History Files

European Kingdoms

Ancient Italian Peninsula


Sicani (Italy)

The Sicani (Sicans, or Sicanians) were one of the few peoples of Iron Age Italy not to have an Indo-European origin. Located on Sicily, they were neighboured to the east by the Siculi, to the west by the Elymi, while the coastline to the north and south was generally under the control of the settlers of Magna Graecia.

The origins of the Sicani are uncertain, and various theories have claimed them as Iberians, or Illyrians (like the Iapyges), or Bronze Age migrants, or Neolithic aborigines. Thucydides has them migrating from Iberia, from where he claimed they had been driven out of the River Sicanius area by the Ligurians. Whichever theory is correct, the Sicani were one of the earliest recorded inhabitants of Sicily (excluding Neanderthals, who have left evidence of occupation from as far back as 50,000 BC). The Sicani were able to spread their culture across the entire island.

According to Vincenzo Salerno, the Sicani name probably derives from the chalcedony (a cryptocrystalline form of silica which is composed of very fine intergrowths of quartz and moganite), called 'sica', which is found in some of the areas inhabited by the Sicani, and from which they styled tools in the Neolithic era. According to ancient writers, who were predominantly Greek and Carthaginian settlers there, the island on which the Sicani settled had become known as Sicania to reflect the tribe's dominance. The later arrival of the Siculi changed the balance of power and it was their name that was used to name the island, as Sicily.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Sicilian Peoples: The Elymians, Vincenzo Salerno, from Sicilian Neolithic Temple Builders, Carlo Trabia, from An Historical Geography of Europe, Norman J G Pounds (Abridged Version), and from The Roman History: From Romulus and the Foundation of Rome to the Reign of the Emperor Tiberius, Velleius Paterculus, J C Yardley, & Anthony A Barrett.)


Legendary (but perhaps real) Sicani leader.

8000 BC

Cave drawings on Sicily are created around this time, with the proto-Sicani being given credit for the work by some modern experts. Early coastal settlements can also be found, such as at Addaura (near Palermo).

If the Sicani themselves are not responsible, then it is their Neolithic forebears, people who blend in with the later Sicani arrivals, possibly during the late Neolithic or Bronze Age periods. Alternatively, the Sicani are the aborigines who are influenced by the arrival of later peoples, such as the Elymi and Siculi around the tenth century BC.

Cave paintings on Sicily
The proto-Sicani cave paintings of about 8000 BC were created perhaps two thousand years after their first arrival on Sicily at the end of the most recent ice age

c.5200 BC

Pottery appears on Sicily, by which time proto-Sicani have also migrated to Malta, the first people to make the journey to this island in the middle of the Mediterranean. This proto-Sicani civilisation may be one of the most advanced in Europe at this time.

It also invents rudimentary wheels, which initially appear in the form of rounded stones that fit easily into the semi-circular wedges carved into the bases of large rectangular megaliths, thereby facilitating the rolling transport of these huge stones.

c.4000 BC

The native Sicilians begin building Europe's oldest free-standing monumental structures. The builders of these megalithic temples are culturally similar to the society of the Stentinello culture near Syracuse. Today the temples are known as those of Zebbug, Gantija, Mnajdra, Hagar Qim and Tarxien.

Monumental temple on Sicily
Perhaps copying the template created by earlier such structures - notably at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey - Sicily's monumental temple structures began to appear around 4000 BC

3000 - 2500 BC

Copper tools appear on the island, suggesting external influences or a fresh wave of migrants. Within about five hundred years, bronze tools are prevalent across Sicily and the natives have contacts with peoples outside the island.

This proto-Sicani culture also appears on Malta, and it thrives during the early Bronze Age. In the north, the Bell Beaker culture is beginning its widespread advance.

c.1400 - 1200 BC

The inhabitants of Sicily, whether aborigines or Sicani or both, are influenced by the Mycenaeans. Later archaeology uncovers Mycenaean pottery complete with Mycenaean script on it, which is probably received through trade links.

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
This map showing Late Bronze Age cultures in Europe displays the widespread expansion of the Urnfield culture, which is linked to the early Celts, with Sicily being penetrated only along its eastern coast (click or tap on map to view full sized)

10th century BC

According to Thucydides, the arrival of the more warlike Oenotri and Opici in northern Calabria triggers the migration of the Elymi, Itali, and Siculi into the 'toe' of Italy and onto Sicily. Antiochus of Syracuse, writing around 420 BC, confirms this. Once on the island, Thucydides has them intermarrying with the native Sicani. In terms of archaeology of the early Iron Age (as far as about 500 BC), the Elymi and Siculi are indistinguishable, although it is generally accepted that the Elymi largely displace the Sicani in the north-west of the island.

743 - 734 BC

MapSicani dominance on the island, if indeed that still exists, suffers a further blow when Greek colonists found Syracuse on its eastern edge. The neighbouring Siculi are generally used as a labour force for the new colony, which becomes exceptionally powerful in the region. Over the next three centuries, the Sicani are (mostly) integrated peacefully into Greek culture, suggesting that their previous experiences with the Mycenaeans have created a natural affinity between the two peoples. By around 400 BC, Sicani settlements are almost entirely Greek in nature.

460 - 450 BC

The recent termination of the tyranny of Gelon I and his brothers in Syracuse has left problems in its wake on Sicily. In 460 BC, war breaks out between Syracuse and its former colony at Catana. Ducetius, a prominent Hellenised Sicel, backs Syracuse in revenge for the former occupation of Sicani land by Catana, and the latter colony is defeated. Ducetius goes on to found several Siculi colonies, defeats Syracuse in battle, and forms a short-lived empire on central Sicily.

Greek pottery from Sicily
By the time of Ducetius' short-lived fifth century BC Sicilian empire, the native Sicani pottery was virtually indistinguishable from the Greek forms which had influenced it

446 - 440 BC

Ducetius returns to Sicily, according to Diodorus, where he founds the city of Kale Akte or Caleacte on the northern coast (modern Caronia). Diodorus also contradicts himself by stating that Ducetius colonises Kale Akte in 440 BC. Archaeology has shown the existence of a Siculi settlement at this location in the early fifth century BC, and the return of Ducetius is probably with the permission of Syracuse, in the hope of establishing a permanent peaceful alliance. Unfortunately, Ducetius dies following an illness in 440 BC, and is unable to influence the subsequent revolt of the Siculi against Syracuse. The revolt quickly falls apart, the city of Palice is sacked, and its Sicel inhabitants are sold into slavery.

218 - 202 BC

The Second Punic War is fought against Carthage. Rome is aided by its Etruscan, Picene, and Umbrian forces, but Italy is invaded by Hannibal Barca and a Roman army is massacred at the Battle of Cannae, killing 60,000. The eventual Roman success in this war appears to seal Roman domination of much of the country. Hereafter, the Sicani are gradually absorbed within Roman Italy and lose their individual identity.

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