Sikelians, Sikanians, Phoenicians and Greeks: Thucydides on settlement of Sicily (late fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Sikelians, Sikanians, Phoenicians and Greeks: Thucydides on settlement of Sicily (late fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 28, 2024,

Ancient author: Thucydides (late fifth century BCE), History of the Peloponessian War 6.1-4 (link).

Comments: In this substantial digression, Thucydides outlines his information about a number of peoples in the history of the colonization on Sicily, culminating with Greek colonization. (All dates are rough estimates based on Thucydides’ characterization of the timing, rather than actual known dates). Like Diodoros of Sicily’s later (first century BCE) account of the island (link), Thucydides deals with supposed Sikanian indigenous (“autochthonous”) populations who are subsequently affected by migration of Elymians and Phokians in the wake of the Trojan war, Sikelians from the Italian mainland, Phoenicians interested in trade with Sikelians, and then various Greek immigrants.


[Context of Athenian attempts to control Sicily]

(6.1-4) During the same winter [ca. 416 BCE], the Athenians wanted to sail again to Sicily with a larger force than that led by Laches and Eurymedon. They wanted to subdue it, if they could, since most of them were ignorant of the great size of the island and of the large number of its inhabitants, Greeks as well as barbarians, and that they were undertaking a war not very much inferior to that against the Peloponnesians. For the voyage around Sicily (Sikelia), for a shipper, is not much less than eight days. Even though it is so large, only a distance of about twenty stadium-lengths of the sea divides the island from the mainland.

[Settlement and peoples of Sicily]

[Legendary / mythical settlers]

Originally, Sicily was settled in the following way, and the complete number of peoples (ethnē) that occupied it were these: Most ancient of all those who are reported to have settled in any part of the island were the Cyclopes and Laistrygonians, as to whom, however, I am able to tell neither their stock, nor where they came from, nor where they went. Let this suffice as the story has been told by the poets, and as each man has formed his opinion about them.


The Sikanians appear to have been the first to settle there after them. In fact, they themselves assert that they were there before them [Cyclopes and Laistrygonians] since Sikanians are indigenous (autochthones). But the truth is that they were Iberians and were driven by the Ligurians from the river Sikanos in Iberia. From them the island was then called Sikania, having been previously called Trinakria. The Sikanians still inhabit the western parts of Sicily.

[Elymians / Trojans and Phokians]

But on the capture of Ilion some of the Trojans, who had escaped the Achaians, came in boats to Sicily, and settling on the borders of the Sikanians were called, as a people, Elymians, while their cities were named Eryx and Egesta. Some of the Phokians [i.e. from near Delphi] also settled there with them. On their return at that time from Troy, they were driven by a storm first to Libya and from there to Sicily.


The Sikelians, again, crossed over from Italy, where they dwelled, to Sicily, fleeing from the Opikans (as is probable and indeed is reported) on rafts, having waited for their passage until the wind was from the shore. Or perhaps they sailed there in some other way. Even now there are Sikelians still in Italy. The country was named “Italy” after Italos, a king of the Sikelians who had this name. These people crossed over to Sicily in vast numbers. Conquering the Sikanians in battle, the Sikelians forced them back to the southern and western parts of the island, causing it to be called “Sicily” instead of “Sikania.” They settled there after they had crossed and held the best parts of the land for nearly three hundred years before the Greeks came to Sicily. Even now the Sikelians still hold the central and northern parts of the island.


In order to engage in trade with the Sikelians, Phoenicians also had settlements all around Sicily. These settlements were on promontories along the sea coast, which they walled off, and on the adjacent small islands. But when the Greeks also began to come in by sea in large numbers, the Phoenicians left most of these places. Settling together, the Phoenicians lived in Motya, Soloiis and Panormos near the Elymians, partly because they trusted in their alliance with the Elymians and partly because from there the voyage from Sicily to Carthage is shortest. These, then, were the barbarians and such was the manner in which they settled in Sicily.


