Thucydides on the Colonization of Sicily


The Athenian historian Thucydides (c.460-c.395) wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, which was fought between Athens and Sparta in the years 431-404. In books 6 and 7, he describes the Athenian expedition against Sicily in the years 415-413, an act of naked imperialism that ended in disaster. Of many Athenians only a few returned.

In his account of the Sicilian war, Thucydides inserts a history of Greek settlements on Sicily, probably based on the History of Sicily by Antiochus of Syracuse, which appeared shortly after 424. The list is very important, because it is one of the few accounts of Greek colonization. Archaeologists have often used the chronological information offered by Thucydides to date the oldest deposits at Sicilian sites, which were in turn used to establish a more or less accurate chronology of Greek ceramics (especially Corinthian style pottery).

Thucydides 6.1-5 is offered here in the translation by Richard Crawley.

The Colonization of Sicily

[6.1] The same winter [416/415] the Athenians resolved to sail again to Sicily, with a greater armament than that under Laches and Eurymedon,note and, if possible, to conquer the island. (Most of them were ignorant of its size and of the number of its inhabitants, Greek and barbarian, and of the fact that they were undertaking a war not much inferior to that against the Peloponnesians.note) For the voyage round Sicily in a merchant ship is not far short of eight days; and yet, large as the island is, there are only three kilometers of sea to prevent its being mainland.note

[6.2] It was settled originally as follows, and the peoples that occupied it are these.

The earliest inhabitants spoken of in any part of the country are the Cyclopes and Laestrygones;note but I cannot tell of what race they were, or whence they came or whither they went, and must leave my readers to what the poets have said of them and to what may be generally known concerning them.

The Sicanians appear to have been the next settlers, although they pretend to have been the first of all and aborigines; but the facts show that they were Iberians, driven by the Ligurians from the river Sicanus in Iberia.note It was from them that the island, before called Trinacria,note took its name of Sicania, and to the present day they inhabit the west of Sicily.

On the fall of Troy, some of the Trojans escaped from the Achaeans, came in ships to Sicily, and settled next to the Sicanians under the general name of Elymi; their towns being called Eryx and Egesta. With them settled some of the Phocians carried on their way from Troy by a storm, first to Libya, and afterwards from thence to Sicily.

The Siculians crossed over to Sicily from their first home Italy, flying from the Opicans, as tradition says and as seems not unlikely, upon rafts, having watched till the wind set down the straitnote to effect the passage; although perhaps they may have sailed over in some other way. Even at the present day there are still Siculians in Italy; and the country got its name of Italy from Italus, a king of the Siculians.

These went with a great host to Sicily, defeated the Sicanians in battle and forced them to remove to the south and west of the island, which thus came to be called Sicily instead of Sicania, and after they crossed over continued to enjoy the richest parts of the country for near three hundred years before any Greeks came to Sicily; indeed they still hold the center and north of the island.

There were also Phoenicians living all round Sicily, who had occupied promontories upon the sea coasts and the islets adjacent for the purpose of trading with the Siculians. But when the Greeks began to arrive in considerable numbers by sea, the Phoenicians abandoned most of their stations, and drawing together took up their abode in Motya, Soloeis, and Panormus, near the Elymi, partly because they confided in their alliance, and also because these are the nearest points for the voyage between Carthage and Sicily.

[6.3] These were the barbarians in Sicily, settled as I have said. Of the Greeks, the first to arrive were Chalcidians from Euboea with Thucles, their founder.note They founded Naxos and built the altar to Apollo Archegetes, which now stands outside the town, and upon which the deputies for the games sacrifice before sailing from Sicily.

Syracuse was founded the year afterwardsnote by Archias, one of the Heraclids from Corinth, who began by driving out the Siculians from the island upon which the inner city now stands, though it is no longer surrounded by water: in process of time the outer town also was taken within the walls and became populous.

Meanwhile Thucles and the Chalcidians set out from Naxos in the fifth year after the foundation of Syracuse, and drove out the Siculians by arms and founded Leontininote and afterwards Catana; the Catanians themselves choosing Euarchus as their founder.

[6.4] About the same time Lamis arrived in Sicily with a colony from Megara, and after founding a place called Trotilus beyond the river Pantacyas, and afterwards leaving it and for a short while joining the Chalcidians at Leontini, was driven out by them and founded Thapsus.

After his death his companions were driven out of Thapsus, and founded a place called the Hyblaean Megara;note Hyblon, a Siculian king, having given up the place and inviting them thither. Here they lived 245 years; after which they were expelled from the city and the country by the Syracusan tyrant Gelon.note

Before their expulsion, however, a hundred years after they had settled there, they sent out Pamillus and founded Selinus; he having come from their mother country Megara to join them in its foundation. 

Gela was founded by Antiphemus from Rhodes and Entimus from Crete, who joined in leading a colony thither, in the forty-fifth year after the foundation of Syracuse.note The town took its name from the river Gelas, the place where the citadel now stands, and which was first fortified, being called Lindii. The institutions which they adopted were Dorian.

About 108 years after the foundation of Gela, the Geloans founded Acragas, so called from the river of that name, and made Aristonous and Pystilus their founders;note giving their own institutions to the colony.

Zancle was originally founded by pirates from Cumae, the Chalcidian town in the country of the Opicans: afterwards, however, large numbers came from Chalcis and the rest of Euboea, and helped to people the place; the founders being Perieres and Crataemenes from Cumae and Chalcis respectively. It first had the name of Zancle given it by the Siculians, because the place is shaped like a sickle, which the Siculians call zanclon; but upon the original settlers being afterwards expelled by some Samians and other Ionians who landed in Sicily flying from the Persians, and the Samians in their turn not long afterwards by Anaxilas, tyrant of Rhegium, the town was by him colonized with a mixed population, and its name changed to Messina, after his old country.

[6.5] Himera was founded from Zancle by Euclides, Simus, and Sacon, most of those who went to the colony being Chalcidians; though they were joined by some exiles from Syracuse, defeated in a civil war, called the Myletidae. The language was a mixture of Chalcidian and Doric, but the institutions which prevailed were the Chalcidian.

Acrae and Casmenae were founded by the Syracusans; Acrae 70 years after Syracuse,note, Casmenae nearly twenty after Acrae.note

Camarina was first founded by the Syracusans, close upon a 125 years after the building of Syracuse;note its founders being Daxon and Menecolus. But the Camarinaeans being expelled by arms by the Syracusans for having revolted, Hippocrates, tyrant of Gela, some time later receiving their land in ransom for some Syracusan prisoners, resettled Camarina, himself acting as its founder. Lastly, it was again depopulated by Gelon, and settled once more for the third time by the Geloans.

Such is the list of the peoples, Greek and barbarian, inhabiting Sicily, and such the magnitude of the island which the Athenians were now bent upon invading.