Carthaginian Invasion of Greek Sicily, 481-480
The Carthaginian Invasion of Greek Sicily of 481-480 BC took place at the same time as Xerxes's invasion of Greece and ended with a Greek victory at the battle of Himera.
Sicily at the time of this confict was split into several different communities. There were three different native groups, the Elymians and Sicanians in the west and the Sicels in the east.
In the north-western corner there were a number of Phoenician communities, the most important of which were Panormus, Motya and Soluntum. By 481 these cities were ruled from Carthage, the most important Phoenician city in the western Mediterranean. There is very little evidence of any earlier Carthaginian campaigns on Sicily, although there may have been a campaign in the middle of the previous century in which Carthage took control of the Phoenician cities.
Finally the island contained a number of powerful Greek cities. The older cities were on the eastern side of the island, but they had spread out and there were Greek cities at Selinus on the south-western coast and at Himera, just to the east of Soluntum.
The ancient sources contain two different reasons for the Carthaginian expedition. According to Diodorus the Persian king Xerxes sent an embassy to the Carthaginians in a successful attempt to convince them to attack the Greeks of Sicily at the same time as he attacked the Greeks of mainland Greece. The Carthaginians spent three years preparing for the invasion and raised an army of 300,000 infantry and a fleet of 200 warships. Mercenaries came from Italy, Liguria and Spain and other troops came from Libya and Carthage.
Herodotus tells a different story. Terillus, tyrant of Himera, had become a guest-friend of Hamilcar, the ruler of Carthage, a form of alliance. His daughter married Anaxilas, tyrant of Rhegium on the Italian mainland, another ally of Carthage. In c.482 BC Terillus was expelled from Himera by Theron of Akragas, on the southern side of the island. Terillus appealed to Carthage for help and Hamilar agreed to bring an army (also given as 300,000 strong) to Sicily.
The Carthaginian army landed at Panormus on the north-west coast of Sicily. He then advanced east and besieged Himera. Theron called for help from Gelon, who arrived at the head of 50,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry (again probably an exaggerated figure). The combined Greek army challenged the Carthaginian army to battle, while the Greek cavalry launched a surprise attack on the Carthaginian naval camp on the coast. The resulting battle of Himera (480 BC) ended as a major Greek victory. Hamilcar was killed and most of his army destroyed.
In the aftermath of the battle Carthage sent ambassadors to Syracuse to negotiate a peace treaty. Gelon asked for 2,000 talents of silver and the construction of two temples each of which would house a copy of the treaty. One was probably built on the site of the battle of Himera, the location of the other is unknown. Over the next few decades the Carthaginians left Sicily alone and focused their effort on North Africa and Spain. They didn’t return to Sicily until 409 BC, but that began a long series of Carthaginian wars in Sicily.
The Ancient Greeks in Sicily
Phiale made of gold. Palermo Archeological Museum. A phiale is a libation bowl, used to pour wine onto an altar in sacrifice to the gods. Late 4th–early 3rd century b.c. Gold. Diameter 22.8 cm (9 in.) weight: 982.4 g (34.7 oz.). From near Caltavuturo. Himera. The rim is inscribed in stippled letters of the Greek alphabet with the words ΔΑΜΑΡΧΟΥ ΑΧΥΡΙΟΣ ΧΡΥΣΟΙΠΔΔ. Damarchos, son of Achyris.
The name phiale is known from Greek literary texts and from at least one inscription carved into an example of the form. ancient writers mention phialai decorated in various manners, both in gold and in silver. Very few gold phialai survive we know of four other complete examples comparable in size, shape, and style to the one in the Palermo Archeological Museum. One of them is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (see below). Information based on the article Ethnic Identity in Sicily: Greeks and Non-Greeks by Francesca Spatafora (in Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome). Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad
Phiale (not from Sicily, though) in Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is very similar to the one in Palermo. This photo: Public Domain.
Once upon a time there were more Greeks in Sicily than in Greece …
"If you want to understand ancient Greece, come to Sicily." (Douglas Sladen, 1901)
Carthaginian Invasion of Greek Sicily, 481-480 - History
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Agathocles of Syracuse
Agathocles of Syracuse (c. 361 - 289 BCE) ruled as tyrant of the Sicilian city for over 25 years. Ambitious, unprincipled, and seeing himself as a new Alexander, he famously attacked Carthage in a three-year campaign and made conquests in southern Italy, but ultimately his quest for a lasting Sicilian-Italian empire failed. On Agathocles' death, his lack of a recognised successor caused chaos at Syracuse and his memory was officially obliterated with a damnatio memoriae. His greatest legacy was perhaps that he had shown Carthage could be defeated in Africa, a lesson the Romans would later use to devastating effect in the Punic Wars.
Agathocles was born at Thermae in Sicily in 361 or 360 BCE, and his father was Carcinus, originally from Rhegium. Carcinus was made a Syracusan citizen c. 343 BCE and became the owner of a large and successful pottery workshop. In his youth Agathocles saw military service and displayed political ambitions. So much so, that the oligarchy government of Syracuse exiled him c. 330 BCE.
Establishing himself in southern Italy, Agathocles operated as a mercenary in Croton and Tarentum. Back on Sicily Syracuse was besieging Rhegium when Agathocles came to the aid of the city. His victory brought the downfall of the ruling oligarchy of 600 at Syracuse. He returned to the city but was again exiled when the oligarchs retook power. Undeterred, Agathocles raised his own army from neighbouring city-states, and when the oligarch's Carthaginian ally Hamilcar switched allegiance to Agathocles in 319 BCE, he was able to declare himself strategos autokrator, or supreme general, of Syracuse. Agathocles then ruthlessly murdered or exiled the 600 oligarchs in a coup in 316 BCE. He next set about making himself popular with the ordinary citizens of the city by abolishing debts and redistributing the land. Agathocles was now the supreme ruler of Syracuse and he ambitiously claimed sovereignty over all the cities of Sicily.
Agathocles as Tyrant
To consolidate his rule, Agathocles then campaigned to crush those cities which had supported the oligarchs. These troublesome opponents included Acragas (Agrigento), Gela, and Messana. The tyrant's ambitions were not going unnoticed by Carthage who still had territorial interests in the western half of Sicily. Indeed, Messana appealed to Carthage for aid with the result that Hamilcar once again interceded and mediated a peace treaty in 314 BCE. According to its terms, Syracuse would restrict itself to territory east of the River Halycus. Perhaps underestimating Carthage's resolve to respond, Agathocles invaded the western side of the river. Carthage sent a force of 14,000 men to defend their interests, soundly defeated the tyrant near Gela in 311 BCE, and then marched on Syracuse. Meanwhile, the Carthaginian fleet positioned itself to blockade the city from the sea. Agathocles responded to this threat with an unexpected and wildly ambitious strategy he left Syracuse in the hands of his brother Antander and sailed for Africa with a fleet of 60 ships. He would strike at the very heart of his opponent.
