History of Tusa

See Tusa guide for highlights and historic monuments

According to a well-established tradition, the “Castello di Tusa” is in the same location as the ancient city of "Alaisa", in Latin called "Halaesa.”

Origins of Ancient Halaesa

The ruins of “Halaesa” spread across the eastern side of a hill, to the left of the Tusa stream (the ancient "Halaesus") and at about two hundred meters altitude. It was a mile from the coast, north to the mouth of which there was the town harbour [1]. The archaeological remains found “in situ”, include a temple dedicated to Apollo and are presumed to demonstrate the validity of this assumption, proposed by many experts.

Diodorus [90-27 BC] (14.16.2) tells us that the town was founded by Archonides from Herbita in the early 5th century BC, around 403-402 BC. Along with Archonides, who was the 'oikistes” [ecista*], there participated three different groups, called the "mistophoroi”, who formed the so-called "symmikton ochlon", a multitude of exiles whom the war against Syracuse had condemned to wander in exile.

Ecista: definition

An ecista was a leader selected by a group of citizens when colonising a new region. It was an important role that included consulitng the oracle, to select a place which fate would bring good chance to, and then ruling the new settlement, including settling disputes and allocating land.

So the foundation of "Alaisa" was decided by a member of the "Archonides" family, a "Dynastes” (tyrant) of Herbita, with the contribution of numerous poor from Herbita ("polloi dè kai tòn apòron Erbitaion”), a plethora of mercenaries ("mistophoroi te pleìous") and a substantial amount of refugees ("symmikton òchlon") that merged into Herbita from many Hellenic and Sicilians cities.

From this particular condition of the founders of "Alaisa" some scholars derived a possible etymology of the town (see more on the question of etymology below):

"Curiosity exhorts us to seek the origin of the many Sicilian “Aleisa” existing at the time of Archonides, and the origin of the inhabitants of Alesia that appear in the "Symmachia.” The name derives from the Greek word “alàomai” which means “I wander', ' I wonder aimlessly ', ‘I am condemned to a painful exile"' [2].

However, there is a variant of the tradition, passed to us by Diodorus Siculus (14.16.4), that Alaisa was founded by Himilcone of Carthage. In fact, two years before the foundation of Aleisa by Archonides, the Carthaginian Himilcone had already formed a garrison of Mamertines (Campanian mercenaries) in the same places, in order to control the northern coast of Sicily.

The Carthaginians, worried by the continuous incursions into their territories by the Syracusians, sent a strong army, taking up this strategical position until 278 BC, when Pyrrhus [318-272 BC], the king of Epirus, came and regained Agrigento, ruling it until 275 BC, when he returned to Italy.

After the departure of Pyrrhus, the Carthaginians again occupied the whole territory of Agrigento as far as Alesa (now Tusa), and they held it until 264 BC, the date of the commencement of the first Punic War (Livy).

Samuel Bochart (1599-1666), who supported the idea of the Punic foundation of "Halaesa", also gave the its etymology, saying that the city's name derives from the Punic name "Aliza" or "Ain Aliza", or "fons exultabundus "[ a continually playing spring] [3].

As P.G. Romano wrote in the 19th century: "[...] Diodorus was not fully satisfied with this account of events and he quoted another opinion that Alaisa was founded by the Carthaginians. To bridge the scruples of the great historian the appropriate coins of Alesa were reached, all quoting the name "Alaisa" and then adding APX (Archonides) [...]" [4].

This accurate description by P.G. Romano is also confirmed by contemporary studies, noting:

“in particular, the currency issues of Alaisa never fail to specify the name of the founder of the city;  or the inscription is ‘Alaisa Arconiai’ [Alaisa was founded by Archonides]” [5].

Origins of the name Alaisa

As there were several cities in Sicily with the name "Alaisa", it was absolutely necessary to accompany the generic name ["Alaisa"] with the name of the eponymous founder to distinguish the various places. If we look at the name we can see that it is quite general - in fact, it has been suggested that it means “a source from 'Alein', which in Hesychius is 'transformed' as 'oikein' (live)" [6].

In practice "Alaisa" means "live" or "an urban area", a "village" to which it was necessary to add the name of the founder, in this case "Archeomedes” (“Alaisa Ark”) [7].

As we have seen, a different etymology was supported in earliest times by A. Cavallaro, for whom "Alaisa" would have derived from "alàsemi" that would mean "wander," referring to the initial situation of the founders of the town [8].

