Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History

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9780812995176: Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History

Critically acclaimed author John Julius Norwich weaves the turbulent story of Sicily into a spellbinding narrative that places the island at the crossroads of world history.

“Sicily,” said Goethe, “is the key to everything.” It is the largest island in the Mediterranean, the stepping-stone between Europe and Africa, the link between the Latin West and the Greek East. Sicily’s strategic location has tempted Roman emperors, French princes, and Spanish kings. The subsequent struggles to conquer and keep it have played crucial roles in the rise and fall of the world’s most powerful dynasties.

Yet Sicily has often been little more than a footnote in books about other empires. John Julius Norwich’s engrossing narrative is the first to knit together all of the colorful strands of Sicilian history into a single comprehensive study. Here is a vivid, erudite, page-turning chronicle of an island and the remarkable kings, queens, and tyrants who fought to rule it. From its beginnings as a Greek city-state to its emergence as a multicultural trading hub during the Crusades, from the rebellion against Italian unification to the rise of the Mafia, the story of Sicily is rich with extraordinary moments and dramatic characters. Writing with his customary deftness and humor, Norwich outlines the surprising influence Sicily has had on world history—the Romans’ fascination with Greek civilization dates back to their sack of Sicily—and tells the story of one of the world’s most kaleidoscopic cultures in a galvanizing, contemporary way.

This volume has been a long time coming—Norwich began to explore Sicily’s colorful history during his first visit to the island in the early 1960s. The dean of popular historians leads his readers through the millennia with the steady narrative hand of a master teacher or the world’s most learned tour guide. Like the island itself, Sicily is a book brimming with bold flavors that begs to be revisited again and again.

Praise for Sicily

“Suavely readable . . . The very model of a popular historian, [Norwich] writes to give pleasure to the common reader. And what pleasure it is.”The Wall Street Journal

“Entertaining on every page . . . There is something ancient and sorrowful in Sicily, ‘some dark, brooding quality,’ just as captivating as its spellbinding history or its beautiful and varied landscapes, from beaches to lemon groves, pine forests to volcanoes. . . . The most amiable and freewheeling of guides, Norwich will always find time for the amusing anecdote.”The Sunday Times

“Utterly engrossing . . . written with passion about the art and architecture of this magical island, filled with gossipy tidbits and sweeping historical theories.”The Daily Beast

“Dazzling . . . Norwich is an elegantly graceful and entertaining storyteller.”Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Charming . . . richly nuanced history relayed with enormous fondness.”Kirkus Reviews

“A brisk and always-lively tour.”Open Letters Monthly

“Norwich is deeply in love with Sicily. [His] boundless affection has inspired a determined effort to understand its painful past. The result is impressionistic, as love often is.”The Times

“Norwich sketches personalities vividly. . . . He does the island and the reader a generous service in providing such an amiable introduction.”The Sunday Telegraph

“Norwich tells [Sicily’s] long, sad but fascinating story with sympathy and brio.”Literary Review

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About the Author:

John Julius Norwich is the author of more than twenty books, including the New York Times bestseller Absolute Monarchs. He began his career in the British foreign service, but resigned his diplomatic post to become a writer. He is a former chairman of the Venice in Peril Fund and the honorary chairman of the World Monuments Fund.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Greeks

Not surprisingly for an island set virtually in the dead center of the Mediterranean, Sicily possesses prehistoric sites aplenty. There is, for example, on the island of Levanzo, off Trapani, a vast cave known unaccountably as the Grotta del Genovese, covered with neolithic wall paintings of bison, deer and even fish; these were discovered as recently as 1950. Others, a good deal earlier but somewhat less spectacular, were found a few years later on Monte Pellegrino, that great golden headland that rises only a kilometer or two outside Palermo on the Mondello road. Those interested will find all the information they require—­and probably rather more—­in the archaeological museum. For those of us, however, who are prepared to leave prehistory to the prehistorians, the first true culture we encounter is the Mycenaean, which extended from about 1600 b.c. It was probably around 1400 that Sicily was absorbed into an extensive mesh of trade routes, centered on Mycenae in the northeastern Peloponnese and reaching out as far as Cyprus and even beyond. But it was all too good to last. Mycenae perished—­no one knows exactly why or how—­around 1200 b.c., trade rapidly declined, and the Sicilians reverted to their old ways.
 
