The History of Sicily in Two Minutes Flat

Goat in the ruins of the ancient Greek City of Selinute

Even people who think history is boring find Sicilian history interesting. History can explain everything we see around us and, in Sicily, the stories are usually amazing and intriguing.

You may wonder, for example, what that goat is doing [photo, right] in the ruins of the ancient Greek City of Selinute. Perhaps you'd like to know why Palermo Cathedral has part of the Koran carved into its wall. Almost every tourist who visits Sicily for their holidays wants to understand how the Mafia got started.

Historians fill whole books with answers to these questions, but we will take you on a journey through 2000 years in just two minutes. If you do want to go into more detail, we recommend the Wikipedia article on Sicilian history.

There have been very few times in Sicily's history when the island ruled itself. Sicilians have almost always been part of someone else's empire.

The various foreign "occupiers" of Sicily are often used to explain how Sicily evolved, but also as scapegoats to blame for the island's lack of modern progress and for the nurturing of the Mafia. Whilst there is some truth in this argument, it has also been used as an excuse for sitting about in denial. Nowadays the Sicilians themselves are tackling and beating the Mafia.

Period Geo­politi­cal
700 B.C.
200 B.C.
Ancient Greek period Central point of the Greek Mediter­ranean
  • Sicily is part of the Greek world (Magna Grecia)
  • Heyday of culture, science and the arts
  • Wealth through export of agri­cultural produce
  • Frequent wars between rival Greek cities
  • Siracusa (eastern Sicily) is the most powerful Greek city, rivalling Athens
200 B.C.
500 A.D.
Ancient Roman period Province in the Roman Empire
  • Sicily becomes the first Roman province outside the Italian peninsula
  • Sicilian grain production feeds the Roman Empire
  • 500 years of stable government, though characterised by ruthless exploitation of the population
500 A.D.
800 A.D.
Byzantine Era Part of the Holy Roman Empire (Ruled from Byzantium, now Istanbul)
  • Byzantine rule is a shambles, charac­terised by intrigue and endless power struggles with no resolution
  • Sicily becomes Christian, whilst North Africa becomes Islamic
  • Result: Sicily is now a frontline state between two rival cultures. Her position in the centre of the Mediter­ranean makes her the known world's most desired trading post and military base.
800 A.D.
1100 A.D.
Arabic period Aghlabid Emirate, then the Fatimid Caliphate – both North African empires
  • The Africans revolutionise the island's industries (pasta and ceramics for example), administrative systems, military defences, and architecture. Many new cities are founded.
  • Modern irrigation and new food crops greatly enrich Sicilian cuisine
  • Sicily is the most multicultural place in the world. Greeks, Jews, Africans, Italians, indigenous peoples and Arabs have their own languages, customs, foods, religions and legal systems.
  • The law ensures a peaceful coexistence between Christians, Jews and Muslims
Normans and Hohenstaufen Norman territory (The Normans conquered widely, but without a unified empire)
  • Normans maintain most of the Muslim African administrative systems and economy, keep the same civil servants and architects, and adopt many African customs
  • Interesting rulers such as Frederick II make Sicily a cultural centre of Europe
  • Many Muslims flee, but a peaceful coexistence between Christians, Jews and Muslims continues
  • The island fills with churches, many of them designed and built by Muslim architects
French period, Spanish period, Bourbon period. (The Bourbons were French but also ruled parts of Spain and Italy.) Kingdom of the two Sicilies
  • Under harsh French rule there are bitter uprisings by the Sicilian population known as the Sicilian Vespers
  • Sicily becomes a wealthy silk exporter and suffers a devastating plague
  • Development of the Sicilian Baroque style in architecture and interior decoration
  • The Spanish bring the Inquisition to Sicily. Jews and Muslims leave or convert. Sicily develops a Catholic monoculture and has never been cosmopolitan since
  • With a new inward-looking mentality and a Medieval feudal system, a few Sicilian barons own most of the island while landless farmers eke out a living as day laborers
  • The barons' culture of patronage and clientelism create a petri dish in which the Mafia flourishes (19th century) and culture withers
  • 1860 literacy rate in Sicily, 10%; 1860 literacy rate in Sweden, 90%
Italian Nation Disputed Italian territory
  • Giuseppe Garibaldi "liberates" Sicily in 1860 from the Bourbons
  • Land barons and their administrators strongly resist Italy’s attempts to modernise local government, administration and agriculture. They have a corrupt system to protect. They sometimes manipulate peasants into supporting them, and the Mafia becomes stronger
  • Cesare Mori fights successfully against the Mafia in the 1920s, but uses methods considered unacceptable. Mussolini virtually eliminates the Mafia in the 1940s, imprisoning almost all bosses
  • The US government enlists Sicilian Mafioso Lucky Luciano to guide their "liberation" of Sicily from his American prison cell at the end of WW2. American troops release mafiosi from prison and make them into town mayors and councillors. The Mafia are now running Sicily with legally sanctioned authority
  • To this day the Mafia is much more powerful in the west of Sicily, liberated by the Americans, than in the eastern half, liberated by the British and Canadian forces
  • The land barons refuse to modernize their agricultural techniques right into the 20th century. In 1950, legal land reforms allow a maximum land holding of 200 hectares
  • Literacy rate in Sicily in 1951: 75%
Repub­lic of Italy Italy/Eu­ro­pean Union
  • The last literacy campaign was in the 1970s
  • Thanks to the land reforms there are no landless peasants any more, but only 1% of the farms are larger than 50 hectares!
  • Sicilian viticulture is finally modernised and Sicily becomes an important wine exporter
  • Constitutional action against the Mafia continues with great success
  • From the 1990s, successful social movements against violence, corruption and the Mafia gain momentum
  • In 1985 Leoluca Orlando becomes the first anti-Mafia mayor of Palermo
  • In 2012 Rosario Crocetta becomes the first anti-Mafia prime minister of Sicily
  • Tourism takes off as Sicily becomes one of the safest holiday destinations in the world
The periods given are approximate


Britta Bohn

The information on this site comes from our Sicily expert Britta Bohn.

Britta has been dealing with daily life and life in Sicily for over 20 years.

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