The Sicels c. 1000 BC – 450 BC

A 6th century BC Greek hoplite. Some of the hoplites in Gelon’s army would have looked very similar, clad in bronze armour.  Artwork by © Angel Garcia Pinto.

The map shows the most important archaeological sites of Sicily related to pre-hellenic cultures, as well as the possible extent of the cultures of Sicani, Siceli and Elymians. Note that the borders shown are merely approximate, and resemble the situation of VI century BC, when there already were foreign colonies present on the island. Historical names where known, modern Italian names in brackets.

Settlers of Sicily

The Sicels crossed over from Italy to the island … which thus came to be called Sicily. After they crossed over they continued to enjoy the richest parts of the country for nearly three hundred years before the coming of the first Greeks.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 6.28

We are accustomed to colonization being a violent, brutal affair which ends with the colonists exploiting and often massacring the people whose lands they have forcibly seized. Yet what if the colonists were cautiously welcomed, and were not too oppressive, and they and the original inhabitants eventually become one and the same? While there were inevitably a number of violent episodes, when it came to colonization it seems the Sicels were remarkably accommodating, both as an occupying and occupied people.

Whatever their origins, the people who have given their name to the island of Sicily did not begin there. It seems reasonably certain that ancient writers are correct in their claim that the first peoples who occupied Sicily were a tribe called the Sicani. Then came the chaos of the Bronze Age collapse.

The Egyptians report that one of the seafaring confederations they repulsed included a tribe called the Shekelesh. According to later tradition, the Shekelesh rebounded from Egypt to the western Mediterranean and settled in southern Italy. Here they gradually adopted Italic ways and the local language before crossing into Sicily at some time around 1000 BC. Indeed, the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus says exactly that (5.6): ‘And many generations later, the people of the Sicels crossed over en masse from Italy into Sicily and made their home there.’ As the ‘Siculus’ part of his name informs us, Diodorus was a local from the formerly Sicel town of Agyrium in the centre of the island, and his report probably draws on the same tradition.

As ever with such migrations, the people into whose lands the Sicels migrated were not particularly happy to see them. But there was not a lot the original Sicani could do about it, since as one of the Sea Peoples (if this was indeed the case) the Sicels will have been proficient with Iron Age weaponry.

Nevertheless, modern archaeological studies suggest that the Sicel invasion was far from an apocalyptic event. Throughout antiquity, Sicily was relatively thinly inhabited, especially in the interior where the Sicels chose to settle. While it was not quite the case that land was available for all, archaeological evidence indicates that by and large, once the Sicani had been bumped from prime sites they settled in the second-best locations, mostly in the west of the island.

Sicels and Greeks

By the time civilization got back on its feet in the Archaic era of around 800 BC, the Sicels were recognized as the dominant people of the island. The poet Homer gives wandering Odysseus a Sicel servant woman who already lived at his home farm before the Greek hero set off for the Trojan War, which suggests there was interconnection between early Iron Age Greece and Sicily.

The Greeks of the Classical era imagined that Sicily in former times had been a wild, distant and romantic place – but definitely part of the Greek world. It was in Sicily, for example, that Hades, the grim god of the Underworld, was believed to have abducted Persephone to be his bride. Other nations have also claimed the location, but Lake Pergusa near the formerly Sicel town of Enna has a good claim, not least because its shores are abundant in flowers, which Persephone was said to be gathering when she was kidnapped.

Another people with whom the Sicels came into contact – often violently – were the Phoenicians, thanks to Carthaginian settlement in the west of the island. Sadly, today we know few precise details about Carthaginian-Sicel interactions, because the Sicels did not leave a written record at this period, and modern historians are grateful for any scraps of information from the Carthaginians about themselves, let alone about other peoples.