Agathocles Against Carthage
In 310 BCE Agathocles landed in Africa with up to 14,000 troops and now hoped to so unsettle the Carthaginians that they would be forced to withdraw from Sicily. To spur on his men and remind them that victory was the only route home, he burnt his ships (or less romantically, did so to save leaving behind the necessary troops to guard them). Winning his first engagement and killing his opposing commander Hanno, Agathocles marched down the Cape Bon peninsula to Carthage itself, plundering booty along the way. The Carthaginians were rattled and sacrificed 500 children to appease the gods according to the historian Diodorus. Even more seriously, internal political strife, a Libyan rebellion, and a failed coup by one Bomilcar were crippling Carthage's ability to effectively respond to the invasion of their homeland. Agathocles did not have the means to besiege well-fortified Carthage, which could, in any case, be resupplied by sea, and so he established his base at Tunes (modern Tunis). In 309 BCE another Carthaginian army was defeated.
Meanwhile back on Sicily, Syracuse was resisting the siege thanks to its own impressive fortifications, but Acragas now formed an alliance of disgruntled city-states in order to free themselves once and for all from the threat of Syracusan hegemony. Still, two successive attacks by Carthage were rebuffed in 309 BCE, and the Carthaginian general Hamilcar was captured, tortured, and beheaded.
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Agathocles was then boosted by the arrival of an army from Cyrene, his old ally and fierce rival of Carthage. The ruthless Agathocles killed their commander Ophellas and incorporated his army into his own fighting force. He then managed to take the cities of Utica and Hippacra and now controlled much of Libya. Then the balance of the war began to shift. Agathocles was forced to return to Sicily when the Carthaginian siege looked like gaining the upper hand there and Acragas began stirring up the Greek city-states again. He left a force of 20,000 men in Africa in 307 BCE under the command of his son Archagathus. Looting the countryside and taking Thugga, the Syracusans allowed Carthage to regroup and a 30,000-strong Carthaginian army, which included both cavalry and war chariots, met and crushed the Syracusan army. Agathocles briefly returned to Africa to try and salvage his invasion force, now vastly depleted and blockaded at Tunes, but he was forced to retreat back home. He had abandoned his two sons in the process, and they were murdered by their own men when they realised total defeat was imminent.
In 306 BCE the two sides agreed a peace with their territorial claims re-established, as before, either side of the Halycus River. This allowed Agathocles to declare himself king of Greek Sicily, also in 306 BCE, although Acragas remained stubbornly independent. In the same year, the tyrant married Theoxene, a step-daughter of Ptolemy I of Egypt. In another useful dynastic tie, Agathocles' daughter Lanassa married Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, in 295 BCE.
Return to Italy & Death
Agathocles returned to his old stomping ground of southern Italy in 300 BCE, taking Bruttium. He also supported Tarentum in its war against the Lucanians and Messapians in 298-297 BCE. More success came in 295 BCE when he amassed a fleet of 200 ships and conquered Croton. He then received Corcyra (Corfu) from Pyrrhus as dowry, while alliances were also made with other sympathetic city-states. In 289 BCE he made plans to attack Carthage in Africa for a second time, but he was either poisoned or died of illness. Without a recognised successor, the government of Syracuse reverted back to the ruling elite and, such was his unpopularity at having involved Syracuse in a series of rather pointless and hugely costly wars, his memory was officially erased from the public records.
Battle of Himera, 480 B.C.
Xerxes, “king of kings,” ruler of the vast Persian Empire, prepared well for his revenge against the Greeks. Not only did he amass the largest army the world had ever seen with the logistics to match, he also sought allies to help crush the Greeks from the west as he struck from the east. His ambassadors found the Carthaginian Empire in North Africa most receptive. For centuries Carthage had contested the rule of Sicily with the Greek colonies there. The benefit of a Persia-Carthage alliance was obvious: pressure the Greeks in the east and west simultaneously to prevent them from shifting forces to meet each threat, thereby denying them the advantage of occupying an interior strategic position.
Thus as Xerxes assembled his masses, the Carthaginians gathered their strength on an unprecedented scale. Fifty thousand men, 200 warships and a huge swarm of supply ships gathered in the great harbor of Carthage (near modern-day Tunis). The young men of Carthage flocked to join the expedition, and its aristocracy went nearly en mass. Large numbers of mercenaries were recruited in Italy, Spain and Gaul. To command this expedition, the Carthage council chose Hamilcar, a general of great renown.
However, even before the armada reached Sicily, bad luck struck. A storm sank most of the transport ships carrying the army’s horses and chariots. The fleet made harbor at the Carthaginian city of Panormus (modern-day Palermo, Sicily), where repairs were made. Three days later, Hamilcar marched west along Sicily’s north coast, heading for the city of Himera. Founded in the seventh century B.C., Himera was a growing threat to the Carthaginian settlements in the north and west of the island.
Yet Himera was only a first step. The Greeks of Sicily and southern Italy were divided into many independent cities, and chief among them was Syracuse. Its ruler, Gelon, was a man of remarkable ability and guile, much appreciated by the Syracusans for his good government and integrity. If the Carthaginians could break Syracuse, the other Greeks would panic and come to terms.
Theron, ruler of Akragas, a major Greek city on the southwest coast of Sicily, arrived with his army to aid the Himerans. The Greeks sallied from Akragas but were soundly beaten by Hamilcar and suffered heavy losses. Theron then sent urgent pleas to Gelon for help. Fortunately for the Greeks, the two rulers were on the best of terms.
Gelon marched immediately, gathering allies along the way. The Sicilian Greeks were known for their cavalry, and soon Gelon’s mounted force grew to 5,000. Leading the advance, Greek cavalry overran thousands of Carthaginians who were dispersed ravaging the countryside. Clearly, the loss at sea of Hamilcar’s horses – depriving the Carthaginians of cavalry – was beginning to tell.
Gelon observed that the Carthaginian army was camped directly west of Himera while the enemy’s naval camp was to the north along the shore. At that moment a golden opportunity fell into his hands as his cavalry intercepted a courier from the Greek city of Selinos, which was on friendly terms with the Carthaginians. In the courier’s possession was a request from Hamilcar for the Selinians to send him a cavalry force to arrive on the day he was to conduct a major offering to the god Baal at the naval camp.
At dawn on the appointed day of the sacrifice, Gelon’s cavalry arrived from the direction the Selinians had been expected, and the cavalrymen were admitted into the camp. They immediately slew Hamilcar in the midst of his ceremony and then burned the camp along with the Carthaginian ships pulled up onto the shore.