A city with two origins?

The double tradition of the orgins of the name would have been due to the fact that apparently the city's inhabitants did not like the fact that Alaisa had Archonides of Herbita as 'founder', as the city was founded by a group whose characteristics were a mixture of races and especially of extreme poverty.

Some historians in past centuries explained that the inhabitants of "Alaisa", ashamed of these founders, brought into play a second legend of the town foundation.

In reality it was the political and religious-superstitious respects that played an important role in this "double" tradition, which often happened among the Ancients, and especially among the Romans, who, being very superstitious, were presumably responsible for the introduction of the second tradition.

In fact, as we will see, Alaisa was the first Sicilian city to ally with the Romans in the First Punic War, and the Romans had a great influence on the cultural and “cult” development of the city [9]. Contemporary studies show more and more the close connection that existed between Herbita and Alaisa.

A  very interesting indirect proof is provided, for example, by the cult of "Adranòs" (Latin "Hadranus"), who had a particularly significant cult in the "Meilichieion” [shrine] of the city, as in the rest of Sicily:

"It is possible (and probable) that the worship of the God Adranòs has been brought to Halaesa with the 'aporoi Herbitaioi' (poor of Herbita), although we can only assume that, because we know almost nothing of the oldest form of religious worship in Herbita. But we cannot exclude that worship of the God Adranòs has come with the refugees coming from Etna" [10]....

... The temple of "Adranos" was guarded by about a thousand dogs of excessive size and beauty, sacred to God, which graciously welcomed visitors to the temple, accompanied them home if they were drunk or there were thieves attacking them [11].

Roman Alaisa and the god Apollo

With regard to the influence of the Romans on Alaisa, we can also refer to the cult of Apollo. In fact, the battle of "Actium" took place in front of a promontory on which there stood a temple of Apollo and Augustus attributed the victory that gave him the power to the will of the benevolent god - Apollo became the personal protective deity of the emperor, who honored him as Rome had never been done.

This helped "to strengthen the cult of Apollo at Halaesa, assuring for long the continuity of worship" [12].

Moreover Alaisa under the Romans enjoyed  great economic prosperity for the "happy position of the 'exitus maritimus' [harbour], situated at the mouth of the river “Halaesus”, now called “Tusa”, favoring the prosperous shipping business of the "Municipium Alesinum.”

In the first century AD Strabo described Halaesa as a small village - the city probably declined after the splendours of the Republican age, even though excavations prove there was some economic vitality in the city even during the  late-imperial era.

After the Romans

In Sicily in the 5th century the incursions of the barbarians began. The island was occupied by the Genserico’s (389-477 AD) Vandals and Goths of Theodoric (493-526) to be conquered by the Byzantine general Belisarius (500-565 AD) in 535. After that time Sicily came under the Byzantines, until the advent of the Muslims.

The Byzantine era was also almost certainly a critical period in the history of the town. In the 8th century the city was a Bishopric and it subdued the Arab invasion in the 9th century. With the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD) the site of Alaisa had an essentially military function, to protect the wide valley of the right side of “Belice”.

Moving to Tusa - the Arabs and the Normans

There was much discussion about the precise moment when the abandonment of Alaisa began and the population transferred to the new settlement of Tusa. In this regard and according to F. Maurici, it had already started in the seventh century AD [13].

In conclusion, we can say that the abandonment of Alaisa was a slow trickle that probably began in the 7th century, and finally ended around the 9th century with the conclusive settlement in Tusa, which, finally, became a stronghold of the Arabs.

The Arabs arrived in the 9th century and ruled this part of Sicily until 1061, when the Norman Robert Guiscard occupied the coast of Nebrodes. The town and castle in the Norman period were certainly given in fief, and in this sense we know the name of one of the feudal lords, the royal executioner “Rinaldo de Tusa”, mentioned several times in the documents of the time.

The Normans enhanced the Basilian and Latin monasticism of Tusa, and all the monasteries that fell into ruin during the Arab rule were rebuilt. In fact, after 1090 and on the ruins of Alaisa the Benedictine monastery of St. Maria de’ Palati was built.

Tusa under the Normans became part of the estate of the Ventimiglia family and it took the name of "Tusa Inferiore" or "Marina di Tusa”, which was the third site of the inhabitants of “Alesa Arconidea.” In Christian times the population rose to “Tusa Superiore”, then climbing down again to “Marina di Tusa”, on the coast. On a rocky spur that overlooks the seaport, the Ventimiglia family built in the 13th century the castle of "Marina di Tusa” (then called “the Castle of San Giorgio”), from which the village takes its current name.

