The first known
inhabitants of the important Mediterranean island were the
Elymi, Sicani, and Siculi.
Phoenicians later settled on the
west coast, notably at Panormus (now Palermo); Carthaginians
founded Lilybaeum and Drepanum (now Trapani); and on the east
and southeast coasts Greeks founded (8th-6th centuries
BC) such cities as Syracuse, Catania, Zancle (now Messina),
Gela, and Selinus.
The originally democratic Greek governments
were gradually replaced by tyrannies, particularly those of
Gelon, Hiero I, and others at Syracuse.
In the 5th Century
BC Syracuse gained control over the other city states, but
Phoenician influence was rapidly taking hold by Carthaginian
expansion. The Carthaginian Hamilcar was repulsed at Himera
in 480 BC, but later invasions gained control (by 400 BC)
of more than half of the island. More invaders from mainland
Greece seized the remainder, and Sicily became a battleground
for rival empires.
A century of antagonism between Greeks
and Carthaginians eventually led to a treaty between the Greek
King Hiero I and Rome. This brought the fledgling Roman Empire
into direct conflict with Carthage in the First Punic War
between 264 and 241 BC.
The Roman victory
would make them the predominant force in Sicilia. With the
death of Hiero II in Syracuse in 212 BC and another Roman
victory over Carthage in the Second Punic War, virtually all
of Sicily came under Roman control. Total control would remain
in doubt, however until the defeat of Hannibal in 146 BC.
The Romans would
complete the enriching Hellenization of Sicilian culture.
However, the resources of the island-known as the Breadbasket
of Rome-were depleted by the Romans, who also founded
the large estates (latifundia) that subsequently greatly hampered
the economic development of Sicily. The island was regarded
as land to be exploited, especially agriculturally, to supply
Rome with grain. A colonial-type economy was established and
the land assigned to Roman proprietors using Asian slave labor
bought in the Delos markets.
The slave uprisings
of 139 and 104 BC are an indication that slavery and exploitation
of the island had increased. The first slave revolt helped
lead directly to the rise of the Gracchi brothers in Rome.
They instituted agricultural reform as a policy in Rome. Further
acts transferring power from the senate to the Tribunes of
the Plebs and the ensuing violence it caused was one major
of many factors, however, leading directly to the fall of
the Republic and the rise of the Empire.
Corruption in government
of Sicilia reached its peak with Caius Verres in 73 -
71 BC. Marcus Tullius Cicero was called to Sicily to argue
against the island's corrupt governor, who fled in anticipation
of being tried by the great orator. The trial is little more
than a footnote to history, but Cicero's lengthy indictment
of the governor contains many useful descriptions of the Sicily
of those times.
Relegated to the
backdrop of Roman political life, Sicily found itself again
involved in the final years of the Republic. At the time of
the second triumvirate of Octavian, Marcus Antonius and Lepidus,
Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompeius Magnus, occupied the island,
blocking the journey of the expedition carrying grain to Rome.
In 36 B.C.
Octavian landed an army in Sicily, defeated Sextius
and, in 27 B.C., became emperor with the name of Augustus.
He reorganized the province, generally confirming the Latin
citizenship Caesar had conferred in 46 BC, but bestowed Roman
citizenship on no more than a few cities. The Greek features
of the administration were supplanted by the Roman and under
Augustus the transfer of colonies began: at Syracuse, Taormina,
Catania, Tindari, Panormo and Termini were assigned to army
Such steps did
not, however, radically affect the island's political and
economic structures. Rome's interest in Sicily was entirely
marginal and determined both political isolation and economic
and cultural regression. The Greek language, however, remained
predominant. Augustus was the first to introduce Latin to
any meaningful extent, but then only among the privileged
classes and ruling elite.
Sicily, despite its rather peaceful existence during the imperial period, suffered the same fate as the rest of the west. By the earth 5th century Vandals who had migrated from Germania, to Hispania and Africa, overran Sicily as well.
In ancient times,
Sicilia was covered with extremely rich farmland, whose wheat
and corn harvests fed virtually the entire western part of
the Roman Empire. Its thick forests were renowned, but the
Romans plundered them to build their great naval fleets and
the myriad wooden homes that fueled Nero's infamous fire.
The island also exported fruits and almonds.
The original tribes
of Sicilia, the Elymi, Sicani, Siculi and Brutti were nearly
completely absorbed by Phoenician, Greek and then Roman culture.
Greek mythology and folklore would assert the greatest influence
on Sicily, and Sicily's museums are filled with religious
artifacts and statues reflecting the important culture whose
language, philosophy and law would form the very foundations
of Western civilization. Archimedes, the great mathematician
and engineer, was born in Syracuse in 287 BC.
to the map of Sicilia