Gelon received a signal reporting his cavalry’s success and ordered his army forward to attack the enemy camp west of Himera. The Carthaginian commanders, unaware that Hamilcar was dead, formed the army to meet the Greek host. The fighting was long and bitter, with neither side giving way until the report of the burning naval camp and the news of Hamilcar’s death reached both armies. The Carthaginians broke. Thousands were slaughtered as they fled since Gelon had ordered “no quarter.” About half of the original Carthaginian force found refuge on a hilltop several miles inland.
While Gelon’s men were looting the camp, the Carthaginians’ Spanish mercenaries counterattacked and nearly defeated the Syracusans. At that moment, Theron led his men from Himera to the rescue. The Carthaginian survivors on their waterless hill surrendered. Gelon’s victory was one of the most complete in all of military history. All the members of the Carthaginian land force either perished at Himera or spent the rest of their lives in slavery building temples to Greek gods.
The warships had all been burned, save a covering force of 20 vessels, all but one of which sank in a storm returning to Carthage. The single ship was all that remained of the enormous expedition. So panicked were the Carthaginians by the enormity of the disaster that they begged terms from Gelon, who gave them better ones than they had expected, demanding merely a payment of 2,000 talents in silver. Nevertheless, the power of Carthage in Sicily was broken for 70 years.
The two main sources for the Battle of Himera are histories written by Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) and Diodorus Siculus, a Sicilian Greek (circa 60-30 B.C.). Although both claimed that Himera fell on the same day as a major battle against Xerxes’ Persians, Diodorus claimed it happened on the last day of the Battle of Thermopylae (late summer), while Herodotus claimed it occurred on the same day as the naval Battle of Salamis (September). However, whether the victory at Himera coincided with Thermopylae or Salamis, it magnified the major Greek triumph of 480 B.C.
Peter Tsourasis the author of 26 books on military history. He served in the Army and Army Reserve and worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency until retiring in 2010 to devote himself to writing, his roses and his grandchildren.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Armchair General.
Carthaginian Invasion of Greek Sicily, 481-480 - History
For over a century between the outbreak of hostilities in 265 and the destruction of the city of Carthage in 146 BCE , the two most powerful states of western Afroeurasia engaged each other in a series of three major conflicts. The First and Second of these Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage were fought on a scale scarcely rivaled before the modern era. Hundreds of thousands of African and European sailors and soldiers were employed in theaters spanning the entire Mediterranean Basin, including the Balkans, Greece, Sicily, North Africa, Spain, France, the Alps and the Italian peninsula. The expense of maintaining these large armies and navies consumed the economic resources of both states, while the human costs were even higher. A substantial portion of the adult male population of Italy was annihilated, with Rome losing 50,000 dead in one battle alone (Cannae in 216). Nor were military personnel the only casualties. In a further parallel with modern warfare, large numbers of civilians were also killed, either massacred following the siege of a city, killed in raids on towns, villages and farms by the armies of both sides, or suffering as a result of starvation brought on by the confiscation of crops and animals to provision the troops. 2
By the end of this conflict Carthage was in ruins and its culture extinguished. This was despite the extraordinary efforts of the Carthaginian general Hannibal who, during the Second Punic War, undertook one of only two examples known to history of an invasion of Europe by an essentially North African power. Had Rome not been able to withstand this assault, her imperial ambitions and even survival as a state would have been severely undermined, and the entire course of world history dramatically altered. Rome not only survived, but evolved from being a regional Italian power into a position of unrivalled dominance in the Mediterranean world. By 146 the Romans were well on their way to creating an even larger empire that would control much of Western Afroeurasia for the next five centuries. The struggle with Carthage enabled the Romans to conceive of themselves for the first time as a world power, and accustomed them to sending armies over large distances to fight in several interregional theaters simultaneously. It goes without saying that the imperial structure that eventually ensued had a profound effect on the subsequent history of the Afroeurasian world zone, and (through eventual European global colonization) much of the rest of the world as well.
Less well known perhaps is the profound effect this epic conflict had on the philosophy and methodology of western historiography. That the historians of the Mediterranean Basin should have felt compelled to write accounts of the largest conflict in the ancient world is hardly surprising. Because the wars were fought on such a broad scale however, historians were forced to adopt a similarly wide-ranging approach in their accounts, seeking out connections across time and space in a manner that demanded a more inclusive conception of historical accounting. The ultimate historiographical result of the Punic Wars was the confirmation of a universal conception of history as the pre-eminent method for the description of historical processes on the macro scale. Universal history has been variously defined. To its ancient progenitors it was a form of large-scale history that treats the affairs of the known world as though they were those of a single state, and which argues that the whole is more useful than its parts. Historiographers today distinguish universal from world history by suggesting that, where the latter attempts to provide an inclusive and broad-ranging survey of events, universal history emphasizes the continuity between those events by using themes as threads to join the parts together into a whole.
These definitions become clearer when considered in the context of the particular struggle between Rome and Carthage. The Achaean historian Polybius, who as we will see below spent most of his professional life in Rome, criticized other Greek historians for their limited scope, offering instead a 'compendious view' that joined the histories of all the peoples of the Mediterranean together through his unfolding of the theme of Roman hegemony. 3 Polybius recognized the Punic Wars as an event of historical and historiographical significance, suggesting that 'from this point onwards history becomes an organic whole: the affairs of Italy and of Africa were connected with those of Asia and Greece, and all events bear a relationship and contribute to a single end'. 4 A century later the Sicilian Greek historian Diodorus was even more aware, with the benefit of hindsight, of how the success of Rome following the Punic Wars had united the histories of all of the states of the Mediterranean (including those of the Greeks) into a unified whole. Diodorus also noted the historiographical implications of this when he wrote that 'historians, in recording the common affairs of the inhabited world as though they were those of a single state, have made of the treatises a single reckoning of past events'. 5
The origins of universal history are not clearly defined, but the link between interregional conflict in ancient Afroeurasia and an increasingly trans-cultural conception of history writing is undeniable. An earlier and similar example comes from the work of the Greek historian Herodotus, whose interest in the states contiguous to the Eastern Mediterranean intensified after the Persian invasions forced the Greeks to start thinking outside of the confines of their individual poleis:
What Herodotus the Halicarnassian has learnt by inquiry is here set forth: in order that so the memory of the past may not be blotted out from among men by time, and that the great and marvelous deeds done by Greeks and foreigners and especially the reason why they warred against each other may not lack renown. 6
Raoul Mortley has noted a similar link between the evolution of a universalist conception of history and interregional conflict during the Hellenistic Era, following the campaigns of Alexander:
The universal history was a genre for its time. It provided a view of history that was capable of giving an account of the entire new world opened up by the conquests of Alexander, of incorporating the experiences of the barbaroi as something less than exotic, and of providing the reader with a sense of unity within diversity. It came out of the new Greek internationalism engendered by Alexander. 7
Nor was this solely a Western Eurasian development a similar trend emerged in China in the last century Before the Common Era. The Early Han historian Sima Qian's historical and anthropological interest in the semi-nomadic Xiongnu, Wusun, and Yuezhi confederations matched that of the Han administration, which found itself in an increasingly desperate struggle on a widening series of frontiers with the 'barbarians'. As Emperor Wudi sent envoys into Central Asia seeking military alliances with the Yuezhi and Wusun against the Xiongnu, so Sima Qian's historical interests expanded correspondingly until his Shi Ji incorporated accounts of states as far west as India, Parthia and even Mesopotamia. 8
The specific focus of this paper is on the particular historiographical implications of the conflict between Carthage and Rome, both because of the fascinating nature of the relationship between the particular events and their accounting, but also in an attempt to trace the further evolution of universal history in ancient Western Afroeurasia. In the same way that the Mediterranean-wide campaigns of the Punic Wars helped determine the subsequent shape and direction of world history, the accounts of those events written during the last two centuries before the Common Era also profoundly affected the methodology and philosophy of western historiography.
