All ancient authors agree in representing Catania as a Greek colony named (Katánē—see also the list of traditional-Greek place names) of Chalcidic origin, but founded immediately from the neighboring city of Naxos, under the guidance of a leader named Euarchos (Euarchus).
The exact date of its foundation is not recorded, but it appears from Thucydides to have followed shortly after that of Leontini (modern Lentini), which he places in the fifth year after Syracuse, or 730 BC.
The only event of its early history that has been transmitted to us is the legislation of Charondas, and even of this the date is wholly uncertain.
But from the fact that his legislation was extended to the other Chalcidic cities, not only of Sicily, but of Magna Graecia also, as well as to his own country, it is evident that Catania continued in intimate relations with these kindred cities.
It seems to have retained its independence till the time of Hieron of Syracuse, but that despot, in 476 BC, expelled all the original inhabitants, whom he established at Leontini, while he repeopled the city with a new body of colonists, amounting, it is said, to not less than 10,000 in number, and consisting partly of Syracusans, partly of Peloponnesians.
He at the same time changed the city's name to (Aítnē, Aetna or Ætna, after the nearby Mount Etna, an active volcano), and caused himself to be proclaimed the Oekist or founder of the new city. As such he was celebrated by Pindar, and after his death obtained heroic honors from the citizens of his new colony.
But this state of things was of brief duration, and a few years after the death of Hieron and the expulsion of Thrasybulus, the Syracusans combined with Ducetius, king of the Siculi, to expel the newly settled inhabitants of Catania, who were compelled to retire to the fortress of Inessa (to which they gave the name of Aetna), while the old Chalcidic citizens were reinstated in the possession of Catania, 461 BC.
The period that followed the settlement of affairs at this epoch appears to have been one of great prosperity for Catania, as well as for the Sicilian cities in general: however, no details of its history are known till the great Athenian expedition to Sicily (part of the larger Peloponnesian War).
On that occasion the Catanaeans, notwithstanding their Chalcidic connections, at first refused to receive the Athenians into their city: but the latter having effected an entrance, they found themselves compelled to espouse the alliance of the invaders, and Catania became in consequence the headquarters of the Athenian armament throughout the first year of the expedition, and the base of their subsequent operations against Syracuse.
There is no information as to the fate of Catania after the close of this expedition: it is next mentioned in 403 BC, when it fell into the power of Dionysius I of Syracuse, who sold the inhabitants as slaves, and gave up the city to plunder; after which he established there a body of Campanian mercenaries.
These, however, quit it again in 396 BC, and retired to Aetna, on the approach of the great Carthaginian armament under Himilco and Mago. The great sea-fight in which the latter defeated Leptines, the brother of Dionysius, was fought immediately off Catania, and the city apparently fell, in consequence, into the hands of the Carthaginians.
Callippus, the assassin of Dion of Syracuse, when he was expelled from Syracuse, for a time held possession of Catania (Plut. Dion. 58); and when Timoleon landed in Sicily Catania was subject to a despot named Mamercus, who at first joined the Corinthian leader but afterwards abandoned his alliance for that of the Carthaginians, and was in consequence attacked and expelled by Timoleon.
Catania was now restored to liberty, and appears to have continued to retain its independence; during the wars of Agathocles with the Carthaginians, it sided at one time with the former, at others with the latter; and when Pyrrhus landed in Sicily, Catania was the first to open its gates to him, and received him with the greatest magnificence.
Catania was the birthplace of the philosopher and legislator Charondas; it was also the place of residence of the poet Stesichorus, who died there, and was buried in a magnificent sepulchre outside one of the gates, which derived from thence the name of Porta Stesichoreia. (Suda, under .)
The first introduction of dancing to accompany the flute, was also ascribed to Andron, a citizen of Catania.
In ancient times Catania was associated with the legend of Amphinomus and Anapias, who, on occasion of a great eruption of Etna, abandoned all their property, and carried off their aged parents on their shoulders, the stream of lava itself was said to have parted, and flowed aside so as not to harm them. Statues were erected to their honor, and the place of their burial was known as the Campus Piorum; the Catanaeans even introduced the figures of the youths on their coins, and the legend became a favorite subject of allusion and declamation among the Latin poets, of whom the younger Lucilius and Claudian have dwelt upon it at considerable length.
The occurrence is referred by Hyginus to the first eruption of Etna that took place after the settlement of Catania.
In the First Punic War, Catania was one of the first among the cities of Sicily, which made their submission to the Roman Republic, after the first successes of their arms in 263 BC. The expression of Pliny (vii. 60) who represents it as having been taken by Valerius Messalla, is certainly a mistake.