Who were they exactly? It is hard to say. Historians talk of the Sicans, the Sicels, the Ausonians and the Elymians, who Thucydides—­writing in the fifth century b.c.—­tells us were refugees from Troy (as were, traditionally, the Romans themselves). But little of them is known. For us, the all-­important people are the Greeks, who reached Sicily in the middle of the eighth century before Christ. With them at last the island enters the historical age. Their earliest settlements were on the southern coast, where there are virtually no natural harbors, but they had no need of such things. Their custom in those early days was to beach their ships; what they looked for were long flat stretches of sand, and they found them—­notably at Naxos, where settlers from Chalcis in Euboea landed as early as 734 b.c., at Acragas (the modern Agrigento) and at Gela, where the first permanent Greek-­Sicilian settlement was founded in 688 b.c. In the years following they gradually dislodged—­without actually eliminating—­the indigenous inhabitants, together with a number of Phoenician trading posts; they introduced the olive and the vine, and rapidly built up a flourishing community. This soon became one of the major cultural centers of the civilized world, the home of poets such as Stesichorus of Himera—­he whom the gods struck blind for composing invectives against Helen of Troy—­and philosophers such as the great Empedocles of Acragas, who did much valuable work on the transmigration of souls and, having already served a long and tedious apprenticeship as a shrub, suddenly relinquished his mortal clay for higher things one morning in 440 b.c., when another branch of scientific inquiry led him too far into the crater of Mount Etna.
 
By this time the Greeks had colonized most of the eastern Mediterranean. They had civilized it too, with their art and architecture, their literature and philosophy, their science and mathematics and their manufacturing skills. But—­and this is a point that cannot be overemphasized—­Magna Graecia, as it was called, was never a nation or an empire in the sense that Rome was to be. Politically, it was simply composed of a number of small city-­states; by 500 b.c. there were some 1,500 of them, extending from the Black Sea to the coast of Catalonia. Intensely proud of being Greek, they supported all manifestations of panhellenism, in particular the Olympic Games; despite this, they were often at war among themselves, occasionally forming temporary leagues and alliances but all essentially independent. Athens in those days was in no sense a capital, any more than, for example, Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, where Herodotus was born, or the Corinthian colony of Syracuse in Sicily, which was the birthplace of Archimedes, or the island of Samos, home of Pythagoras. St. Paul was to boast that he was a Roman citizen; such a thing could never have been said about Greece, which—­not unlike the Arab world today—­was a concept rather than a nationality. There was no precise definition: if you felt Greek and spoke the Greek language, then Greek is what you were.
 
One consequence of this broad diaspora is that there are as many superb Greek sites in Italy, Sicily and Asia Minor as there are in the area we now know as Greece. The greater part, inevitably, has been lost; and yet, in Sicily alone, at Selinunte—­formerly Selinus—­there are at least seven temples of the sixth and fifth centuries b.c. in tolerable states of preservation, though most of those still standing do so only thanks to a long and ambitious program of reconstruction in the past half-­century. Of the nine at Agrigento, five are more impressive still and, particularly around sunset, quite astonishingly beautiful. Loveliest of all is Segesta, set in a fold of hills an easy drive from Palermo (but just out of sight, thank God, of the motorway). It is actually unfinished—­the projecting bosses used for shifting the blocks of stone were never filed away—­but the general impression is one of quiet perfection, everything a late-­fifth-­century b.c. Doric monument ought to be. There is also, high on the opposite hillside, a beautifully preserved third-­century theater, from which one can look down on the temple and marvel that such a sublime building should have survived virtually intact after two and a half thousand years.
 