Polybius on the Punic Wars and Universal History
The most important historian of the Punic Wars is the Greek Polybius, an Achaean noblemen who fought against the Romans in the Third Macedonian War, before being taken as hostage to Rome in 167 BCE . Through fortuitous circumstances he became an intimate of Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, who later led the Roman army that destroyed Carthage. From this position of privilege he was able to travel extensively throughout the western Mediterranean, visit many of the major battle sites and speak to veterans of the Hannibalic War, and accompany Scipio on campaigns to Spain and Africa where he was an eyewitness to crucial events in the Third Punic War. Polybius completed forty books on the conflicts, but only a small part of the total work has survived. Although close to one of the great patrician families, and an unashamed admirer of Rome, this does not prevent him from criticizing Roman incompetence or duplicity, and his account is generally considered to be accurate and reliable.
Polybius makes explicit early that his Histories will be a work of genuine universal history structured around a single theme – the expansion and development of the Roman state:
There can surely be nobody so petty or so apathetic in his outlook that he has no desire to discover by what means and under what system of government the Romans succeeded in less than 53 years [i.e. from 220 BCE – the start of the Second Punic War – to 167 BCE ] in bringing under their rule almost the whole of the inhabited world, an achievement that is without parallel in human history. 9
Polybius compares the 'superior greatness' of Rome to three empires that had preceded it – those of the Persians, the Lacadaemonians and the Macedonians (this incidentally establishing the idea that human history might conveniently be compartmentalized according to the predominant power of an era) – but finds limitations in both their methods and expansionist ambitions. Roman imperialism, on the other hand, 'was not partial nearly the whole inhabited world was reduced by them to obedience'. 10 As a result of this 'impartial' conquest, the various regions of the Mediterranean ceased to have separate histories, but rather became interconnected: 'But from this time forth history becomes a connected whole: the affairs of Italy and Libya are involved with those of Asia and Greece, and the tendency of all is to unity'. 11 Polybius clearly recognizes both the political and psychological significance of the Punic Wars in setting the Roman state on a path towards imperial expansion:
For it was their victory over the Carthaginians in this war, and their conviction that thereby the most difficult and most essential step towards universal empire had been taken, which encouraged the Romans for the first time to stretch out their hands upon the rest, and cross with an army into Greece and Asia. 12
Having outlined his theme, Polybius argues that its exploration will demand a very particular approach to the writing of history, in which the nature of the events must be matched by the style of their reporting: 'Just as Fortune made almost all the affairs of the world converge upon one and the same point so it is my task as an historian to put before my readers a compendious view'. 13 Before embarking upon his task, however, Polybius offers a stinging critique of the methodologies adopted by Hellenistic historians. He finds factual inconsistencies in Callisthenes' and Ephorus' accounts of Alexander's campaign 14 questions Timaeus' 'want of skill and judgment' which completely destroyed the value of his eye-witness evidence 15 and is highly suspicious of the apparent impartiality of Zeno and Anthisthenes because they composed their histories 'as part of the business of politicians'. 16 Walbank argues that one of Polybius' principal reasons in deciding to write history at all was 'to assert his own view of what history should be against the sort of history which was widely written and read in the Hellenistic age'. 17 In particular Polybius is critical of the limited and narrow process of inductive reasoning, the idea that one can obtain 'a competent view of universal from episodical history'. 18 While some idea of the whole might be obtained from the part, 'clear comprehension' can not:
And of this we cannot obtain a comprehensive view from writers of mere episodes. It would be as absurd to expect to do so as for a man to imagine he has learnt the shape of the whole world, its entire arrangement and order, because he has visited one after the other the most famous cities in it. 19
Polybius offered an alternative, which Walbank describes as 'history on a large canvas'. 20 As Polybius put it: 'It is only by the combination and comparison of the separate parts of the whole – by observing their likeness and their difference – that a man can attain his object can obtain a view at once clear and complete. 21
Once Polybius' aim of writing the history of the unification of the oikoumene (or 'the inhabited world') under Roman hegemony becomes clear, one needs to question the extent to which he might have been tempted to manipulate his recounting of actual events to further project the idea of the unity of the historical story. Polybius was able to circumvent this temptation to a certain extent by arguing consistently through his Histories that it was Tyche or fortune that was the agent responsible for the unification, whereas his role as historian was simply to represent this in the form of a unified narrative. As Walbank suggests: 'Tyche and Polybius are shown as being in a sense complementary to each other: each is a creative artist in the relevant field'. 22 Polybius also offers a chronological context for the beginning of genuine universal history, in that he identifies it exclusively with the history of his own time. For Polybius the unification of the oikoumene by Tyche was a new and even unique event in history which demanded a correspondingly original approach to its recording. This, Polybius claims, is what distinguishes his universalism from that of his Hellenistic predecessors.
As noted above, Mortley traces the origins of a universalist perspective to the expanded Greek worldview of the post-Alexander Hellenistic Era. Its intention was to both 'incorporate the experiences of the barbaroi as something less than exotic', but also to provide the reader with a 'sense of unity within diversity' as Greek cities which dotted the entire oikoumene were forced to coexist with a host of local cultures. 23 In this sense, a modified version of universal history would also be a perfectly appropriate method to account for the growth of the Roman Empire, which similarly attempted to maintain a level of cultural unity within an array of diverse 'colonial' cultures. The appropriateness and increasing popularity of this approach led to a great flourishing of universal history in the Greco-Roman world, although only about 5% of the total has survived. Hence, although Polybius might have been the first historian in a position to actually describe the unification of the known world into a single structure, his approach was clearly influenced by his Hellenistic predecessors and their literary and philosophical interests.
