History of Ragusa

See Ragusa guide for highlights and historic monuments

Ragusa in southeastern Sicily is an ancient city which, as we shall see, has changed its name often over the centuries. Let's start by noting that the name by which it was known in the ancient world was "Hybla Heraea", which caused considerable confusion to historians.

One ancient historian even said that in olden times there were in Sicily at least three cities named "Hybla", that is Hybla "Galeatis" (on the slopes of Etna, also known as "Maior", Hybla "Megara" (near Syracuse) and Hybla "Heraea" near the current Ragusa.

Early history of Ragusa

Historically, we know that Hippocrates of Gela (died 491 BC), who ruled Camarina, tried to attack Hybla, but he was killed beaneath the city walls. Paolo Orsi said rightly that the political history of ancient Hibla is very sparse - indeed the reference to Hippocrates is the only one known.

We know that Hibla did not participate with Ducetius in the struggles against the Greeks of Syracuse: "Hibla was not a Greek town and we have no documents about the period when it was occupied by the Greeks; we know only that in 491 BC Hippocrates of Gela assailed it, but he died beneath the city walls, which makes sense that it had not been conquered (...)

We know that at the time of Ducetius Hybla refused to join the National League, the so-called "Syntelekìa", led by the Siculian hero against the Greeks [Diodorus, 11, 88, 6], and this seems to be because of fear of the cities of Syracuse and Camarina that were located close by, and also because since the fifth century BC many Greeks lived in Hybla, affecting the customs and political outlook of the town inhabitants.

Before the episode of Hippocrates there is no knowledge of Ragusa's (Hybla's) relations with the Greeks, but discoveries in 1891 and 1898 (...) have shown that a group of Greeks in the middle of the sixth century BC  settled on a rise above and near Hybla; this was probably an attempt by Syracuse and Camarina to settle in the mountains and to open communications with the coasts to the south-east of the island.

Moreover, in the oldest colonies the Greeks occupy certain positions very close to the Sicules, but do not, at least at first, mix with them (...) and perhaps the war of Hippocrates against Hybla had broken out because of the desire to avenge the massacre or expulsion of the Greeks who settled on the mentioned hillsides of the town" [1].

Roman era in Ragusa

With regard to the Roman age, Ettore Pais wrote that "when the Consul Marcellus (died 45 BC) returned to Rome he boasted that he had subdued Sicily, but that pride was not entirely deserved. He had just turned his back on the island when some cities such as Murgante, Hybla and Macella rebelled again" [2].

The ancient spirit of the Sicules for independence was also demonstrated against the Romans with Hybla among the rebellious cities. The problem is that because of the multiple "Hyblae" which existed in Sicily we do not know with absolute certainty which was the “rebel” Hibla.

Barbarians and Byzantines in Ragusa

By the end of the Roman Empire, Sicily was also exposed to the barbarian invasions;  especially those of the Vandals, which implied serious loss of life, destruction of cities and monuments. Ragusa was literally destroyed and other cities suffered serious damages, as evidenced, for example, by an inscription found at Catania: "in 456 AD, a fleet of 60 ships of Genserico (389-477 AD) devastated Sicily and passed the Strait" [3].

Reconquered by the Byzantines, the town was strengthened and in this period we must also record that its name changed to Ragusa (see etymology section below). The Byzantine heritage can be found in Ragusa especially in the fortifications, built due to insecurity because of Arab incursions. The Byzantines built several fortified towns, creating a line of defense in protection of Syracuse, with strongholds in Modica and Ragusa.

This Byzantine heritage  is also present in some cult practices that were deeply rooted in the local population: "Here we mention the relief (1538) present in the Church of St. Maria delle Scale in Ragusa, and the painting by Narciso Guidone (early '600) in the church of Comiso, both representing the 'Dormitio Virginis' (...). The cult of the Madonna 'Odigitria' (…) was particularly honored at Byzantium, especially after the Council of Ephesus " [4].

The Arabs and the Normans in Ragusa

With the advent of the Arabs the town was called "Ragus" and also "Rag-os" (See Konrad Miller, "Arabischewelt-und Länderkarten", Stuttgart, 1927, Band II, p. 118), and described by Al Idrisi (1099-1166): "Ragùs’, a beautiful hamlet of solid construction, strong, defensible, and situated on a river which takes its name from it (...)" [5].

