The Phoenicians in Sicily

Invariably a history of Sicily starts with the Greek colonization of the island. Without doubt the Greek colonies in Sicily have left an invaluable heritage for which the island is still praised in the whole world. The first historians were Greek, and they extensively wrote the history of the Greek and Roman world. One of them was even Sicilian, Diodorus Siculus. The history of the Greeks in Sicily has been perceived as one of antagonism between Carthage on the one hand and the Greek citystates like Agrigento, Gela and Syracuse on the other. In Roman times that antagonism was not much different with the three Punic wars waged against the North-African city. Still it is just as impressive how much traces the Phoenicians and after them the Punics have left in Sicily 1. Their presence was however limited to western Sicily, to what now are the provinces of Trapani and Palermo. But where did these Phoenicians come from and where did they decide to establish themselves in Sicily?

The Phoenician expansion westward

Phoenician settlements in Sicily
Phoenician settlements in Sicily

For the sake of simplicity historians and archaeologists tended to call the merchants that came from the Lebanon in the first millenium BC all Phoenicians and their home country Phoenicia. However the merchants did not come only from the Lebanon and Phoenicia could hardly be called a state or country. Along the coast of what is now part of Israel, Lebanon and Syria there were a number of towns and cities; Arwad, Byblos, Beirut, Sidon, Sarepta and Tyre (Sor), each more or less independent citystates until Tyre outgrew them in importance in the tenth century BC and became the most important citystate of them all. The merchants came from all these towns and cities that can be considered part of a wider Syrian-Palestinese area 2. The demand for silver by the Assyrians, at that time in power in Mesopotamia, was one of the reasons for the expansion westward. Tyre started sending expeditions to the south of Spain to retrieve this precious metal. The trading routes were by then already known to the Phoenicians and the Cypriots before them. The theory on the Phoenician trade expansion is that on the one hand the silver trade was important, but on the other hand it was the trade in luxury goods that made it possible for the Phoenicians to penetrate and get a foothold in local trading circuits in the western Mediterranean 3. The first permanent settlements in the west were ports of trade or ports of call, like Pithekoussai (Ischia), where next to the Phoenicians also the Greeks, in particular the Euboians, traded their goods. Such a port of trade could well have been Motya (Mozia), an island in front of the Sicilian coast. The Phoenicians did not aspire territorial possessions and therefore did not found colonies like the Greeks would do in Sicily and Southern-Italy 4.

Phoenician settlements in Sicily

Phoenician presence has been more disturbed and covered by later building than for example in Sardinia and therefore more difficult to excavate. The settlement believed to have been the most important is that of Motyathat thanked it's prominence to the excellent relations with the Elymians and the vicinity of Carthage on the other side of the sea. Thucydides names other settlements like Panormus (Palermo) and Soloeis (Solunto) in the north of Sicily and traces of Phoenician presence have also been found on the island Pantelleria off the Sicilian coast. Whether, like Thucydides states, the Phoenicians had settled in other parts of Sicily before the arrival of the Greek colonizers has not yet been confirmed by archaeological research 5. The most important sanctuary in West-Sicily, dedicated to Astarte which is a Phoenician deity, was located on the mountain of Eryx in the territory of the Elymians. It is known that the Phoenicians frequented the sanctuary and the goddess eventually would become known by her Phoenician-Punic name, which the Greeks called Aphrodite and the Romans the Venus of Eryx 6.

The oldest finds in a settlement of Phoenician origin is usually considered the founding date of the colony by archaeologists. In particular this is valid for the finds in the oldest necropolis of Motya, on the island of San Pantaleo, which could be dated to the 8th century BC. During the 7th and 6th century BC the settlement grew into a flourishing town. The oldest finds in the tophet, the open air sanctuary ascribed to the Phoenicians, and those in the sanctuary of the Cappiddazzu can be dated to the 7th century BC 7. Tophet and the temple are considered important features of urbanization 8 At Palermo archaeological excavation has not yet uncovered any finds dating earlier than the 7th century and of Soloeis (thought to be located near roman Solunto) still no evidence has been found that could point to an early Phoenician settlement 9.


