Italics, Italics, Everywhere!
(Part 1) The Ancient Peoples of Sicily
By Niccolò Graffio
“To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for in Sicily lies the key to everything.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Italian Journey”, 1816-17
The end of the Pleistocene Epoch (c. 11,700 BP) brought with it a number of significant changes across our planet, not the least of which was the beginning of the end of the last glacial period. For thousands of years previously, huge areas of the Northern Hemisphere (and the continent of Antarctica) were under ice sheets called glaciers. By the beginning of the Holocene Epoch the glaciers began their slow retreat back to the icy wastes of the North which spawned them. Antarctica, of course, would remain locked under ice sheets down to the present.
The retreat of the glaciers also changed the ecological landscape of the continent of Europe. Land in Northern Europe that was no longer buried under ice now supported an abundance of flora and fauna. Grasslands in Southern Europe gave way to woodlands. Species of megafauna (large animals) that could not adapt to these changes (like the cave hyena) disappeared, being replaced by the newer arrivals.
The increase in woodlands and wild game caused a similar increase in the population of humans, for whom hunting and gathering had always been the sources of their sustenance. This increase in the number of humans put additional pressures on populations of megafauna already stressed by changes in ecology and no doubt helped drive a number of them into extinction.
Subsequent to the beginning of the Holocene came the time period archaeologists now call the Neolithic Revolution. This was the period of time that saw a wide scale and widespread transition among humans from basically a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and the establishment of permanent settlements. As mentioned in a previous article, the peoples who brought this “revolution” to Europe originated in the Near East and became the ancestors of the peoples collectively referred to as Mediterranean.
Much has been written about the peoples who eventually settled what is today Southern Italy. Though these peoples left us no written languages, to describe their religious beliefs, culture, tribal structures, etc., yet enough has survived to give archaeologists at least a glimpse of how they lived many thousands of years ago.
The first Neolithic arrivals on the island of Sicily brought with them sheep, goats, pigs and grains. Archaeogenetic evidences suggest these peoples arrived around 8,000 BP from Western Asia (Anatolia). The first of the ancient peoples of Sicily about which we know anything other than scant archaeological evidence is the Sicani. The Athenian historian and general Thucydides (c. 460-395 BC) believed the Sicani had originally arrived from the Iberian Peninsula and were eventually driven into the central part of the island by the invading Siculi. Timaeus of Tauromenium believed the Sicani were the descendants of the aboriginal inhabitants of Sicily, a belief held by many modern scholars. Others, however, believe they were in fact an Illyrian tribe.
The earliest identifiable evidence of a Sicani culture is dated to around the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. Later artifacts show these people had absorbed some aspects of Mycenaean culture. Opinion is divided over whether the Sicani were originally a pre-Indo-European people who eventually adopted Indo-European ways or else an Indo-European minority who conquered and imposed themselves over a pre-Indo-European aboriginal population.
The next arrivals on the historic scene were the Siculi or Sicels. It was these people who gave their name to the island of Sicily. Archaeological and historical evidence gives the time of their arrival on Sicily at around 1,200 BC. They were apparently an Indo-European people. These new arrivals drove out the Sicani from the eastern part of the island, forcing them into the central regions.
Though mentioned as a distinct people by some ancient Greek writers, archaeologists admit it is difficult to distinguish them in the archaeological record. Some fragments of their language do survive, however. The Siculi organized themselves into independent townships, politically speaking. Thus, when the Greeks first arrived in droves on Sicily sometime in the middle of the 8th century BC they found it comparatively easy to overcome them and drive them from the coastal regions. They were then able to secure the ports from themselves.
The Siculi, however, were not content to go into the mists of history without a fight. The first serious challenge to Greek hegemony on the island of Sicily occurred around 460 BC under the leadership of Ducetius, a Hellenized Sicel who was probably born in or around the town of Mineo (in modern Catania). In 467 BC war had broken out between the Greek polity of Syracuse and Catana, a former colony. Ducetius sided with Syracuse against Catana because the people of the latter city-state had occupied Siculian land.
At first the Syracusans welcomed the assistance of Ducetius, who was thoroughly educated in Greek culture. Soon, however, it became apparent he had grander designs than simply defeating the people of Catana. He succeeded in uniting all the Siculi of central Sicily under his rule and subsequently founded the city of Palice, which became the center of his power. The city’s population soon swelled with the ranks of runaway slaves who were eager to flock to his standard.