Finally, the cathedral of Syracuse, one of the only cathedrals to have been built five centuries before the birth of Christ. Its splendid baroque façade gives no hint of what lies within, but the interior tells a very different story. The columns that support the building are those of the original Doric temple of Athena, erected by the tyrant Gelon to celebrate his victory over Carthage in 480 b.c. and famous for its magnificence all over the ancient world. Under the Romans, its greatest treasures were stolen by the unspeakably corrupt Governor Verres, against whom Cicero so famously thundered. The Byzantines converted it for the first time into a Christian church; the Arabs turned it into a mosque. Normans and Spaniards both made their own contributions; a series of earthquakes did their worst; and there was a major reconstruction in 1693 after the collapse of the Norman façade. Those ancient columns, however, survived all their tribulations, and still stand to prove once again that most curious of historical-­religious phenomena: that once a place is recognized as holy, then, regardless of all changes in the prevailing faith, holy it remains.
But who, you may ask, was this tyrant Gelon, who started the whole thing? Of all the tyrants—­those men who ruled their cities as virtual dictators and who played all too large a part in Greek-­Sicilian history—­Gelon could boast the most distinguished parentage. Herodotus claims that his ancestors had founded the city of Gela. The prototypes of these tyrants first make their appearance in the early sixth century b.c.—­Panaetius in Leontini, Phalaris in Acragas and one or two others. About Panaetius we know next to nothing, and of Phalaris very little except that he greatly enjoyed eating babies and small children, and that he possessed a huge, hollow bull of bronze in which he tended to roast those who displeased him. We are a good deal better informed about Pantares of Gela, whose four-­horse chariot was victorious in the Olympic Games of 512 or 508, and whose sons Cleander and Hippocrates ruled successively after him. It was on the death of Hippocrates in 491—­killed in battle with the Sicels on the slopes of Mount Etna—­that Gelon, his former cavalry commander, seized power. He ruled in his native city for six years, then in 485 moved to Syracuse, taking more than half its population with him. The move was sensible, if not inevitable. Gela, as we have seen, had no harbor; but no one beached ships anymore if they could avoid it, and in all the Greek world there were few harbors more magnificent than that of Syracuse.
 
But Syracuse was more than its harbor. It also possessed an island, separated from it by no more than a hundred yards, which could serve as a huge, self-­contained fortress. It was here that the first Greek colonists founded their city, which they called Ortygia after one of the epithets of Artemis. Almost miraculously, the island possessed a seemingly inexhaustible spring of freshwater[1] at the very edge of the sea; this they dedicated to Arethusa, one of the goddess’s attendant nymphs.
 
Over the next few years Gelon transformed his new conquest into a powerful and prosperous city. In this he was greatly aided by an idiotic attack on Syracuse by another Greek city, Megara Hyblaea, some ten or twelve miles up the coast. Herodotus tells us the story:
 
[Gelon] brought to Syracuse the men of substance, who had instigated the war and therefore expected to be put to death, and he made them citizens. The common people, who had no share in the responsibility for the war and therefore expected to suffer no evil, he also took to Syracuse and there he sold them into slavery for export outside Sicily. . . . He did this because he thought the commons were the most unpleasant to live with.
 
It was not long before Gelon, with his ally, the immensely rich Theron of Acragas, had extended his power across the greater part of Greek Sicily. Selinus and Messina alone managed to preserve their independence; and it was Anaxilas of Messina who took what appeared to be the only course open to him if he and his people were to escape absorption. He appealed to Carthage.
 
