Historical Review

"God would not have chosen Palestine if he had seen my Kingdom of Sicily"
Frederich II of Hohenstaufen


General Sicilian History





General Sicilian History

The earliest migrants to Sicily had to have come by sea since geologists assure us that there never was any land bridge connecting Sicily to anywhere. The first arrival of humans came around 20,000 BC! There is evidence of Stone Age peoples in three (3) areas along the Northern Coast --- Termini Imerse, Palermo and Trapani and in the southeastern corner of the island.

Their stone tools link them with the various cultures of central and western Europe and so do their drawings, especially the engravings on cave walls on the tiny island of Levanzo off Trapani [this was probably still connected to the main island at that time], and in Monte Pellegrino near Palermo. The naturalistic animal and human figures from Levanzo, mostly of profiles, are in the same tradition as the cave drawings of the Rhone Valley and of central and southern Spain. The Monte Pellegrino drawings, had a far greater number of human figures grouped in unusual or complicated positions and seem more directly linked to southern Spain. A radiocarbon date near 10,000 BC had been gotten for the Levanzo area, but the chronology as a whole is still obscured, as is the historical development within Sicily during the long Palaeolithic era. A major problem to really studying the era is the relative absence of burial finds. Only two groups have really been discovered in the San Teodoro cave on the coast between Palermo and Messina, and in the stone-age necropolis slightly inland from Syracuse at Pantalica. Pantalica is perhaps the most spectacular of pre-Greek centers. Rock tombs there are numbered by thousands, and cover a time-span from the 13th to the 3rd Century BC. It should be noted that there is some debate on the actual age of this area, but all agree that it was a Pre-Greek colony.

According to one reliable source, not long before 3,000 BC a slow transformation was happening in the central Mediterranean region.

The emergence of peasant communities, still largely dependent on stone tools, began the new-found arts of agriculture, domestication of animals, and pottery. Two unpainted specimens of pottery from Liguria can be dated to the period 4600-4200 BC, and they are some of the oldest specimens found in the central Mediterranean. They were about 1000 years after their Greek counterparts. The earliest genuine Neolithic culture seems to be the one now known as Stentinello, named after a village of that name near Syracuse. The burial grounds of these people was the Pantalica!

The tombs that they created consisted of chambers cut into rock, often with a sort of ante-chamber; interestingly the two rooms formed a structure similar to Sicilian peasant ovens. They are so similar that some archaeologists actually call them "oven shaped tombs" or in Sicilian "tombé a forno".

The pre-historical period of Sicily, before Greek records, reveal that Sicilian Culture did have an impact on the Greek Invaders. Besides the obvious, i.e. the land had been cultivated and cleared to a reasonable degree [in ancient times the island was densely forested], the Greek settlers found wives among the natives and also a labor force [possibly used as a slave work force i.e. no Unions]. One historian does not believe that there were any significant lasting effects of the peoples who preceded the Greeks {Sicels in the East; Sicans in the West; Elymians in the Northwest}.

Even in religion the impact appears to have been mostly topographical. The Greeks, like their predecessors, maintained cults associated with such natural phenomena as hot springs, with the dark subterranean powers, which was not surprising on an island which is dominated by the highest volcano in Europe -- Mt. Etna just outside of Catania. Etna was never completely dormant but, there are not more than 12-14 serious eruptions attested to during the whole period of antiquity, only one of which [in 122 BC] was heavily destructive. Earthquakes, even more surprisingly are virtually unrecorded!

One instance of continuity from Sicilian to Greek Culture is noteworthy, the Cult of the Palici! The Greeks converted this cult into their own Sons of Zeus. At a place, now uninhabited, about 25 miles west of Catania, just off the main inland road to Caltagirone the cult flourished. In the crater of an extinct volcano there is a small lake in which the water bubbles and gives forth gaseous vapors, hence it present name, Laghetto di Naftia. If a considerable number of Greek and Roman writers are to be believed, the waters were once more active, with two (2) geyser-like jets constantly in evidence.

This water allegedly had miraculous powers. It could judge right from wrong [something few politicians have been able to do since then] with the gods promptly punishing anyone who swore a false oath there. Some say the punishment was death and others say with blindness --- hence the saying --- "Blind Justice"!

Back to top of page


On the extreme west coast of Sicily lies the Province of Trapani. The historical cities of Erice, Trapani, Marsala, Mozia, Mazara del Vallo, Selinunte, Segesta, Castelvetrano, Alcamo, and others are located here. The eastern border of this Province is only a few miles from Santa Margherita di Belice, where my Grandmother Vincenza (Santangelo) Sacco was born.

