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Location of Sicily in Europe.

Sicily (Sicilia in Italian and Sicilian) is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea (with 25,426 km²) and Italy. It is bounded by the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north, the Ionian Sea to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the south, separated from the european continent by the Strait of Messina. The island has more than 5 million inhabitants and the city of Palermo as its capital. Other major cities include Catania, Messina and Syracuse.

The autonomous region of Sicily (one of the 20 administrative divisions) is the largest and southernmost region of Italy, and also includes some other neighboring islands (18 of them inhabited) that add more 285 km² and 33,000 inhabitants of the autonomous region. The Sicilian society is one of the most culturally preserved (or delayed in the opinion of the liberals) and traditionalist throughout Europe, strongly marked by Catholicism and patriarchy, with low diffusion of feminism and homosexuality in comparison to the rest of the western world.



The original inhabitants of Sicily, long absorbed into the general population, were tribes known to Greek writers as the Elymians, the Sicani and the Siculi or Sicels. 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.

Ancient Sicily

The Valley of the Temples from the greek period.

In the 8th Century BC, Phoenicians, Punic settlers from Carthage, and Greeks began to colonize Sicily. An important colony was established at Syracuse in 734 BC. Other important Greek colonies were Acragas, Gela, Himera, Selinunte, and Zancle or Messene (modern-day Messina not to be confused with the ancient city of Messene in Messenia, Greece).

Classical Greek civilization included Sicily as part of Magna Graecia and these city states were an important part of it. The scientist Archimedes was from Syracuse and the philosopher Empedocles was from Agrigentum.

Sicilian politics was intertwined with politics in Greece. In 415 BC, during the Peloponnesian War, Syracuse became an object of Athenian imperialism. The resulting Sicilian Expedition was inconclusive at first, but after Syracuse gained Sparta and Corinth as allies, the events ended in disaster for Athens. The Syracusan fleet destroyed or captured the Athenian ships and the Athenian army was destroyed, with most of the survivors being sold into slavery.

The Punic cities of Sicily had ties to Carthage, which was on the African mainland, not far from the southwest corner of the region, and had its own colonies on Sicily. The Carthaginian city of Palermo was founded in the 8th century BC, named Zis or Sis ("Panormos" to the Greeks). Hundreds of Phoenician and Carthaginian grave sites have been found in necropoli 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) never was 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.

In the 3rd century BC, the Messanan Crisis motivated Roman Republic to intervene in Sicilian affairs, and led to the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage. By the end of war (242 BC), all Sicily was in Roman hands, becoming Rome's first province outside of the Italian peninsula.

During the Second Punic War, initial Carthaginian successes encouraged many of the Sicilian cities to revolt against Roman rule. Rome sent troops to put down the rebellions. Archimedes was killed during the siege of Syracuse. Carthage briefly took control of parts of Sicily, but was eventually driven off. Many Carthaginian sympathizers were killed— in 210 BC the Roman consul M. Valerian told the Roman Senate that "no Carthaginian remains in Sicily".

Sicily was a province of the Roman Empire for the next 6 centuries. It was something of a rural backwater, but its grainfields which were a mainstay of the food supply of the city of Rome. The empire made little effort to Romanize the region, which remained largely Greek. During this period, in 70 BC, Cicero condemned the misgovernment of Verres in his oration, In Verrem.

The Barbarian Invasion and Byzantine Reconquest

In 440 AD, Sicily fell to a Barbarian Germanic tribe the Vandals under king Geiseric. The Vandals, now seated in Carthage, invaded and occupied several of the islands in the Western Mediterranean. However, they soon lost these newly acquired possessions to the Goths.

In 488, Ostrogothic, under Theodoric the Great began the conquest of Italy and Sicily. Most of the Goths setttled in the north, in the south they formed little more than garrisons. Theodoric sought to revive Roman culture and government and allowed freedom of religion.

In 535, seeing the Ostrogothic position in Italy was now weaker, the Eastern Emperor Justinian of Constantinople commissioned Byzantine general Belisarius to attack the Ostrogoths. Justinian’s reputation owed perhaps less to his own qualities than those to his empress Theodora, and two generals, Belisarius and Narses.

Belisarius quickly captured Sicily and then crossed into Italy where he captured Naples and Rome in 536 and then marched north, taking Mediolanum (Milan) and the Ostrogoth capital of Ravenna in 540. But a new Ostrogothic king, Totila, drove down the Italian peninsula and then plundered and conquered Sicily in 550. Totila, in turn, was defeated and killed in the Battle of Taginae by the Byzantine general, Narses, in 552.

