History of Sicily – Land of My Ancestors

With my paternal ancestors (the Caruso’s) originating in Sicily before the 1880’s and a desire by my wife and I to visit Sicily on holiday (after the threat from SARS-COV2 diminishes and U.S. citizens are allowed to travel to the European Union), I thought it would be interesting to learn a little about the history of this land. For my first reading I picked a book called Sicily: The History and Legacy of the Mediterranean’s Most Famous Island by Charles River Editors (1). I’ve put my brief five star review in Goodreads.com, and here I would like to expand upon some of my learnings and insights.

First, I never realized that Sicily was inhabited by an indigenous people many thousands of years before the Greeks decided to colonize the island during the Bronze Age, the era of the Mycenean Greeks and the epic tales of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Archaeology has dated some evidence as far back as the Paleolithic period, also known as the Old Stone Age, indicating humans on the island between 3.3 million to 11,650 years ago (1,2). Clear evidence has been found showing that inhabitants of Sicily were participating in the agricultural revolution in 6000 BCE (1). The Greeks themselves noted three native populations on the island (1), the Elymians the Sicanians, who may have been of Iberian origins, and the Sicels, who seem to have arrived on the island from mainland Italy and have given the island it’s name ‘Sicily’ (1). The Sicanians may have descended from Italoi of Calabria, the OenotriansChones, and Leuterni (or Leutarni), the Opicans, and the Ausones (3). I found an interesting map in Wikipedia that shows the distribution of the three native populations (4) in approximately 1100 BCE, during the late Bronze Age. That’s a great start for me to learn more about the early periods of the island of Sicily.

Second, I learned of the constant back and forth battles between the Carthaginians and the Greeks for control of the island (1). What was fascinating was the role that the native people played in these conflicts, as well as the linkage between these conflicts and the Persian Wars (1). Apparently these conflicts were a stimulus for the rise of Sicilian tyrants, such as Hippocrates, ruler of Gela (498-491 BCE) who in this period was able to gain control of most of the southeastern parts of Sicily (1). His successor, Gelon conquered Syracuse and made that city-state his capital, moving it from Gela (1). This change included a forced move of half the population of Gela to Syracuse to fortify that city (1). The Carthaginians landed in Sicily in 481 BCE with a force composed of a large number of Libyans, Iberians, Sardinians, and Phoenicians, which, Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, a historian of the Sicilians, both claimed was coordinated with Xerxes’ battles with the mainland Greeks during the Second Persian War (1). A portion of Gelon’s forces masqueraded as members of a city-state supporting the Carthaginian commander, Hamilcar, thereby being admitted into into Hamilcar’s camp, only to set fire to the camp and Hamilcar’s ships, resulting in a route of Hamilcar’s troups who were in battle against the main part of Gelon’s forces (1). This was only one of many encounters between the Greeks and the Carthaginians which continued until the Roman’s joined the contests, eventually destroying any remnants of the Carthaginians.

Third, I’ve known for a long time that Sicily played a key role in the defeat of the Athenians by the forces led by Sparta in the Pelopennesian War, though the details of this encounter were never written as clearly and thoroughly as in this book. Here too there was much back and forth, with times when the Athenians were winning and times when the Sicilians and their allies were winning (1). Eventually the fleet sent in 415 BCE by the Athenians of more than 100 warships and over 5000 hoplites, was destroyed and additional reinforcements were sent including 75 warships in the subsequent year. The battle eventually ended with the entire forces of the Athenians destroyed, either being killed or caught as prisoners to be enslaved for Syracuse’s limestone quarries (1).

Fourth, upon defeat of the Carthaginians by the Romans after 23 years of battles during the First Punic War (with the support of the Sicilians), Greeks maintained nominal independence from the Romans, but that would soon end following the Second Punic War (1) During this engagement with the Carthaginians, the Romans were forced to siege the city of Syracuse (1). Syracuse was aided by the famous Greek engineer, Archimedes, who devised ways of lifting ships out of the water, and setting fire to ships using mirrors (1). Even with these innovations, Rome sacked Syracuse during which Archimedes was killed. At this point Sicily was totally under the control of the Romans, and the importance of Sicily in history became negligent until the fall of the Rome led by the incursions into Sicily by the Vandals.

Fifth, Muslim rule began in their rule of Sicily in 830 following incursions by the Arabs starting in 652, while Syracuse held out as a Christian outpost until 878 (1). Many of the years during Muslim rule were ‘golden years’ for Sicily (1).

Sixth, Norman invaders came to Sicily in 1038 (1). Robert Guiscard successfully led his forces against the Muslims in 1046, and in 1070 with his brother Roger, took control of Palermo (1). Roger was made Count of Sicily and in this role he treated Muslims with respect allowing them to keep their mosques open, and naming Arabic as an official language along with Latin, Greek, Norman and French (1). Roger’s son, Roger II was crowned the first King of Sicily (1). In the 12th century Sicily became a center for cultural exchange among its inhabitants that included Normans, Byzantine Greeks, Arabs, Germans and Jews (1). Women’s rights were honored during this time as well, and a golden age on Sicily would reach an apex during this time not to be seen again for 700 years (1).