Plato, for example, had argued that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, 24 and Aristotle had suggested that the whole has a cause which actually creates its unity or wholeness, and that eventually the wholeness of something becomes its purpose. 25 But Aristotle also went on to argue that poetry was better able to express this sense of the universal than history: 'poetry is a more scientific and serious thing than history. For poetry gives universal truths while history gives particular facts'. 26 The universal historian in a sense reverses this dictum, arguing that history is also perfectly capable of identifying universal truths, not just particular and segmented facts. Despite Aristotle's argument, universal history clearly did become an important part of Hellenistic literature, although more in the form of a monograph that focused on a very limited and localized theme. It was Polybius who first articulated the idea that thematically-organized history on a much larger scale could also achieve a sense of organic unity, which could then be superimposed onto the course of particular events. In Walbank's assessment: 'In doing this he not only justified his method, he also produced a highly sophisticated version of the historians' traditional boast that his theme was inherently greater and more important than that of any of his predecessors'. 27
Polybius applied this organic concept of history to the actual detailed accounting of the course of the Punic Wars by using what could almost be described as a cinematic technique. Choosing as his starting date the 140 th Olympiad (221-216 BCE ), Polybius introduces his theme by providing a wide-angle view of events occurring across the Mediterranean Basin:
In Greece the so-called Social War, the first which was waged by Philip of Macedon &hellip in Asia the war for the possession of Coele-Syria, fought between Antiochus and Ptolemy Philopator and in Italy, Africa and the neighbouring countries the war between Rome and Carthage. 28
Like a good cinemaphotographer, Polybius then uses a wide range of historical lenses, moving in for detailed 'close-up' examinations of specific events and personalities where required, before panning back out for wider-angled views which place those detailed vignettes into their appropriate context. In the survey-like Book II, for example, the reader is carried from Affairs in Spain to an account of The Romans in Illyria, back to Spain before a digression on the relationship between Romans and Gauls, then to Spain again before a final consideration of Events in Greece, particularly those concerning the Achaean League. Yet in other places Polybius offers detailed analysis of The Roman Constitution in its Prime, the Treaty between Hannibal and Philip of Macedon, and the Siege of Tarentum. Polybius is also intensely interested in the character of the main protagonists of the wars, producing studies of the characters of Hannibal, Philip and Scipio. Polybius, intent upon offering a compendious, thematically-organized description of the events and participants that 'star' in the Punic Wars, was an historian more than willing to use the widest range of lenses to create a work of genuine universal history.
The other major universal historian who turned his attention to the Punic Wars was the Sicilian Greek Diodorus Siculus, who produced his Library of History near the end of the first century BCE . Originally consisting of 40 books, only fragments have survived, although these are sufficient to demonstrate that Diodorus clearly had available to him numerous lost sources including a pro-Carthaginian account by Philinus. Mortley suggests that, where Polybius' view of the wholeness of the world was a practical and empirical one, based as it was on the political reality of Roman expansion, Diodorus had a more abstract conception of the unity of the oikoumene based on a sense of the universality of human nature. 29 Yet like Polybius, Diodorus must also have been only too aware of the realities of the expanding Roman state. In the decade between 70 and 60 BCE he would have observed the entire Mediterranean shoreline brought under Roman control by Pompey, with Roman supremacy extended, as Diodorus himself puts it, 'to the bounds of the inhabited world'. 30 Despite this, Mortley, who is intent upon tracing the origins of a universalist conception of history to Hellenistic philosophy, argues that Diodorus was seeking more than a mere recounting of practical realities, but rather the articulation of 'some doctrine of a universal human nature with a single underlying quality'. 31
Diodorus does address this question of a 'common human nature' by considering the origins of the human race. Following a quite extraordinary account of the creation of the universe and the shaping of the planet (shades of big history here) he settles upon Egypt as the cultural source of all subsequent human history:
'And since Egypt is the country where mythology places the origin of the gods, where the earliest observations of the stars are said to have been made, and where, furthermore, many noteworthy deeds of great men are recorded, we shall begin our history with the events connected with Egypt'. 32
Using an approach that might be controversial today (in light of the disagreement between the Afrocentric and Hellenocentric understandings of the origins of Greek civilization) 33 Diodorus accounts for the spread of these original Egyptian ideas by crediting the god Osiris with influencing Greek and all subsequent human culture, through his 'priestly scribe' Hermes:
'It was by Hermes (through Osiris)&hellip that the common language of mankind was first further articulated, and that many objects which were still nameless received an appellation, that the alphabet was invented, and that ordinances regarding the honors and offerings due to the gods were duly established'. 34
All of this does seem to suggest that Diodorus' conception of history is based on his acceptance of the universality of human nature, a very different understanding to that which drove Polybius to account for the realities of the spread of Roman hegemony and the enforced application of a common political structure. Yet the end result was very much the same, for Diodorus also produced a work of universal history in which the whole was greater than its parts, and where truth was more likely to be revealed by moving from the general to the particular. Whether inspired by philosophy or politics, Diodorus like Polybius is intent upon 'recording the common affairs of the inhabited world as though they were those of a single state'. 35 His universal history will have practical as well as ethical value:
For it endows the young with the wisdom of the aged, while for the old it multiplies the experience which they already possess citizens in private station it qualifies for leadership and the leaders it incites, through the immortality of the glory it confers, to undertake the noblest deeds soldiers again it makes more ready to face dangers in defense of their country because of the encomiums they will receive after death, and wicked men it turns aside from their impulse towards evil through the everlasting opprobrium to which it will condemn them. 36
The actual contents of Diodorus' forty volumes clearly illustrate not only these dual intentions, but also a Polybian-like ability to bring a range of perspectives to his task, very much in the manner of Herodotus. Hence explanations of the myths and origins of the gods and peoples of Egypt, Assyria, India, Arabia, the Amazons and Atlantis are followed by accounts of the military and political history of Greece and Rome. Then, from book XI on, the broad anthropological and theological focus of the first ten volumes is replaced by detailed descriptions of specific events, related in a tight chronological framework. Book XIII, for example, covers the years 415-405 BCE book XVII the years 335-324 and book XX the years 310-302.
