Faced with a population explosion, economic problems and political tension in the Greek homelands between 750 and 600 BC, small expeditions of Greeks left to establish new communities overseas. Led by aristocrats seeking new land, power and wealth, they established settlements in what is today western Turkey, the Black Sea region, North Africa and the western Mediterranean, including Sicily. The Greeks initially favoured eastern, coastal areas of Sicily but gradually expanded along the southern and northern coasts, leading to frequent conflict between Greeks, Phoenicians and local populations.
Greek settlements were mostly controlled by unelected aristocratic groups and rulers called tyrannoi (tyrants), but occasionally the system of government was less autocratic. Conflict sometimes united the otherwise independent Greek cities, particularly when the threat was from overseas.
Sicily attracted the attention of the most powerful cities in the Mediterranean, who envied its fertility and riches. Throughout Greek Sicily, wealth was displayed through sumptuously decorated homes, gold jewellery and large silver coins. Ancient writers describe the lavish parties held by the elite of Akragas, who amassed great fortunes by trading the olive oil produced on their fertile estates with Carthage.
Success in battle and trade also provided tyrants and civic communities with the wealth for major building projects. Some of the Greek temples on Sicily built in the Doric style were amongst the largest and most impressive anywhere in the ancient world. There were no natural reserves of marble on Sicily, so marble statues or marble blocks ready to carve had to be imported from other parts of the Mediterranean for important buildings and lavish dedications.
Rivalling the most culturally dynamic Greek regions, Sicily also became an arena for artists and intellectuals. Syracuse attracted illustrious Athenian personalities such as the playwright Aeschylus (c. 525–455 BC) and the philosopher Plato (c. 428–347 BC). The famous scientist Archimedes (c. 287–212 BC) was born, worked and died in Syracuse.
Despite attempts to unify Greek Sicily, the island was still left vulnerable by centuries of war between the Carthaginians and the Greeks, and among the Greeks themselves. It was unable to form a unified defence against the new conquering power in the Mediterranean – Rome. By 211 BC the Romans had conquered the entire island.
Find out more about the history of this remarkable island in our exhibition Sicily: culture and conquest (21 April – 14 August 2016).
Sponsored by Julius Baer
In collaboration with Regione Siciliana
Temple of Concordia. Built c. 440–430 BC, Agrigento, Sicily. © Regione Siciliana.
Gold bracelets and ring. Found at Avola, Sicily, about 330–300 BC.
Statue of a Greek warrior. Museo Archeologico Regionale Pietro Griffo. © Regione Siciliana.