1 An interesting history of the Phoenicians and the Punics has been written by Richard Miles, Carthage.
2 Sherratt & Sherratt 1993, p.364; Aubet 1993, p.42 e.v.; Markoe 2000, p.170-174; Volpi 2004, p 17-20
3 Sherratt & Sherratt 1993, p. 363; Mathäeus 2000, p. 56-57; Frankenstein 1979, p. 280-283
4 Sherratt & Sherratt 1993, p. 368; Markoe 2000, p. 175-176; Frankenstein 1979, p. 278; Coldstream , p.263-264; Buchner , p.279; Botto 1989, p.235,241; Volpi 2004, p 21; Tusa 1999, p 232
5 Aubet 1993, p 138, 200; Volpi 2004, p 22; Finley 1978, p 35-36; Moscati 1986, p136; Tusa 1999, p 232, 246 (Pantelleria)
6 Moscati 1986, p 101-105; Tusa 1999, p 247
7 Aubet 1993, p 200-203; Volpi 2004, p 31; Tusa 1989, p 11, 30-33, 41-43; Moscati 1986, p 61-90 (Mozia)
8 Aubet 1993, p. 216,217; Van Dommelen 1998, p 82-83, 104; Van Dommelen 2005, p 154
9 Moscati 1986, p 106,115 ;Amadasi Guzzo 1990, p 60; Tusa 1999, p 240 (on Solunto) 242 (on Palermo)


1. Amadasi Guzzo, M.G. 1990, Iscrizioni fenicie e puniche in Italia, Roma
2. Aubet, M.E. 1993, The Phoenicians and the West. Politics Colonies and Trade, Cambridge (first published in Spanish, 1987)
3. Botto, M. 1989: Considerazioni sul commercio fenicio nel tirreno nell'VIII e nel VII secolo a. C., in: Istituto Universitario Orientale Annali Archeologia e Storia Antica XI, Napoli
4. Buchner, G. 1979: Die Beziehungen zwischen der euboïschen kolonie Pithekoussai auf die Insel Ischia und dem nordwestsemitischen Mittelmeerraum in der Zweiten Hälfte des 8. Jhr v. Chr., in: ed. H.G. Niemeyer, Phönizier im Westen, Köln, p. 277-298
5. Coldstream, J.N. 1979: Greeks and Phoenicians in the Aegean, in: ed. H.G. Niemeyer, Phönizier im Westen, Köln, p. 261-272
6. Finley, M.I. 1985: Sicilia antica, Roma
7. Frankenstein, S. 1979: The Phoenicians in the far west. A function of Neo-Assyrian imperialism, in: ed. M.T. Larsen, Power and Propaganda. A symposion on ancient empires, Copenhagen
8. Markoe, G.E. 2000: Peoples of the past. Phoenicians, London
9. Matthäus, H. 2000: Die Rolle Zyperns und Sardiniens im Mittelmeerischen interaktionsprozess während der Späten Zweiten und Frühen ersten Jahrtausends v. Chr., in: Der Orient und Etrurien, Roma
10. Moscati, S. 1985, Italia Punica, Milano
11. Sherratt, A.G. & E.S. Sherratt 1993: The growth of the Mediterranean economy in the early first millenium B.C., in: World Archeaology 24, p. 361-378
12. Tusa, V. 1999, Sicily in: The Phoenicians, ed. S. Moscati (first published on the occasion of the exhibition The Phoenicians at the Palazzo Grassi Venice 1988), New York, p. 231-250
13. Volpi, A., M.P. Toti 2004, Motya, nel mondo dei fenici, Marsala
14. Van Dommelen, P. 1998, On Colonial Grounds, Leiden
15. Van Dommelen, P. 2005, Urban Foundations? Colonial settlement and urbanization in the Western Mediterranean in: Mediterranean Urbanization 800-600 BC, ed. R. Osborne and B. Cunliffe, New York, p. 143-167

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