Main articles: Magna Graecia and List of Tyrants of Syracuse
Syracuse and its surrounding area have been inhabited since ancient times, as shown by the findings in the villages of Stentinello, Ognina, Plemmirio, Matrensa, Cozzo Pantano and Thapsos, which already had a relationship with Mycenaean Greece.
Syracuse was founded in 734 or 733 BC by Greek settlers from Corinth and Tenea, led by the oecist (colonizer) Archias, who called it Sirako, referring to a nearby salt marsh. The nucleus of the ancient city was the small island of Ortygia. The settlers found the land fertile and the native tribes to be reasonably well-disposed to their presence. The city grew and prospered, and for some time stood as the most powerful Greek city anywhere in the Mediterranean. Colonies were founded at Akrai (664 BC), Kasmenai (643 BC) and Kamarina (598 BC). The descendants of the first colonist, called Gamoroi, held the power until they were expelled by the Killichiroi, the lower class of the city. The former, however, returned to power in 485 BC, thanks to the help of Gelo, ruler of Gela. Gelo himself became the despot of the city, and moved many inhabitants of Gela, Kamarina and Megera to Syracuse, building the new quarters of Tyche and Neapolis outside the walls. His program of new constructions included a new theater, designed by Damocopos, which gave the city a flourishing cultural life: this in turn attracted personalities as Aeschylus, Ario of Metimma, Eumelos of Corinth and Sappho, who had been exiled here from Mytilene. The enlarged power of Syracuse made unavoidable the clash against the Carthaginians, who ruled western Sicily. In the Battle of Himera, Gelo, who had allied with Theron of Agrigento, decisively defeated the African force led by Hamilcar. A temple, entitled to Athena (on the site of the today's Cathedral), was erected in the city to commemorate the event
A Syracusan tetradrachm (c. 415405 BC), sporting Arethusa and a quadriga.Gelon was succedeed by his brother Hiero, who fought against the Etruscans at Cumae in 474 BC. His rule was eulogized by poets like Simonides of Ceos, Bacchylides and Pindar, who visited his court. A democratic regime was introduced by Thrasybulos (467 BC). The city continued to expand in Sicily, fighting against the rebellious Siculi, and on the Tyrrhenian Sea, making expeditions up to Corsica and Elba. In the late 5th century BC, Syracuse found itself at war with Athens, which sought more resources to fight the Peloponnesian War. The Syracusans enlisted the aid of a general from Sparta, Athens' foe in the war, to defeat the Athenians, destroy their ships, and leave them to starve on the island (see Sicilian Expedition). In 401 BC, Syracuse contributed a force of 3,000 hoplites and a general to Cyrus the Younger's Army of the Ten Thousand.
Then in the early 4th century BC, the tyrant Dionysius the Elder was again at war against Carthage and, although losing Gela and Camarina, kept that power from capturing the whole of Sicily. After the end of the conflict Dionysius built a massive fortress on the Ortygia island of the city and 22 km-long walls around all of Syracuse. Another period of expansion saw the destruction of Naxos, Catania and Lentini, then Syracuse entered again in war against Carthage (397 BC). After various changes of fortune, the Africans managed to besiege Syracuse itself, but were eventually pushed back by a pestilence. A treaty in 392 BC allowed Syracuse to enlarge further its possessions, founding the cities of Adrano, Ancona, Adria, Tindari and Tauromenos, and conquering Reggio Calabria on the continent. Apart from his battle deeds, Dionysius was famous as a patron of art, and Plato himself visited Syracuse several times.
His successor was Dionysius the Younger, who was however expelled by Dion in 356 BC. But the latter's despotic rule led in turn to his expulsion, and Dionysius reclaimed his throne in 347 BC. A democratic government was installed by Timoleon in 345 BC. The long series of internal struggles had weakened Syracuse's power on the island, and Timoleon tried to remedy this, defeating the Carthaginians in 339 BC near the Krimisos river. But the struggle among the city's parties restarted after his death and ended with the rise of another tyrant, Agathocles, who seized power with a coup in 317 BC. He resumed the war against Carthage, with alternate fortunes. He however scored a moral success, bringing the war to the Carthaginians' native African soil, inflicting heavy losses to the enemy. The war ended with another treaty of peace which did not prevent the Carthaginians interfering in the politics of Syracuse after the death of Agathocles (289 BC). The citizens called Pyrrhus of Epirus for help. After a brief period under the rule of Epirus, Hiero II seized power in 275 BC.
