The history of the city has been conditioned by a succession of foreign dominations. Each new conqueror brought its own unique political and social structure as well as leaving its architectural imprint.
Founded by the Siculi and colonized by Chalcidians (a Greek people) from Naxos in 729 BC, Catania was conquered by the Romans in 263AD, eventually becoming the most prosperous city in Roman Sicily. It was to become one of the most important cities in the Classical world, and traces of this powerful dominance can still be seen today. The Roman influence remains in the ruins of ancient theaters and numerous other archaeological findings.
These important monuments of ancient Catania date back to the Roman period of domination when the city thrived on commercial growth. The governors of ancient Rome regarded it as one of the richest provinces in the Empire and honored it with magnificent amphitheaters. The city has two Roman amphitheaters. The smaller one, off Via Vittorio Emanuele near Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi, was built upon an earlier Greek theater and is open to the public. It is said to have accommodated as many as 6,000 spectators.
The nearby Odeum, a much smaller theater, could hold about 1,300. A larger amphitheater, closer to the commercial center in Piazza Stesicoro at the intersection of Via Etnea and Corso Sicilia, is a completely Roman structure built in the second century AD. The piazza, incidentally, is named for Stesichorus, a Greek poet who lived in Catania during the 6th century BC. Now located below ground level and usually closed, this vast complex probably seated about 14,000 spectators. Only a small part of it is actually visible today. With its vast underground network of passages and alcoves, it is reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum.
the byzantine period
The Byzantine period of domination saw the foundation of the first Christian churches such as the La Rotunda and the Cappella Bonaiuto, both of which are seen as two of the most outstanding examples of Paleochristian art to be found in Catania.
Byzantine art is also symbolized by one of the most important figures in the city, the elephant, carved out of lava stone and situated in Piazza Duomo, which became the symbol of the city.
the norman and angevin period
Following Byzantine rule, there was a brief period of Arabian domination which brought with it prosperity and an expansion of trade. Then the island of Sicily fell under the control of the Normans who established a new administrative and religious regime based on a Feudal system. During the reign of Federico II, a descendant of the last Norman King of Sicily, art, literature, and culture were encouraged and developed grandly in the city. Federico II was responsible for the construction of the magnificent medieval Castello Ursino which even today, still holds an imposing position over the city.
The most unpopular period of domination was that of the Angevin administration which fortunately only lasted for thirty years and was followed by the long and successful reign of the Aragonese from Spain who were present on the island from the end of the 13th century for the next four centuries.
They elected Catania the political and cultural capital of the island and Castello Ursino became the principal royal residence as well as the headquarters for the first Sicilian parliament.
the modern history
Most of Catania's wide streets and majestic palaces were built during the 18th century, at the same time that the Bourbons developed Naples, and the architectural similarity between the two cities is striking. Naples also shared the continual threat of a nearby volcano, although Etna is larger and more active than Vesuvius.
Today Catania is the result of 18th-century rebuilding: broad, straight streets and large, unevenly shaped squares, a precaution against earthquakes.