The city of Trapani extends as far as the sea, stretching out along a curved promontory. Along the beach near the town, and all along the coast as far as Marsala, there lie white heaps of salt, guarded by windmills which with their big wind vanes stand out against the sea like fantastic monsters. Opposite, often wrapped in a light mist making their outlines uncertain, there emerge three (3) islands, the Egadi, welcoming visitors arriving by sea. The historical origins of Trapani are believed to go back to the Sicans, who are thought to have founded a village here, but imagination has created various legends. It is said that Trapani arose on the sickle that Ceres dropped while she wandered desperately around the world seeking her daughter Persephone, ravished by Pluto, or alternately that it was created by Saturn, who deliberately came down from Mount Olympus to found it. What is certain is that numerous more or less real or imaginary peoples settled here. Starting from the Cyclops, here there dwelt the Elymians, the Giants, the Trojans, the Phoenicians and many others. However, it was only in 260 BC that Trapani acquired importance, when Hamilcar brought here the inhabitants of Erice. Trapani had long been the harbor area of Erice. Under the Romans the town lost much of its prestige. The only important event was the arrival of the Jews, who liked it so much that they founded an important community here. During most of Sicily's historical vicissitudes, Trapani remained in the shadows. It reappeared on the stage of history in 1200, when Ferdinand of Aragona conferred his favor on it. Trade flourished under him. The town became a base for the crusaders' ships on their way to the Holy Land, and there were Consulates of the Catalans, the Genoans, the Venetians, the Pisans, the French and many others. It reached the acme of its power under Charles V, who landed here on his way back from his victory at Tunis and granted them particular privileges.

Back to top of page


Erice stands on the top of a solitary mountain overlooking the city of Trapani, the valley and the sea! Its origins is also shrouded in mystery. It is believed that Eryx, son of Venus and Butes, king of the Elymians, founded this remote location. On the summit there first arose a temple, dedicated to the female divinity of fecund nature, identified by the Phoenicians with Astarte, by the Greeks with Aphrodite, and by the Romans with Venus Ericina. Whatever her name, the goddess was always worshipped by all Mediterranean peoples. Her main concern was to protect sailors, who from far off saw the fire burning in the sacred edifice (an ancient lighthouse?) and also used it to get their bearings. Soon a strong fortress was built there, and it was fought over by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and the Romans. It was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 260 BC. During the Arabic period of this area it was known as GebelHamed. Under the Normans it became St. Julian's Mount, a name which it kept until 1934, as a tribute to the saint that Count Roger had seen in a dream during the siege of the rock. The town prospered under the Normans.

The Castle of Venus rises on a high isolated rock, which at one time could only be reached via a suspension bridge, on the ruins of the ancient temple to Venus. It was made impregnable by the Normans, who built walls with battlements around it.

Upon our last visit to this town it was almost like visiting an Old English village. Norman Towers and fortifications are everywhere! Even the garden area reflects on its English influence. It is almost like a town lost in time and place! A must see for anyone in this area of Sicily!

Back to top of page


On a soft hill spreads out the ruins of Selinus, rightly considered to be one of the most important archaeological areas in the Mediterranean and indeed in the whole of Europe. It was founded in the 7th Century BC by settlers from Megara Hyblaea and was the westernmost outpost of the Greek territory in Sicily. Hence it was here, for about three (3) centuries, that there occurred the meeting and clash between the Greek civilization and the Phoenician-Punic civilization, which long dominated the lives of the peoples living around the Mediterranean. Over the centuries Selinus had grown, becoming the biggest town of Hellenistic Sicily, above all because of its colossal temples, the only ones in Sicily to be decorated with sculptures. Its inhabitants, who were proud of their great power, believed themselves to be invincible. When in 409 BC Segesta, their eternal enemy, asked the Carthaginians for help against Selinus, the population of the latter town were not very worried, but they proved to be wrong. An army of 10,000 men landed in Sicily and besieged Selinus. Despite a strenuous defense, the town succumbed and fell into the hands of the enemy army. Historians speak of a massacre, with 16,000 inhabitants killed by the invading North Africans! Every building was sacked and destroyed. Selinus never recovered, despite the Syracusan Hermocrates, who in the ensuing two years had the walls rebuilt.

During the Byzantine period, hermits and religious communities settled there, and later some Muslim tribes. It wasn't until the 16th Century that it was rediscovered.

Back to top of page

Crest for Sciacca

***Attuale stemma di Sciacca***

"Coat of Arms" for Sciacca, Sicily


I have gathered this information from various sources and have attempted to verify the accuracy of all the facts. The further back in time we go, the more difficult it is to separate fact from folklore, thought most Sicilian folklore has its base in the facts!

Sciacca's origin has been traced as far back as 628 BC. The mythical founder of the city is said to have been Kokalos, King of the Sicani. It is one of the most ancient thermal resorts on the Mediterranean. It was known in "Siceliot" times for its sweating caves (located in Mount Kronio, below St. Calogero's sanctuary, where handmade pre-historic objects have been found) and for its thermal waters. The Romans gave it the name Thermae Siluntinae or Aquae Larodae, and the Arabs called it "as-Shaqqah" , hence the current name Sciacca!

Ancient Greek Temples are but a short drive east or west, with the most well preserved outside of Greece, located in Agrigento about a 30-40 minute drive along the coast.

Numerous peoples have invaded this city over the centuries (Romans, Byzantine, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, Austrians, etc.). During the middle ages, Sciacca, already famous for its natural resources, was the seat of powerful noble families who rendered it an impregnable fortress. Parts of the walled city can still be seen today.

From 1400 to 1529 it was the stage of a real civil war, which brought it sad fame. It was called the Case of Sciacca, in which the Perollo family and the Luna family were fierce rivals for over a century. Insults, murders and suicides took place with such regularity and rapidity as to thrust it into chaos, fear and bloodshed the entire citizenry who were divided between the two factions. The end of the feud exemplified the violence. Giacomo Perollo was killed and dragged around the city tied to a horse's tail, while his rival, Sigismondo Luna, fled to Rome, where the horror of his crime never left him until he committed suicide by jumping into the Tiber River.

The sanctuary or Basilica di San Calogero, located on Monte Kronio, about 7 kilometers outside of Sciacca proper and mentioned earlier, dates back to the 16th Century, and is Baroque in style. It was built in honor of a hermit (Calogero = handsome old man), who came from far off Constantinople to live and dedicate himself to prayer and meditation. He isolated himself in the caverns beneath the mountain (they can be visited today). To this day stories abound about his miracles and good works which contributed to his being made a Saint, and the patron saint of Sciacca. Numerous members of my family have been named Calogero or the feminine version Calogera. The nickname for Calogero is Lilo (normally Charles or Carl in English); for Calogera it is Lila (normally Lillian in English -- my mother's name).

Ceramica have played an important part in Sciacca's history. Pottery from the 7th Century BC have been found. In the 15th Century, the tiles for the famous Cathedral of Monreale, outside of Palermo, were manufactured in Sciacca.

Sciacca was surrounded, several times, by walls and fortified with castles (there are traces of the Luna Castle extisting today) but was frequently troubled by internal struggles between local vassals. In the historic center, around which the modern city has been extensively developed, there are some late-medieval and late-Baroque monuments, the latter including the duomo (Cathedral). Sciacca's most famous building is Palazzo Steripinto (late 15th century --- early 16th). The ashlars (diamond shaped stone facings) on the facade recall the "palazzo dei Diamanti" in Ferrara (1492-1565) but some have likened its general stylistic system to the almost contemporary Palazzo Sanseverino in Naples, and others have linked it with Catalan (Spanish) architecture of the same time period.

Sciacca has five (5) city gates. The walls of the city can be seen preserved in several locations, and some of the gates are still in use today. In Piazza Carmine there is one of the gates, Porta San Salvatore, which dates back to the period when Sciacca was an aspired fortress. The gate leads to the Chiesa del Carmine(1817) a reconstruction of an ancient 13th century Norman Church. It is neo-classical in style. Porta Palermo, the western gate to the city, follows the old road to Palermo. It is still the most used exit from Sciacca today, with thousands of cars going through it regularly.

Piazza del Popolo
Piazza del Popolo


There are numerous festivals celebrated each year in Sciacca, and I will try and mention some of the most notable.

Back to top of page

Return to Spence "Sacco" Burton's Main Page

My Home Page E-Mail

Questions, comments, suggestions should be addressed to: Spence F. Burton at: Spence@SpenceBurton.com

© February, 1996 All Rights Reserved -- permission to copy non-personal information (excluding "coded" calendars and graphics, except for link purposes) is given, as long as appropriate recognition and written notice is given to the author. No personal information from GEDCOM files etc. may be copied in ANY WAY , without my express written consent! This page was originally produced using MS Word Internet Assistant and enhanced significantly with Netscape Gold Ver. 3.0. It is best viewed with Netscape Version 2.0 or better, with a screen resolution of 800x600 pixels!