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The History of Taormina

Before speaking about the origins of Taormina, it is certainly worthwhile to say something about Sicily. Due to its triangular shape, the island was once called “Trinacria” which means “Three Leaders”: Peloro, Passero and Libeo which, naturally, coincide with the three corners. Almost all anthropologists agree that the first part of Sicily to be inhabited was the west coast due to the discovery of Palaeolithic implements in the Palermo and Trapani areas.

The first population to be established in Sicily was the Sicanians, arriving from an area north of Valencia in Spain. The Sicanians lived peacefully, while the same can not be said for the Sicels who came to Sicily from Italy. The Sicels were a numerous armed people who were aware of bronze and iron and were well organised. They had a new and powerful help in war: the horse. They almost immediately crushed the Sicanians, driving them all to the western part of the island. A separation which has always been perceptible through the centuries until our time today. Agriculture and industry were the means of sustenance but also trade with foreign populations, the Phoenicians being the first.

But why only them at the beginning? In those times, the “horrid” spectacle of Etna’s eruptions, the terrible currents in the Straits of Messin a, the whistling winds in the Sicilian Channel had contributed to reinforce the conviction that Sicily was perhaps inhabited by ogres and monsters. And Taormina and the Greek settlers? One evocative legend recounts that the first Greek to arrive on the beaches of Naxos was Teocle. He was on board a ship on where he had just cooked a victim’s liver before offering it to Neptune, God of the sea. This made Neptune so furious that he “shook the waves of the sea so violently as to hit the fragile wood”. Everybody perished except one, Teocle, who managed to grasp some flotsam and was pushed towards the bay by the waves. Neptune saw the shipwrecked survivor, but let him be saved. And that is how Taormina made its first appearance in the history of the world.

If Teocle had really existed or if that were his actual name, nobody knows. But there really was one Greek shipwrecked on the beach of Schisò. And it was the same Greek who, fascinated by the beauty of the place, returned to his homeland and convinced some colonies to transfer to Sicily. The name of Teocle also reappears in the foundation of Lentini and Catania. However, when Teocle disembarked it was 736 B.C., the first year of the 11th Olympic Games. This embryonic life of Taormina lasted from 736 to 425. There is no other news since that period. In 403, problems began with the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius who, after two attempts, also conquered Taormina which enjoyed great splendour under his leadership and on his death, Andromaco, the father of the philosopher Timeo was elected. The first news of the appearance of this man was around 358 B.C. This is the year that marked the birth of the Hellenistic period of Taormina.

After the dominion of the Syracusans, it passed to that of the Romans. The conquest of Sicily was in fact the first step that Rome took outside of its Italian territory. Taormina also became a stronghold of slaves who had rebelled against Rome which had always treated Taormina in a special and privileged way in respect of the other Sicilian colonies. And the further ahead in time one goes, the more Taormina became noted. In the Middle Ages, Taormina also followed the destiny of Byzantine Sicily which resisted the continuous attacks of the Muslims. At the end of the 9th century, it was considered the capital of Byzantine Sicily. It was conquered by the Saracens in 902 and many times after, tried to rebel, rivalling nearby Messina which tried to dominated it in every way.

Taormina also joined the revolt of the Sicilian Vespers and was a supporter of the Aragonese. In 1410, it was the centre of the Sicilian Parliament. It remained faithful to the Spanish who took revenge on various occasions. In 1675, it was occupied by the French, going back to the Spanish later with Philip V. In 1734, it was the Bourbons’ turn to dominate Taormina, but only for a brief period. Unification of Italy happened in 1861