History of the area

images of south-east sicily's monuments

Whilst Sicily’s south-east is most famous for its classical and Baroque monuments the region is also, not surprisingly, littered with the cultural remains of its inhabitants way back into prehistory. With its wealth of natural resources, this area has been an attractive place to live since human beings arrived in the Mediterranean. What follows is an extremely potted version of the island’s complex past to give you glimpse into what processes and peoples contributed to the creation of south-east Sicily’s unique cultural heritage.


Rock tombs in Cava d'IspicaMany of the material remains, or artefacts, left behind by the island’s earliest settlers can be found in the local, regional and indeed national museums. To the traveler the most obvious signs of the prehistoric habitation of the area are the rock tombs visible as caves cut into the hillsides across the south-east of the island.  Many of these sites are open to the public, including, most famously, Pantalica near Siracusa and Cava d’Ispica close to Modica itself, though most of the easily visible tombs at the latter site date to the early Christian era. The image to the left illustrates one of the caves at Cava d’Ispica parts of which were only abandoned in the middle of the last century. The human habitation of the island pre-dates even many of these sites.

Traditionally, there is little evidence of human habitation from the Lower to Upper Palaeolithic (or Stone Age) on the Mediterranean islands. This is quite possibly due in no small part to the fact that the majority of the islands weren’t capable of supporting the large fauna that made up the staple diet of the early hunter-gatherers and so they remained fundamentally unattractive places to live. Sicily and Sardinia are potentially conspicuous exceptions and as more fieldwork is carried out so more evidence comes to light (Leighton 1999). What can be said with certainty within the bounds of this briefest of summaries is that the material remains of these very earliest of settlers, wherever they colonised, constitute little more than collections of stone tools associated with the scant remains of temporary settlements. As such these archaeological relics are not easily accessible to most visitors and remain the preserve of Palaeolithic enthusiasts, with one conspicuous exception – namely rock-art. The vast majority of Sicilian rock art is to be found in the north and west of the island (so beyond the remit of this page) with some of the best examples being located on Levanzo Island and in the Addaura Cave (further information from Wikipedia on the Grotta del Genovese and addaura.it).

The Sikels are considered to be the earliest inhabitants of this part of the island about whom anything of significance is known and they themselves are known to have been settlers from mainland Italy and indeed it was they who founded the city of Motyca

Phoenicians and Greeks were the earliest extensive colonisers from the 8th century BC.

Under the Romans the Modica was declared a decuman and subsequently a stipendiary city.

The arabs conquered the city in 845, renaming is Mohac and the city went on to flourish under both their and subsequently the Normans.

Under the Aragonese the city was made the capital of a County and the phrase ‘County of Modica’ is still a phrase in common usage today.

The Phoenicians and the Greeks were the earliest colonizers in the 8th century BC; then came the Romans (3rd century BC) who made Sicily a Province of the Empire; the Byzantines and the Barbarians (Goths, Visigoths and Vandals) ruled between the 4th and 8th century AD; the Arabians (8th-10th centuries), like the Greeks, are remembered for having fostered the economical and cultural growth of the Island; under the Normans (11th-13th century) the Island likely achieved its highest economic prosperity; finally there were the French Angevins (13th century) who would be driven by a general revolt broken out in 1282, known as the The Sicilian Vespers.

Blakeway, A. (1932) ‘Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Commerce with Italy, Sicily and France in the Eighth and Seventh Centuries B.C.’, The Annual of the British School at Athens, 33, pp. 170–208. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30096951?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents (Accessed: 27 July 2016).
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