Messina (/mɛˈsiːnə/ mess-EE-nə, US also /mɪˈ-/ miss-, Italian: [mesˈsiːna]; Sicilian: Missina [mɪsˈsiːna]) is a harbour city and the capital of the Italian Metropolitan City of Messina. It is the third largest city on the island of Sicily, and the 13th largest city in Italy, with a population of more than 218,000 inhabitants in the city proper and about 650,000 in the Metropolitan City. It is located near the northeast corner of Sicily, at the Strait of Messina and it is an important access terminal to Calabria region, Villa San Giovanni, Reggio Calabria on the mainland. According to Eurostat the FUA of the metropolitan area of Messina has, in 2014, 277,584 inhabitants.
The city’s main resources are its seaports (commercial and military shipyards), cruise tourism, commerce, and agriculture (wine production and cultivating lemons, oranges, mandarin oranges, and olives). The city has been a Roman Catholic Archdiocese and Archimandrite seat since 1548 and is home to a locally important international fair. The city has the University of Messina, founded in 1548 by Ignatius of Loyola.
See also: Timeline of Messina
Founded by Greek colonists of Magna Graecia in the 8th century BC, Messina was originally called Zancle (Greek: Ζάγκλη), from the Greek ζάγκλον meaning “scythe” because of the shape of its natural harbour (though a legend attributes the name to King Zanclus). A comune of its Metropolitan City, located at the southern entrance of the Strait of Messina, is to this day called ‘Scaletta Zanclea’. Solinus wrote that the city of Metauros was established by people from Zancle.
In the early 5th century BC Anaxilas of Rhegium renamed it Messene (Μεσσήνη) in honour of the Greek city Messene (See also List of traditional Greek place names). Later, Micythus was the ruler of Rhegium and Zancle, and he also founded the city of Pyxus. The city was sacked in 397 BC by the Carthaginians and then reconquered by Dionysius I of Syracuse.
In 288 BC the Mamertines seized the city by treachery, killing all the men and taking the women as their wives. The city became a base from which they ravaged the countryside, leading to a conflict with the expanding regional empire of Syracuse. Hiero II, tyrant of Syracuse, defeated the Mamertines near Mylae on the Longanus River and besieged Messina. Carthage assisted the Mamertines because of a long-standing conflict with Syracuse over dominance in Sicily. When Hiero attacked a second time in 264 BC, the Mamertines petitioned the Roman Republic for an alliance, hoping for more reliable protection. Although initially reluctant to assist lest it encourage other mercenary groups to mutiny, Rome was unwilling to see Carthaginian power spread further over Sicily and encroach on Italy. Rome, therefore, entered into an alliance with the Mamertines. In 264 BC, Roman troops were deployed to Sicily, the first time a Roman army acted outside the Italian Peninsula. At the end of the First Punic War it was a free city allied with Rome. In Roman times Messina, then known as Messana, had an important pharos (lighthouse). Messana was the base of Sextus Pompeius, during his war against Octavian.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire the city was successively ruled by Goths from 476, then by the Byzantine Empire in 535, by the Arabs in 842, and in 1061 by the Norman brothers Robert Guiscard and Roger Guiscard (later count Roger I of Sicily). In 1189 the English King Richard I (“The Lionheart”) stopped at Messina en route to the Holy Land for the Third Crusade and briefly occupied the city after a dispute over the dowry of his sister, who had been married to William the Good, King of Sicily. In 1345 Orlando d’Aragona, the illegitimate son of Frederick II of Sicily was the strategos of Messina.
In 1347 Messina was one of the first points of entry for the black death into Western Europe. Genoese galleys travelling from the infected city of Kaffa carried plague into the Messina ports. Kaffa had been infected via Asian trade routes and the siege of Kaffa from infected Mongol armies led by Janibeg; it was a departure point for many Italian merchants who fled the city to Sicily. Contemporary accounts from Messina tell of the arrival of “Death Ships” from the East, which floated to shore with all the passengers on board already dead or dying of plague. Plague-infected rats probably also came aboard these ships. The black death ravaged Messina and rapidly spread northward into mainland Italy from Sicily in the following few months.
In 1548 St. Ignatius founded there the first Jesuit college in the world, which later gave birth to the Studium Generale (the current University of Messina). The Christian ships that won the Battle of Lepanto (1571) left from Messina: the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, who took part in the battle, recovered for some time in the Grand Hospital. The city reached the peak of its splendour in the early 17th century, under Spanish domination: at the time it was one of the ten greatest cities in Europe.
In 1674 the city rebelled against the foreign garrison. It managed to remain independent for some time, thanks to the help of the French king Louis XIV, but in 1678, with the Peace of Nijmegen, it was reconquered by the Spaniards and sacked: the university, the senate and all the privileges of autonomy it had enjoyed since the Roman times were abolished. A massive fortress was built by the occupants and Messina decayed steadily. In 1743, 48,000 died of a second wave of plague in the city.
In 1783 an earthquake devastated much of the city, and it took decades to rebuild and rekindle the cultural life of Messina. In 1847 it was one of the first cities in Italy where Risorgimento riots broke out. In 1848 it rebelled openly against the reigning Bourbons, but was heavily suppressed again. Only in 1860, after the Battle of Milazzo, the Garibaldine troops occupied the city. One of the main figures of the unification of Italy, Giuseppe Mazzini, was elected deputy at Messina in the general elections of 1866. Another earthquake of less intensity damaged the city on 16 November 1894. The city was almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake and associated tsunami on the morning of 28 December 1908, killing about 100,000 people and destroying most of the ancient architecture. The city was largely rebuilt in the following year. However, thousands of residents displaced by the earthquake lived in shanty towns outside the city until the late 1930s, when further reconstruction finally commenced.
It incurred further damage from the massive Allied air bombardments of 1943; before and during the Allied invasion of Sicily. Messina, owing to its strategic importance as a transit point for Axis troops and supplies sent to Sicily from mainland Italy, was a prime target for the British and American air forces, which dropped some 6,500 tons of bombs in the span of a few months. These raids destroyed one-third of the city, and caused 854 deaths among the population. The city was awarded a Gold Medal of Military Valor and one for Civil Valor by the Italian government in memory of the event and the subsequent effort of reconstruction.
In June 1955 Messina was the location of the Messina Conference of Western European foreign ministers which led to the creation of the European Economic Community. The conference was held mainly in Messina’s City Hall building (it), and partly in nearby Taormina.
The city is home to a small Greek-speaking minority, which arrived from the Peloponnese between 1533 and 1534 when fleeing the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. They were officially recognised in 2012.
Written and fact-checked by The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen.