Throughout history, Sicily has always been considered one of the most strategic locations of the Mediterranean Sea. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans have all left their legacies on this land, which even today can be found in every province and small village on the island.
The history of Sicily starts with its Palaeolithic settlements dating back to 20,000-750 BC, the evidence of which you can witness in the Levanzo Caves that are full of paintings and drawings incised into the rock. The Sicanians, considered the first people of Sicily and from whom the island derived its name, inhabited the island with the Sikels, the Elymians and the Phoenicians from about 1500-800BC.
The island experienced a bountiful period thanks to the Greek Colonisation in 733BC at Naxos, considered their first colony. They then began to extend their kingdom on this virgin land around the fertile volcano, Mount Etna, introducing important farming such as vineyards and olive groves.
They pushed out the Phoenicians and by 400BC they began building Syracuse on the southern part of the island, and so grew the Sicilian Magna Graecia.
After the Punic wars, where Rome fought against Cartagine, in 242 BC, Sicily became Rome’s first province. Romans dominated Sicily for 600 years and due to its fertile land, Sicily was considered “The Granary of Rome” for a long time. Some Roman treasures are present at Villa Romana del Casale, the Greek & Roman theatre of Taormina and the Roman theatre and amphitheatre in Catania.
After the Ostrogoths occupation in 535, the Byzantine began to extend their colonies, peppering the island with lots of impressive constructions. The Byzantine emperor Constant II decided to move to Syracuse from the Constantinople, when he began to conquer Southern Italy. But in 827 the Arabs conquered Mazara del Vallo in southwest Sicily and then Palermo, making it their capital, ending the Byzantine reign. Thanks to this domination Palermo had an excellent period of growth, becoming one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world. The Arabs occupation definitely transformed Sicily, influencing the island with lots of new farms, traditions and habits which are already existing through the country.
In the history of Sicily one of the most important stages was the Normans took possession of Sicily, integrating Arab administration and new justice systems. Norman domination provided a sort of fusion of art and culture thanks to the collaboration with Arab and Byzantine craftsmen, steering Sicily into the Middle Age. Thanks to King Federico II, who was passionate about science, literature and education, Sicily gained great importance throughout Europe. He created one of the earliest universities in Europe, built lots of new and important churches and became the patron of the Sicilian School of poetry, where for the first time ancient Italian was used for literary expression.
After the Norman period, Sicily was dominated by Aragonesi in 1282. They exploited the island, increasing taxations including taxes on grain, and devastated all the forests to provide wood for building their ships. Corrupt nobility took possession of the island and the inquisition definitely stopped the religious tolerance. This barbaric period lasted for many centuries under other domination of the Spanish and Bourbon Empires. However they are also responsible for creating the stunning Baroque palaces and churches all over Sicily.
The modern era begun with the Risorgimento, where Garibaldi and his Mille (thousand men) landed at Marsala and began the unification of Italy.
However, the old aristocracy maintained most privileges and hostilities between classes became increasingly severe, resulting in misgovernment and sparked major revolts.
The incredible history of Sicily is well preserved in every corner of this beautiful island allowing you to learn lots of interesting details of its incredible past.
You can take a tour of millennia of history just walking through its provinces!