The Roman name for Sorrento was Surrentum. Legends indicate a close connection between Lipara and Surrentum, as though the latter had been a colony of the former; and even through the Imperial period Surrentum remained largely Greek. The oldest ruins are Oscan, dating from about 600 BC. Before the Roman supremacy, Surrentum was one of the towns subject to Nuceria, and shared its fortunes up to the Social War; it seems to have joined in the revolt of 90 BC like Stabiae; and was reduced to obedience in the following year, when it seems to have received a colony. Numerous sepulchral inscriptions of Imperial slaves and freedmen have been found at Surrentum. An inscription shows that Titus in the year after the earthquake of 79 AD restored the horologium of the town and its architectural decoration. A similar restoration of an unknown building in Naples in the same year is recorded in an inscription from the last-named town.
The most important temples of Surrentum were those of Athena and of the Sirens (the latter the only one in the Greek world in historic times); the former gave its name to the promontory. In antiquity Surrentum was famous for its wine (oranges and lemons which are now so much cultivated there not having been introduced into Italy in antiquity), its fish, and its red Campanian vases; the discovery of coins of Massilia, Gaul and the Balearic Islands here indicates the extensive trade which it carried on.
The position of Surrentum was very secure, protected by deep gorges. The only exception to its natural protection was 300 yards on the south-west where it was defended by walls, the line of which is necessarily followed by those of the modern town. The arrangement of the modern streets preserves that of the ancient town, and the disposition of the walled paths which divide the plain to the east seems to date in like manner from Roman times. No ruins are now preserved in the town itself, but there are many remains in the villa quarter to the east of the town on the road to Stabiae, of which traces still exist, running much higher than the modern road, across the mountain; the site of one of the largest (possibly belonging to the Imperial house) is now occupied by the Hotel Victoria, under the terrace of which a small theatre was found in 1855; an ancient rock-cut tunnel descends hence to the shore. Remains of other villas may be seen, but the most important ruin is the reservoir of the (subterranean) aqueducts just outside the town on the east, which had no less than twenty-seven chambers each about 270 by 60 cm. Greek and Oscan tombs have also been found.
Another suburb lay below the town and on the promontory on the west of it; under the Hotel Sirena are substructions and a rock-hewn tunnel. To the north-west on the Capo di Sorrento is another villa, the so-called Bagni della Regina Giovanna, with baths, and in the bay to the south-west was the villa of Pollius Felix, the friend of Statius, which he describes in Silvae ii. 2, of which remains still exist. Farther west again are villas, as far as the temple of Athena on the promontory named after her at the extremity of the peninsula (now Punta Campanella). Neither of this nor of the famous temple of the Sirens are any traces existing.
According to the Roman historian Diodorus Siculus, Sorrento was founded by Liparus, son of Ausonus, who was king of the Ausoni and the son of Ulysses and Circe. The ancient city was probably connected to the Ausoni tribe indeed, one of the most ancient ethnical group in the area. In the pre-Roman age Sorrento was influenced by the Greek civilization: this can be seen in its plant and in the presence of the Athenaion, a great sanctuary, also, according to the legend, founded by Ulysses and originally devoted to the cult of the Sirens, whence Sorrento's name.
Origins of modern Sorrento
Sorrento became an archbishopric around 420 AD. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, it was ruled by the Ostrogoths and then returned to the Eastern Empire. The Lombards, who conquered much of southern Italy in second half of the 6th century, sieged it in vain.
In the following centuries the authority of the far Byzantium empire faded, Sorrento became an autonomous duchy. It fought against the neighbour/rival Amalfi and the Saracens, and in 1133 it was conquered by the Norman Roger II of Hauteville. From this point, Sorrento's history followed that of the newly created Kingdom of Sicily.
On June 13, 1558 it was sacked by elements of the Ottoman navy under the command of Dragut and his lieutnant Piali, as part of the struggle between the Turks and Spain, which controlled the southern half of Italy at that time. 2,000 captives were reportedly taken away. This struggle was waged throughout the Mediterranian and lasted many decades. The attackers were not "pirates" as often characterized, though some may have been mercenaries from North Africa. The campaigns were conducted on direct orders of Sultan Suleiman. The attack led to the construction of a new line of walls. The most striking event of the following century was the revolt against the Spanish domination of 1648, led by Giovanni Grillo. In 1656 a plague struck the city. However, Sorrento remained one of the most important centres of the southern Campania.
Sorrento entered into the Neapolitan Republic of 1799, but in vain. In the 19th century the economy of the city improved markedly, favoured by the development of agriculture, tourism and trade. A route connecting Sorrento to Castellammare di Stabia was opened under the reign of Ferdinand II (1830-1859).
In 1861 Sorrento was officially annexed to the new Kingdom of Italy. In the following years it confirmed and increased its status of one of the most renowned tourist destinations of Italy, a trend which continued into the 20th Century. Famous people who visited it include Lord Byron, Keats, Goethe, Henrik Ibsen and Walter Scott.