It appears to have continued afterwards steadily to maintain its friendly relations with Rome, and though it did not enjoy the advantages of a confederate city (foederata civitas), like its neighbors Tauromenium (modern Taormina) and Messana (modern Messina), it rose to a position of great prosperity under the Roman rule.
Cicero repeatedly mentions it as, in his time, a wealthy and flourishing city; it retained its ancient municipal institutions, its chief magistrate bearing the title of Proagorus; and appears to have been one of the principal ports of Sicily for the export of corn.
It subsequently suffered severely from the ravages of Sextus Pompeius, and was in consequence one of the cities to which a colony was sent by Augustus; a measure that appears to have in a great degree restored its prosperity, so that in Strabo's time it was one of the few cities in the island that was in a flourishing condition.
It retained its colonial rank, as well as its prosperity, throughout the period of the Roman Empire; so that in the 4th century Ausonius in his Ordo Nobilium Urbium, notices Catania and Syracuse alone among the cities of Sicily.
One of the most serious eruptions of Mount Etna happened in 121 BC, when great part of Catania was overwhelmed by streams of lava, and the hot ashes fell in such quantities in the city itself, as to break in the roofs of the houses.
Catania was in consequence exempted, for 10 years, from its usual contributions to the Roman state The greater part of the broad tract of plain to the southwest of Catania (now called the Piana di Catania, a district of great fertility), appears to have belonged, in ancient times, to Leontini or Centuripa (modern Centuripe), but that portion of it between Catana itself and the mouth of the Symaethus, was annexed to the territory of the latter city, and must have furnished abundant supplies of grain.
The port of Catania also, which was in great part filled up by the eruption of 1669 AD, appears to have been in ancient times much frequented, and was the chief place of export for the corn of the rich neighboring plains. The little river Amenanus, or Amenas, which flowed through the city, was a very small stream, and could never have been navigable.
Catania was sacked by the Vandals of Gaiseric in 440–441. After a period under the Ostrogoths, it was reconquered in 535 by the Eastern Roman Empire, under which (aside from a short period in 550–555) it remained until the 9th century. It was the seat of the Byzantine governor of the island.
Catania was under the Islamic emirate of Sicily until 1072, when it fell to the Normans of Roger I of Sicily. Subsequently the city was ruled a bishop-count. In 1194–1197 the city was sacked by German soldiers during after the conquest of the island by emperor Henry VI. In 1232 it rebelled to the former's son, Frederick II, who later built a massive castle, Castello Ursino and also made Catania a royal city, ending the dominance of the bishops. Catania was one of the main centers of the Sicilian Vespers revolt (1282) against the House of Anjou, and was the seat of the incoronation of the new Aragonese king of Sicily, Peter I. In the 14th century it gained importance as it was chosen by the Aragonese as a Parliament and Royal seat. Here, in 1347, it was signed the treaty of peace that ended the long War of the Vesper between Aragonese and Angevines. Catania lost its capital role when, in the early 15th century, Sicily was turned into a province of the larger Kingdom of Aragon, but kept some of its autonomy and privileges.
With the unification of Castile and Aragon (early 16th century), Sicily became part of the Spanish Empire. It rebelled against the foreign government in 1516 and 1647.
In 1669 the city's surroundings suffered great material damage from an eruption of Mount Etna. The city itself was largely saved by its walls that diverted most of the lava into the port. Afterwards in 1693 the city was then completely destroyed by a heavy earthquake and its aftershocks. The city was then rebuilt in the Baroque architecture that nowadays characterizes it.
Catania was one of the vanguards of the movement for the Sicilian autonomy in the early 19th century.
In 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi's expedition of the Thousand conquered Sicily for Piedmont from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Since the following year Catania was part of the newly unified Italy, whose history it shares since then.
During World War II Catania was repeatedly bombed by the Allies, starting from 5 June 1940, and some 100,000 of its inhabitants were moved to the neighboring villages. It was evacuated by the Germans on 5 August 1943 and liberated by the British 8th Army. After the conflict, and the constitution of Italian Republic (1946), the history of Catania was, like the history of other cities of southern Italy, an attempt to catch up with the economic and social development of the richer northern regions in the country and to solve the problems that for historic reasons plague the Mezzogiorno, namely a heavy gap in industrial development and infrastructures, and the threat of the mafia. This notwithstanding, during the 1960s (and partly during the 1990s) Catania enjoyed a development and an economic, social and cultural effervescence. In the first decade of the 21st century, Catania economic and social development somewhat faltered and the city is again facing economic and social stagnation. This was aggravated by the economical crisis left by the Forza Italia administration of mayor Scapagnini in 2008.
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