Sicily was originally colonized by the Greeks in the 8th century BCE, who founded numerous colonies, including Syracuse, Messina or Gela. In the meantime, the Punics also extended their influence on the island. Palermo, on the north coast of the island.
Constant conflicts and rivalry with the growing naval power of Carthage led to the fact that democratically managed cities were usurped and tyrants seized power. One of the most famous were Hieron I, Dionysios I and Dionysios II. Over the centuries, a division of influence had formed and the Carthaginians dominated the west of the island while the Greeks ruled the east under the leadership of the strongest city of Syracuse.
In the 3rd century BCE, the conflict between Greek cities and the Punics escalated. This allowed the Romans to get involved in the island’s affairs and led to the outbreak of First Punic War.
The most famous story about the beginning of the Punic War is the story told by Polybius, a historian of Greek origin, living in Rome in the 2nd century BCE and associated with the Scipio family. His interpretation indicates a willingness to defend the Roman cause. The Mamertines, originally hired to fight the Carthaginians by the tyrant of Syracuse – Agathocles – mercenaries from Campania, took over Messina for their own right. With time, under strong pressure from Syracuse (tyrant Hiero II) and fear for their position, they asked for support from both Rome, expanding south of Italy, and Carthage, present in Sicily. The best events are presented by Polybius:
The Mamertines had previously, as I above narrated, lost their support from Rhegium and had now suffered complete disaster at home for the reasons I have just stated. Some of them appealed to the Carthaginians, proposing to put themselves and the citadel into their hands, while others sent an embassy to Rome, offering to surrender the city and begging for assistance as a kindred people. The Romans were long at a loss, the succour demanded being so obviously unjustifiable. For they had just inflicted on their own fellow-citizens the highest penalty for their treachery to the people of Rhegium, and now to try to help the Mamertines, who had been guilty of like offence not only at Messene but at Rhegium also, was a piece of injustice very difficult to excuse. But fully aware as they were of this, they yet saw that the Carthaginians had not only reduced Libya to subjection, but a great part of Spain besides, and that they were also in possession of all the islands in the Sardinian and Tyrrhenian Seas. They were therefore in great apprehension lest, if they also became masters of Sicily, they would be most troublesome and dangerous neighbours, hemming them in on all sides and threatening every part of Italy. That they would soon be supreme in Sicily, if the Mamertines were not helped, was evident; for once Messene had fallen into their hands, they would shortly subdue Syracuse also, as they were absolute lords of almost all the rest of Sicily. The Romans, foreseeing this and viewing it as a necessity for themselves not to abandon Messene and thus allow the Carthaginians as it were to build a bridge for crossing over to Italy, debated the matter for long, and, even at the end, the Senate did not sanction the proposal for the reason given above, considering that the objection on the score of inconsistency was equal in weight to the advantage to be derived from intervention. The commons, however, worn out as they were by the recent wars and in need of any and every kind of restorative, listened readily to the military commanders, who, besides giving the reasons above stated for the general advantageousness of the war, pointed out the great benefit in the way of plunder which each and everyone would evidently derive from it. They were therefore in favour of sending help; and when the measure had been passed by the people they appointed to the command one of the Consuls, Appius Claudius, who was ordered to cross to Messene. The Mamertines, partly by menace and partly by stratagem, dislodged the Carthaginian commander, who was already established in the citadel, and then invited Appius to enter, placing the city in his hands.
– Polybius, The Histories, I, 10-11
A conflict of interest must have led to a war. Polybius tried to explain Rome’s intervention in Messina by fearing the expansion of Carthage. His story, however, is not entirely convincing, contains many understatements and distortions, and above all does not mention the will of Rome itself to extend its influence over Sicily. According to the pro-Carthaginian historian Philinus of Agrigentum, before the First Punic War there was an agreement between Rome and Carthage that defined the spheres of influence of each country; according to his records, Sicily belonged to the Punics.
The Roman Senate’s support for the intervention and aid of the Memertines meant de facto a declaration of war on Carthage. The Romans sent troops to help the Memertines, despite the fact that they were not bound by any treaty and that they were in no way provoked by the Carthaginians provoked. The war began with the landing of the Roman army, composed of two legions, under the command of Appius Claudius Caudex in 264 BCE in Sicily. As it turned out, the war was supposed to last until 241 BCE and was devastating for both the Romans and the Carthaginians. The Romans fought naval battles on a massive scale for the first time, and moreover they carried out a military campaign outside the Apennine Peninsula, invading Africa and threatened Carthage itself.
Ultimately, the Romans won the war thanks to their endless material and human resources, determination, and their ability to learn from mistakes and innovate (eg “raven“). As a result of the First Punic War, Carthage gave Rome three islands: Sardinia, Sicily and Corsica, and was forced to pay compensation in the amount of 3,200 talents.
Initially, Rome was assigned the island, with the exception of one but the important city, which was undoubtedly Syracuse. The city was heavily fortified and still played an important role on the island; only in 211 BCE the city was incorporated into the province of Sicily.
For years, the Carthaginians’ dislike of the Romans was to lead to another war for supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea. This time the Punics were the party initiating the conflict. The young Carthaginian leader Hannibal Barcas, realizing that Rome draws its strength from the alliances it has made, with many Italian cities (socii), decided to threaten the “Eternal City” directly on the Apennine Peninsula.