In the context of the Punic Wars, it is Diodorus' books XXI-XL (301-60 BCE ) that are most relevant, although these have survived in fragmentary form only. Yet even these fragments provide crucial information that helps fill out our understanding of events during the First Punic War in particular, and they also demonstrate that a universalist conception of history need not preclude the incorporation of a considerable amount of closely-focused and specific detail. Diodorus' comments upon the maritime and land campaigns undertaken by the Romans in Sicily in the mid-third century BCE , for example, move seamlessly from statistical minutiae to a broad analysis of consequences. Explicitly citing the lost Carthaginian source, Philinus, Diodorus carefully lists the forces available to the Carthaginians under Hanno – sixty elephants, 6,000 cavalry and 50,000 infantry. 37 In a subsequent battle with the Roman forces north of Agrigentum, Diodorus tells us that Hanno quickly lost 3,000 infantry and 200 cavalry killed, 4,000 men captured and forty three of the elephants either killed or disabled. The Romans also lost significant numbers but out of a much larger force totaling 100,000, so that proportionally these losses were not as devastating. 38 Then, drawing back to place all this in context, Diodorus demonstrates that the ultimate consequence of the engagement was that some sixty-seven Sicilian cities defected to the Roman side, forcing the Carthaginians to sue for peace. 39 In this manner, like any good historian, Diodorus is able to fit the detailed pieces of the historical jigsaw into the much larger picture of the ebb and flow of the war, ensuring that the events themselves always remain subordinate to, and serve the ideal of, his universal theme.
From its apparent origins in the Platonic idea that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and that eventually the wholeness of something becomes its purpose, universal history had proven itself particularly suited for the description of processes occurring on a broad spatial and temporal scale. The leading universalists of the ancient Mediterranean were particularly skillful at weaving detailed description into a complex narrative that not only synthesized the events themselves into a seamless whole, but which also produced an organic conception of history that was itself greater than the sum of its parts. The link between this expanded methodology and conception, and the magnitude of the events themselves is obvious and crucial. Polybius is explicit that his work was motivated by the sheer scale of the conflict between Carthage and Rome, and the subsequent success of the Romans in bringing 'almost the whole of the inhabited world' under their rule. Similarly Diodorus only began to arrange the complex events he considers in the Library of History into an 'orderly body' after the reality of Roman success in the Mediterranean had obviously and (so the historian believed) uniquely brought the affairs of the inhabited world together 'as though they were those of a single state'.
This was a conception of history particularly suited to its times. As the self-focus of individual city-states was replaced by increasing inter-culturalism and trans-regional expansion and conflict, so the methodology of recounting these processes also had to expand. And when the conflict was on a hitherto unseen scale, as was the case between the North African-based Carthaginians and the European Romans, so the histories produced by Polybius and Diodorus had to be similarly unique in scale and shape. The trend towards inclusiveness and connectedness in history writing continued unapologetically over the intervening millennia. In Late Antiquity, for example, Augustine and Orosius would develop a type of universal ecclesiastical history to try and account for the sack of Christian Rome by the Goths. And a millennium and a half later in the early twentieth century, Wells and Spengler argued that the only way to account for the near self-destruction of western culture in a catastrophic 'world' war was through a universalist conception. By the nineteenth century, however, universal history had lost favor amongst a new breed of nationally-focused historians, who now viewed their universal predecessors as amateurish and unprofessional.
Of course, now in the twenty first century, when the affairs of the whole world really have become a 'connected whole', it could be argued that universal history (in all its various sub-genres) is once again uniquely placed to explain the relationship of the myriad parts to the organic, interconnected whole. In the same way that the approach of Polybius and Diodorus was the most appropriate to describe epic, inter-regional events that unfolded in the Mediterranean Basin more than two thousand years ago, world history, global history, big history and other successors to their universalist model remain the very best tools at our disposal today to, as Polybius so succinctly put it, 'obtain a view at once clear and complete and thus secure both the profit and the delight of history'.
Goldsworthy, A., The Punic Wars (London: Cassell and Co., 2000)
Polybius, The Histories, trans. Shuckburgh, E.S., (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1962)
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, trans. Oldfather, C.H., (Cambridge, Mass: Loeb Classical Library, 1933, repr. 1998)
Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Godley, A.D., (Loeb Classical Library, London: Heinemann, 1966)
Momigliano, A., 'The Origins of Universal History', chapter 3 in On Pagans, Jews, and Christians (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987)
Mortley, R., The Idea of Universal History from Hellenistic Philosophy to Early Christian Historiography (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1996)
Sima Qian, Shi Ji, trans. Watson, B., Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian – Han Dynasty II (Revised edtn., Columbia University Press 1993)
Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, trans. Scott-Kilvert, I., (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986)
Walbank, F.W., Polybius (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1972)
Walbank, F.W., 'Introduction' to Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire (1986)
Hughes-Warrington, M., 'Big History', unpublished manuscript (2000).
1 The author would like to thank the editors of World History Connected, and in particular the anonymous reviewer who read and made numerous insightful comments upon the article, for improvements to the final version of this paper.
2 This paragraph is something of a paraphrase of the superb introduction to A. Goldsworthy's The Punic Wars (London: Cassell and Co., 2000) intro
3 Polybius, The Histories, trans. E.S. Shuckburgh (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1962) Book 1, 4, p. 4.
5 Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, trans. C.H. Oldfather (Cambridge, Mass: Loeb Classical Library, 1933, repr. 1998)1, 1, p. 7
6 Herodotus, The Histories, trans. A.D. Godley (Loeb Classical Library, London: Heinemann, 1966) Book 1, 1, p. 3
7 R. Mortley, The Idea of Universal History from Hellenistic Philosophy to Early Christian Historiography (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1996) 1
8 See in particular Chaps. 110 and 123 of Sima Qian, Shi Ji, trans. Burton Watson, Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian – Han Dynasty II (Revised edtn., Columbia University Press 1993)
9 Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, trans. I. Scott-Kilvert (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986) 41
10 Polybius, trans. Shuckburgh, 2
17 F.W. Walbank, Polybius (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1972) 34
18 Polybius, trans. Shuckburgh, 4
20 F.W. Walbank, 'Introduction' to Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire (1986) 21
21 Polybius, trans. Shuckburgh, 5
24 Plato, Theatetus, 203 ff.
25 Aristotle, Met., 104 1b.
26 Aristotle, Poetics, 145 1b3.
30 Diodorus, trans. C.H. Oldfather, 1. 4. 3.
33 See for example Moeli Kefet Asante, Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge (Trenton: Africa World Press Inc. 1990) for an Afrocentrist perspective and Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa. How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (New York: Basic Books, 1996) for a contrary argument.
