History of Licata

See Licata guide for highlights and historic monuments

Licata, in ancient times called "Phintia", is a small town in Sicily with many historical challenges for historians, basically relating to antiquity.

Where was ancient Licata?

The first problem concerns the original location of Licata, which some critics in past centuries identified with Gela (albeit with a few exceptions, the criticism is directed toward identifying the ancient site of Gela with Terranova).

The archaeological find in the territory of "Licata-Phintia" of some inscriptions was interpreted as coming from Gela. Dinu Adamesteanu intervened in the discussion by stating that the inscriptions were false, but it is still very doubtful, and many experts openly showed their disagreement with Adamesteanu [1].

Without going into a extremely complex and intricate question, we can finally agree with what has been said by E. Manni on this knotty critical-interpretive problem:

"[...] It is not my intention to review the complex question on the authenticity of the inscriptions (...); even if they were genuine, they do not prove that we must seek Gela in Licata instead of Terranova, because the inhabitants of "Phintia" were certainly native of Gela (...) And with all the data provided by Polybius and Diodorus, none of them contradicts the archaeological identification of the medieval  Gela with Terranova, as no data contrasts with the archaeological identification of Phintia with Licata. In these conditions, the archaeological record is preferable to any literary assumption [...]" [2].

The first cause of this identification was derived from the fact that almost all the inhabitants of "Pinthia" came from Gela. In fact, Phintias, the tyrant of Agrigento [Akragas], after destroying Gela, founded a city which was called "Phintia", that is now commonly identified with Licata. As Luigi Pareti explained:

“In conclusion, I believe that one of the inscriptions found at Gela (…) proves that the citizens of Gela, led to Pinthia, continued to be called "Geloi" [inhabitants of Gela]. Cicero (106-43 BC], speaking of the inhabitants of Phintia, called them "Gelenses" while talking about the city, called it Phintia.”

We observe, however, that the identification of Gela with Terranova had already been put forward a few centuries ago by P. Cluverius, who localized the remains of Gela in Terranova and identified Licata with Phintia [4]. In conclusion, the situation of the ancient Phintia was well summarized by L. Pareti:

"Phintias (...) completed the destruction of Gela, transplanted it to a new city, close to Mount Eknomos, once occupied by some Sicanian seawards villages, and he built the walls, agora, temples, and called it ‘Phintia’ (Licata) (…) Its inhabitants were known as 'Geloi of Phintia.'" [5].

When was ancient Licata founded?

No less complicated was the challenge of establishing with a degree of accuracy "when" Phintia was founded. Here, too, there were endless discussions. There was a significant disagreement among scholars, some of whom thought the city was founded around 281-280 BC (Schubring), others in 285 BC (La Bua), or 246 ( Pareti ), or in 286 (Manni).

E. Zambon concludes that “it is impossible to give a precise chronology, but we can legitimately think of the years 284/ 283 BC, or, the years preceeding the arrival of Pyrrus in Sicily” [6]. But the discussions did not stop there. "Phintia" disconcerted the scholars  because it was called by many different names, because in addition to "Phintia" [ and Gela], it was also called "Olympias" and "Eknomos":

"[...] the present Licata was founded shortly afterwards the start of the third century BC by Phintias, who named it with his name, which persisted in Roman times and it was kept in the ‘Itinerarium Antonini.’ Why was Phintia called Olympias? The explanation, albeit with some doubts, expressed by B. Pace is that we must go back to a pre-existing ancient 'Olympias', already mentioned in medieval sources, founded before Phintia; this toponym (that is, ‘Olympias’) would be brought back in Byzantine times (…) But we must note that Licata-Phintia was also known as ‘Eknomos’ [...]" [7]

Roman times in Pinthia - Licata

During Roman times Pinthia was an important commercial port, because, according to Cicero, the wheat of Enna was sorted out  from the ports of Pinthia to the south and Catania to the east; and that Pinthia was a town of some importance is also demonstrated by the development of roads during the Imperial age.

As a harbour area, Licata continued to exist even in the Middle Ages. “in addition to the main ports founded by the Phoenicians and the Greeks in North-Western Sicily” [14]. Then during the Arab rule Licata was recalled by Michele Amari (accepted by A. Holm), during the advance of the Arabs to Syracuse:

Advancing along the coast, “they passed on their march the Church of Euphemia, a point on the coast, which at Amari seeks Licata (the ancient Phinthia). A church dedicated to St. Euphemia was founded in Sicily towards the end of the 8th century by Nicetas Monomachos” [15].

Adolph Holm, speaking about Santa Eufemia of Licata, said: “For the Church of St. Euphemia we probably mean the ‘Church of Pinthia’, that is Licata’" [16]. In a parchment of Count Roger of 1093, the village is attested  as "Cathal" and "Limpiados", which are respectively indicated with the castle and the town. This identification with Cathal was proposed by V. Amico, but it seems that the hamlet "Cathal" refers to another place near Canicattì, a feud called “Catta” next to “Raffadali” [17].

Licata history and development in recent centuries

The village, that arose around the castle, enlarged progressively in the Arab and Norman age. Licata was never given in fief, and from the Norman age it belonged to the State property.  In 1234, under the reign of Frederick II of Swabia, it was honored with the title of “Dilettissima” [very beloved].

In the Middle Ages two castles were built (“Castel Nuovo and Castel San Giacomo”) but they no longer exist today. From the 16th century Licata had a huge boom in business and therefore in building, showed by a number of important Baroque buildings. Then in 1553 the town suffered severe damage caused by looting perpetrated by the Turks; it was conquered and looted by an assault led by Dragut (1485-1565).

After the looting Licata remained deserted for some time, but it managed to recover during the reign of Philip V (1683-1746) and it became repopulated constantly over the centuries. [22]

The Public Library also suffered much damage in 1848 following the anti-Bourbon revolutionary movements, finally entering into the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

What about the name?!

The situation, as we have seen, is even more muddled because of the presence of another name, namely "Eknomos". In front of Eknomos there was one of the greatest naval battles between the Romans and Carthaginians, where the Romans, under the command of the Consuls Caius Duilius (3rd century BC) and Vulsone, won their first major naval battle in the waters of Mylae (Milazzo).

Also about "Eknomos" there was a long and intricate discussion, but in the end with some conclusive results. The etymology of "Eknomos" is quite curious; as explained Calogero Carità, "the etymology comes from the Greek 'ek-nomos', 'outside the law' and then 'bandit' and even 'wicked'" [8]. But why was "Eknomos" called "wicked"?

We hear what Diodorus Siculus [90-27 BC] tells us: "The Carthaginians occupied the hill called 'Eknomos', where one said that there was the fortress of Phalaris (570-554 BC). One says that the tyrant had there located a bronze bull, under which a fire was started to torment the men who were locked inside, and it is for this reason the place was called wicked [that is, "Ek-nomos", "outside the Law "] [9].

Really, coming down to earth, M. Gras remarked that probably "Eknomos" was so named because there was an "Emporium," where they carried out illicit trades, that is a market "outside the law" [10].

Eknomos was an important strategic point for the control of the territory and Phalaris built a fortress there. Later, in the third century BC the tyrant Pinthias nearby founded Pinthias, that, as we have seen, scholars identified with the ancient Licata.

True to tell, there are some contemporary scholars who strongly assert that Gela coincides with Licata, such as C. Carità and G. Navarra. However, this is widely contested. With regard to the position of G. Navarra, Professor Consolo Langher said that "identifying Eknomus with Gela-Licata, Navarra forced (as with Pizzolante before him) the interpretation of the text [of Diodorus], and the identification of some places" [11].

At the beginning of the identification of Gela with Licata there were some typographical mistakes such as those relating to the “Salso” and “Platani” rivers, which implied a “mistaken identification of Gela with Licata” [12].

Without going into minute detail, the tangled question arises from the fact that the “Salso” River (formerly called "Himera" northward and "halikos" [with the lowercase / h /]  southward) and the Platani  in Greek had almost with the same name: the Salso was called “halikos” in the south and the Platani River “Halicos”. The difference is substantial, because "halicos" [Salso] (with the lowercase/ h / , which flows near Licata) is an adjective meaning "salty river", while "Halicos" [Platani] (with the capital / H /  is the river that flows near Gela).

The exponents of the thesis that Gela = Licata interpreted "halikos" (with the lowercase / h / ) as "H-alikos", that is the river of Gela. Which can’t be the case because the river Halikos near Gela was described as "immanis" (immense) by Virgil [70-19 BC] (Aeneid, 3, 5, 703), while the river "h-alikos" of Phintia-Licata was recalled only by Apion (20-48 AD)  as a river with a limited "fons" [spring] (Pliny [23-79 AD], "Naturalis Historia", 31.2, 12) [13].

Etymology of the current name of Licata

Towards the middle of the 12th century, therefore, the modern name appears, the etymology of which has been a very controversial question. We mention for the moment the proposal in the nineteenth century by William Henry Smyth: “I have adopted the most generally received orthography of the name, but it is also written Leocata and Licata, probably derived from the Arabic word “likarta”, or recovered from some event relating to the Saracen fortunes.” [18].

However, contemporary studies seem to have come to a generally accepted conclusion. According to G. Alessio, the oldest form of Licata was "Leocata", in which he identified a root as "Leuco", belonging to a Mediterranean substrate [19], but his conclusion was not thought persuasive. More recently, B. Rocco proposed the origin of Licata as being from "Halikòs": “We propose here a derivation of the name [Licata] from "Halikòs" in the inflected forms ‘Halikàs-ados’, with the accusative in ‘-a/d/a’, that in Sicilian dialect evolved into ‘-a / t / a’, from which ‘Alica / t / a’, with the passage of / d / to / t / " [20].

In conclusion, Licata would mean “the city situated on the river Salso” ["Halikòs"].

Al Idrisi (1099-1166) called Licata “l.ynbiyadah”: “From the same city ‘l.nbìyàdah’ (today the town of Licata) a day's journey, that is, twenty-five miles ... The river which has its mouth at Licata is called 'al wàdì 'al mal ih’ (Salty River)" [21].

See also Licata for a travel guide and regional information.


1. See“D. Adamesteanu, “Le iscrizioni false di Licata e Gela”, in “Atti III Congr. Int. Epigrafia greca e latina”, Roma 1959, pp. 425-434

2. See Eugenio Manni, “Gela-Licata o Gela-Terranova?”, in" Kokalos ", 1971, No. 17, pp. 125-128

3. Archivio storico siciliano”, "XIV, p. 175 offprint

4. See P. Cluverius, "Sicilia antiqua", Lugdunum Batavorum, 1619, pp. 213-215

5. See L. Pareti, “La Sicilia antica, 1959, p. 80

6. See Efrem Zambon, “Katà dè Sikelìan esan tyrannoi. Notes on tyrannies in Sicily between the death of Agathocles and the coming of Pyrrus”, in “Greek identity in the western Mediterranean: papers in honour of Brian Shefton”, edited by Kathryn Lomas, Brill, 2004, p. 464 footnote 8 and p. 467

7. See, “La Parola del passato: rivista di studi antichi”, 1966, pp. 484-485

8. See, C. Carità, “La topografia di Gela antica, ovvero Le origini della città di Licata”, Bologna, Forni, 1972, p. 40

9. See Diodorus Siculus, “Biblioteca Storica”, edited by Giuseppe Compagnoni, Milan, 1822, Vol VI, pp. 433-434

10. See Michel Gras, “La Sicile, l’Afrique et les 'eµpò??a'”, in “Damarato, studi di antichità classica offerti a Paola Pelagatti” , Rome 2002, p. 131

11. See S.N. Consolo Langher, “Eknomos e la valle dell'Himera”, in “Archivio storico messinese”, 1992, n. 60, pp. 54-55 nota 98

12. See M. I. Gulletta, “Kamikos, Lykos, Halykos” ...” in “"Troianer sind wir gewesen"--Migrationen in der antiken Welt: Stuttgarter Kolloquium zur Historischen Geographie des Altertums, 8, 2002”, 2006, , p. 411 footnote 70

13 See“Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts, Roemische Abteilung”, edited by W. Regenberg, 2005, Vol. 82, p. 39

14 See, “L'Africa romana: lo spazio marittimo del Mediterraneo occidentale, geografia storica ed economia : atti del XIV Convegno di studio, Sassari,  7-10 December 2000, Carocci, 2002, p. 1048

15. See J.B. Bury," A History of the Eastern Roman Empire ", 1912, p. 299

16. See A. Holm, “Storia della Sicilia nell'antichità”, Forni, 1965, p. 605 note 8

17. See M.S. Rizzo, “L'insediamento medievale nella Valle dei Platani” , Rome, 2004, p. 127). In 1141 and in 1144  the village was called "Olimpiados" and "Licata" (See G.B. Pellegrini, “Saggi di linguistica italiana: storia, struttura, società”, Boringhieri,  1975 , p. 456

18. See William Henry Smyth, “Memoir descriptive of the resources, inhabitants, and hydrography, of Sicily and its islands, interspersed with antiquarian and other notices”, J. Murray, 1824

19. See G. Alessio, “L'elemento greco nella toponomastica della Sicilia”, Sansoni antiquariato, 1956 , Vol II, p. 25

20. See B. Rocco, “Tra Licata, Mollaca e Poliscia (etimologia e storia)”, in “Sicilia Archeologica”, Rome, 1976, 32, p. 45

21. See Al Idrisi,”Il libro di Ruggero”, edited by M. Amari, Salviucci , 1883, p. 36

22. See C. Carità, , “La Biblioteca comunale di Licata”, Sellerio, 1992, p. 100