbon prince, Charles from Spain was able to conquer Sicily and Naples. At first Sicily was able to remain as an independent kingdom under personal union, while the Bourbons ruled over both from Naples. However, the advent of Napoleon's First French Empire saw Naples taken at the Battle of Campo Tenese and Bonapartist Kings of Naples were instated. Ferdinand III the Bourbon was forced to retreat to Sicily which he was still in complete control of with the help of British naval protection.
Following this Sicily joined the Napoleonic Wars, after the wars were won Sicily and Naples formally merged as the Two Sicilies under the Bourbons. Major revolutionary movements occurred in 1820 and 1848 against the Bourbon government with Sicily seeking independence; the second of which, the 1848 revolution resulted in a short period of independence for Sicily. Howsoever, in 1849 the Bourbons retook the control of the island and dominated it until the 1860.
In 1860, as part of the , the Expedition of the Thousand led by Giuseppe Garibaldi captured Sicily. The conquest started at Marsala, and native Sicilians joined him in the capture of the southern Italian peninsula. Garibaldi's march was finally completed with the Siege of Gaeta, where the final Bourbons were expelled and Garibaldi announced his dictatorship in the name of Victor Emmanuel II of Kingdom of Sardinia. Sicily became part of the Kingdom of Sardinia after a referendum where more than 75% of Sicily voted in favor of the annexation on October 21, 1860 (but not everyone was allowed to vote). As a result of the Kingdom of Italy proclamation, Sicily became part of it on March 17, 1861.
After the Italian Unification, although the strong investments made by the Kingdom of Italy in terms of modern infrastructures, the Sicilian (and the wider mezzogiorno) economy remained relatively underdeveloped and this caused an unprecedented wave of emigration. In 1894, organizations of workers and peasants known as the Fasci Siciliani, protested against the bad social and economic conditions of the island but they were suppressed in few days. The Messina earthquake of 28 December 1908 killed over 80,000 people. This period was also characterised by the first contact between the Mafia, the Sicilian crime syndicate (also known as Cosa Nostra), and the Italian government. The Mafia's origins are still uncertain but it is generally accepted that it emerged in the 18th century initially in the role of private enforcers hired to protect the property of landowners and merchants from the groups of bandits (briganti) who frequently pillaged the countryside and towns. The battle against the Mafia made by the Kingdom of Italy was controversial and ambiguous; although the Carabinieri (the military police of Italy) and sometimes the Italian army were often involved in terrible fights against the mafia members, their efforts were frequently useless because of the secret cooperation between mafia and local government and also because of the weakness of Italian judicial system.
In 1920, the Fascist regime began a stronger military action against the Mafia led by the prefect Cesare Mori, known as the "Iron Prefect" because of his iron-fisted campaigns. This was the first time in which an operation against the Sicilian mafia ended with considerable success. There was an allied invasion of Sicily during World War II starting on 10 July 1943. In preparation of the invasion of Sicily, the Allies revitalised the Mafia to aid them. The invasion of Sicily contributed to the 25 July crisis; in general the Allied victors were warmly embraced by Sicily.
Italy became a Republic in 1946 and as part of the Constitution of Italy, Sicily was one of the five regions given special status as an autonomous region. Both the partial Italian land reform and special funding from the Italian government's Cassa per il Mezzogiorno (Fund for the South) from 1950 to 1984, helped the Sicilian economy. During this period the economic and social condition of the island was generally improved thanks to important investments on infrastructures like motorways and airports and thanks to the creation of important industrial and commercial areas. In the 1980s the Mafia was deeply weakened by a second important campaign led by the magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Between 1990 and 2005 the unemployment rate fell from about 23% to 11%.