With the advent of the Normans Ragusa was given as a fiefdom to Geoffrey (died 1120), the son of Roger I (1031-1101), although he never appears in the medieval documents with the title of Count of Ragusa. His successors took the title of Count of Marsico until Sylvester Bern (or Bernardus), who fwas first to be called Count of Ragusa, in 1194, at the time of Guglielmo III (1185-1198).

We can identify him as the "Comes Ragusiae” [Count of Ragusa] to whom Innocent III (1161-1216) sent some “exhortatoriae” [exhortative] letters in November 1200. As we can see, in the Norman time, the modern name "Ragusa" had already established itself.

This grant of Ragusa by Roger I to his son Geoffrey was very considerable and included "some hamlets, with the Casale rendae et casale Rendetgrebin, and nearly everything to the south-east of Sicily to the sea" [6].

The lineage of the Norman lords of Ragusa became extinct in 1195, at the hands of Henry VI (1165-1197), and the city passed to the State. Under the reign of Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250) Ragusa had a significant increase in Franciscan monasteries, to which the king granted many privileges. The proliferation of so many religious orders is explained by the fact that there were a lot of Arabs in Ragusa (?source unknown). It was probably this fact that led Frederick II "to grant a number of hamlets to some religious orders close to him (…)  for the Christianization of the population of Sicily, until then divided into three".

Thanks to a sketch on a manuscript in Latin we can deduce that "the image of Ragusa before the earthquake of 1693 is represented by the form of a fish in the rivers (“Pisces inter aquas”), the head of which occupied the current “Iblei  Gardens”, while the tail occupied the neighborhoods located to the west “Piazza degli Archi”, currently known as the "Republic Square", and downtown was made up of the castle, which protected the town to the east (...)"

'Extra moenia' [Outside the walls] were the farmers’ homes whose patron saint is St. John, and whose temple was located near the walls" [7].

From the 13th century onwards

With the advent of the Aragonese the history of the county of Modica begins. Peter III of Aragon (1239-1285) gave a part of the County to Federico Mosca in 1285, and Ragusa to Giacomo Prefolio. Then the two counties were united under Manfredi Chiaramonte I (14th century), Count of Modica. So Ragusa in the following centuries belonged to the county of Modica, the wider fief of South-eastern Sicily.

At the beginning of the 14th century Ragusa belonged to the Chiaramonte and towards the end of the 14th century to Viscount Bernard IV Cabrera (1381-1423). The county, because of its enormous wealth, was a subject of interest to many nobles at the time, who intrigued to get possession of it. In this sense, with the support of some barons, Martin the Younger (1356-1410) arrested and later executed Andrea Chiaramonte (died 1392), then granting the County to Viscount Bernardo Cabrera.

Despite these political vicissitudes, the County in those years had a remarkable economic development, and also Ragusa had an increase in building, which unfortunately was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, although some remains are still visible today, such as the palace of the Chiaramonte Counts and some coastal fortifications (the Mazzarelli Tower and the Tower of Pozzallo, presumably built by Bernardo Cabrera IV), which protected the County from pirate raids [8].

In 1693 an earthquake destroyed Ragusa. According to studies, the city had about 10,000 inhabitants, reduced after the earthquake to 5000.

The reconstruction of Ragusa followed a dual solution. Ragusa Superiore, the "New Town" was built in the 18th century “with the downtown created around the church of San Giovanni Evangelista, and with a checkerboard pattern characterized by long, parallel streets (...)  Meanwhile the ancient city was rebuilt with Baroque churches and palaces built around the Cathedral of St. George" [9].

These two "Hyblae" are divided by the "Valley of the Bridges", a ravine crossed by four bridges including the famous  Bridge of the Benedictines.

Spanish ... or part of Savoy? Ragusa divided

In the 18th century Sicily passed to the Savoy, but not the County of Modica, which was inherited by the Spanish. This created an unusual and difficult situation, with a Spanish feud in a domain owned by the Savoy family.

The situation was rather paradoxical, as explained by G. Poidomani:

"In 1702 Philip V (1683-1746) sent John Thomas Enriquez-Cabrera (1646-1705), Almirante of Castile and Count of Modica, as its ambassador to the French court. But the Almirante openly sided with the pretender to the Habsburg Empire. Accused of treachery and treason, he was sentenced to death in absentia and all his goods were confiscated, so that even the county of Modica was incorporated into the State property.