Among the Greeks, on the other hand, the first to sail over were some Chalkidians from Euboia who settled Naxos with Thukles as founder. They built an altar in honour of Apollo Archegetes (“Founder”). This is now outside of the city, and on it the sacred deputies, when they sail from Sicily, first offer sacrifice. The following year [perhaps pictured as taking place in the 730s BCE] Syracuse was founded by Archias, one of the Heracleidians from Corinth, after he had first expelled the Sikelians from the island, no longer surrounded by water, on which now stands the inner city. At a later time, the outer city was also connected with it by walls and became populous. In the fifth year after the settlement of Syracuse, Thukles and the Chalkidians, setting out from Naxos, drove out the Sikelians in war and settled Leontini, and after it Katana. The Kataneans, however, chose for themselves Euarchos as founder.

About the same time Lamis also came to Sicily with a colony from Megara and settled in a place called Trotilos [modern Brucoli], beyond the river Pantaiyas. But afterwards, having left there and joined the settlement of the Chalkidians at Leontini, he was a little later driven out by them. Then, after colonizing Thapsos, Lamis died. His followers were expelled from Thapsos and then settled at a place called Megara Hyblaia. It was called this because Hyblon, a Sikelian king, gave up the land to them and led them to the site. After dwelling there two hundred and forty-five years, they were driven out of the town and country by Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse. But before they were driven out, a hundred years after they had settled there [perhaps the 620s BCE], they founded Selinous [near modern Castelvetrano], sending to Selinous Pammilos, who came from the mother-city Megara and joined in the settlement.

In the forty-fifth year after the settlement of Syracuse [ca. 680s BCE], Gela [on the southern coast] was founded by Antiphemos from Rhodes and Entimos from Crete, who together led out the colony. This city got its name from the river Gela, but the place where the acropolis now is and which was the first to be fortified is called Lindioi [i.e. after Lindos on Rhodes]. The institutions it was given were Dorian. Just about one hundred and eight years after their own foundation [ca. 581 BCE], the Geloans colonized Akragas. They named the city after the river Akragas, making Aristonous and Pystilos founders, and giving it the institutions of the Geloans.

In the beginning, Zankle [now Messina on the northern tip of the island] was settled by sea-bandits (lēstai) who came from Kyme, the Chalkidian city in Opikia. However, later on a large number of colonists came from Chalkis and the rest of Euboia and shared the land with them. The founders were Perieres and Krataimenes, the one from Kyme, the other from Chalkis. Its name at first was Zankle, and it was so called by the Sikelians because the place is sickle-shaped: for the Sikelians call a sickle “zanklon.” Afterwards these settlers were driven out by Samians and other Ionians, who in their flight before the Persians landed in Sicily. However, the Samians were expelled not long afterwards by Anaxilas, tyrant of Rhegion, who colonized the place with a mixed population and changed its name to Messene after his own original fatherland.

Himera [modern Buonfornello] was colonized from Zankle by Eukleides, Simos and Sakon. Most of the colonists were Chalkidians. Fugitives from Syracuse who had been vanquished in a factional quarrel, also settled with them. They were called “the Myletidians.” Their language was a mixture of Chalkidic and Doric, but Chalkidic institutions prevailed. Akrai and Kasmenai were colonized by the Syracusans: Akrai seventy years after Syracuse [ca. 664 BCE], Kasmenai nearly twenty years after Akrae [ca. 644 BCE]. Kamarina was first colonized by the Syracusans, just about one hundred and thirty-five years after the foundation of Syracuse [ca. 599 BCE], its founders being Daskon and Menekolos. But the Kamarineans were driven out by the Syracusans in a war which arose from a revolt, and some time later Hippokrates, tyrant of Gela, became founder and recolonized Kamarina after receiving the territory of the Kamarinaeans as ransom for some Syracusan prisoners of war. Again, the place was depopulated by Gelon, and was then colonized for the third time by the Geloans.

These were the peoples, Greeks and barbarians, that inhabited Sicily. And this was the magnitude of the island which the Athenians were bent upon invading. . . [omitted acccount of Athenian actions in relation to Sicily].


Source of the translation: C.F. Smith, Thucydides, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1919-1923), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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