Seventh, Frederick II, who eventually became the Holy Roman Emperor, was crowned king of Sicily in 1198 at the age of three and with his mother dying in that same year, Pope Innocent III became Frederick’s guardian; however various Germans took control of Sicily keeping Frederick under their control (5). Frederick II reasserted his power over Sicily starting at the age of 14 when he came of age in 1208 (5). After moving to assume the appointed role as King of Germany, Frederick II became Holy Roman Emperor in 1220 and then moved back to Italy for the remainder of his life from 1237 to 1250, as the King of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor (1,5). Frederick II founded the University of Naples, with Naples being part of the Kingdom of Sicily, as well as an upgraded efficient bureaucracy (1). Thanks to the support of Frederick II, the poetry from Sicily during this time inspired writers like Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare and Milton (1). By the end of his reign, Latin culture was dominant, pushing aside Muslim and Greek culture as inferior (1). His son, Manfred became the last Norman ruler of Sicily (1).

Eighth, Charles of Anjou (French) was made King of Rome after winning a battle against Manfred, triggering the rebellion called the Sicilian Vespers of 1282 (1). For 90 years the Angevins and the Aragonese (Spanish) fought for the crown that would include Sicily. In 1372 the Aragonese became sole rulers of Sicily (1). In 1469 Ferdinand and Isabella married bringing together the crowns of Aragon and Castile beginning a period of languishing culture with Sicily cut off from the 15th and 16th century Renaissance happening in Northern Italy (1). Much of this resulted from the focus of Spanish interest in the Americas, as a world power (1). The Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 the Duke of Savoy rejected an offer to take over Sicily (1), and th e Austrians in 1720 would then take it over but lose it during the War of the Polish Succession when it passed back to Spain (1) and King Charles III, a Bourbon. In 1743 the crown of Sicily passed to the Neapolitan Bourbons who held it until Sicily became part of a united Italy during the Risorgimento in 1860 (1). Sicily played a major role in Garibaldi’s efforts to unify Italy as he actually started his consolidation in Palermo, which served as a base to conquer Southern Italy and Rome (1).

Nineth, emigration accelerated after the Risorgimento as Sicilians were seeking an alternative to hopeless poverty, taxation and conscription (1). It was this period between 1860 and 1910 when my Italian ancestors arrived in the U.S.A. Apparently the Bourbon’s economic policies prohibited the export of grain, thereby reducing the cost of bread, favoring the poor, but when a free market was created in 1861, prices of bread sored and the poor struggled with hunger (1). As a result of this and other economic policies, as well as the resulting Sicilian resistance, that it wasn’t until 1876 before Sicily could be integrated into the Italian state (1).

Finally, these and other factors stimulated the development of organized crime, La cosa nostra (“Our thing”) developed. The word “mafia” is derived from Palermo slang which may have meant “flashy” possibly referring to a “pathological relationship among politics, society and criminality” (1). The Italian state used the development of the mafia as proof that Sicily was backward, and justification to establish martial law with limited civil liberties (1). This mafia first developed during the 19th century in the citrus industry which produced a high demand Sicilian export (1). Developing lemon groves was a very expensive investment, and, with the ‘barriers to entry’ created, would generate high profit margins for the growers. The mafia would be hired for protection, and if they were not paid, the lemon groves could be burned down (1), and the owners killed. In 1992 the Sicilian Cosa Nostra was responsible for a bomb that killed the judge who had been getting mafia convictions (1). The mafia represents only a minority of Sicilians (1). My Sicilian ancestors avoided involvement with the mafia in the U.S.A.. In fact, my great grandfather may have been frightened enough as the result of a gun battle in Texas, that he decided to return to Sicily (see blog: My Paternal Great Grandfather in a Texas Shootout?).

So yes, I’ve learned a lot about Sicilian history from reading Sicily: The History and Legacy of the Mediterranean’s Most Famous Island by Charles River Editors (1). I’d recommend it as reading for any person interested in Sicily or in European history, since it served as a key stone for much of what was going on in the Mediterranean since the Bronze age.


  1. “Sicily: History and Legacy of the Mediterranean’s Most Famous Island.” Accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/48693319-sicily.
  2. “Paleolithic.” In Wikipedia, September 24, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Paleolithic&oldid=979999106.
  3. “History of Sicily.” In Wikipedia, September 8, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_Sicily&oldid=977411729.
  4. “Approximate locations of the Elymians and their neighbors, the Sicani and the Sicels, in Sicily around 11th century BC (before the arrival of the Phoenicians and the Greeks).” By Halibutt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45431160
  5. “Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor.” In Wikipedia, September 12, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Frederick_II,_Holy_Roman_Emperor&oldid=978044594.

Author: T.P. Caruso

Retired from a healthcare and biomedical research career and now enjoying connections with anyone interested in history, geneology, healthcare, leadership or consciousness.

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