Marsala occupies the site of Lilybaeum, the principal stronghold of the Carthaginians in Sicily, founded by Himilco after the abandonment of Motya. Neither Pyrrhus nor the Romans were able to reduce it by siege, but it was surrendered to the latter in 241 BC at the end of the First Punic War. In the later wars it was a starting point for the Roman expeditions against Carthage; and under Roman rule it enjoyed considerable prosperity. It obtained municipal rights from Augustus and became a colony under Pertinax or Septimius Severus.
The Saracens gave it its present name, Marsa Ali, port of Ali. The harbor that lay on the northeast was destroyed by Charles V to prevent its occupation by pirates. The modern harbor lies to the southeast.
Scanty remains of the ancient Lilybaeum (fragments of the city walls, of squared stones, and some foundations of buildings between the walls and the sea) are visible; and the so-called grotto and spring of the Sibyl may be mentioned. To the east of the town is a great fosse which defended it on the land side, and beyond this again are quarries like those of Syracuse on a small scale. The modern town takes the shape of the Roman camp within the earlier city, one of the gates of which still existed in 1887. The main street (the Cassaro) perpetuates the name castrum.