Sicily and Southern Italy

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Sicily and Southern Italy


Syracuse . When the Greeks colonized Sicily, they became the neighbors of three native peoples, the Sicani, Siculi, and Elymi. Throughout their history there the Greeks also had to reckon with the Carthaginians to the south, who established colonies in western Sicily, and the Etruscans to the north, who also had designs on the island. The Greek colonists arriving from the eighth century onward ejected the natives from the best sites of the island; in Syracuse, the island’s largest city, they reduced them to a dependent status similar to that of the helots in Sparta.

Riches . The colonists were attracted by the fertility of the island; it produced wheat, wine, oil, cattle, and horses. In later times Sicily became a chief supplier of grain to the Romans as well. Early commercial contacts with old Greece are indicated by Corinthian and Rhodian pottery found at Sicilian sites. In short, Sicily was a wealthy place. The temples built there in the sixth century attest to this wealth: they were in every way as imposing as those in Greece.

Sybaris and Tarentum . In southern and western Italy the Greek settlements were also successful economically. Sybaris (founded 721 b.c.e.) became proverbial for its wealth and luxurious way of life. Tarentum, settled by Spartans in 705 b.c.e., owed its prosperity to its rich soil and a thriving fishing industry. Handicrafts, especially the textile industry, also flourished there, while its harbor was a convenient port of call.

Timber Lands . From the early fifth century onward Athens began to show great interest in Sicily and southern Italy not only because of their agricultural products, but also because of their timber. Themistocles, who built up the Athenian navy, was interested in

the region, and it was still virgin land when new arrivals began to appear. The native peoples and the Carthaginian and Greek settlers had not deforested the region nearly as much as the Bronze Age (3000-1100 b.c.e.) inhabitants and their successors had decimated the woods of Old Greece. Homer represents the Mediterranean west as heavily wooded, and it is significant that Corinth, the city credited with the earliest interest in seafaring and with the invention of the Greek warship, founded Syracuse in the eighth century (733 b.c.e.), the traditional lifetime of Homer.

Instability . For much of the Classical Period (480-323 b.c.e.) conditions in western Greece, especially Sicily, were unsettled. There was pressure from Carthage and racial friction between the different ethnic groups. The Athenian invasion in 415-413 b.c.e. exhausted Syracuse financially; soon afterward the tyrant Dionysius I, who restored prosperity and power to the city, nonetheless barely managed to repel Carthaginian attacks. After Dionysius there was chaos: petty tyrants established themselves in many places, and a great decline set in. The ancient reports speak of public spaces in the cities covered with vegetation and of wild boars, deer, and other wild animals roaming in them. In the second half of the fourth century the Corinthian Timoleon resettled Sicily with new colonists and refounded Syracuse. However, his new order did not long endure, and Sicily did not see permanent peace until it became a Roman province.


M. M. Austin and P. Vidal-Naquet, Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece: An Introduction, translated by Austin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

Thomas James Dunbabin, The Western Greeks: The History of Sicily and South Italy from the Foundation of the Greek Colonies to 480 B. C. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948).

R. Osborne, “Archaeology and the Athenian Empire,” Transactions of the American Philological Association, 129 (1999): 319-332.