At the head of a large army of Siculi he attacked and conquered the Greek town of Aetna before moving against Agrigentum. By now the people of Syracuse became concerned with his unchecked growth in power and decided to throw their lot in with Agrigentum. This in spite of the fact he never showed any malevolence towards Syracuse.
Initially Syracuse was unable to defeat him and his Siculian armies. By 451 BC he was at the height of his power and it began to look like he might very well establish a Sicel empire on the island of Sicily.
Fortune turned against him, though, and a year later he suffered his first defeat. This apparently enervated a number of his soldiers, who now felt his cause was lost. His armies were scattered across the towns of his people. Realizing that some of his men were planning on kidnapping him, Ducetius was forced to seek refuge in the city of his erstwhile allies. He was tried by an assembly of Syracusans who handed out the moderate punishment of being banished forever to Corinth in Greece. He returned to Sicily not too long afterwards, however, intent on founding a colony and reasserting his control over the Siculi. Before he could do so he died, sometime around 440 BC. Following the death of Ducetius both the Sicani and Siculi were rapidly Hellenized and absorbed into what would become Magna Graecia.
The last of the pre-Hellenic inhabitants of Sicily were the Elymians. These people settled the northwestern portion of the island. Like the Sicani, their origins are shrouded in mystery. The ancient Greeks liked to consider them descendants of the Trojans, who, according to the story, fled to Sicily at the end of the Trojan War. Some modern scholars believe the Elymians were, in fact, a people who immigrated to Sicily from the Anatolian Peninsula during the late Bronze Age. Recent archaeological excavations at Monte Polizzo however, hint that at least some of their ancestors may have existed on Sicily for much longer.
Sometime after the Greeks began establishing colonies on Sicily the Carthaginians, a Phoenician people from North Africa, began likewise establishing a present on the westernmost part of the island. As time passed the expansion of Carthaginian power inevitably brought it into conflict with the Greeks. The Elymians adopted the alphabet of the Carthaginians and from this we know they spoke an Indo-European language. In spite of this, the Elymians were enamored with Greek culture and rapidly became Hellenized. They did, though, continue to maintain friendly relations with the Carthaginians, which brought them into conflict with the expansionist Greek city-state Selinunte (Selinus) by 580 BC.
The Elymians had succeeded in establishing several cities in their lands including Segesta, Eryx and Entella. These cities were established with the help of Greek colonists, who no doubt were instrumental in Hellenizing their Elymian neighbors.
It was Segesta that especially found itself at odds with Selinunte. The Segestans fought wars with the people of Selinunte in 580 BC and again in 454 BC. Modern historians believe the people of Selinunte were trying to find a way into securing an outlet for themselves to the Tyrrhenian Sea.
In 415 BC, finding themselves at war again with Selinunte, the Elymians of Segesta petitioned the then powerful city-state of Athens for help against their eternal foe. Greek historians state the Segestans tricked the Athenians into believing they would pay the lion’s share of the cost of sending a fleet. Athens at that time was in the midst of a respite in its struggles with Sparta for supremacy in the Peloponnesus and Magna Graecia. The result of this intrigue was Athens’ disastrous Sicilian Expedition (415-14 BC) in which Athens suffered a crushing defeat in Sicily at the hands of the Spartans and their allies.
The Elymians, on the other hand (or rather, by now the Greco-Elymians) had much better luck afterwards securing for themselves an alliance with Carthage. After Athens’ defeat the Selinuntines resumed their aggression against Segesta. The Elymians were able to induce the Carthaginians into attacking the city-state of Selinunte. Initially (in 410 BC) the Carthaginians sent a small force to aid their Segestan allies, who were able to utilize this aid in defeating their foes. The following spring, however, the Carthaginians then sent a huge military force against the vastly outnumbered Selinuntines who suffered a crushing military defeat and thereafter were reduced to the status of a Carthaginian vassal.
The Elymians were nothing if not a practical people, famed for their prowess in business as well as in foreign affairs. By the start of the First Punic War (264-241 BC) most of them had turned on their former Carthaginian allies and instead threw their lot in with the new rising star of the Mediterranean – Rome! The Elymians further “schmoozed” their new Roman allies with stories of their northwestern Anatolian origins (the Romans, like many Elymians, claimed descent from the Trojans).
In gratitude the Romans gladly incorporated the Elymians and their lands into their nascent overseas empire, granting them a privileged status and exempting them from many taxes. Shortly after this the Elymians disappear as a distinct people from the pages of history and seem to have been incorporated into the greater population of Roman Sicily.
Further reading: Leighton, Robert: Sicily Before History: An Archaeological Survey from the Paleolithic to the Iron Age; Cornell University Press, 1999