Hiero inaugurated a period of 50 years of peace and prosperity, in which Syracause became one of the most renowned capitals of Antiquity. He issued the so-called Lex Hieronica, which was later adopted by the Romans for their administration of Sicily; he also had the theater enlarged and a new immense altar, the "Hiero's Ara", built. Under his rule the most famous Syracusan lived, the natural philosopher Archimedes. Among his many inventions were various military engines including the claw of Archimedes, later used to resist the Roman siege of 214 BC212 BC. Literary figures included Theocritus and others.
The siege of Syracuse in a 17th century engraving.Hiero's successor, the young Hieronymus (ruled from 215 BC), broke the alliance with the Romans after their defeat at the Battle of Cannae and accepted Carthage's support. The Romans, led by consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus, besieged the city in 214 BC. The city held out for three years, but fell in 212 BC. It is believed to have fallen due to a peace party opening a small door in the wall to negotiate a peace, but the Romans charged through the door and took the city, killing Archimedes in the process.
From Roman domination to the Middle Ages
Though declining slowly by the years, Syracuse maintained the status of capital of the Roman government of Sicily and seat of the praetor. It remained an important port for the trades between the Eastern and the Western parts of the Empire. Christianity spread in the city through the efforts of Paul of Tarsus and Saint Marziano, the first bishop of the city, who made it one of the main centres of proselytism in the West. In the age the persecutions massive catacombs were carved, whose size are second only to those of Rome.
After a period of Vandal rule, Syracuse and the island was recovered by Belisarius for the Byzantine Empire (31 December 535). From 663 to 668 Syracuse was the seat of Emperor Constans II, as well as metropolis of the whole Sicilian Church.
Another siege in 878, resulted in the city coming under two centuries of Muslim rule. The capital was moved from Syracuse to Palermo. The Cathedral was converted into a mosque and the quarter on the Ortygia island was gradually rebuilt along Islamic styles. The city, nevertheless, maintained important trade relationships, and housed a relatively flourishing cultural and artistic life: several Arab poets, including Ibn Hamdis, the most important Sicilian poet of the 12th century, flourished in the city.
In 1038, the Byzantine general George Maniaces reconquered the city, sending the relics of St. Lucy to Constantinople. The eponymous castle on the cape of Ortygia bears his name, although it was built under the Hohenstaufen rule. In 1085 the Normans entered Syracuse, one of the last Arab strongholds, after a summer-long siege by Roger I of Sicily and his son Jordan of Hauteville, who was given the city as count. New quarters were built, and the cathedral was restored, as well as other churches.
The Cathedral of Syracuse. In 1194 Henry VI of Swabia occupied Syracuse. After a short period of Genoese rule (12051220), which favoured a rise of trades, Syracuse was conquered back by emperor Frederick II. He began the construction of the Castello Maniace, the Bishops' Palace and the Bellomo Palace. Frederick's death brought a period of unrest and feudal anarchy. In the struggle between the Anjou and Aragonese monarchies, Syracuse sided with the Aragonese and defeated the Anjou in 1298, receiving from the Spanish sovereigns great privileges in reward. The pre-eminence of baronal families is also showed by the construction of the palaces of Abela, Chiaramonte, Nava, Montalto.
The city was struck by two ruinous earthquakes in 1542 and 1693, and a plague in 1729. The 17th century destruction changed forever the appearance of Syracuse, as well as the entire Val di Noto, whose cities were rebuilt along the typical lines of Sicilian Baroque, considered one of the most typical expressions of art of Southern Italy. The spread of cholera in 1837 led to a revolt against the Bourbon government. The punishment was the move of the province capital seat to Noto, but the unrest had not been totally choked, as the Siracusani took part in the Sicilian revolution of independence of 1848.
After the Unification of Italy of 1865, Syracuse regained its status of provincial capital. In 1870 the walls were demolished and a bridge connecting the mainland to Ortygia island was built. In the following year a railway link was constructed.
Heavy destruction was caused by the Allied and the German bombings in 1943. Operation Husky, the allied invasion of Sicily was launched on the night of 9th/10th July 1943 with British forces attacking the west of the island. General Montgomery's Eighth Army captured Syracuse on the first day of the invasion almost unopposed. The port was then used as a base for the Royal Navy.  To the west of the city is a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery where about a 1000 men are buried. After the end of World War II the northern quarters of Syracuse experienced a heavy, often chaotic, expansion, favoured by the quick process of industrialization.
Syracuse today has about 125,000 inhabitants and numerous attractions for the visitor interested in historical sites (such as the Ear of Dionysius). A process of recovering and restoring the historical centre has been ongoing since the 1990s. Nearby places of note include Catania, Noto, Modica and Ragusa.
... for more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siracusa