Salt, Wine and History
What's in a name? The inclination to identify Marsala's name with the wine produced there is understandable, but wines are usually named for places, not vice versa. This city on Sicily's western coast was founded as a Carthaginian colony in 397 BC (BCE) following the destruction of the nearby settlement on the island of Mozia (Mothia) by the Syracusans. Earlier, the region had been populated by the indigenous Sicanians. Lilybaeum, as it was then known, soon emerged as an important naval base. Its position was ideally suited for that purpose, and the Carthaginians used it as the site for their landings in many of their attempts to conquer the island. Lilibeo was the only major city of Sicily that was not completely Hellenized.
The Romans conquered it in 241 BC following the great sea battle that also led to the conquest of Drepanum (Trapani). The Romans called it Lilybaeum.
Lilibeo covers a large square area only partly bordered by the sea; the sides facing the mainland were defended by a deep moat and fortified towers. Lilibeo managed to defend itself against the attacks of the Syracusan tyrant, Dionysius I, in 368 BC and then Pyrrhus, in 277 BC. According to the historian Polibius,, Lilibeo was the stronghold that enabled the Carthaginians to maintain their control of western Sicily during the First Punic War.Throughout years of siege and effective naval blockade, Lilibeo resisted Roman conquest and the Carthaginian troops were evacuated only after the peace treaty ending the war. Under the Romans Lilibeo was the seat of one of a pair of questors in charge of the government of the entire island. Cicero held this post, and in 75 BC, described it as a "splendid city." Due to its strategic position along the commercial maritime routes between northern Africa and the Roman province (Italy) Lilybaeum's economy flourished. Not surprisingly, the sea around Marsala has yielded many ancient treasures.
With Rome's decline, Vandals attacked and virtually destroyed Marsala in AD 440. It was already becoming a centre of Christianity. The city maintained its place as a crucial maritime port under Byzantine, Arab and Norman rule. To the Arabs it was Mars el'Allah, literally "Port of Allah (God)," hence Marsala.
Sicily's wine country lies to the east. The region was always known for its fine grapes, but it was the Englishman, John Woodhouse, who introduced the fortified wine business here in 1796, having already developed a similar product (Port wine) in Portugal. The early years of the nineteenth century saw the arrival of thousands of British troops in Sicily to bolster the armies of the King Ferdinando I during his exile from Naples in view of the Napoleonic occupation of the Italian mainland. Many were based at Marsala. This experience was more than sufficient to encourage other firms to follow Woodhouse's example. Ingham, Good and Whitaker had soon founded wine businesses of their own. The Florio family set up a firm in 1831. The grape-growing region extends westward toward Salemi, Segesta and Sciacca. This is Italy's largest contiguous viticultural region, and also one of the largest such areas in Europe. Domesticated grapes were cultivated here long before their introduction (by the Romans) in France and northern Italy.
On a medieval note, the Norman-era cathedral's dedication to Saint Thomas Becket seems appropriate in view of Marsala's English connections. It was probably the first church, in Sicily or anywhere, to be dedicated to this saint, who is commemorated in a mosaic icon in Monreale's cathedral. (Becket's family obtained refuge in Sicily during his exile from England.) The structure itself has been extensively modified, though certain medieval features are still visible. The cathedral museum boasts some beautiful Flemish tapestries from the sixteenth century, commissioned by the Spanish monarch Philip II.
Of course, there are Roman ruins in Marsala. In the Cape Boéo area are some interesting archeological sites, such as a villa with baths and colorful mosaics, and the Baglio Anselmi Archeological Museum (on Lungomare Boéo) houses some important finds from land and sea, including a Punic era ship. The Church of Saint John (San Giovanni) was built over a cave converted into a home in Roman times, where Roman mosaic floors can still be seen.
Many of of Marsala's older streets have a charming Baroque aspect, though the city is generally rather plain. The city's most noted role in more recent Italian history was its choice by Giuseppe Garibaldi for his Sicilian landing in 1860, a choice determined in no small part by the cooperative attitude of the British commander who allowed the Piedmontese ships to enter the port, and the bribes that made some of the local officials willing to surrender the city with little more than token resistance.
of the Syracusan army probably occurred near the northern gate, ending in defeat and plunder in 397 BC.