Sicily, the largest, most fertile, and most populous island in the Mediterranean, is separated from the mainland of Italy by the deep, but narrow, Strait of Messina (q.v.). Its shape resembles a triangle (whence the Greeks called it Trinacria, the ' Three-cornered '). Area, 9828 sq. m. (one-third that of Scotland); pop. (1881) 2,927,901; (1901) 3,529,266. Capo Passaro is only 56 miles from Malta; and Capo Boco only 80 from Cape Bon in Africa. Sicily is for the most part a plateau 500 to 1900 feet above sea-level, and traversed throughout its northern half by a chain of mountains reaching 6467 feet, and sending spurs to the south. The north and east coasts are steep and rocky, the south and west generally flat. None of the rivers is navigable. The only extensive plain is that of Catania, out of which Etna (q.v.) rises to 10,850 feet, with a base of 400 sq. m. in extent. The climate is warm and equable, especially on the north and east coasts; the mean temperature ranges from 45° F. in winter to 79° in summer. Only for brief periods does the dry parching sirocco drive the thermometer up to over 100°. Relics of the primeval forests of oak and ilex are left; in some districts beeches clothe the mountains to their very summits, and chestnuts, pines, and enormous holly-trees flourish; but wide tracts have been reduced to absolute sterility by the destruction of the woodlands. Malaria is endemic in many parts. The soil is wonderfully fertile, and vegetation everywhere luxuriant. Dwarf-palms abound, and dates, Indian figs, agaves, prickly pears, oranges, lemons, olives, almonds, pomegranates, mulberries, and grapes are all largely grown. Sicily's wheat still represents a seventh of that of all Italy; it sends out two-thirds of Italy's wine. Of ' green fruit' (lemons, oranges, etc.) it yields nearly nine-tenths of all the Italian crop, and sends large quantities to the United States and to Britain; and sumach, for tanning, is exported to the value of nearly a million sterling.
After agriculture, the production of sulphur is the great resource of Sicily. There are some 300 mines in the island, and 350,000 tons have been exported in a year; but the export has declined. The rich deposits of rock-salt are scarcely worked. The sardine and tunny fisheries are productive; the coral-fishery has greatly declined. Amber is worked in Catania. Manufactures are of little consequence - some machinery, cement, crockery, gloves, macaroni, and soap. Commerce is mainly in the hands of English, Germans, and Swiss. Trade is much hampered in the interior by the scarcity of good roads; and there are but 650 miles of railway.
As a consequence of the successive foreign settlements on the island, the population is rather a conglomerate one; in the east the Greek element prevails, and the people are superior to those in the west, where Arab blood is strongest. The general dialect of the island differs markedly from that of the mainland. The country people are miserably poor and discontented; and the island was put under the state of siege in 1893-94. The results of this measure were not too satisfactory, for homicides, robberies, and thefts are very frequent, though brigandage on the grand scale has been put down. The maffia and other secret societies flourish, and the vendetta is popular. This state of things is largely to be traced to the low rate of wages and the excessive taxes, and to the deficient administration of justice; the two former causes induced extensive emigration to America. The people are very illiterate, though nominally education is free and compulsory, and there are many schools and academies, and universities at Palermo, Messina, and Catania, the principal towns of the island.
The earliest inhabitants of Sicily were the Sicani, amongst whom the Aryan Siculi from the mainland settled in the 11th century b.c. The Phoenicians made many settlements; but the real civilisers of Sicily were the successive shoals of Greek immigrants from the 8th to the 6th century B.C. The 'tyrants' of Syracuse bore the brunt of the struggle with the "Phoenicians, and triumphed (367 b.c.). But the Romans appeared in the 3d century, and by 210 b.c. the island was a Roman province. In the 9th century a.d. it was conquered by the Saracens, in the 11th by the Normans, and in the 12th became a part of the empire. Charles, Count of Anjou, acquired it in 1264, but the French domination was put an end to by the rising and massacre known as the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. The island was connected with the crown of Aragon, and then closely associated with Naples (q.v.) as part of the 'kingdom of the Two Sicilies,' incorporated with Italy in 1860.
See Mrs Elliott's Diary of an Idle Woman in Sicily (1881); and histories of Sicily by Freeman (vols. i.-iv., 1891-94), and the shorter one in 'story of the Nations Series' (1892).