Sicily has had a varied and colorful history. The first known inhabitants of the 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 cent. BC) such cities as Syracuse, Catania, Zancle (now Messina), Gela, and Selinus and settled in older towns like Segesta. The Greek cities flourished and in turn founded such cities as Acragas (now Agrigento) and Himera. Their originally democratic governments were gradually replaced by tyrannies, particularly those of Phalaris at Acragas and of Gelon, Hiero I, and others at Syracuse.
In the 5th cent. BC, Syracuse gained hegemony over the other cities. Phoenician influence was reinvigorated by Carthaginian expansion; although Hamilcar was repulsed at Himera in 480 BC, later Carthaginian invaders gained control (by c.400 BC) of more than half of the island. Interlopers from mainland Greece seized the remainder, and Sicily became a battleground for rival empires. A century of antagonism between Greeks and Carthaginians was followed by strife between Romans and Carthaginians, which flared (264 BC) in the first of the Punic Wars. Rome was victorious by 241 BC, and after the death (c.215) of Hiero II of Syracuse, virtually all of Sicily came under Rome.
The Romans completed 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. Roman rule was often corrupt, and corruption reached a peak under governor Caius Verres (73–71 BC). Slave revolts (135–132 BC and 104–100 BC) were cruelly suppressed. Many remains of the Greek and Roman periods have been found on Sicily, especially at Agrigento, Syracuse, Segesta, and Selinunte.
After the fall of Rome, Sicily passed from the Vandals (mid-5th cent. AD) to the Goths (493) and then to the Byzantines (535). The Arabs conquered the island in the 9th cent. after raiding it for two centuries. They promoted agriculture, commerce, and the arts and sciences. The Arabs were displaced by the Norman conquest of Sicily (1060–91), led by Roger I. Roger II became (1130) the first king of Sicily; he forced (1139) Pope Innocent II, who claimed suzerainty over Sicily, to invest him with the kingdom, which included the Norman holdings in S Italy. The brilliant court of Roger II did much to introduce Arabic learning to Western Europe. Roger's last direct descendant, Constance, married Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI; their son and heir, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, was more interested in the kingdom of Sicily (where he reigned as king from 1197 to 1250) than in the Holy Roman Empire.
After Frederick's death and the failures of the last Hohenstaufen claimants (Conrad IV, Manfred, and Conradin), Pope Clement IV crowned (1266) Charles I (Charles of Anjou) king of Naples and Sicily as his vassal. The unpopular French government brought on the Sicilian Vespers revolt (1282) and the Sicilians chose Peter III of Aragón as king. The resulting war between the Angevin line and the Aragonese ended temporarily in 1302, with Frederick II (see also Aragón, house of) becoming king of Sicily and Charles II of Anjou keeping S Italy (see Naples, kingdom of). In 1373, Joanna I of Naples formally renounced Sicily. After the Sicilian branch of Aragón became extinct, Sicily reverted (1409) to the main branch.
Under Aragonese rule local liberties were maintained, and the Sicilian national assembly enjoyed wide powers. With the accession of the Hapsburgs to the Spanish throne (early 16th cent.), there was more centralization, and Spanish governors arrived to tighten the imperial bonds. Corruption increased, and the island came under the control of a few powerful nobles and church officials.
In 1713 the Peace of Utrecht assigned Sicily to Savoy, which in 1720 exchanged it with Emperor Charles VI for Sardinia. However, as a result of the War of the Polish Succession, Sicily and Naples came under (1735) the rule of Don Carlos of Bourbon (later Charles III of Spain). The Bourbon kings resided at Naples, except in 1799 and from 1806 to 1815, when Naples was held by the French. The centralizing policies of the Bourbons were resisted by the Sicilian nobles, who welcomed British intervention (1811–14). Feudal privileges were renounced in 1812 but in practice continued much longer.
Naples and Sicily were merged, despite Sicilian protests, in 1816, when Ferdinand I styled himself officially king of the Two Sicilies. Revolts occurred in 1820 and 1848–49 and were mercilessly suppressed; the bombardments of Messina (1848) and Palermo (1849) earned Ferdinand II the nickname
King Bomba. In 1860, Garibaldi conquered the island, which then voted to join the kingdom of Sardinia.
Even after Italian unification, Sicily was neglected by the central government, and the island's economic and social problems long remained unattended. In World War II a large-scale amphibious landing was carried out by the Allies on July 9–10, 1943. After heavy fighting, the Allied conquest was completed on Aug. 8, 1943. Sicily was given limited autonomy under the Italian constitution of 1947. The assassination of two prominent anti-Mafia prosecutors in 1992 prompted the central government to send in the military. The operation ended in 1998 after many organized crime figures were jailed.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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