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Tribes of Italy: The Sicilians

Tribes of Italy: The Sicilians

Like most pre-Indo European tribes in Europe, the native Sicilians are equal parts mysterious and fascinating. Following the tradition of all but the Basques, these pre-Indo Europeans eventually assimilated into the culture of their wealthy Greek conquerors occupying the coasts. Similar to how the tribes of Papua New Guinea have kept to the interior of the vast jungle island in order to safeguard their way of life from the modern world, the Sicilians inhabited the interior of the island of Sicily for much of the Iron Age.

The first records we have pertaining to the native Sicilian (Sicel, Sicania; a western Sicilian people, Sikeloi) peoples is likely to be from the inscription at Medinet Habu in Egypt where the Pharaoh (most likely Ramses II) describes the enemies he defeated in The Battle of the Delta; the Sea People. The Sicilians are described by the name given to them by the Egyptians as the Shekelesh. This makes them among the many others that took to the sea during the Bronze Age Collapse of circa 1200 BC escaping the devastating effects of drought (or even earthquakes) on Mediterranean economies centered around comparative advantage; when the grain stops coming into port and you don’t grow grain, you leave or starve and so many of them left.

A typical Sicel necropolis. The dead were entombed within spaces carved into the rocky hillside.

The next bit of information we have comes from the Homeric legend, the Odyssey. They are described as being a “faraway people” and as the Mycenaean Greeks looked to the East for civilization and inspiration, the Sicilians occupied the forgotten boring western Mediterranean of the Bronze Age which might as well have been “far away.

There is an interesting theory of note that the native Sicilians were originally inhabitants of Italy. Thucydides believed that they settled the regions east of the Rome but were driven out by the Sabines and Umbrians and so were forced to move south eventually crossing the strait of Messina. As the Etruscans occupied similar lands, it seems that there was much more interaction between indo European settlers and native pre-indo European speakers than we realize. The knowledge of events like this is likely lost to us for now and it appears that we will continue to be tantalized by the events and peoples of history of which contemporary writers thought little. Knowing where they came from before such a migration would help us to understand once and for all their true origins.

The native people of Sicily lived in the interior of the island for a number of reasons. From their vantage points, they could observe the surrounding lands and the sea. This is highly useful for spotting pirates and raiders during the Bronze Age and early Iron Age when those threats were so common as to be seen as a reasonable, even respectable, occupation for young men seeking adventure and riches. Choosing settlement sites away from the coast was very common in the Mediterranean during this time as no one was safe from the threat of raiders. Colonization efforts by greater powers also forced the Sicilians inland. The Greeks moved in to set up colonies on the eastern half of the island while the Phoenicians (Carthaginians) occupied the coasts of the western part. The Sicilians mostly got along with their new neighbors because they were far too weak to face them. They had no choice but to retreat almost entirely to the interior wherever they did not live side by side with the Greeks. This Greek influence eventually made it nearly impossible to discern whether or not the occupants were Greek, native Sicilian, or both. The assimilation was eventually replete throughout the island.

A monolith discovered off the coast of Sicily. It has been dated to circa 8,000 BC which places those who constructed it far before the Indo-European speaking peoples who arrived from the Caucuses and Anatolia during the Copper Age and later early Bronze Age. 

Attempts to decipher the language of the native Sicilians have been met with failure. Although they used a borrowed Greek alphabet to write inscriptions, we are at a loss when trying to interpret them. This helps to add to the hypothesis that these natives are indeed pre-Indo European though this cannot truly be known for sure as of yet.

The case for the language being of Indo European descent, in my own opinion, is best exemplified by the observations of Roman writer Marcus Terrentius Varro (known to us as Varro). He wrote that the Sicilian language sounded almost identical to Latin in many ways with words that sounded almost identical and had the same meaning. Some examples are the words for Ounce (Latin/Sicel: Oncia), Ransom (Latin: Lytrum Sicel: Lytra), and Loan (Latin: Mutuum Sicel: Moeton). However, as you are probably already thinking, these appear to be good candidates for loan words being that they are nouns and words useful in trade. This means that it’s possible that Varro, writing during the first century BC, could very well have been hearing words that were needed by Sicilians in order to interact with the Roman colonists and traders of that period as they were under Roman rule for quite some time by then. In the end, Varro does get the benefit of the doubt being that he was there and we were not.

A major tragedy, as I see it, is the lack of material available on the indigenous tribes of Sicily. Like so many before them, they were assimilated into whatever foreign juggernaut happened to claim their lightly populated shores. Barring any new discoveries or sites, we will have to be satisfied with ancient historians, necropolises, and monoliths.

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