Origins of the Italian Mafia

The formation of Mafia in Southern Italy has had a large impact on representations of Italian culture. When many people think of Italy today, they conjure up images of mob bosses and mafia as seen in movies such as The Godfather and Goodfellas. Depictions of the mafia can be found in almost every aspect of visual display, from movies and tv shows, to art, and many other outlets. When people think of the Italian mafia, they are often thinking of the Italian-American mafia, with seemingly limited knowledge of the true origins of mafia organizations in Italy. The American mafia, however, was only a product of the mafia which began in Southern Italy, more specifically, Sicily. This paper will divulge into the origins of the mafia in Sicily and Southern Italy. 

Sicilian Street 1800s
Map of Sicily (1907)

Throughout the founding of the new Italian nation in the 1860s, the mafia was often talked about as if it was a product of the forms of feudalism present in Southern Italy during the middle ages (Dickie, Cosa Nostra, 74). Earlier ties to the origin of the Sicilian Mafia suggest that its formation was due to forms of feudalism and the poor economic environment which was present in Sicily for centuries, and which persisted into the 1800s. This kind of system and environment was present in certain areas within Southern Italy, however, this was most evident within Sicily specifically. A poor economic environment heavily contributed to the early origins of the mafia, and was a major catalyst in its formation. John Dickie says, “Without having a clear idea of what it was, the first people to study the problem assumed that it must be archaic, a leftover from the Middle Ages, some symptom of the centuries of foreign misrule that had kept the island in a backward condition” (Dickie, Cosa Nostra, 74). Sicily was seen by the rest of Italy as everything that Italy was trying to grow away from in its new modern age, however, the Sicilian mafia developed alongside the formation of the new and unified Italian nation (Dickie, Cosa Nostra, 75). The mafia began in the western regions of Sicily, coming to fruition in an area outside of the Sicilian capital of Palermo in the late 1800s (Dickie, Cosa Nostra, 78). The mafia was born out of wealth, rather than poverty, and can be traced back to protection rackets in lemon groves implemented near Palermo, where in order to receive protection for their produce and their land, the local mafia would offer it for a price by means of intimidation and fear (Dickie, Cosa Nostra, 85). The Mafia often focused on targeting the citrus industry, as the production of citrus fruits was a leading component in the Sicilian market. “They could force landowners to accept their men as stewards, wardens, and brokers. Their network of contacts with cart drivers, wholesalers, and dockers could either threaten a farm’s produce, or ensure its safe arrival at the market; when astutely applied, violence allowed the mafia to set up miniature cartels and monopolies” (Dickie, Cosa Nostra, 86). The mafia aimed to gain control over fondos, or communes and farmland, where they could then steal from it whenever they wished to do so, by implementing taxes or purchasing it themselves for a lower price. The organization ultimately took the shape of a business like any other, however, this business sold protection rather than any material goods (Gambetta, Private Protection). Eventually, many of these Mafia bosses became so powerful that they replaced the landowners, and became the only law on these estates, by extorting money from the landowners, in return for crop protection (Britannica, Mafia).  

Lemon Groves in Sicily
Lemon Carts in Sicily

 In the 1870s, the mafia entered the Italian system, and went as far as to influence people in positions of authority to do their bidding. The term “Mafia” dates back to a play from the 1860s titled “I Mafiusi ella Vicaria,” or “Heroes of the Penitentiary,” which was about a group of Sicilian inmates in prison who kept their own unique system of hierarchy, rituals, and practices (Dickie, Cosa Nostra, 129). There is also evidence to suggest that the term “Mafia” has Arabic roots, due to the fact that Sicily was once an Islamic emirate in the Middle Ages. The play, however, seems to have popularized the term. The Mafia also became involved with the Catholic Church, where the church often relied on the Mafia to control its holdings within Sicily (Dickie, Cosa Nostra). Sicilian Mafia clans began to engage in ceremonies and rituals in which members pledged oaths, such as Omertà, which focused on the belief that members should never seek assistance from the authorities for any crime committed (Dickie, Cosa Nostra). Through a parliamentary inquiry into the law and order within Sicily, in 1875, the inquiry addressed the mafia, and also contributed to depicting how the Italian government failed to combat its formation and may have actually contributed to its development. Many members’ opinions were conflicted as some believed the mafia to be one unified organization, while others did not, however, most believed that the mafia held power in extortion rackets and witness intimidation. “The sober and well-informed Rome correspondent of The Times read through some of this material and concluded in alarm that the mafia was an ‘intangible sect whose organization is as perfect as that of the Jesuits or the Freemasons, and whose secrets are more impenetrable” (Dickie, Cosa Nostra, 117). A man, by the name of Diego Tajani, a former chief prosecutor at the Palermo Court of Appeal, spoke up against the mafia, and indicated that the Italian Right had encouraged the police to work with the mafia. “Mafiosi, he alleged, were given freedom to operate in return for supplying information to the authorities on unauthorized criminals and on anyone the government regarded as a subversive” (Dickie, Cosa Nostra, 119). Later in the century, the mafia rose to be established in high places, and political corruption was very prevalent in areas where the mafia had resided. Often, the mafia would influence votes in political elections. Gun licenses, for example, could only be obtained with a reference from a politician, and in an attempt to gain favor, the local prefect could withdraw all gun permits. Considering that only sponsoring letters from the government’s favored candidate would enable the licenses to be returned, the politicians would sell these letters for votes, funds, and favors (Dickie, Cosa Nostra, 151). Political corruption was heavily evident in many Southern Italian locations, which only increased the influence of the mafia and provided them with a larger reach in their endeavors. 

Sicilian Mafia Members

The influence which the mafia had on society cannot be stressed enough. Going beyond local businesses and farmland, the mafia spread into nearly all aspects of society, and quickly infected the Italian government. Many mafia members gained close relationships with government officials, through the means of favors, coercion, and intimidation. This is something that still persists in many areas today. “The presence of organized crime is associated with abnormal spikes in violence against politicians before elections-particularly when the electoral outcome is more uncertain-which in turn reduces voting for parties opposed by criminal organizations” (Alesina, Piccolo, Pinotti, Organized Crime, Violence, and Politics, 2018). 

Through all of this, it can be reasonably concluded that the origins of the Mafia were born on the island of Sicily, where men in positions of power would target businesses and their produce through the use of fear and intimidation to take advantage of the business. Through this paper, I have discussed the origins of the mafia in Sicily and have described that it’s beginnings can be traced back to protection rackets in Sicilian farming and trade markets. Further after this point, the mafia infiltrated local governments and contributed to political corruption that was often very evident in areas with a strong mafia presence. The mafia had a strong influence on local governments and infected the Italian governmental system. The mafia was established in many different environments and ultimately had and still has to this day, a strong influence on Italian government and Italian culture. In many ways, the mafia is a subject of the past, however, even today, the mafia still maintains a strong presence in certain areas. 


Dickie, J. (2014). Cosa Nostra a history of the Sicilian mafia. Palgrave Macmillan. 

Gambetta, D. (1998). The Sicilian Mafia: The business of private protection. Harvard University Press. 

Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Mafia. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 23, 2021, from (n.d.). Retrieved December 8, 2021, from

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