Pyrrhus in Sicily
Two new warlike prospects now invited Pyrrhus. Both offered him the opportunity-which he always coveted – of championing Greek civilization. One opportunity lay in Greece itself, where an eruption of Celtic hordes from the north had produced turmoil the other lay in Sicily, where the Greek cities, lacking a military successor to Agathocles, were again menaced by the Carthaginians. Pyrrhus chose the Sicilian venture. Certainly, it looked less like a retreat from his present unsatisfactory situation. To the disgust of the Tarentines, after unsuccessful peace overtures to Rome, he suspended operations in Italy, placed a garrison in Tarentum, and sailed for Sicily with 30,000 infantry and 25,000 cavalry. His consequent success was quite unequivocal he swept the Carthaginians before him, soon reaching Eryx, their strongly fortified city at the western extremity of the island.
Eryx was taken by storm. A trumpet blast gave the signal for a missile barrage which dispersed the defenders on the walls. Scaling ladders were swiftly brought up and Pyrrhus was himself the first man to mount the battlements, dealing death to left and right of him and emerging at last unscathed. This was a victory after his own heart and he celebrated it, as he had vowed to do, with athletic events and displays in honour of Heracles.
The Carthaginians having been thus subdued and already inclined to negotiate terms, Pyrrhus found himself in the role of a keeper of the peace. A community of Italian brigands, originally hired from Campania as mercenary troops by Agathocles, had been in the habit of extorting payments from Sicilian cities. These lawless and violent men, who styled themselves Mamertini (“The War God’s Men” in their dialect), were to play a crucial part in later history but for the time being Pyrrhus managed to suppress them, defeating them in pitched battle and capturing many of their strongholds. Even here, however, his achievement was incomplete. The Mamertines survived to embarrass the Mediterranean world at a later date.
As for the Carthaginians, Pyrrhus refused them the peace they asked and required that they should totally evacuate Sicily. But by this time he had himself begun to quarrel with the Greek Sicilian cities, some of whom were ready to support the Carthaginians, while others rallied surviving Mamertines to their aid. News that the people of Tarentum and other Greeks of the Italian mainland were hard pressed by the Romans in his absence now gave him the opportunity of extricating himself from yet another deadlock, and he took it.
In Sicily, Pyrrhus’ reputation, both as a triumphant war-leader and as a liberal ruler, had ultimately suffered. He had failed to capture the remaining stronghold of Lilybaeum, which the Carthaginians had established on the westernmost point of Sicily after the destruction of Motya at the beginning of the previous century. Planning the invasion of Africa, in imitation of Agathocles, he had made himself unpopular by what amounted to pressgang recruitment of rowing crews. But at the same time it must be admitted that the Greeks were never an easy population to deal with. Every successful champion of their liberties was sooner or later bound to be suspected as a potential tyrant.
It is related that Pyrrhus left Sicily conscious that it would become a battlefield for hostilities between Rome and Carthage. Perhaps the remark attributed to him on this occasion was the invention of historians who enjoyed the advantage of hindsight. But Sicily had always been a cockpit and it was easy to see here an area in which any widely expanding power must be challenged.
Rome and Carthage as Allies
At the time of Pyrrhus’ operations in Italy and Sicily (281-275 BC), Rome and Carthage were in fact associated by a series 6f treaties which dated from very early times. The precise number of these treaties is a subject on which neither ancient historians nor modern scholars agree. Polybius, the Greek historian of Rome’s wars against Carthage, paraphrases these treaties, the earliest of which was preserved at Rome in an archaic form of Latin. According to Polybius, the treaty forbade the Romans to sail south of the “Fair Cape” (just north of Carthage) unless driven there by weather or warfare. A Roman finding himself accidentally in this area was not allowed to carry anything away with him save what was necessary for repairs to his ship or sacrifice to the gods, and he was obliged to leave the country within five days. Any business contracts in the scheduled zones were to be concluded in the presence of a herald or notary. Such contracts could be enforced by law in Libya and Sardinia. In Sicily, a Roman was to enjoy equal rights with others. Carthage, for her part, was bound to maintain friendly relations with Rome’s Latin satellites, and this applied even to other Latin cities, though rather equivocally: if the Carthaginians captured such a city, they were obliged to hand it over to Rome without sacking it. The Carthaginians, moreover, were forbidden to build any fort in Latin territory, and if Carthaginians by chance entered the territory under arms, they were not to pass the night there.
At a later date, says Polybius, another treaty was made. Areas in which the Romans might neither trade nor practise piracy were more specifically defined. If the Carthaginians captured any Latin city, they could retain valuables and captives but must surrender the city itself to the Romans. There are detailed provisions relating to the taking of slaves, and again a reference to Sardinia and Libya as sensitive Carthaginian zones. The Romans were not to trade or found settlements in either of these territories.
The last of the three treaties mentioned by Polybius was occasioned by Pyrrhus’ invasion and may confidently be assigned to 279 BC. It provided that, should either the Romans or Carthaginians subsequently reach terms with Pyrrhus, these should be subject to a reservation: namely, that if either of the two parties became a victim of the king’s aggression, they might both collaborate within the resulting theatre of war. In any such case, the Carthaginians would provide ships for transport and hostilities, but each government would pay its own troops. The Carthaginians would assist in war at sea but could not be obliged to land any forces. The representatives of the contracting parties swore solemnly to this agreement, each by his own gods, and the terms of the treaty, inscribed on bronze tablets at Rome, were preserved at the temple of Jupiter. Polybius expressly denies the assertion of the pro-Carthaginian Greek historian, Philinus. that another treaty existed according to which the Romans and Carthaginians were respectively forbidden to enter Sicily and Italy.
It is not always easy to distinguish between the commercial and strategic activities of the ancient world. A major sector of commerce was the slave trade and the capture of slaves was necessarily accompanied by violence and warlike action. Nor was piracy regarded as an infringement of any international code, although one might be obliged to refrain from it locally under treaty pledges. However, the first two of the above-mentioned treaties seem to have been mainly commercial in scope the third, military and naval. The underlying principle seems to have been that Carthage should offer naval aid in return for Roman military support.
It is indeed on record that, hoping to hinder Pyrrhus’ intervention in Sicily, a Carthaginian admiral arrived with 120 ships to dissuade Rome from making peace with the king. The Romans were not at first willing to commit themselves. The Carthaginians then sailed off to negotiate with Pyrrhus. These negotiations also led to nothing. but when the Carthaginian mission returned again to Rome, the Romans were more amenable. The Carthaginian negotiators had made their point. The 120 ships could be thrown into either scale Rome continued its war against Pyrrhus’ allies in Italy. In fact, the Carthaginian commander, on his way back to Sicily, The Carthaginian diplomatic initiative against Pyrrhus certainly seems to have borne fruit. Moreover, the Carthaginian navy attacked the king’s forces as they returned from Sicily and destroyed a substantial number of his ships. About 1,000 Mamertines had also crossed into Italy to afflict Pyrrhus with guerrilla warfare. Their crossing had no doubt been much facilitated by the Carthaginian fleet.
