Arab domination in Sicily, a period that has left a big mark

Dominazione Araba in Sicilia

The Arab domination in Sicily lasted about 250 years. Its history began around the year 700 and lasted until around 1090.

This was, for the island, one of the dominations that most influenced had in the dialect and in the habits of the Sicilian people.

Islamic history in Sicily began during the 600s, years in which Sicily suffered several attacks.

At the beginning of the eighth century, these incursions became constant and forced the Byzantine Empire to react.

In the middle of this century the real invasion attempts began.

The beginnings of the ninth century were marked by a series of raids by the Arab world and a series of peace treaties.

These years marked the beginning of the Arab invasion. On the one hand, the Byzantine Empire was losing strength; on the other hand, the Islamic advance was becoming more and more powerful.

Dominazione Araba in Sicilia

The conquest of the island began around 830 but was very long. The last Byzantine resistance lasted for more than a century.
The Islamic domination of the island can be divided into four periods:

1st: The island was dominated by a governor chosen by the Aghlabid Emir of Kairouan;
2nd: In this period the island was dominated by the Shiite dynasty of the Fatimids;
3rd: A period in which Sicily was ruled by the Shiite dynasty of the Kalbites;
4th: The last period in which the island was divided into several Emirates;

Arab domination was not a “heavy” domination. In reality the rulers were very tolerant and imported various “traditions” that have remained in the Sicilian culture; some of these are part of the dominant features of the island still today.

Among the plants brought by the Arabs to Sicily we find:

sugar cane
the cotton
The anise
citrus fruits

In the same way they also imported agriculture processes that, for example, allowed the new crops to flourish. Among all, we must remember the rationalization of water resources.

It should not be forgotten that they greatly favor the cultural growth of the island and the large commercial growth. In fact, Sicily became the nerve center of trade in the Mediterranean in that period.

During this period, Christians and Jews continued to be present on the island. These were left free to profess their beliefs, only a different tax was imposed on them from those who professed the Islamic religion.

The center of Arab Sicily was Palermo. The city in this period had a very strong expansion and it became one of the largest metropolises in the then known world.

Dominazione Araba in Sicilia

The Arabic influence is also strong in the Sicilian dialect, here are some words found in our dialect that almost certainly derive from Arabic:

bagghiu – limbìccu – capurrais – jarrùsu – Taliàri – zaffarana – zibbibbu – favara – gebbia – mischinu – tabbutu – cassata – brunìa

These are just a few, if we pay attention to our dialect we will find many.

Another great Sicilian tradition that most likely derives from the Arab invasion is that of sweets.

“Cassata” and “Granita” are just two examples of typical sweets that derive from that period.

The end of Islamic rule came mainly due to the fragmentation of Sicily into several emirates. This allowed the Byzantines to try to regain possession of the island in 1038.

The attempt was a failure, but not entirely. It was during this incursion that the Norman William Popeye was present, who returned to Norway convinced his family members of the island’s wealth and ease in defeating Arab rule.

Although this was one of the most incisive dominations for Sicily, we have very little of it from an architectural point of view.

The city of Palermo, the capital of the Arab world in Sicily, retains very little of Arabic architectural interest. A trace of that period that is still clearly present and visible today are the traditional markets Ballarò, Vucciria, Capo and Lattarini.

These markets were famous at the time of Islamic domination, for the presence of different product types, and they still are, representing a distinctive feature for the city of Palermo.

After all, those two hundred and fifty years have had a lot of weight for what concerns Sicily, in fact they continue to reflect on the mentality and behavior of us Sicilians on our cuisine and in our dialect much more than other dominations that remained for much longer.

Sicily Byzantine

The history of Byzantine Sicily begins in 535, when the island was occupied by Belisarius, helped by the Sicilians who hoped that the new invaders were better than the previous ones.

Belisario was thus able to conquer the whole island but, due to some rebellions, he was forced to leave for Africa. Shortly afterwards some rebellions also broke out in Sicily forcing Belisario himself to return. Finished these rebellions too, he set sail for the conquest of Italy.

A few years later, in 549, the Goths headed by Totila returned to Italy, reconquering the peninsula and then also Sicily.

The history tells that Totila, who accused the inhabitants of the island of having helped the Byzantine invasion, threw his anger towards the Sicilians and retaliated by plundering and devastating the whole island.

Justinian, worried about the situation, sent the army led by Liberius. The latter did not have time to arrive in Sicily when Justinian changed his mind, sending Artabane to replace Liberio in command.