When Philip V, with the fifth article of the Treaty of Utrecht, ceded Sicily to Amedeo di Savoia (1690-1741), he introduced a clause (Article X) that 'all the dignity, annuities, lordships and substances of … the  nobles who committed the offense of felony ... should remain the property of His Catholic Majesty '

... It was a strange situation that created a fief of the King of Spain in the reign of Vittorio Amedeo. Philip V could be considered (and this actually happened) as a Spanish baron subject to the King of Savoy" [10].

Later the County was under the Austrian rule in 1720 and the Bourbons in 1738. After the struggles of the “Risorgimento”, Ragusa and Sicily became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Origins of the original name of Ragusa: Hybla Heraea

The actual area where the ancient site of Hybla Heraea (“Ragusa Inferiore”) was situated was identified by Paolo Orsi [11].

With regard to the question of the number of "Hiblae", Manganaro pointed out that there were only two cities with this name, not three [12]. In practice, Hybla Geleatis was close to Catania, and identified by scholars as Paternò, and "Hybla Maior" was close to Ragusa.

It is Hybla Heraea which we are interested here when investigating Ragusa. Originally “Hybla Heraea” had an undoubted importance, so it was known as "Maior", but then declined, losing its primacy and becoming "Minor". The city was founded by the Sicules, no Greek as sometimes suggested. In face the city always put up a fierce resistance against the penetration of the Greeks into their territories.

In this respect, G. Rizza said that "three centuries and the defeat of Ducetius (died 440 BC) were needed to convince the Sicules to bury the dead as the Greeks did" [13]. This fact is very significant, and helps us understand the spirit of independence and sense of ethnic identity of the Sicules, and their Anatolian origins.

The name "Hybla" refers to Anatolia and the cult of the Goddess "Hybla": “Pugliese Carratelli recognized in Hybla a name connected to the sacred sphere of an Anatolic nation" [14]. The only example of a possible relationship with a Roman goddess, the so-called “Venus Hyblea”, is an inscription in CIL [Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum] in Paternò.

In this regard Michael Speidel explained: “ 'Venus Victrix Hyblensi, named after the town of Hybla Maior, is known from only one dedication, found at Hybla Maior in Sicily: 'Veneri Victrici Hyblensi, C(aius) Public(ius)/ Donatus d(onum) d(edit)’. Again it seems possible that here a local goddess took on a Roman guise by adopting the name of Venus Victrix” [15].

From the etymological point of view, Hybla is interpreted as "fruitful": "The term Hybla, certainly of Siculian and not of Greek origin, is usually understood as a "fertile place", and this has a direct connection with the Latin word “uber” (meaning breast, fertility, productive land or place), since the Sicilian language was related to archaic Latin" [16].

However, if this could be true about the Goddess Hybla, the name seems to have a different meaning. Vittore Pisani writes, after a precise analysis of the Siculian language, that "it seems to me infinitely more likely that 'Hybla' has had the generic meaning of 'urbs', 'civitas' [city], or rather, 'arx' [fortress], 'oppidum' [fortified town]” [17].

As we said above, the Sicules who founded "Hybla Heraea" strenuously defended their town from the Greek influence that came from Syracuse, and later by the Greeks of Camarina and Gela, to whom the Syracusans gave Camarina (a sub colony of Syracuse), located close to Hybla Heraea.

Name change - from Hybla Heraea to Ragusa

In practice it seems there was a transformation of the name from "Hybla Heraea"  to  "Ereusia", then "Rausa" and finally "Ragusa". The transformation from a hypothetical name "Ereusia" (or "Ereusium") was supported by the local scholar Raphael Solarino (“La Contea di Modica” [18].

What we do know with a good degree of certainty is that Ragusa probably derives from the Greek word "Rogoi", meaning "granary". However, instead of a derivation from "Ereusa" (or  "Ereusum"-"Hereusium”), we need to consider a conjecture by R. Solarino.

A different opinion is suggested by Michele Amari, for whom the modern name of Ragusa in Sicily was simply "imported" by the inhabitants of Ragusa from Dalmatia. B. Pace said that "M. Amari inclined to believe that the name could have come from Ragusa in Dalmatia to Sicily in Byzantine times" [19].

Michele Amari wrote: "So Ruined fields every summer in Sicily by the Muslims, and in 842 even by locusts, in 848 there was also a great famine (...) And maybe was this famine which bent Ragusa, a strong castle in the Noto Valley, known under the Byzantine era with the same name as the well-known town in Dalmatia" [20].