Much of what we know of the Sicels comes from the Greeks, since while it seems clear that the Sicels originally spoke an Italic language, by the time they came to set things down in writing they mostly used Greek. The Greeks settled by and large on the eastern side of the island, and rather like the Sicels before them, they had the military technology to ensure that no one could seriously object to their arrival. Then again, as with the Sicel settlement, it seems that no one particularly minded them being there in any case. The Sicels, as already noted, were largely settled in the island’s interior, and as Cicero later observed, the Sicel city of Enna was about as far from the Mediterranean in every direction as it is possible to be on the island. Therefore the arrival of strangers on a coast the Sicels generally had little use for occasioned them as much curiosity as distress. And the Greeks came bearing gifts.

The colonization of Syracuse may be considered something of a template for Greek settlement in Sicily. First the Greeks occupied the (probably uninhabited) island of Ortygia just off the coast. Then through trade, bribery and diplomacy they developed friendly relations with the locals (probably Sicani in this case, but the same pattern applied to colonies with a native Sicel population). Eventually the Greeks acquired land on the mainland and the colony of Ortygia became Syracuse.

The Sicels were a tribal-based people who practised rudimentary agriculture but were mainly pastoral. The Sicilian interior met their needs well, and it turned out to be rather useful to have Greeks to trade with on the coast. Where the Greeks and Sicels did have a common interest in the same fields, ownership changed hands as much through sale and marriage arrangements as through more violent forms of acquisition.

Indeed, stories of how sophisticated Greeks managed to trick the rustic Sicels out of land actually show that the Greeks preferred not to simply take those lands by brute force. One might suspect that for every Sicel tricked out of his landholding, there was an undocumented Greek who came out worse in a trade deal. (Modern anthropology has shown that native peoples were in reality shrewd bargainers when dealing with more sophisticated cultures – it was simply that they often assigned higher values to certain goods.)

As the Classical era went on, Sicel society rapidly developed. What had once been small towns expanded as the Sicels discovered the joys of urbanism, and at least three settlements grew to sufficient size for the Greeks to refer to them as ‘cities’. At the same time there was a marked decline in relationships between the Sicels and Dorian Greek cities led by Syracuse.

Conflict and assimilation

According to Diodorus Siculus, a man called Ducetius took advantage of anti-Syracusan sentiment and united the Sicels under his leadership. (They had formerly been led by individual chiefs of different tribes.) For a while the Sicel confederation dominated the island’s interior. Ducetius was able to retake lands the Greeks had seized from the Sicels, but the rapid growth of his power alarmed the Syracusans. They allied with the nearby Greek city of Agrigentum and in 450 BC their combined power destroyed the Sicel army in battle. Ducetius demonstrated the remarkable lack of hatred between Greeks and Sicels by riding into Syracuse and offering his surrender. The Syracusans reciprocated in kind by exiling him to Corinth with sufficient funds to maintain himself comfortably. It is also worth noting that Ducetius founded at least one city and repopulated others with a mixed Greek-Sicel population.

Sadly, the good relations did not last. Ducetius broke his parole and returned to Sicily. He died soon after his reappearance, but that was itself enough to provoke a Syracusan assault and the conquest of much former Sicel territory. Nevertheless, the real conquest was not physical but cultural. Increasingly the Sicels were indistinguishable from their Greek neighbours in language, culture and (thanks to intermarriage) ethnicity.

By the time the historian Diodorus Siculus was writing in the first century BC, he was able to deliver this pronouncement on the disappearance of his ancestors (5.6.5):

Once sufficiently large numbers of Greeks came to Sicily, those already living there adopted that language. Eventually they grew into the Greek way of life. Finally they lost not only their barbarian tongue but also themselves.

Future Echoes

There appears to be a clear etymological link between the Shekelesh Sea People, the Sikeloi of Italy and the Sicels who emigrated to Sicily. The Sicels certainly gave the island the name it has today. It is interesting that it has endured, even though Sicily has seen so many peoples come and go in subsequent ages that geneticists attempting to untangle the island’s complex ethnic heritage have had difficulty isolating ‘original’ Sicel genes.

That the Sicels originated in Italy seems to be generally agreed. According to Thucydides, one of their kings was named Italus, and it was he who gave his name to Italy. The people who drove the Sicels from Italy were a tribe called the Aborigines. They were in central Italy before the Romans, so ‘aboriginal’ has come to mean any people who first occupied a land

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