As I’m about to add Sicily to the Italian posts that I share here I felt that I should begin with some historical context; though if I’m to do so without this becoming the longest post I’ve ever submitted I’ll need to keep the brush strokes very broad; and so I welcome corrections and elaborations from more knowledgeable sources to this, or any of my Sicilian posts.
You see so much of the architecture, food and culture that I’ll be including are influenced by the waves of invaders that have occupied the island (welcome or not) that if I’m not to repeat myself constantly, it will be useful to have this post as a reference point.
Part of the challenge comes if you google “Sicilian History Timeline” and look at the image options; there’s the Mafia timeline, the Medieval timeline, even the Norman Succession timeline. The island’s position in the Mediterranean, within easy reach of the Italian peninsula and the shores of North Africa made it an attractive option for settlers from both directions, but its strategic position for controlling shipping moving between east and west meant that others wanted control too.
So here’s a potted guide:
Prehistorically the land was home to at least three tribes; the Siculi (from which the island’s name originates) were probably Italianate, the Sicani (who may have been Iberian) and the Elymians (possibly from lands bordering the Aegean). Enter the Phoenicians from North Africa or the Middle East (their range was extensive) in the 11th Century BC to establish settlements in the west of Sicily around Palermo.
300 years later the Greeks took a liking to the south and east and established Siracusa, which became the most populous city in the Greek world. Unsurprisingly there was conflict with the Phoenicians which distracted both groups, thereby allowing the entrance of the third-party in the 3rd century BC when Rome intervened in what became the first Punic war.
Bar a very brief period following a revolt on the island Sicily remained part of Rome, though there was little attempt to impose their culture so the island remained largely Greek. Christianity was established, and two saints of the Catholic Church, Agatha and Lucia were martyred here (in Catania and Syracuse respectively).
Rome falls and Sicily does too in the 5th Century when power struggles between Vandals, Goths, and the Byzantines (what had been the Eastern Roman Empire) with the latter being dominant for another 200 years or so, until an unfortunate series of events in 826, when the commander of the Byzantine fleet in Sicily forced a nun to marry him. Forced to flee to North Africa he persuaded a muslim force to support him in attacking the island which they eventually conquered, though it took nearly another century! The arabs brought their religion (though christianity was not opposed), citrus fruits and pistachios, and durum wheat, essential to pasta.
Are you keeping up with all of these invasions? Well here comes another…
Vikings! And then Normans, though the distinction between the two is not as clear-cut as you may imagine. Although Normandy is in modern-day France, the name indicates that it was settled by Northmen, and so Norman mercenaries fought with their Scandinavian brethren. Consequently at roughly the same time as William the Conqueror was landing in England, another Norman, Roger Hauteville became the first King of Sicily (though as his father, also Roger, was the first Count of Sicily, the first king is confusingly known as Roger II).
When the Norman line died out the Germans stepped in and under Frederick II (Holy Roman Emperor) the last of the muslims were expelled. More wars saw French rule re-established and a period of independence for the island but from the 15th century the Kings of Spain imposed their authority, appointing a series of viceroys, though of course this was a period when much of Europe was controlled by the Hapsburgs so there was some Austro-Hungarian influence in there too perhaps.
All seem settled until Napoleon invaded, but there was then a period of British influence after his defeat until the Bourbon Royal Family reestablished the Kingdom of The Two Sicilies (including Naples) in 1816 which just about sees us through to Italian unification and Garibaldi later that century.
And the Mafia… well that’s a whole other story.