The mysteries of the fortified citadel of Milazzo

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Between two wide inlets, the Gulf of Milazzo and the Gulf of Patti, stands imperious an ancient castle. The fortified citadel of Milazzo was one of Sicily’s most important strongholds, a spectator and actor at the same time of the many dominations that have marked the island over the centuries, the scene of ghostly tales and dark legends.

Historical background on Milazzo Castle

Milazzo Castle rises behind the village, in a dominant position. The stronghold consists of an architectural stratification that has developed over ten centuries, crossing the numerous dominations that have accompanied the history of Sicily. The extension of the defensive walls is justified by the strategic importance of the underlying port inlet where, since ancient times, the inhabitants of Milazzo could govern the trades to the Aeolian Islands. However, the foundations of the original castle nucleus date back even to the Bronze Age, as attested by the discovery of a necropolis to the north of the complex, the finds of which are located at the town Antiquarium1.

Classical Age

The area was colonized by the Chalcidian Greeks from nearby Zancle, today’s Messina, who gave it the name Mylae; Eusebius of Caesarea places this event in 715 BC2. Since the remains of the Greek city have never been traced, it is likely that it stood on the hill now occupied by the Castle and that the agora was there. Probably, at that time the first phrourion, that is, the nucleus of fortifications mentioned by Diodorus Siculus in the Bibliotheca Historica, already existed. This explains why, during the Peloponnesian War, an Athenian expedition to Sicily led by Laches headed for Mylae, besieging and conquering it in 426 B.C.3. After this brief interlude, the town came under the influence of Syracusan tyrants, including Agathocles and Hieron II.

Milazzo then played a key role in the complex dynamics of the First Punic War. Here, in fact, took place the victory of Gaius Duilius’ fleet against Hannibal’s Carthaginians in 260 B.C.4, which established de facto Roman rule over the territory. Under the aegis of Rome, Milazzo is still mentioned as Oppidum Mylae, as a maritime and military port of great strategic importance on the Tyrrhenian Sea5.

The citadel of Milazzo: from the Byzantines to the Normans

Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the fortified citadel of Milazzo followed the fate of the whole of Sicily. It then became Byzantine, hosting the important bishopric of Milazzo. In 843 AD it was conquered by the Arab troops of Fadhl Ibn Giàfar and placed in control of a territorial district. To this period dates the “Saracen Tower” of the donjon.

With the liberation of Sicily by Roger of Altavilla, Milazzo also came under Norman rule (1061). The Normans were responsible for the enlargement of the donjon, with a quadrangular plan, which is the highest point of the castle.

It dates perhaps to those tumultuous years the origin of a real mystery, imprinted in the Medieval walls. The “scarab” is a geometric design in lava stone, with rectangular ashlars, placed on a corner buttress of the fortress overlooking the promontory. Its appearance is so enigmatic as to leave one astonished.

The scarab perhaps had a magical-apotropaic significance: it ideally defended the Citadel like a never tame soldier, and as an imperishable guardian it watched over the city. It was also noted that the shadows cast by it could indicate the day of the summer solstice. The Milazzo beetle, then, had probably the function of marking the changing of the seasons for agricultural purposes. However, it is fascinating to remind the Egyptian god Kheper, the scarab that pushes the sun along its celestial path from sunrise to sunset.

The Swabian and Aragonese periods and the citadel of Milazzo

The remaining castle structures were joined in later periods by the various rulers who succeeded one another over time. A prominent role was played by the Swabians Hohenstaufen. Frederick II included Milazzo Castle among the Castra Exempta, the strongholds that he personally managed6. For this reason, he entrusted the architect Riccardo da Lentini with some substantial extension works. A majestic example of the Swabian revival is the earlier gate, later incorporated into the Aragonese walls.

Following the fall of the Swabian Corradino, and the events of the Sicilian Vespers, the Citadel passed into the hands of the Aragonese under the command of Frederick III of Trinacria. In 1295 he convened in the Castle, inside the “Parliament Hall,” the Assize of the Royal Parliament of Sicily. Such was the name, in fact, of the congress that was to decide on the betrayal of his brother James of Aragon, who wanted to deliver Sicily into the hands of Charles II of Anjou7.

In the years immediately following, the new Aragonese walls were enriched with five cylindrical towers.

From Spanish rule to united Italy

From 1523, during Spanish rule, Charles V commissioned the towers with a scarp base, which constitute the “Spanish City Wall”.

In contrast, 1608 saw the construction of the Old Cathedral, built inside the Citadel according to a design by Camillo Camilliani, a disciple of Michelangelo Buonarroti.

During the Napoleonic Wars the Fortified Citadel was a stronghold of the British armies (1805-1815), allocated here to defend Ferdinand of Bourbon, who had taken refuge in Palermo. The story of an Irish soldier of the 27th Infantry (the “Royal Euniskilling Fusilier”) named Andrew Leonard dates back to those years: having deserted the garrison in the Battle of Maida against the French, he was subjected to terrible torture. His skeleton was not found inside the castle until 1928, but he was still locked in the torment cage. The deserter had had some limbs amputated and his body was exposed on the walls of the Fortification for days. Poor Andrew Leonard’s remains are today kept in Rome at the Criminal Museum.

Milazzo Castle was the last Bourbon possession in Sicily to surrender under the advance of the army led by Giuseppe Garibaldi on July 20, 1860.

The legend of the ghost nun and the citadel of Milazzo

Like any respectable castle, the citadel of Milazzo is also the scene of a gloomy legend, spread with terror among the locals. It is said, in fact, that a young woman, beautiful and rich, fell madly in love with a soldier; however, because he was not very wealthy, the girl’s father unreasonably opposed the engagement, forcing her to take vows in a convent.

However, the young woman did not resign herself to her condition, and secretly began to meet with her beloved. But when the two were discovered, the punishment was terrible: because the nun had violated her vow of chastity was walled up alive within the castle walls. From that day, so it is told amid doubt and fear, her spirit wanders inside the Citadel in search of her beloved. And some swear they even heard her in the night exclaiming in a terrible voice, “Praised be Jesus Christ!“.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Map of places


  1. G. Tigano, L’Antiquarium archeologico di Milazzo. Guida all’esposizione, Messina, 2011. ↩︎
  2. Eusebius of Caesarea, Chronicon; in the Latin translation of the work, Jerome transcribes the date of 716 a.C. ↩︎
  3. Diodorus, Bibliotheca Historica, XII; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, III, 90. ↩︎
  4. Polybius, The Histories, 1:9.7-9.8. ↩︎
  5. Pliny the Elder, Naturalis historia, III, 90. ↩︎
  6. E. Sthamer, L’amministrazione dei castelli nel Regno di Sicilia sotto Federico II e Carlo I d’Angiò, a cura di H. Houben, Bari, 1995. ↩︎
  7. G. Paiggia, Nuovi studj sulle memorie della città di Milazzo e nuovi principj di scienza e pratica utilità, Tipografia del Giornale di Sicilia, Palermo, 1866. ↩︎


Samuele avatar

Samuele is the founder of Indagini e Misteri, a blog on anthropology, history and art. He has a degree in forensic biology and works for the Ministry of Culture. For pleasure he studies unusual and ancient things, such as unclear symbols or enigmatic apotropaic rituals. He pursues the mystery through adventure but inexplicably it is is always one step further.

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