Tusa therefore belonged to Francesco Ventimiglia, as evidenced by documents published by E. Mazzarese Fardella. According to a statement made by the "magister procurator" Novello de Montanino to the Count of “Geraci” and “Ischia Maggiore” Francesco Ventimiglia senior, in 1307 (or, more likely, in 1322) the County of Geraci comprised Cangi, San Mauro, Castelluccio, Tusa Superiore and Tusa Inferiore [14].

Al Idrisi (1099-1165) in the twelfth century, described the new site of Tusa:

"From Cefalù to the fortress  'Tuz'ah' (that is the 'new town' today Tusa) is a one day walk. This fortress is of primitive construction and the site is easy to defend (...) The fort and village are situated on a top of an isolated mountain, which one reachs only through an impassable road" [15].

Origins of the name Tusa

Considering the slowness of the depopulation of "Halaesa", the etymology of Tusa could be of pre-Arab origin. In this sense, "Tusa" is the name not only of the city but also of the river of the same name, which is basically a “torrent” that wanders among the rocks and the maquis, often reduced to a trickle on account of the drought.

Therefore, the most striking feature of the Tusa stream is the persistent lack of water. Starting from this fact , one can derive an etymology from the Latin terms "torreo", "tostum", "torrere" (burn),  with resulting names toward terms such as "Tursa", "Tursi" and “Tusa.” This is, for example, suggested by Theodor Aufrecht [16] and Arminius Friedrich Zeyss [17].

Tusa from the 17th century

From the second half of the 17th century the estate passed to Orazio della Torre, then to the Branciforte family. This barony in 1744 was governed by Ercole Branciforte Naselli (1690-1780), the Prince of Scordia. The location allows profitable trades between the coast and inland, towards Enna, and for this reason the seaport was the bone of contention between the Ventimiglia family and the Bishop of Cefalù, for the transit duties that derived from its trade.

Following raids by pirates in the 17th century some defensive structures along the coast were enhanced by erecting new towers and equipping the castle with pieces of ordnance. At close range there was the fishing net of the “Corvo” [Raven], which was still active in the late 18th century.

See the Tusa travel guide.


1. Cicero’s [106-43 BC], "Oratio in Verrem”, II 2, 185

2. See G. Cavallaro, “L'ultimo rifugio degli Alesini siculi”, in “Archivio storico siciliano” , Palermo, LIV (1934): 312

3. see G. Pirrone," The Island of the sun ...", Electa, 1994: 36

4. See P.G. Romano, “Monete Siculo-Romane del Municipio di Alesa” in “Atti della Accademia di Scienze Lettere ed Arti di Palermo” [" The Sicilian-Roman coins of the Municipality of Alesia" in "Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts of Palermo”, Palermo, 1853, Vol. II: 3-4

5. See “Annali della Scuola normale superiore di Pisa, Classe di lettere e filosofia”, “Quaderni”, 1999: 91-102

6. See "Annals", p. 102 note 11

7. “Le monete degli Alesini Siculi e della Symmachia” in “AMIIN”[Atti e Memorie Istituto Italiano di Numismatica], VIII, 1934: 4-19

8. See "Annali", p. 102 note 11

9. for the double tradition See M.H. Hansen, T.H. Nielsen, " An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis ", Oxford University Press, 2004: 190

10. See A.M.  Prestianni Gallolombardo, “Divinità e culti in Halaesa Archonidea”, in  “Quarte Giornate di Studi sull’area Elima”, Atti, III, Pisa, 2003: 1074

11. As ref 10, p. 1072

12.  As ref 10, p. 1081

13. See F. Maurici, “Medieval Castles”, 1992: 50

14. See E. Mazzarella Fardella, “I feudi comitali di Sicilia dai Normanni agli Aragonesi”, 1974: 74

15. See Al Idrisi," The Book of Roger ", edited by M. Amari, Salviucci, 1883: 29). The name "Tuz'ah" therefore means, according to the etymology of Arab origin, "the new city."

16. "Die umbrischen Sprachdenkmäler", Dümmler, 1849, Vol I: 421

17. "De vocabulorum Umbricorum fictione”, 1861, I:  9