Although the Byzantine campaigns proved successful, in the long term it proved impossible for them to retain control of the old provinces around the Mediterranean and the Byzantines lost them to the Arabs after 50 years of fighting.

In 660, Byzantine Emperor Constans II decided to move from the capital, Constantinople, to Syracuse in Sicily. In 661, Constans launched an assault from Sicily, against the Lombard Duchy of Benevento, which then occupied most of Southern Italy. Rumours that Constans was going to move the capital of the empire to Syracuse were probably fatal for him and he was assassinated in 668. His son Constantine succeeded him as Constantine IV, a brief usurpation in Sicily by Mezezius being quickly suppressed by the new emperor.

Arab Sicily

As the power of the Byzantine Empire waned, Sicily was invaded by the Arabs in 652 AD. However, this was a short lived invasion and the Arabs left soon after. Instead, trading arrangements were agreed and Arab merchants established themselves in Sicilian ports. Then, in 827 a Sicilian coup against an unpopular Byzantine governor failed. Euphemius, a wealthy landowner, who overcame the imperial garrison in Siracusa, declared himself Emperor and invited the Aghlabid Emir of Tunisia to help him. The response was a fleet of 100 ships and 10,000 troops under the command of Asad ibn al-Furat, which consisted largely of Arabs and Berbers from North Africa and Spanish Muslims. After resistance at Siracusa, the Arabs gained a foothold in Mazara del Vallo. Palermo fell after a long siege in 831, but Siracusa held out until 878. From 842 to 859 the Arabs captured Messina, Modica, Ragusa and Enna. In 902 Taormina, the last Byzantine stronghold, also fell to Arabs and by 965 all of Sicily was under Arab control and Palermo became one of the largest cities in the world.

In succession Sicily was ruled by the Sunni Aghlabid dynasty in Tunisia and the Shiite Fatimids in Egypt. The Byzantines took advantage of temporary discord to occupy the eastern end of the island for several years. After suppressing a revolt, the Fatimid caliph appointed Hassan al-Kalbi (948–964) as Emir of Sicily. He successfully managed to control the Byzantines and founded the Kalbid dynasty. Raids into southern Italy continued under the Kalbids into the 11th century, and in 982 a German army under Otto II was defeated near Crotone in Calabria. With Emir Yusuf al-Kalbi (990–998) a period of steady decline began. Under al-Akhal (1017–1037) the dynastic conflict intensified, with factions within the ruling family allying themselves variously with Byzantium and the Zirids. By the time of Emir Hasan as-Samsam (1040–1053) the island had fragmented into several small fiefdoms. As a virtually independent emirate, Sicily played a privileged role as bridge between Africa and Europe. Trade flourished and taxes were low. The tolerant regime allowed subjects to abide by their own laws. Despite freedom of worship, Christians converted to Islam and there were soon hundreds of mosques in Palermo alone.

The Arabs were to completely dominate Sicily for a relatively short period of time, but the changes they brought to the island were far reaching, long lasting and overwhelmingly positive in economic terms, those taxes that were detrimental to agriculture were removed. The Arabs called Saracens at the time, represented a highly developed civilization that was superior in many ways, to the Christian cultures of western Europe and the Mediterranean. There were many positive features to Arab conquest of Sicily, and their contribution was in the form of improved practices, such as irrigation, science, commerce and the arts.

Their agricultural methods were far more advanced than any found elsewhere. Much of the island's agricultural base that exists to this day consists of plants that were introduced by the Saracens, including oranges,lemons, pistachio and sugar cane. The Arabs did not conscript the Sicilians into the armies as the Byzantines had and under Arab rule taxes were lower. Approximately 300 words of Arabic origin remain in the Sicilian language, the vast bulk of these are agricultural terms. In the mid 11th century, Sicily was on the verge of entering its most prosperous period in its entire history. Palermo became not only a trading post, but also a centre of a rich, cosmopolitan, civilization. Hundreds of mosques were built, and the elegant Arabic style of architecture was to survive as an influence after Sicily became a Christian country. There was no harsh persecution of Christians by their Moslem conquerors, who nevertheless asserted their social predominance.

In addition to Andalusian Arabs and other Arabs, there were Berbers, Persians, Greeks, Jews, Slavs and Lombards. Western Sicily particularly prospered with Berbers settling in the Agrigento area coupled with Bedouin, Syrians and Egyptian Arabs in Palermo.

A description of Palermo was given by Ibn Hawqual, a Baghdad merchant who visited Sicily in 950. A walled suburb called the Kasr (the palace) is the center of Palermo until today, 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 Hawqual reckoned 7,000 individual butchers trading in 150 shops.

