Italy History | Sicily


In the 8th century Mediterranean trade began to revive. The Phoenicians, the biblical Canaanites, from the ancient cities of the Levantine coast, are normally seen as the pioneers, probing into the western Mediterranean in search of metals with whic to pay their overlords, the Assyrians. They gave confidence to the Greeks who began following the same routes. Naxos was the first sicilian landfall for those aiming to sail round the toe of Italy from the east and it was here that settlers from Chalcis in Euboea established a base in 734. A small fertile valley gave them the means to settle and the native population appears to have been dispersed. This became the usual practice as a mass of other Greek migrants followed the Chalcidians. The Corinthians settled the best harbour of the coast, Syracuse, the very next year, while Euboeans who had earlier settled at Cumae on the west coast of Italy, they took over the harbour at Zancle (later Messina) to protect their route to Italy. So quite quickly the best harbours were taken and settlements founded. Excavations at Megara Hyblaea show how temples and an agora (a market place) on a native Greek model were planned into the early settlement.

Wtih the best sites on the east coast taken, Greeks mved along the southern coast of Sicily to found Gela (688) and Akragas (Agrigento; 580). The Sicel communities were broken up, their populations dispersed or absorbed. The Greek colonisation of Sicily was so succesful that grain was soon been exported to Greece and across to Italy to Africa. Pottery from Athens, Sparta and Corinth is found on Sicilians sites and coniage appears quite early, in hte last half of the 6th century. Settlements developed into cities with large temples and other public buildings. They sent competitors to the Olympic games and, with plenty of fertile pasture for horses, were especially succesful in chariot racing.

Yet there was trouble brewing. The Phoenicians had established their own settlements, notably Carthage on the coast of north Africa, and in Spain, which was rich in metal resources, and it was inevitable that there would be settlements on Sicily itself. At first these were no more than stating posts concentrated in the west. The most succesful Phoenician site was Motya,  a small island off the west coast (modern Mozia). It was close to Carthage, defensible (with a perimeter wall 2500m) and enjoyed good relationships with the native Elymian population. The earliest occupation dates from the late 8th century but by the 7th century there is evidence of industrial activity, in iron and dyes, and the population may have reached 16,00 in the 6th century. It was now that the Persian empire absorbed the Phoenician cities of the Levant, and gradually the western settlements developed their own indipendent empire under the control of Carthage.

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