Liberio, unaware of the change of command, landed on the island and tried in vain to free Syracuse which had been besieged by Totila. In the meantime, the Totila decided to leave Sicily while maintaining command of some provinces.

Upon his landing on the Island, Artabane freed all of Sicily from the Ostrogoth presence in 551.

The situation, for the Byzantine Empire, changed a lot after the death of Justinian in 565. With the emperor dead, the kingdom remained in ruins from a financial point of view.

Justinian’s successors did not want to abandon the West and so they suffered the Lombard invasion in 568. These, in a couple of years, conquered almost the entire Italian peninsula, excluding the southern part.

From other fronts the Byzantine Empire suffered several attacks: the Moors in North Africa and the Visigoths conquered southern Spain.

This was one of the few times, throughout history, that Sicily remained unharmed.

Sicily remained under Byzantine influence until 827, that is, until the arrival of the Arabs.

In this period the island followed the fate and changes that affected the Byzantine empire.These years were marked, for the Byzantine empire, by various tensions and changes in front especially as regards the problems between the empire and the church .

As for Sicily, it is certainly worth mentioning: the first attempted invasion of the island by the Arabs (652) and the choice by Costanzo to move the capital of the empire to Syracuse (663). The following years were marked by the advance of the Arab empire and the tensions between the church and the empire.

The scarcity of documents makes the position of Sicily in this period unclear, if not for a few details.

This means that this part of the story of Sicily remains a little too short and lacking in important references.

The barbarians in Sicily


Barbarians in Sicily

The term “Barbarian” was born from the Greeks who indicated with it all those who did not speak Greek (literally indicated “stammerers”).

The term was later used also by the Romans, however acquiring a different meaning, it referred to all peoples who had a religion other than the Christian one.

The populations that are recognized, at the end of the Roman Empire, as barbarians are those who came from the northern part of Europe, which began to enter into “the empire” and which certainly accelerated its fall. Among the main ones we can mention: Vandals, Huns, Visigoths, Goths, Eruli, Ostrogoths.

Of these peoples those that were interested Sicily are mainly: the Vandals, Eruli and the Ostrogoths.

Vandals in Sicily

Genseric was king of the vandals in 428. At first he conquered northern Africa, making Carthage his operational base. In 440 he prepared a fleet with which he landed in Sicily. The Vandals sacked all of Sicily because of the limited commitment to defend it from the Byzantines distracted by the battle with Attila in the Eastern Roman Empire. They were then driven back to Africa, later returning to the island to regain it, around 468.

In 476 the Vandals essentially granted all of Sicily to Odoacre, who was in charge of the Eruli, in exchange for a tribute. Thus Odoacre became king of Italy.

Of the Vandal domination in Sicily we must surely remember the fierce religious persecution against Catholics.

Ostrogoths in Sicily

At the end of the fifth century, Odoacre was killed by Theodoric, ruler of the Ostrogoths, whi became the king of Italy.

In the year 500, Theodoric married his sister to Genseric’s great-grandson, Trasamondo, giving Lilibeo as a dowry.

Until 535 the Ostrogoths were the masters of Sicily, in this year the Byzantines began a long campaign to reconquest the island.

The Ostrogoths returned to Sicily in 549 and managed to occupy it again for another two years. Then in 551 the island was totally freed from the presence of barbarians.

Thus ends the history of the Barbarians in Sicily.

The Romans in Sicily, the granary of Italy

colonna villa del casale


The arrival of the Romans in Sicily is due to the loss of influence of the Greeks. It occurred in the middle of the 3rd century B.C. The main motivation was probably the fear that the Carthaginian empire could have taken the control of Sicily.

The Mamertines, an Italic people linked to a tradition based on war, were protagonist in this story. 

Around 280 BC the Mamertines went to Sicily attracted by the island’s wealth. After various assaults in the inhabited centers of the island, they were confined to the city of Messina. But their nature pushed them to continue their raids both on the island and beyond, becoming a constant threat for the Romans and for the Carthaginians.

The Mamertines allied at first with Carthage and precisely their sudden turnaround was the excuse that allowed Rome to land in Sicily. This event can be considered the prelude to the first Punic war.


The First Punic War began in 264 BC. and ended in 241 B.C., it was probably the biggest war, as far as economic resources and human lives are concerned, never seen until then.

A turning point in the war was Rome’s creation of its first naval fleet, without which it would not have been possible to fight Carthage. The war ended in 241 with the surrender of Carthage.