While invaders from the north were soon to bring new systems of government, law and religion, they were to inherit a thriving economy based on trade and efficient agricultural practices. Muslim rule in Sicily slowly came to an end following an invitation by the Emirs of Catania and Siracusa for a Norman invasion. Following the Norman conquest, Arab influence continued to persist creating a hybrid culture on the island that has contributed much to the character of modern Sicily.

Norman-Hohenstaufen period

Muslim rule in Sicily slowly came to an end following an invitation by the Emirs of Catania and Siracusa for a Norman invasion. The Normans, under Count Roger de Hauteville (Altavilla) attacked Sicily, beginning a thirty year struggle against the Arabs. Robert Guiscard, with the help of his younger brother Roger, controlled much of Apulia and Calabria by 1059. In 1060, they made their first attack on the north-eastern tip of Sicily, occupying Messina with approximately 700 knights. Robert was to be frequently detained by unrest in his mainland holdings and this paved the way for Roger to gradually conquer the remainder of the island from the Arabs over a 31 year period (reminiscent of the manner they themselves had conquered the island). In 1068, Roger Guiscard and his men defeated the Arabs at Misilmeri but the most crucial battle was the siege of Palermo in 1072, and the conquest of Sicily was completed by 1091 with the defeat of the last Emir in Noto.

Palermo continued on as the capital under the Normans, as it had been under the Kalbid dynasty. Roger's son, Roger II of Sicily, was ultimately able to raise the status of the island, along with his Southern Italian holdings, to a kingdom in 1130. Roger II reigned until 1154, fashioning a prosperous and politically powerful kingdom which included the islands of Malta and at various times territories along the North African coastline including Libya.

Arab cartographer al-Idrisi's world map of 1154. Made for King Roger II.During this period, the Kingdom of Sicily became one of the wealthiest states in Europe, and according to historian John Julius Norwich, Palermo under the Normans became wealthier than the England of its day. The Norman kings relied mostly on the local Arab and Greek population for the more important government and administrative positions. For the most part, Arabic and Greek remained as the language of administration while Norman was the language of the royal court.

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.

After only a century, however, the Norman Hauteville dynasty died out and the south German (Swabian) Hohenstaufen dynasty ruled starting in 1194, adopting Palermo as its principal seat from 1220. But local Christian-Muslim conflicts fueled by the Crusades were escalating during this later period, and in 1224, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and grandson of Roger II, expelled the last remaining Muslims from Sicily, temporarily relocating many to a colony in Lucera on the southern mainland, while the rest fled to North Africa.


Conflict between the Hohenstaufen house and the Papacy led in 1266 to Sicily's conquest by Charles I, duke of Anjou: opposition to French officialdom and taxation led in 1282 to insurrection (the Sicilian Vespers) and successful invasion by king Peter III of Aragón. The resulting War of the Sicilian Vespers lasted until the peace of Caltabellotta in 1302. 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.

Spanish-Bourbon control

Ruled from 1479 by the kings of Spain, Sicily suffered a ferocious outbreak of plague (1656), followed by a damaging earthquake in the east of the region (1693). Sicily was frequently attacked by Barbary pirates from North Africa. Bad 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, first as independent kingdom under personal union, then (1816) as part of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Major revolutionary movements occurred in 1820 and 1848 against the Bourbon denial of constitutional government, seeking an independent status from Naples. The 1848 revolution resulted in a sixteen month period of independence until the armed forces of the Bourbons regained control of Sicily on 15 May 1849.

Italian unification

Sicily became part of Kingdom of Italy in 1860 after the invasion of irregular troops led by Giuseppe Garibaldi as part of the Risorgimento.

The Kingdom of Italy was strongly centralized, and Palermo revolted against it in 1866. Palermo 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 regained control of the Sicily.

An extensive guerrilli campaign against the Unionists coninued until 1871 throughout southern Italy and Sicily. In reaction, the Italian government imposed martial law. The Italian army summarily executed thousands of people, made tens of thousands prisoners, destroyed villages, and deported people.

The Sicilian economy collapsed, which led to an unprecedented wave of emigration. The Italian government imposed martial law again in 1894, in response to labour agitation by the radical Fasci Siciliani.

Organised crime networks, commonly known as the mafia, grew in influence in the late 19th century. The Fascist regime began suppressing them in the 1920s, with some success.

During World War II, Sicily was invaded by the Allies on the night of July 10, 1943 by an allied armada of 2,590 vessels. Mafia was an established enemy of the Fascist regime and was able to offer the Allied occupants a steady grip on the island.

Sicily became an autonomous region in 1946. Both the partial Italian land reform of 1950–1962 and special funding from the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, the Italian government's indemnification Fund for the South (1950–1984) helped the Sicilian economy.

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