History of Noto

See Noto guide for highlights and historic monuments

Brief history of Noto

In Roman times, Netum enjoyed the rights of a Federate city, and the name of “Val di Noto” is of Arab origin. It was in fact one of the three major administrative divisions in which the Arabs divided Sicily.

It was then occupied by the Normans under Count Roger (1031-1101) and in the early 14th century, it passed to Charles of Anjou (1226-1285).

Under King Alfonso of Aragon (1394-1458) it was owned by his brother Peter, who built the main tower, which was destroyed by the terrible earthquake in 1693 and then rebuilt in 1703 at a place closer to the sea. After the 1693 earthquake that destroyed much of the city, it was rebuilt in a completely original Baroque style.

In the 19th century the city enjoyed a central administrative authority which allowed it to create works such as the Theater and the Library.

Today Noto is an international tourist destination, known for both its historical and architectural heritage, and for the presence of many beaches, like those of “Noto Marina”, well served in terms of tourist facilities.

The ancient origins of Noto and historical inaccuracies

About the origins of Noto there is still much confusion, and the same things  are usually repeated that were said a few centuries ago, for example, by Vincenzo Littera, who derived the etymology of "Netum" from the legendary Greek city of "Nea", and affirming that the foundation of Nea was due to Ducetius, the  legendary leader of the Sicules.

An interesting story perhaps, but we can say three things:

  1. there has never been an ancient "Neas".
  2. Netum was not founded by Ducetius (died 440 BC).
  3. the only sure etymology is Arabic, about which more later.
The ancient city of Neas and its founding by Ducetius

On the existence of ancient Neas, Vincenzo Littera wrote:

“[...] Its first name, as Diodorus says, was Neas, from the Greek "neas", which means "new" such as Naples (new town) and Neoptolemus (new soldiers). Its name derives from the verb neo, which means "live" or some other unknown local word derived from the language of Opici or Osci" [1].

About the fact that "Netum" derives from a mysterious "Nea" or "Neas," Julius Beloch at the end of the 19th century wrote  a definitive answer, pointing out that the name "Neas" was attested only by Diodorus (90-27 BC), and that "Neas" was a term that had been read incorrectly in place of "Menas". Beloch wrote:

"No other writer is known to have mentioned a city called" Neas "in Sicily;  so even if it existed, it was only an obscure country and unworthy of the Ducetius’ fame" [2].

The issue was also explained by G. Casagrandi, who said:

"This Neai is just a word created by the incompetence of the Diodorus’ copysts (...)  since the codex of Patmos, which is the closest to the original code, corrects the vulgar lection "Tas men Neas" with "Minéas" [3].

Ducetius therefore founded "Mineas" and not the imaginary "Neas." Because some local historian insisted that "Neas (that is Noto Antica) actually existed and that it had been founded by Ducetius, E. Ciaceri, reviewing a book by a local historian, wrote:

"This work [by Cassone] has an organic defect, because it seeks to ... demonstrate that the text of Diodorus is correct and that "Neai" was the true home of Ducezio ... About the interpretation of the passage of Diodorus (...) Beloch and Ettore Pais (...) have reached the same conclusion, namely that instead of " tas men Neas" we must read "Tas Menas”, or the current Mineo" [4].

Truth to tell, Cassone defended very well his historical stances, which were very difficult to defend, because Diodorus wrote that "Neas" was on the flat ("He (Ducetius) built an illustrious city in an open plain", and "Noto Antica" was in the mountains. To overcome this obstacle, Cassone said first that the text of Diodorus was correct, and then, giving a new interpretation of "Neai", he used the plural, interpreting "Neai" not as a new “city” (singular) but as the new “cities” (plural).

So according to the argument proposed by Cassone, in practice, Ducetius would have founded three cities: Mineo, one on the flat (Neai) and another in the mountains (Netum=Noto).

As we can see, the proof is a bit far-fetched and unconvincing; Beloch had already observed, with an ironic remark, that Ducetius would found a couple of cities (the two Neai) distributing to his citizens the same lands. But, as S. Tobriner stressed, the people of Noto, against all assumptions to the contrary, firmly believe that Ducetius had founded their city.

The ancient city of Netum

Having established that the ancient "Neas" did not exist, and that it was an invention due to an error of the copyists, it is however certain that there existed a very ancient city called "Netum.” On this subject the unequalled archaeologist Paolo Orsi wrote:

"[...] Despite that “Noto Vecchio” can not be the "Menas" of Ducetius, there is no doubt that an ancient city was built in the place, which I believe was Netum, of Siculian origin, then left by the Romans in 263 to Hieron II (308-215 BC) (Diod., XXXIII, 4), and mentioned by Cicero [106-43 BC] (Verr. V, 51, 133) among the Federate cities  ["foederatae"= which had struck treaties with Rome establishing their rights] and by Pliny [23-79 AD] (III, 8, 14) among the cities "conditionis Latinae" (of Roman law).