The start of the Second Punic War in 218 BCE meant fighting for Rome in Sicily as well. The tyrant of Syracuse – Hieronymus – went to the side of Carthage and together with Carthaginian troops against the Romans. After the defeat at Cannae in 216 BCE, the Roman legionaries who had survived the massacre were “driven” into Sicily. There, too, they had to crush the rebellion of Sicilian cities and compete with the tyrant’s troops of Syracuse and the Carthaginians. Finally, in the years 214-211 BCE, after a long siege, the Romans – under the command of consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus – captured and plundered Syracuse. A year later, Agrigentum was conquered, and thus Sicily was completely in Roman hands.
After a series of victories Scipio the Elder and the decisive clash at Zama in 202 BCE peace was concluded. The humiliated Carthage had to relinquish all possessions except North Africa; thus Sicily as a whole became part of Roman territory. In addition, she was obliged to pay huge war reparations, amounting to 10,000 talents. Only 10 navies were to remain at Carthage’s disposal, and Carthage’s military policy was to be approved by Rome.
Roman period in Sicily
The takeover of Sicily meant a new period in history for the Romans. Rome first became involved in a conflict outside of Italy and established Sicily as the first Roman province in 241 BCE. The island with fertile soil guaranteed a steady flow of grain, and until the annexation of Egypt in 30 BCE it was Rome’s “granary”. The Romans did not take significant steps to romanize the island; Greek cities retained some autonomy and could even mint coins. Following the lex Rupilia of 132 BCE, Sicilian cities were divided into four different categories (from largest to lowest autonomy), which defined privileges and obligations: (1) allied free cities; (2) city-states without an alliance; (3) cities forced to pay decuma tax; (4) captured cities whose land was owned by Roman citizens.
Due to the abundance of crops in the region (grain, olive oil, wine), huge latifundia began to arise in the provinces, which were owned by the Roman nobilitas, and slaves were brought in en masse. The island was also rich in beautiful forests, but the endless needs of the Roman industry meant that wood was massively used for the construction of the fleet and other buildings. As a result, Sicily, like all of Italy, has become largely a region with macchia vegetation.
The agricultural abundance of the island, developed Greek cities and the favorable location of the island in the Mediterranean Sea guaranteed enormous income for the province, and for officials they were an opportunity to increase their own wealth. A great example of a corrupt provincial governor was Gaius Werres, who ruled Sicily in 73-71 BCE. Werres committed corruption, extortion, and seizure of works of art. Soon after Werres left Sicily in 71 BCE, island representatives arrived in Rome with an official motion against their former governor. Werres was charged and convicted in a trial where the prosecution party was Cicero himself.
At the end of the 2nd century BCE, the situation began to aggravate in Roman society. Slaves Rural were the worst-off category of the stratum. Hard-working conditions and brutal owners led to two slave uprisings in Sicily. The first (138-132 BCE) broke out under the leadership of Eunus from Syria, who gathered around him a large group of Sicilian slaves. The second uprising (103-100 BCE), on the initiative of Tryphon, had an even greater range and proclaimed the creation of an independent state entity. Both uprisings were finally suppressed, but the events in the second half of the second century BCE did not teach the Romans, especially the senatorial aristocracy, anything. Further, the widening of slave estates continued, and slaves were treated as things. This led to another uprising in 73 BCE, called the Rise of Spartacus, this time on the Peninsula.
Sicily was naturally also affected by civil wars in the 1st century BCE. The province, being an extremely abundant region, guaranteed a constant supply of grain to Rome and allowed it to influence the population of the capital. Its importance was noticed especially by Sextus Pompey, son of the murdered Pompey the Great, who made Sicily his base. During the war in 38-36 BCE he successfully competed with the triumvirs and used the island’s resources. Eventually, after defeating the naval battle at Naulochus Bay in 36 BCE, he was murdered in Asia Minor.
After defeating Sextus, Octavian imposed enormous financial penalties (up to 1,600 talents) on the most reluctant Sicilian cities, and the province itself after the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE could have resumed development. With the defeat of Marcus Antony and Cleopatra came the Roman Empire and a relatively quiet period for Sicily.
The fall of Roman rule in Sicily
The crisis of the 3rd century CE, the constant destabilization of the political life of the empire, numerous barbarian invasions, and finally the division of the Empire into a western and eastern part in 395 CE led to a rapid weakening of the Roman state. The hard times did not survive the Western Roman Empire, which, according to textbooks, collapsed in 476 CE after the young Romulus Augustulus was removed from the throne. Earlier, the empire gradually lost control over subsequent Roman provinces, which were taken over by barbarians. A similar fate was shared by Sicily, which was taken over by the Vandals under the leadership of Genesis in 440 CE.
In the 5th century, a talented Byzantine leader – Belisarius – at the behest of Emperor Justinian I made an attempt to regain Italy and rebuild the former Roman Empire. His military campaign allowed to regain Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and part of Italy, lands that were under the rule of the Byzantine Empire until the 10th century, when in 902 the island was conquered by the Muslims.