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Archaic and Classical Greek Sicily: A Social and Economic History

Archaic and Classical Greek Sicily: A Social and Economic History

By Franco De Angelis. Pp. xxi + 437. Oxford University Press, New York 2016. $85. ISBN 978-0-19-517047-4 (cloth).

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Islands lend themselves well to comprehensive studies because of their circumscribed nature, and Sicily, “a continent in miniature” (65), is no exception. De Angelis’ book embraces this theme and presents a systematic and far-reaching investigation that both offers a novel approach to the historiography of Sicily and provides new insights through theoretical and quantitative analyses. The author demonstrates the necessity of a new study through a valuable and informative survey of earlier treatments of Sicilian history and archaeology that highlight the island’s well-established prehistoric culture and its status as a focal point of the expansion of the Greek world.

The first chapter presents the geographic and historical settings spanning ca. 1200–600 B.C.E., a period that saw a consolidation of sites and the movement of the indigenous population from the coast to upland hills. In addition, De Angelis presents good reason to consider the Calabrian model of “monocentric village communities” as valid for the Sicilian Iron Age (42). The uniformity of ceramic vessels and a dearth of prestige items seem to reveal a rather egalitarian society in which communities took precedence over individuals. This balance was disrupted by the arrival of the Phoenicians and the Greeks, and determining the nature of their contact is the first nodal point of De Angelis’ discussion: he reconstructs a Sicily so sparsely populated (3 persons/km2) that the Greeks need not have forced their way into the island (55). The circumstances of land abundance meant that control of people, and not territory, was the fundamental aspect of contact (55–6). Unoccupied land could be possessed through working and improving it, so it was incumbent on the apoikiai to obtain a sufficient labor force. Scant but significant burial evidence indicates that Sikels were certainly part of the earliest Greek communities. Indigenous Sicilians could have integrated voluntarily, through intermarriage, or by conquest. De Angelis considers a model of “colonial middle ground,” in which cultural interactions could be mutually beneficial and factors such as class and status may have been as instrumental as ethnicity, but he also presents comparative historical evidence that suggests land abundance is more conducive to violent conquest than to cooperation (56–7). He theorizes that the indigenous population lacked political and military organization to match that of the newcomers (58); precious little is known about the social structure of the indigenous population, but monumental tombs such as at Castiglione and Grotta di Caratabia clearly demonstrate a ruling elite class in the Archaic period.

In each of the next three chapters, De Angelis divides the discussion into four chronological periods: (1) the time of foundations to 500 B.C.E.; (2) the generation covering the first attempt at political centralization (500–465 B.C.E.); (3) 465–405 B.C.E., from centralization to breakdown and back again; and (4) 405–320 B.C.E. The divisions correspond to fundamental shifts in political organization of the Greek cities, alternating between independent city-states and consolidation of power at Syracuse. Chapter 2 investigates the settlements and territory of the cities over time. The apoikiai were presented with the “unique opportunity to organize themselves in a landscape that presented few natural and human hindrances” (85). Within two generations of their foundation, many of the new cities had an urban grid and demonstrated distinct traditions in construction. The available archaeological evidence restricts the scope of analysis, but taken as a whole, clear patterns of organization within the asty (house plots, religious space) and the chora (satellite settlements, sanctuaries, and farmsteads) emerge among the Greek cities. The development of places of worship culminates with monumentality in the form of peripteral temples in the first half of the sixth century B.C.E. In another nodal point, De Angelis estimates the quantity of stone used and the corresponding person-power and cost of construction, concluding that the wealthy city of Selinus outlaid about 1,200–1,600 talents on temple building (90–1). Further quantification focuses on the total extent and amount of arable land within Greek territory from the Archaic to the Late Classical period (tables 1–3). Less attention is paid to the size and extent of the indigenous sphere; for example, the Sanctuary of the Palikoi, an indigenous cult site located near the Plain of Catania that included a hestiatorion and stoas, could be added to the list of significant monumental sites in the third chronological period. The fourth century B.C.E. sees a return to political consolidation under Syracuse; De Angelis makes the welcome assertions that the arrival of Timoleon cannot be treated as a watershed in Sicilian history and that the archaeological data are no longer silent on the period leading up to his entry at Syracuse.

The third and fourth chapters, “Societies” and “Economics,” focus on the lesser-known aspects of demographics, class divisions, and family relations in the former and production, distribution, and consumption in the latter. Political consolidation starting with the Deinomenids in the Late Archaic period brought concerns regarding the rule of regional governors and the costs for defending territory. Gelon’s territory may have encompassed as many as 100,000 people; the tyrant delegated power to viceroys and orchestrated population movements among new and existing residents. De Angelis presents evidence for how the groups were managed (180–85). Some newcomers were granted citizenship at Greek cities, while others, such as mercenary groups, were settled en masse at sites that included the newly founded Aitna. Archaeological evidence for cereal cultivation and arboriculture (estimated at 65–70% and 10% of ancient diet, respectively) are complemented by evidence of animal husbandry and fishing feeding the population. The Greek cities of Sicily likely adhered to what the author calls the “New Model of Classical Agriculture,” which entails permanent residences dispersed across the countryside and crops rotated on an annual basis and results in increased output (268). The productive exchange with the indigenous population in the Archaic period was likely orchestrated by a local elite and became a tributary relationship in the second half of the fifth century B.C.E.; the author proposes that bronze coinage circulating in the hinterland might have facilitated such transactions. Indigenous territory later became home to mercenaries of varying ethnicities who were given land in lieu of payment for their service. Mercenary settlements and new Greek foundations created a new frontier with Carthaginian territory and made for another type of middle ground.

The conclusion provides a succinct summary and reminds the reader of the book’s comprehensive purview. The bibliography is extensive and includes abundant Italian scholarship as well as the author’s own prior research. Overall, this is an important work that synthesizes decades of research, and it merits a place among the venerable volumes on Sicilian history. 

Spencer Pope
Department of Classics
McMaster University


Book Review of Archaic and Classical Greek Sicily: A Social and Economic History, by Franco De Angelis

Reviewed by Spencer Pope

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 1 (January 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1221.pope

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