History of Syracuse


See Syracuse guide for highlights and historic monuments

Around 733 BC Doric populations originating from Corinth, led by the oecist Archias, founded Syracuse in Sicily on the islet of Ortigia, where there already existed a nucleus of Sicilians.

Thanks largely to Gelo (540-478 BC) and Hiero I ('-466 BC) in the first half of the fifth century BC, the colony became the richest and most flourishing centre of the island of Sicily, with an intense economic and cultural life, which made it among the biggest cities of Greece.

In 212 BC it was conquered by the Romans during the Second Punic War (218-208 B.C.), after a siege of two years, and it was severely punished.

The city was eventually won by the Romans when the consul Marcellus was able to take the Epipoli by surprise during a service in honour of Artemis, which had distracted the defenders of the fortifications - the neighbourhoods of Tyche and Neàpolis were taken immediately after.

Origins of the name Syracuse

The etymology of the name Syracuse is uncertain: it seems that the name derives from "Sirokos" (the Sirocco wind), or, more likely, from "Sirakousai" (the "Salt Water") or, perhaps even more likely, the name might come from Syraka, which was the marsh between the Anapo and Cyane Rivers. Some scholars, however, argue that the name is in reality of Phoenician origin, signifying The "Rock of Sea-gulls".

The resistance by Syracuse was then focused on the regions called Acradina and Ortigia but at the end of 211 BC they were forced to surrender. Entering the city, although Marcellus had given orders to his troops to save the people, the Romans set to work looting and killing - one illustrious victim was Archimedes.

The Roman period marks the decline of the city of Syracuse, whose impoverishment grew worse as a result of the barbarian invasions of the island until, in 535 AD, Syracuse became part of the Eastern Empire after the conquest by Belisarius (500-565 AD).

Belisarius managed to conquer Sicily and Syracuse with a conquest that was willingly accepted by the Syracusans, who hoped for a period of peace. The Byzantine period was certainly one of the best for the city, which increased its political prestige.

Following the Arab domination the Norman and Swabian period began in 1091. After a period of Genoese rule (1205-1220), which promoted trade, the city was conquered in 1221 by Frederick II of Swabian (1194-1250), who strengthened the defence structures. The castle was reinforced and many public buildings were also built (the Bishop's and Bellomo Palaces).

Sicily was then ruled by Spanish viceroys from 1415 to 1712, but the Spaniards widened social inequalities and conflicts became more frequent. This was the most difficult period for Syracuse, made worse by the famine of the 15th century and the earthquake in 1542. Epidemics and famine also struck the city throughout the 17th century.

In the 18th century Syracuse came under the Bourbons, and finally entered into the Kingdom of Italy with the Unification of Italy in 1860.

See also the travel guide for Syracuse.