In fact, with regard to the name Ragusa in Dalmatia, a source of "Rausa" and "Rausium" is widely attested (See, for example, William Smith, "New classical dictionary of biography, mythology, and geography", 1850, p. 639). As  J. Gardner Wilkinson wrote: “The name of Rausium derives from the rocks or precipices, where they established their new abode; and Rausium, or Rausia, in the process of time, was altered into Ragusa.” [21].

On the contrary,  if there was an"independent" development of the Sicilian city name (i.e. not related to Ragusa in Dalmatia) the aforementioned derivation from "Rogoi" is fully acceptable, and refers to the fertility of the soil.

See also Ragusa for a tourist guide to the baroque town.


1. See Paolo Orsi," Ragusa. New explorations on the necropolis of Hybla Heraea ", in “Notizie di scavi di antichità”, Regia Accademia dei Lincei , Rome, 1899, pp. 417-418

2. See Ettore Pais, “Alcune osservazioni sull'amministrazione della Sicilia”,[" Some Observations on the administration of Sicily”], 1888, p. 122

3. "Vandals in Sicily," in "Il Basso Impero", Bari, Dedalo, 1980, pp. 335 ff.

4. See V. Giovanni Rizzone, Anna Maria Sammito in “Archivum Historicum mothycense”, 2003, 9, p. 7

5. See Al Idrisi, “L’Italia descritta nel ‘Libro di Ruggero’”, by M. Amari, Salviucci, 1883, p. 53 and 65

6. See S. Tramontana, “Popolazione, distribuzione della terra e classi sociali nella Sicilia di Ruggero il Gran conte”, in “Ruggero il gran Conte e l'inizio dello Stato normanno”, Bari, 1977, p. 230

7. See G. Flaccavento, “Sviluppo urbano e aspetti artistici della presenza francescana a Ragusa”, in “Francescanesimo e cultura in Sicilia”, Officina di Studi Medievali, 1982, p. 312

8. See “Proposta di un itinerario. La Contea di Modica”, in “Turismo Nautico e Distretti turistici siciliani”, edited by V. Ruggiero ed L. Scrofani  Milano, Angeli, 2009, pp. 81 ff.

9. See S. Cartarrasa, F. Cappello, “Il recupero del Centro storico di Ragusa Ibla”, in “Vulnerabilità e trasformazione dello spazio urbano”, edited by Walter Fabietti, Firenze, Alinea, 1999, p. 264

10. See G. Poidomani, “Storia di una quérelle storico-diplomatica. La contea di Modica nel periodo del governo sabaudo in Sicilia”, in “Archivum Historicum Mothycense”, 1997, 3, pp. 33 sgg.

11. See Paolo Orsi, “Notizie di scavi di antichità”, in "Accademia dei Lincei”, Rome, 1899, pp. 402 – 418

12. - see G. Manganaro ["Hybla Megala (Heraia) and Hybla Geleatis (Etnea)" in “Un ponte tra l’Italia e la Grecia”, Padova, 2000, pp. 149 - 154

13. See G. Rizza, “Sicilia e Anatolia dalla preistoria all'età ellenistica…”, 1996, p. 59

14. See “Un ponte fra l'Italia e la Grecia: atti del simposio in onore di Antonino Di Vita”, a cura di A. Di Vita, 2000.  p. 1

15. See Michael Speidel, “Venus Victrix Roman and Oriental”, in “Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt”, 1984, 2, p. 2231

16. See C. Ciccia, “Il mito di d'Ibla nella letteratura e nell'arte”, Pellegrini, Cosenza, 1998, p. 9

17. see Vedi V. Pisani, “Su un sostantivo della lingua degli antichi Siculi, 'hibla”, in “Paideia”, 1948, III, n. 1-2. p. 66

18. "The County of Modica”, Ragusa, 1884, I, p. 211

19. See B. Pace. “Arte e civiltà della Sicilia antica…”,  1949, IV, p. 166 footnote 3

20. See M. Amari, “Storia del Musulmani di Sicilia”, Firenze, Le Monnier, 1854, Vol. I, p. 319

21. See J. Gardner Wilkinson, “Dalmatia and Montenegro…”, John Murray, London, 1848, Vol. I,  p. 274