From the point of view of the Sicilian population the war brought only a huge number of victims. The only part of Sicily that remained almost immune from the war was Syracuse, ruled by Hieron. The sovereign allied initially with Carthage but this alliance lasted very little, soon Hieron understood that he had chosen the wrong side and signed an alliance with Rome, to which he remained faithful until his death, helping in the war with the supply of wheat and other provisions.

At the end of the first Punic war, Sicily, apart from Syracuse, was totally Roman.


The second Punic war began in 218 BC and ended in 202 BC (in Sicily up to 210). Even during this conflict, Sicily played a fundamental role.

After the death of Hieron, his heirs turned their faces to Rome, allying themselves with Carthage. In Sicily this conflict brought several clashes. It is important to underline the important role of Archimedes who, thanks to his talent, succeeded in delaying the siege in Syracuse for several years. In the end Syracuse ceded in 211 B.C. and this put an end to the Carthaginian presence in Sicily.

In reality from this year onwards the history of Sicily as a Roman province begins.


History that for many years continued without events of particular interest.

Until the arrival of the slave rebellion: the first led by Euno took place between 136 and 132 BC. and the second headed by Salvio Trifone between 101 and 98 B.C ..

To mention also the harassment of the island during the work of Gaio Verre from 73 to 71 B.C., remembered in the work of Cicero “Verrine”. The wars against the pirates that raged on the island are also of that period.

After Verrei t is important to mention the civil war between 49 and 45 BC. between Cesare and Pompeo who obviously was interested in Sicily since it had always been the grain importer to Rome. The situation didn’t improve on the island after the death of Caesar and the subsequent struggles for power.

At the end of these clashes Sicily had been devastated.

In 27 BC Octavian is proclaimed Augustus thus becoming Emperor of Sicily also.

There are not many sources from this period in Sicily. Therefore the only episode that deserves mention is another servile war that took place between 253 and 268

Sicily remained a Roman province until the fall of the Western Roman Empire, when the Vandals seized it in 440, thus ending the Roman period in Sicily.

The Greeks in Sicily, domination or colonnization

Greci in Sicilia

The arrival of the Greeks in Sicily can be dated around the 8th century B.C. Generally people think that the Greeks came to colonize but it could be also that they migrate to Sicily. In fact, they did not come to the island with the main purpose od conquering, but more likely with the intend of finding new land to inhabit. There is very little information about that period, for the simple reason that writing was not yet in common use. Because the lack of written tradition, there are many doubts about this period, the only source is provided by the Greek mythology, which however is not representative of the facts that actually happened. Probably the first Greek in Sicily were merchants, who opened their doors to the largest migration current. The first outpost on the island were in time order: Nasso, Lenten, Catania. Soon other places born as: Syracuse, Zancle and Mega Ilea. The foundation of Gela marks the end of the first Greek migration in Sicily.

Which Greeks have arrived to Sicily

Each settlement was made by Greeks from different areas of the motherland. The northernmost settlements were Greeks From Eubea and Calcidesi, while in Megara Ilea they came from Megaresi, those from Syracuse were the Corinthians and those from Gela were divided between Rhodes and Crete.

Different behavior of the Greeks

These cultural differences were the main factor of the different behavior of these new settled, the Sicels. The northernmost colonies didn’t have major conflicts with the Sicilians, they were first left to live in the confined territories, then, with the passing of the time, they were probably integrated.

Archeology proves a mercantile exchange between the Calcidesi and the Sicilians. There is even evidence that, during the 6th century B.C, there were Greek settlements within the Sicule community (Grammichele and Morgantina).

Thanks to this cultural sharing, and almost “Hellenization” of the Sicels arrived in the East areas of Enna as early as the 5th century B.C.. Big difference instead between the people from Syracuse and the Sicels. Here in fact, the new settlers enslaved the Sicilian populations who inhabited those areas by binding the others to the Ragusa area.

Akragas (today known as Agrigento) was founded in the 6th century, officially closing the Greek migratory wave. Different history concerns the settlements of Akragas, Selinunte and Imera as these brought the Greeks into areas inhabited by Sicani and Elimi.

These settlements were much more complex because these populations, especially the Elimi, were much more tenacious in resisting the Greek domination.

Phoenicians in Sicily

The north-east area of Sicily was for a long period settled by the Phoenicians. Almost certainly the Phoenicians used their settlements on the island only as point of trade. There were no conflict with the Greeks for many years, indeed, there is evidence of trade between these two populations. The first scraps start coming after the 6th century.

