previous next


Σικελία). Sicily; a large island in the Mediterranean Sea, off the southern coast of Italy. It was anciently identified with the Thrinacia (Θρινακία) of Homer, and is styled Trinacria and Trinācris, names supposed to mean “three-cornered,” whence the Romans likewise styled the island Triquetra (cf. Lucret. i. 717). The names Sicilia and Sicania come from that of its early inhabitants—the Sicĕli or Sicāni. It is separated from Italy by the narrow channel called Fretum Sicŭlum or simply Fretum (Πορθμός), also Scyllaeum Fretum, now the Strait of Messina. The part of the Mediterranean lying to the east and south of the island was called Maré Sicŭlum. Sicily is in the shape of a triangle, the north and south sides of which are about 175 miles long exclusive of the windings of the coast; the eastern side has a length of 115 miles. The northwestern point was the Promontorium Lilybaeum; the northeastern point, Promontorium Pelorus, and the southeastern point, Promontorium Pachynus. Sicily was originally a part of Italy, and was torn from it by some great convulsion of nature. A mountain range (Nebrodi Montes) extends through it as a continuation of the Apennines. Of this range the most important offshoots are Mount Aetna on the east of the island, Mount Eryx (S. Giuliano) on the west, and the Heraei Montes (Monti Sori) in the south. A number of small rivers have their sources in the mountains, but most of them are dry, or nearly so, in the summer. The soil of Sicily was very fertile, and produced in antiquity an immense quantity of wheat, on which the population of Rome relied to a great extent for their subsistence. So celebrated was it even in early times on account of its corn that it was represented as sacred to Demeter, and as the favourite abode of this goddess. Hence it was in this island that her daughter Persephoné was carried away by Pluto. Besides corn, the island produced excellent wine, saffron, honey, almonds, and the other Southern fruits.

The earliest inhabitants of Sicily are said to have been the savage Cyclopes and Laestrygones; but these are fabulous beings, and the first inhabitants mentioned in history are the Sicani (Σικανοί) or Siculi (Σικελοί), who crossed over into the island from Italy. Some writers, indeed, regard the Sicani and Siculi as two distinct tribes, supposing the latter only to have migrated from Italy, and the former to have been the aboriginal inhabitants of the country; but there is no good reason for making any distinction between them. They appear to have been a Keltic people. According to Thucydides, their original settlement was on the river Sicanus in Iberia; but as Thucydides extends Iberia as far as the Rhône, it is probable that Sicanus was a river of Gaul, and it may have been the Sequana, as some modern writers suppose. The ancient writers relate that these Sicani, being hard pressed by the Ligyes (Ligures), crossed the Alps and settled in Latium; that, being driven out of this country by the Aborigines with the help of Pelasgians, they migrated to the south of the peninsnla, where they lived for a considerable time along with the Oenotrians, but finally crossed over into Sicily, to which they gave their name. They soon spread over the greater part of the island, but in later times were found chiefly in the interior and in the northern part; some of the most important towns belonging to them were Herbita, Agyrium, Adranum, and Enna. The next immigrants into the island were Cretans, who are said to have come to Sicily under their king, Minos, in pursuit of Daedalus, and to have settled on the southern coast in the neighbourhood of Agrigentum, where they founded Minoa (afterwards Heraclea Minoa). Then came the Elymaei, a small band of fugitive Trojans, who are said to have built Entella, Eryx, and Egesta. These Cretans and Elymaei, however, if indeed they ever visited Sicily, soon became incorporated with the Siculi. The Phœnicians likewise at an early period formed settlements, for the purposes of commerce, on all the coasts of Sicily, but more especially on the northern and northwestern parts. They were subsequently obliged to retire from the greater part of their settlements before the increasing power of the Greeks, and to

Siceliote Coin. (Third century B.C.)

confine themselves to Motya, Solūs, and Panormus. But the most important of all the immigrants into Sicily were the Greeks. The first body of Greeks who landed in the island were Chalcidians from Euboea, and Megarians led by the Athenian Thucles. These Greek colonists built the town of Naxos, B.C. 735. They were soon followed by other Greeks, who founded a number of very flourishing cities, such as Syracuse in 734, Leontini and Catana in 730, Megara Hybla in 726, Gela in 690, Selinus in 626, Agrigentum in 579, etc. The Greeks soon became the ruling race in the island, and received the name of Siceliōtae (Σικελιώται) to distinguish them from the earlier inhabitants.

At a later time the Carthaginians obtained a firm footing in Sicily. Their first attempt was made in 480; but they were defeated by Gelon of Syracuse, and obliged to retire with great loss. Their second invasion in 409 was more successful. They took Selinus in this year, and four years afterwards (B.C. 405) the powerful city of Agrigentum. They now became the permanent masters of the western part of the island, and were engaged in frequent wars with Syracuse and the other Greek cities. (For the Athenian invasion of Sicily, see Syracusae.) The struggle between the Carthaginians and Greeks continued, with a few interruptions, down to the First Punic War; at the close of which (B.C. 241) the Carthaginians were obliged to evacuate the island, the western part of which now passed into the hands of the Romans, and was made a Roman province. The eastern part still continued under the rule of Hieron of Syracuse as an ally of Rome; but after the revolt of Syracuse in the Second Punic War, and the conquest of that city by Marcellus, the whole island was made a Roman province, and was administered by a praetor. Under the Roman dominion more attention was paid to agriculture than to commerce; and consequently the Greek cities on the coast gradually declined in prosperity and wealth. The inhabitants of the province received the ius Latii from Iulius Caesar; and Antony conferred upon them, in accordance, as it was said, with Caesar's will, the full Roman franchise. Augustus, after his conquest of Sextus Pompey, who had held the island for several years, founded colonies at Messana, Tauromenium, Catana, Syracuse, Thermae, and Panormus. On the downfall of the Roman Empire, Sicily formed part of the kingdom of the Ostrogoths; but it was taken from them by Belisarius in A.D. 536, and annexed to the Byzantine Empire. It continued a province of this Empire till 828, when it was conquered by the Saracens.

Literature and the arts were cultivated with great success in the Greek cities of Sicily, especially at the time of the first Hiero (q.v.) of Syracuse (B.C. 478-467), and of Dionysius the elder, the friend of Plato. Sicily was the birthplace of the philosophers Empedocles, Epicharmus, and Dicaearchus; of the mathematician Archimedes; of the physicians Herodicus and Acron; of the historians Diodorus, Antiochus, Philistus, and Timaeus; of the rhetorician Gorgias; and of the poets Stesichorus, Theocritus, and Moschus.

Good histories of ancient Sicily are those of Holm, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1870-74); Lloyd (1872); Freeman, vols. i.-iii. (1891-92); id. a short history in the “Story of the Nations Series” (1892). On the earliest inhabitants of Sicily, see the monograph by Costanzi, De Siciliae Gentibus Antiquissimis (1893); and on the Greek colonies that of Frömter (1886), and of Brunet de Presle, Les Établissements des Grecs en Sicile (Paris, 1845). See also Hoffweiler, Sicilien in Wort und Bild (Leipzig, 1870), and the articles Agrigentum; Carthago; Dionysius; Gelon; Leontini; Punic Wars; Selinus; Syracusae. For a map of Sicily, see Italia.

hide References (1 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (1):
    • Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 1.717
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: