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History of Marsala, Italy

See Marsala guide for highlights and historic monuments

The Greek age in Marsala

The thriving and prosperous city, although protected by powerful walls, was subject to attacks by Syracuse, then led by the tyrant Dionysius the Elder (432-367 BC). The strength of the fortifications of Mothia constituted a serious obstacle to Dionysius, who managed to occupy the settlement only after a long and exhausting siege in 397 BC.

According to studies by Whitaker [4], the site of Mothya was inhabited even after the destruction of the city, but the inhabitants who  survived the disaster chose a new city, Lylibaeum, near the western promontory of Sicily (now called "Capo Boeo"), on which the current Marsala would rise.

The city of Lylibaeum developed on a site that allows it to control much of the coast. After some time it became a fortified outpost of Carthage: "The city of Lylibaeum (modern Marsala) [was] founded by Carthaginian settlers at the beginning of the fourth century" [5]. This is not entirely true, because "Lylibaeum may have been the result of the effort of a local community, only then passed to the full domain of the Carthaginians" [6].

Arrival of the Romans at Marsala

During the First Punic War, Lylibaeum was one of the most strategically important bases of  the Carthaginian domination in western Sicily. In 241 BC it was conquered by the Romans, becoming a tributary city of Rome. Cicero (106-43 BC) recalled it in the “Orationes in Verrem” with the title of “splendidissima civitas" [a very splendid city] of which the port was a major source of income.

Centuries of change in Marsala

Lylibaeum-Marsala experienced an impressive series of foreign domination through the centuries, from Roman domination (in which the city was a thriving "municipium”, thanks mainly to the port), followed by the occupation by the Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Anjou and Aragonese.

With the advent of the Arabs in Sicily, the city took the name of Marsala [ from Marsa Allah=the port of Allah] and under the Normans it had a period of undoubted economic prosperity. Under the Byzantines, it was a Bishopric seat towards the fifth century AD and a fundamental point for the diffusion of Christianity, as evidenced by the remains of some Christian necropolis found in some areas of the city.

In the first half of the fifth century AD Lylibaeum was occupied by the Vandals, who conquered the city despite the presence of the imposing city walls (six meters thick) of Punic origin.

The Vandals remained for a long time in Lylibaeum, but with the advent of the Goths, it was conquered by Theodoric (455-526 AD). The Goths dominated the city until the arrival of the Byzantines in Sicily, under whose rule the city, as we said above, became an important bishopric, frequently mentioned in the letters of Pope Gregory the Great (540-604):

“With the conquest in 535 AD Lylibaeum, as all of Sicily, passed to the Byzantine Empire and knew a long period of peace, a relative prosperity and a fervent Christian life.” [11].

However, with regard to the years of Byzantine domination and the subsequent occupation of the Arabs, information is lacking; Michele Amari supposed that the city, when the Arabs arrived, was almost deserted, while for other scholars "it was still inhabited and fortified and well-manned" [12].

What we know for sure is that “less commonly , some towns were renamed. Thus Lylibaeum became Marsah Allah or Alì [modern Marsala] (...) And aound the towns of the western coast, a certain Abdallah b. Mankut was master of Trapani, Marsala, Mazara and Sciacca ” [13].

Al Idrisi (1099-1166) described  Marsala in this way: "[...] Eighteen miles exist between Marsala and Mazara, which is an ancient city and one of the most illustrious of Sicily. Destroyed in the past and fallen into oblivion, Count Roger I (1031-1101) recovered it and surrounded it by walls, and since then the city was repopulated and became rich in markets and shops (...) Marsala is equipped  with warehouses, bathrooms, and  gardens" [14].

After the splendid Norman period, there followed a crisis in the sixteenth century, then during the 18th and 19th centuries the British discovered and appreciated the wines of the territory of Marsala, which was enhanced with the so-called "bagli", that is  the modern wineries. Even today, Marsala  has a world-class wine industry, in which stands out the classic "Marsala".

History and etymology of Marsala

Marsala, which the Arabs called "Marsa Allah", that is "the port of Allah", has a very ancient history, which has its roots in the Phoenician-Punic age. It is located on the "Capo Boeo" which also preserves the ancient name of "Capo Lilibeo" between Erice, Segesta and Selinunte.

The origins of Marsala lie with Mothya, founded by the Phoenicians, probably towards the beginning of the 8th century BC. It was located in the middle of the lagoon known as the “Stagnone”, on the island now called “S. Pantaleo.”

Origins of the name Mothya and Marsala

Mothya was a Phoenician outpost of considerable economic importance, whose etymology refers to the term "spinnery", on which essentially scholars agree:

"Mothya seems to be of Phoenician origin; it was called 'Motye' by Thucydides (460-395 BC) and 'Motyaios' by Stephen of Byzantium (6th century AD). The name has correspondence with the Canaanitic term 'h-mtu'' or ' mtu ', that is ‘spinnery” [1].

However, there are other different and influential opinions, which favour a pre-Phoenician etymology. “The analogy of Mozia with other places in Sicily, as Motyca and Motycon hardly reached by the Phoenicians, suggests a different origin. The root 'mt' of this name (...) perhaps has a direct reference to the name of the nymph who, according to the legend recorded by Hecataeus [born 550 BC] (in Stephen of Byzantium), denounced the author of a theft [of oxen] to Heracles" [2].

On this assumption, G. Nenci proposed a different and more convincing interpretation, and wrote that "already Hecataeus, in front of a Graecised but not Greek name, failing anything better, said that Mothya took its name from the woman who indicated to Heracles those who had stolen the oxen”.

According to the latest assumption formulated by G. Nenci, the hypothetical etymology of "spinnery" can be attributed to the basic Akkadian 'metu', which would indicate the concept of 'stagnant water'. The topography of the "Stagnone" may have suggested to the Phoenicians this name for their town, which was surrounded by a very shallow water. G. Nenci wrote that "the etymon MT refers to the basic Akkadian ‘metu’, which indicates ‘stagnant water’, according to the topography and the characteristics of Mothya” [3].

Etymology of the ancient name of Lylibaeum

With regard to the etymology of Lylibaeum, there are two assumptons traditionally established. According to some scholars the name seems to have a Phoenician root, meaning "city facing Libya" ("The name of Lilybaeum derives from the Punic term 'Lelub' , that is ‘facing Libya’ "[7]. G. Chiarini says in this regard:

"As explained Bochart, Lylibaeum derived from the Phoenician 'Chek-lub', the contracted form of '-Chek Lelub', which means 'the gulf facing Libya' [8]; for other scholars, the city took its name from the source now incorporated in the crypt of “San Giovanni al Boeo”, known as the “Cave of the Sibyl”, the home of the Cumaean Sibyl .

This second assumption is perhaps the most famous, because it was accredited by all the ancient literary sources [9]. However, much more complex and intricate is the etymology suggested by G. Nenci, which today enjoys considerable prestige among scholars.

Summarizing the issue, we can say that at the beginning of the name there would be the promontory on which stood the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. According to Nenci the toponym "Lili-baeum" veils the Phoenician name of Mount Erice and "[...] More precisely Lylibaeum would be a Greek adaptation of a Phoenician form, which retains the basic "Lili", the embodiment of the Mesopotamian and Semitic "wantonness," together with the Semitic term "bait" [house]. It should not surprise us therefore that what the Greeks called the 'flat' promontory, for the Phoenician sailors was the 'house of pleasure', the landing place at the temple of Aphrodite [...]" [10]

See also Marsala for a detailed visitor guide.


1. See G.B. Pellegrini," Toponomastica italiana ...", 1990, p. 48

2. See V. Giustolisi," Cronia, Paropo , Solunto ", 1972, p. 11

3. See G. Nenci,“Sul toponimo di Mozia”, in “Studi sulla Sicilia occidentale in onore di V. Tusa”, Padova, 1993, pp. 143-145

4. J.I. Whitaker, "Motya. A Phoenician colony in Sicily ", London, 1921, pp. 92-94

5. See Alex Metcalfe, “Muslims and Christians in Norman Sicily: Arabic speakers and the end of Islam”, 2003, p. 4

6. See E. Caruso, “Documenti e problemi di topografia storica ...” in “ Atti delle Terze giornate internazionali di studi sull'area elima",  2000, p. 240

7. See “Archivio storico Siciliano”, 1980, p. 504

8. See G. Chiarini, “Odisseo, il Labirinto magico”, 1991, p. 52

9. Polybius [206-124 BC], I, 42, 6; Strabo [58-25 BC] VI, 265; Diodorus [90-27 BC], XIII 54, 2; Plinius [23-79 AD], “Naturalis Historia”, III, 90

10. See G. Nenci, “Pentatlo e i Capi Lilibeo e Pachino in Antioco (Paus., 5, 25, 5, 10, 11, 3) ", in “ASNP”, S. III, XVIII, 1988, p. 322

11. See F. Maurici, “Sicilia Bizantina. Il territorio della provincia di Trapani dal VI al IX secolo”, in “Atti terze giornate di studi sull’area elima”, 2003, II,  p. 899

12. Maurici, pp. 889-890

13. Vedi Alex Metcalfe, “Muslims and Christians in Norman Sicily: Arabic speakers and the end of Islam”, 2003, p. 18 e 25

14. See Al Idrisi, "Il libro di Ruggero", edited by M. Amari, Roma, Salviucci, 1883, p. 38