Syracusa, Greek Capital in Sicily

The Greek history in Sicily is linked to Syracuse, in fact form the first period, up to the Roman era, it was the history of this province and its tyrants that has affected the whole Greek period on the island.

Prehistory in Sicily

Preistoria in Sicilia


To choose a starting point in the history of Sicily, I decided to base myself on the oldest archaeological remains found on the island.

According to my research, the oldest remains can be traced back to the lower Paleolithic (2 million and 500 thousand years old B.C.), in the area of Agrigento. It is a duty for me, to specify that this findings come from other hominids and not for Homo Sapiens Sapiens (our closest relatives); about the appearance of what we call today as human race can not be dated, always based on archaeological finds, before 200,000 years ago.

So to not lose ourselves in questions that, the scientific community has not been able to agree on, we will make a leap up to the Upper Paleolithic (35000-10000B.C.).

In Sicily these testimonies come from archaeological sites such as:

  • Fontana Nuova (Marina di Ragusa), probably the archaeological place where the oldest finds of the first presence of men were found in Sicily.
  • Grotte di Scurati (Custonaci, Trapani), inabitate caves since Paleolithic period with the peculiarity that in one of them (Grotta Mangiapane) a village was built and habituated until the middle of the 20th century.
  • Grotte dell’Addaura (Palermo), famous caves for their wall etchings.
  • Cave of Cala del Genovese (Island of Levanzo, Trapani), cave with wall incisions.
  • Caves of San Vito lo Capo (Trapani), caves with parietal incisions.

Mesolithic (10000-8000 B.C.)

Mesolithic is consider an age of passage. In Sicily this era has left no signs of evident changes compare to the Paleolithic, as happened in the rest of Europe. The main testimonies of this historical era in Sicily are:

  • Riparo della Sperlinga (Novara di Sicilia, Messina), caves used as shelters.
  • Grotta dell’uzza (San Vito lo Capo, Trapani), this caves had funeral use.
  • Grotta Molara (Palermo), also used for funeral purposes.

Neolithic (8000-3000 B.C.)

This period marks a transition from old habits of previous settlements, to the new ways of living and new needs. Human settlements in Sicily probably grew. At the same time we started  to sail more intensely, thanks to the invention of the oar and the sail. One factor, which particularly characterizes this era, was the introduction of ceramics and the decoration of these. First they made this art only by hand, but gradually the decorations became more complex. 

Some example of the testimonies of this period are:

  • Riparo Cassataro (Centurie, Enna), is a rocky shelter in which pink ocher paintings have been found.
  • Matrernsa (Syracuse), archaeological site where decorated pottery was discovered
  • Monte Tabulo (Ragusa), archaeological site where decorated pottery was found.
  • Stentinello (Syracuse), archaeological site where decorated pottery was found.
  • Serraferlicchio (Agrigento) archaeological site where decorated pottery was found.

Bronze Age (3000-1200 B.C)

The main characteristic of this age is the passage from spreaded populations on the island without their own identity, to what I can define as real cultures, with characteristics that allow to identify and categorize them.

The residents of the island began to practice activities such as agriculture, livestock, and trade. From this period   the most important remains we have left are the ceramics, which were also were also one of the most incisive factors in the categorization of various cultures present in the Sicily of that period.

Among the various cultures of that period we can mention: the Castellucio, the Capo Graziano, the Thapsos, the Rodi-Tindari- Vallelunga, the Messina-Riccardi and the Milazzese.

Iron Age (1200-0)

During the first part of this era, before the arrival of the Greeks, the island suffered different invasions difficult to identify. The first Phoenician colonization is certainly from this period. For most of this period, the island was inhabitated, in addition to the Phoenician, by three populations mainly: the Elymians, the Sicels, and the Sicanians.


The Elyminians were settled in the western part of Sicily. Their origin is much debated, there are those who think that they were Ligurian populationwho settled on the island, there are those who, thanks to the Greek tradition, think that they had reborn after the fall of Troy, and even, founded by Aeneas. Their main cities were: Segesta, Erice, Entella, Iaitas, Halyciae and Nakone.


The Sicels occupied the eastern part of Sicily. Their origin can be traced back to Italic populations who invaded the island struggling against the Sicanians. Their name, like the name of the whole island, comes frome one of their kings, Siculo.


The Sicanians were the population that settled in the south-western part of Sicily. The Salso river was the border between their territory and that of the Sicels until teh arrival of the Greeks. Their origin (like that of the rest of the populations that the Greek found when they arrived on the island) is much debated. It is thought that it was the indigenous population of the island, even if some trace its origins back to the Italic people.