The archaeological finds are extremely rare about this town (...) and that Netum was a Hellenized Siculian town is not explicitly attested by any ancient source, but it results from other circumstances (...) such as its place on an inaccessible mountain, similar to  Pantalica, which was the largest Siculian city on the island. It is for this reason that modern writers do not hesitate to include it among the cities built by the Sicules. There are also now some archaeological finds confirming this opinion [...]" [5].

Etymology of ancient Netum - Noto

But if P. Orsi banished some of the shadows that enveloped the origins of Netum, a thick layer of mystery envelops its etymology. The assumptions put forward since the earliest times to give a meaning to the Latin name "Netum" have been numerous. We give here a quick summary of the most plausible interpretations.

According to Bochart the term derived from the Phoenician "Neve Eten” (high city), a meaning which coincides, as we will see, with the Arabic etymology (accepted by all scholars). Another "exotic" etymology has the term related to the Egyptian worship of the god "Ammon"; in fact, according to G. Iatrino:

"traces of these cults are probably present in other Sicilians toponyms, such as Valdemone and Noto, (…) in Latin "Netum", which would be a form of the name of God Aton, written “N-T” when referring to a distant place (NoTo-is "far" from Etna ...) and T'N 'when the place was close (as in the case of Catania, K'T'N')" [5].

Other scholars, starting with an analysis of the suffix  "-etum" in the Latin language, arrived at certain interesting conclusions, for which "Netum" means a wooded area full of trees, as with olive (olive-etum) and vineyards (vin-etum and Vine):

“A small number of substantives, having chiefly reference to rustic affairs, are formed by the suffix 'etum' (aie), which denotes a place in which the thing named in the stem abounds: e.g. jonchaie (juncetum), olivaie (olivetum), aunaie (alnetum), saussaie (salicetum, salictum) ... [6].

“Etum and eum denote a place or situation; such as dumetum, a place of bushes or full of bushes; vinetum, a vineyard; castanetum, aspretum: museum, an abode of the Muses or learning, a study or library; paedagogeum (ium); gynaeceum, a female chamber, the separate apartment of the women: ahum denotes a place or habitation; as aviarium, an aviary” [7].

In fact, the Noto area is rich in olive groves and vineyards, in Latin "vinetum" (vineyard) and "vi-nea" (plural "vi-neas"). But before leaving the subject, we would like to mention an interesting remark of Ulrich Schmoll that "Netum" and the ethnic "Netini" and "Netinenses" (the inhabitants of Noto) could be linked to the name of the volcano Etna. According to Schmoll:

“ ‘Ai’  is in ‘Aitnai’ but also in other ancient names (...) for which it would seem that in the Latin words “Netini” and “Netinenses” is inbuilt the name of Etna ( N[et]i-[ni]”,  “N[et(i)ne]nses = inhabitants of Noto ) [8].

The Arabs, when they arrived at Noto in the 9th century AD, took up the ancient Latin name, but giving it the value of "high place." How very well said Stephen Tobriner:

“at first appraisal it would seem more probable that 'Noto' is a simple Italianasition of the Latin 'Netum': however, several words in modern Arabic come close to the name of the city and mean high hill or prominent hill ... among them are the following which derive from the 'NT' root in Arabic 'Nutu' and 'Nat'a', which both mean high, eminent hill” [9].

See the Noto travel guide if you are visiting the town.


1. See  Vincentii Litterae, "De Rebus Netinis", in "Thesaurus Antiquitatum", Lugduni, 1725 , p. 15

2. See J. Beloch, “Appunti di Topografia Siciliana”, in  “Rivista di Storia Antica e Scienze affini”, Roma, 1973, II, p. 81

3. see G. Casagrandi, “Nota sull’origine di Neaiton”, in  “Rivista di Storia Antica e Scienze affini”, 1972, III, p. 61

4. See E. Ciaceri, “G. Cassone. Neai, Neaton, Netum”, in in  “Rivista di Storia Antica e Scienze affini”, 1972, III,  pp. 99-100

5. See Gesualdo  Iatrino, in "Agora", 2006, No. 25 -26, p. 44

6. See Albert L. Meissner, “Palæstra Gallica, or, an introduction to the philology of the French language”, Longmans, Green, 1868, p. 60

7. See G. Walker , “A copious Latin grammar, tr., with alterations, notes and additions”, G. Scheller, 1825, Vol. I, p. 266

8. See Ulrich Schmoll," Die Sprachen vorgriechischen Siziliens ", Wiesbaden, 1958, p. 94

9. See S. Tobriner, “The genesis of Noto: an eighteenth-century Sicilian city”, University of California Press, 1982 p. 205 footnote 6