Sicily sits at the cross-roads of the Mediterranean: a short hop from both Africa and Europe, and firmly astride the shipping-lanes that stretch from Spain to the Levant.
This location (and the great agricultural surpluses that it generated) endowed it with immense wealth in times of peace, as it participated in trade to all corners of the Mediterranean and benefited from the constant arrival and departure of long-distance merchants using the ports of Sicily as way-stations.
In times of war, however, this great accessibility worked against it, and Sicily was repeatedly fought over by external powers eager to use its location for their own strategic benefit: anyone who could control Sicily had nearly the entire coastline of the Mediterranean at their mercy, and denying that power to a sworn enemy was just as important as securing it for yourself.
This experience of boom and bust, the tread of so many foreign feet, and the influence of so many external civilizations, has endowed Sicily with a cultural heritage that is almost unparalleled in Europe. This is just a very brief overview of some of the key moments in its long and glorious history:
Sicily: a brief timeline
c.35,000 BC First human colonisation of Sicily
c.6000 BC Neolithic revolution: appearance of first farming communities
c.1400 BC Arrival of Mycenaean merchants in Sicily
c.1050 BC Violent conquest of eastern Sicily by Southern Italian tribes
8th Century BC Foundation of the first wave of Greek and Phoenician colonies
480 BC An enormous Carthaginian army invades the east of the island from the Phoenician colonies in the west (which had come increasingly under their control) in an attempt to forestall the aggressive expansion of some of the Greek colonies. It was annihilated at Himera by the combined forces of Agrigento and Syracuse.
415-413 An Athenian army invades Sicily and attempts to conquer Syracuse, but is obliterated. A fleet of Syracusan warships is sent to the Aegean to return the favour.
264-241 The First Punic War. Rome invades Sicily in a war against the Carthaginians, who are now firmly in control of the west of the island. Huge destruction is wreaked on the local population until Carthage is finally defeated and Sicily is divided between Rome and the Kingdom of Syracuse.
218-201 The Second Punic War. The Kingdom of Syracuse sides with the Carthaginians in a renewed conflict, but the Roman legions are victorious and the entire island is united under Roman control.
36 BC Sicily is conquered by the generals of Octavian (the future Augustus), who later goes on to reorganise its administrative system and found military colonies. A long period of peace and security begins.
440 The Vandals raid Sicily for the first time, and finally gain full control of the island in 468, ceding it to the Ostrogoths in 476.
535 Belisarius, a Byzantine General, takes Sicily in a lightning campaign and uses it as a base for further conquests in the central Mediterranean. Syracuse briefly becomes the Byzantine capital between 663-638, a “blessing” that nearly bankrupts the city.
651/2 The Arabs raid Sicily for the first time.
827-902 Arabic forces invade and conquer the island in a long and brutal campaign of attrition. Palermo falls in 831; Messina in 843; Cefalu in 859; Syracuse in 878; Taormina in 902. Syracuse is sacked and destroyed to such an extent that it does not recover even a shadow of its former glory until the 20th century; Palermo becomes the new capital of the island.
1061-1091 The Norman Count, Roger I, conquers Sicily. He leaves the Greek and Muslim populations in peace to follow their own beliefs, but an inflow of European settlers inexorably pulls the island in the direction of the culture of the western mediterranean, and away from the east.
1266-1282 The Norman line dies out after a century and the crown passes to a Swabian dynasty, the Hohenstaufens, who lose control of Sicily in 1266 when Charles I of Anjou invades with Papal support. The harsh French rule is greatly resented by the local population, leading to an uprising in 1282, when the French inhabitants of the island are massacred and Peter of Aragon is acclaimed as its new ruler.
1700-1860 Control of the island passes between various Spanish dynasties until 1700, when the childless Charles II dies. After 34 years of alternating rule (including Austrian) and some exceedingly brutal and devastating warfare, the Bourbon dynasty gains control, ruling Sicily and Southern Italy until Italian unification is effected in 1860, and the Kingdom of Italy is born.
1860- Harsh military rule in the early years of the Italian state, combined with a lack of economic improvement and hefty taxes, leads to the emergence of the Mafia and a huge wave of emigration that lasts into the middle of the 20th century. Sicily is invaded by the Allies in 1943 as part of operations during World War II. With the foundation of the Italian Republic in 1964, it becomes an autonomous region therein. Thanks to a long-lasting funding programme, Sicily recovers from the ill-effects of the war and begins to rebuilding its economy around the twin poles of agriculture and tourism.
As well as our food tour of Sicily you can also join us on our Exploring Sicily tour which provides an unforgettable encounter with the island’s long history and culture.