It is hard to find an island on the map more central than Sicily. Located at the crossroads between Europe and Africa, and between the eastern and western Mediterranean, Sicily has rarely been governed as an independent, unified state. Nonetheless, the island has always occupied a front-row seat to some of the most important events in history.
Very fertile in ancient times, Sicily was especially prized for its grain production. The island had been inhabited by native tribes since prehistoric times, but by the 9th and 8th centuries BCE, Sicily would be the staging area for a confrontation between the Greeks and the Phoenicians, seafaring powers that scrambled to establish colonies along its coasts.
It was during the Classical era that, especially under the tyrants of the Greek city of Syracuse, Sicily came the closest to being governed as a single, unified, and independent state. In time, it came to challenge the powerful trade empire of Carthage, a former Phoenician colony in North Africa, and it vied with the cities and kingdoms of mainland Greece for primacy in the Greek world. Later on, Sicily would be both a prize and a battlefield during the First Punic War (263-241 BCE) and, to a lesser degree, also during the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE). These were massive, protracted conflicts between Carthage and the rising Roman Republic, and Rome would subsequently become the main power in the Mediterranean on its way to ruling much of the known world. Sicily would go on to become the Roman Republic's first territory outside of Italy and its first province; and Hieron, the tyrant of Syracuse at the time, would be Rome's first client king. The province of Sicily would be crucial when it came to providing funds, and especially grain, to the rising Roman Republic.
After the Punic Wars, Sicily would remain a Roman domain until the end of antiquity, and affairs on the island dramatically affected the Romans at home. The First Servile War (135-132 BCE) and Second Servile War (104-100 BCE) both took place in Sicily, and they were perhaps the largest slave revolts in antiquity (and temporarily successful), demonstrating a great unease in the early stages of Roman imperialism. In 70 BCE, the Roman orator and statesman Cicero gave a speech against Verres, the corrupt governor of the island, and over 2,000 years later it still provides an invaluable glimpse into the way things were run in Sicily and the Roman Republic as a whole.
Although the conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE would strip Sicily of its central role as Rome's main supplier of grain, the island would remain an important part of the Roman Empire for about 500 more years. Sicily would only become independent again after the fall of the Western Roman Empire to barbarian tribes in the late 5th century CE, which ushered in the beginning of the Middle Ages.
Ancient Sicily looks at one of the world's most important and contested territories.
©2017 Charles River Editors (P)2017 Charles River Editors