Sicily is a large, triangle-shaped island in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of southern Italy. The island was first colonized by the ancient Greeks in the 700s b.c„ and it later became a Roman province*. Sicily played an important role in both Greek and Roman history.

The earliest peoples known to inhabit the island were the Siculi, the Sicans, and the Elymians. The Siculi, who lived on the eastern part of the island, probably came from Italy. Sicily was named after them. The Sicans lived in the central west region of the island, and the Elymians, who were believed to be of Trojan origin, lived in the west.

Although Greek traders visited the island during the late 1000s B.C., the Greeks did not colonize it until the 700s B.C. Naxos and Syracuse were the first two Greek colonies on Sicily. At about the same time, the Phoenicians colonized the western side of the island. The Phoenicians were followed by settlers from the North African city of Carthage, which itself had been a Phoenician colony.

The Greek cities on Sicily were ruled either by tyrants* or by small groups of aristocrats*. The first of the island’s great tyrants was Hippocrates of Gela, who ruled in the early 400s B.C. During the Peloponnesian War in the late 400s B.C., Athens twice attacked Syracuse, but the city was able to defend itself. Carthage raided the island twice, prompting Dionysius I, the tyrant of Syracuse, to wage four wars against the North African city. Under Dionysius and his successors, Syracuse became the dominant power on the island. During the late 300s B.C., the Corinthians, responding to an appeal for help from the Syracusan aristocracy, intervened to end the unpopular rule of the tyrants. This was followed by a period of civil wars on the island.

After the Romans defeated Carthage in the first of the Punic Wars, Sicily, with the exception of Syracuse, became the first Roman province. Syracuse supported Carthage in the Second Punic War. After Rome captured Syracuse in 211 B.C., the city was added to the province, a move that united the entire island under Roman rule.

Sicily provided much of the grain that fed the large population of Rome. As a major corn producer, Sicily used many slaves to work the agricultural estates. Two major slave revolts erupted on the island during the 100s B.C., each of which took several years to subdue. In the 70s B.C., the corrupt provincial governor Gaius Verres exploited the island for his own gain and was prosecuted for his crimes by the great Roman orator* Cicero.

The Roman general Julius Caesar granted the province rights that enabled the island’s elected officials to become Roman citizens. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., Sicily became a focal point for the civil war that followed. Sextus Pompeius, the son of Caesar’s rival Pompey, occupied Sicily and cut off Rome’s grain supply. After Octavian (who later became the emperor Augustus) defeated Sextus, he established Roman colonies on the island. Despite Roman colonization, the inhabitants of the island continued to speak Greek.

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

* tyrant absolute ruler

* aristocrat person of the highest social class

* orator public speaker of great skill

During the A.D. 400s, the Vandals first raided and then invaded Sicily from their base in North Africa. In 476 B.C. Odoacer, the king of the Ostrogoths in Italy, seized control of the island and forced the inhabitants to pay tribute*. This practice was stopped by Odoacer’s successor, Theodoric. (See also Civil Wars, Roman; Colonies, Greek; Colonies, Roman; Migrations, Late Roman; Provinces, Roman.)

* tribute payment made to a dominant power or local government

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