At this point—­and before we go any further—­it might be a good idea to say something about Carthage. It was originally Phoenician, and the Phoenicians—­the Canaanites of the Old Testament—­were a very curious people indeed. Unlike their contemporaries in Egypt, they seem to have made little or no attempt to found a single, coherent state. The Old Testament refers to the people of Tyre and Sidon, and we read in the First Book of Kings how Hiram, King of Tyre, sent King Solomon ­timber and skilled craftsmen for the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. His people had developed one memorable home industry: gathering the shells of the murex—­a form of mollusc which secreted a rich purple dye,worth far more than its weight in gold.[2] But their principal interest lay always in the lands to the west—­with whom, however, they traded more as a loose confederation of merchant communities than as anything ­resembling a nation. Today we remember them above all as seafarers, a people who sailed to every corner of the Mediterranean and quite often beyond, setting up trading colonies not only in Sicily but in the Balearic Islands and along the shores of North Africa. Beyond the Strait of Gibraltar they had important settlements on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and on the promontory of Cádiz; they probably even crossed the English Channel in search of Cornish tin.
 
As for Carthage, it had gained its independence around 650 b.c., and by the fifth century it had developed into a formidable city-­state, by far the most important and influential of all the Phoenician settlements in the Mediterranean, occupying the site of what is now Tunis. People are always surprised when they look on the map to find that Tunisia is not south of Sicily but due west of it, and that the distance between the two is barely a hundred miles. Carthage was highly centralized and efficiently governed. It was not, in short, a presence that could be taken for granted. It responded to Messina’s appeal—­and on a scale far beyond anyone’s expectation or, indeed, understanding. The response was not immediate, but that was simply because the Carthaginians meant business. They were not interested in just helping out small-­time tyrants in distress; they were aiming at something a good deal more ambitious. They spent the next three years amassing a huge army, not only from North Africa but from Spain, Corsica and Sardinia, while building up an equally massive fleet; and in 480, under the command of their Chief Magistrate Hamilcar, they landed at Palermo. From there they advanced eastward along the coast to Himera, and attacked.
 
What happened next is almost as incomprehensible as the size and scale of the expedition itself. Theron—­Gelon’s principal ally—­who had been carefully following the passage of the Carthaginian fleet and was now standing ready to resist the invaders, at first found himself hopelessly outnumbered; but he was able to hold the situation until the arrival of Gelon from Syracuse, with an army comparable in size to that of Hamilcar but infinitely better equipped and trained. Meanwhile, to their bewilderment, the Carthaginians found themselves entirely alone. Of Anaxilas and his Messinans—­who had invited them in the first place—­there was not a sign; nor was there any help from Selinus. In the desperate encounter that followed Hamilcar was killed—­or, as some say, took his own life by leaping into a blazing fire; his ships, drawn up defenseless on the beach, were burned to cinders. Vast numbers of prisoners were enslaved, and Carthage was obliged to pay an immense indemnity, of which Gelon made excellent use, building not only his great temple of Athena but two lesser temples in a developing quarter of Syracuse, dedicated to Demeter and Persephone—­the goddess of fertility and the harvest, and her daughter, queen of the dead.
 
After the Battle of Himera—­which, Herodotus tells us, was fought on the very same day as the great Athenian victory against the Persians at Salamis—­it was as if the Carthaginian expedition had never been. Carthage retired to lick her wounds; she made no attempt to take her revenge or resume hostilities, remaining quiet for the next seventy years. Anaxilas was allowed to continue in Messina as before; indeed, he felt secure enough to travel to Olympia, where he won a not very exciting race for mule carts at the Games. He seems gradually to have reconciled himself to Syracusan hegemony; a year or two later he married his daughter to Hiero, Gelon’s younger brother and successor. As for Gelon himself, he died in 478 b.c. For many years he had been the most powerful figure in the entire Greek world—­perhaps in all Europe. Despite Herodotus’s nasty little story above he had shown himself, for a tyrant, unusually just and merciful; we are told that, as one of the conditions of the peace treaty, he insisted that the Carthaginians should give up their traditional practice of human sacrifice—­which they somewhat regretfully did. It was not only in Syracuse, but in many other cities of Magna Graecia, that Gelon was deeply and genuinely mourned.
 
The immense popularity and respect in which Gelon was held should have rubb...

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