Travel & Archaeology


A rich and uniquely Sicilian heritage

This large island, poised off the toe of Italy, was ancient Rome’s first stepping stone to overseas conquest. But before and after the rise and fall of Rome other cultures contributed to the history of Sicily, ultimately creating a particularly rich and uniquely Sicilian heritage. Mountains, hills, plains and a 1000 km long coastline have provided an equally varied and interesting landscape, including Europe’s tallest and most active volcano, Mount Etna.

Prehistory: The name Sicily perhaps derives from the names of the tribes who already lived here when classical history began in the 5th century BC, the Sikens and the Sicels, but rock carvings suggest that human settlement had begun much earlier, by at least 10,000 BC. Archaeologists have demonstrated that the Aeolian Islands of Sicily featured as an important source of obsidian in a wide-ranging network of prehistoric trade, and that farming villages appeared around 6000 BC.

Trading ’emporia’ of the Bronze Age benefited from seaborne trade and ensured a vibrant, cosmopolitan contact with other Mediterranean cultures. At Pantalica, near Syracuse, there are some impressive hillfort settlements with large rock-cut necropoli dating from the 13 th to 7th centuries BC. The arrival of Greek and Phoenician colonists in the 8th century BC then had profound impacts on Archaic Age Sicily.

Greeks & Phoenicians: Phoenician remains can still be seen at Motya and in the museums at Marsala and Palermo, but the strongest legacy was left by thriving, sophisticated Greek cities; the Sicilian city of Syracuse even came to rival Athens in power and prestige. Some of the greatest Greek temples are in fact Sicilian, giving us today a veritable open-air museum of Greek architecture. The most famous site is Agrigento, on Sicily’s southern coast, with its ‘Valley of the Temples’ now of World Heritage status. Sicily featured in Greek mythology as the land of the Cyclops, of the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, and of the nymph Arethusa.

Roman Sicily: Roman involvement in Sicily began in the 3rd century BC with the Punic Wars against Carthage, which controlled the Phoenician colonies in Sicily. After the famous siege of Syracuse in 211 BC, Rome incorporated the whole of Sicily, Phoenician and Greek, into its first ever province. Six centuries of Roman rule subsequently ensured plenty of Roman remains, notably in Syracuse, which became the Roman capital. But by far the most impressive are the exceptional remains of the Villa Romana near Piazza Armerina, with its superb floor mosaics.

Byzantines, Arabs & Latins: Justinian’s attempts to reunify the western and eastern halves of the Roman Empire led to his taking of Sicily from the Goths in the 6th century AD, and the island remained a western outpost of the Byzantine Empire until the Arabs invaded in the 9th century. The resulting mix of Christian and Muslim influences was then inherited by the Normans when they took control of Sicily in 1072.

Kingdom in the Sun: Taking advantage of the multi-cultural influences of their new kingdom in the south, the Norman court transformed Palermo into one of the most splendid cities in Europe. The fusion of Latin, Byzantine and Arab influences is displayed to its full in the sumptuous Norman Palace of Palermo and in the magnificent Cathedral of Monreale – the climax of Sicilian Romanesque art and architecture.

All this splendid heritage can to be enjoyed today amid Sicily’s colourful collage of Mediterranean delights; sun-drenched vineyards, sparkling clear seas, vibrant towns, sleepy villages and unrivalled cuisine.

For more on Sicily read our Recommended Publications