Carthaginian Invasion of Greek Sicily, 481-480 - History
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Women of Sicily: Saints, Queens & Rebels . Meet a time­less sister­hood of pious Roman maidens, stead­fast Sicilian queens, and a Jewish mother who faced the horrors of the Inquisi­tion. Find an island's feminine soul in the first book about Sicily's historical women written in English by a Sicilian woman in Sicily. (224 pages on acid-free paper, ebook available) Read more.
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Early & Medieval History of Sicily
Most of the history that makes Sicily, its people and culture uniquely 'Sicilian' took place before 1500. The enduring legacy inherited by the world's most conquered island is like no other on earth.
To understand Sicily's history one must first know the land and its people, for civilization begins with stone. The foundations of Phoenician buildings can be seen beneath some of the Roman and medieval structures of old Palermo, the hilltop temple at Cefalù is Sicanian, and the necropoli at Pantalica are much older.
Historians usually concentrate on the colonisers of Sicily, but it appears that the remote forebears of Sicily's first 'native' people, the Sikanians, built Malta's megalithic temples beginning circa 3,800 BC (BCE), and may have even invented the wheel.
'Indigenous' Sicilian Peoples
We've already provided a brief introduction to the people of Sicily. The Sikanians were the earliest indigenous inhabitants of the island whose society can be identified with a specific culture. By 1000 BC (BCE) they shared the island with the Sicels and the Elymians. With the arrival of the Greeks, these peoples were absorbed in every way into Hellenistic society - first the Elymians, then the Sicels and, after some initial reluctance, the Sicanians.
An Island Contested - Greeks and Carthaginians
The first "Greeks" to reach Sicily were the Myceneans and Minoans, around 1500 BC, but they didn't stay long and it seems that trade, not colonization, was their principal reason for visiting. The Ausonians, an Italic people, had contact with the area of the Aeolian Islands and Sicily's northeastern coasts. Around 800 BC the Greeks and Phoenicians began to think of settling the island, the former as an extension of their crowded, if disunited, homeland, the latter as an extension of their vast trading network. When most of Phoenicia itself fell to the Chaldean (or Neo-Babylonian) Empire in 612 BC, Carthage became the heir of her civilization in the central Mediterranean.
The Greeks founded Naxos, near Taormina, in 735 BC, followed by Catania, Siracusa (Syracuse), Gela, Agrigento and numerous smaller settlements. In the three centuries following, Sicily and the southern part of the Italian peninsula would be completely colonized by Greeks, earning the region the name Magna Graecia (Greater Greece) because it boasted more Greeks (and probably more Greek temples) than Greece itself.
The Carthaginians took control of the Elymian city of Erice, and expanded the Phoenician settlements at Palermo and Solunto while further developing the port at Motia near Lilybaeum (Marsala).
The relationship between the Punic societies and the various Greek states of the eastern Mediterranean was a complicated one. It should be remembered that Greek culture was dominant in that region (by 305 BC the ruling dynasty of Egypt was Greek) until it was supplanted by Rome. Yet even the Greek alphabet was patterned after that of the Phoenicians, whose surviving histories have (unfortunately) been written by their enemies. Greeks and Carthinginians alike viewed Sicily as part of a "new world" to be developed.
Life in the Greek city-states could be enlightened, even democratic, but it was punctuated by occasional periods of chaos. Not always inappropriately, civic leaders were called "tyrants." Agathocles was one of the worst examples, while Dion was one of the best. But Greek Sicily also had playwrights like Aeschylus, poets like Stesichorus and philosophers such as Gorgias of Lentinoi (Lentini) and Empedocles of Akragas (Agrigento).
Though the Greeks usually tolerated the seafaring Phoenicians as trading partners, by around 400 BC the Carthaginians, with their pretensions to empire, represented a potential threat. It didn't help matters that the Carthaginians - like their Phoenician forebears - had occasionally sided with other nations against the Greeks. The worst case was the Persian Wars fought between 499 and 450 BC. Truth be told, even in the best of times turning one Greek city against another was never very difficult. Indeed, the rivalry between Athens and Sparta has become a historical cliché.
Yet the Persian Wars presented an opportunity for the Carthaginians to encroach upon contested Greek territories in the central Mediterranean - in Sicily and on various islands such as Malta. In 480 BC the Carthaginians under Hamilcar (encouraged by Xerxes of Persia who had won victories in Greece) was defeated by Gelon of Siracuse at the Battle of Himera. The Persians themselves were eventually defeated at the Battle of Salamis.
This Carthaginian defeat at Himera was especially bitter because the cosmopolitan colony, founded by Greeks some two hundred years earlier, had been regarded as a community friendly to the Carthaginians in its earliest years. The Greeks of Sicily were not always a unified federation Selinus (Selinunte) was known to side with the Carthaginians against the Greeks of eastern Sicily. The Greeks' victory at Himera did not bring an end to their wars with the Carthaginians (a series of smaller battles followed), which the Romans were to inherit in the form of the Punic Wars.
Yet pockets of resistance to Greek hegemony remained even in eastern Sicily, where the Sicel leader Ducetius led a revolt of his people in 452 BC he died a Hellenized citizen in 440.
Siciliots - Greek Civilization in Sicily
The Sicilian cities also faced challenges from other Greeks far from Sicilian shores. The Athenians invaded eastern Sicily during the Peloponnesian War but were defeated at Syracuse in 413. Sicily, and particularly Syracuse, remained important in the Greek world. Visiting Syracuse in 398, Plato declared that his Utopia could best be imagined, if not actually realised, in Sicily.
It was the Greeks, not the Carthaginians, whose mythology and folklore would exert the greatest influence on Sicily, and Sicily's museums (as well as Britain's) are filled with religious artifacts and statues reflecting the important culture whose language, philosophy and law would form the very underpinnings of Western civilization.
Greek myths associate the cult of Demeter, goddess of grain, with the city of Enna, high in the mountains of central Sicily her daughter, Persephone, was abducted in a valley nearby. The Cyclops, the single-eyed monster that menaced Odysseus (and later Aeneas), is identified with Mount Etna. Scylla and Carybdis threatened the intrepid Odysseus at the Strait of Messina, which Hercules is said to have swum and the Argonauts are said to have sailed. When Daedalus fled Crete, it was in Sicily that he found refuge with King Kokalos of the Sicans, an equally mythological figure. And when Artemis changed Arethusa into a spring of water to escape the river god Alpheus, the beautiful maiden emerged on the island of Ortygia, in Syracuse, where a spring bears her name.
Finally, the greatest threat to Greek Italy was to come not from Greece to the east or Carthage to the south, but from a rising power in the north. By 262 BC, the Greeks had begun to make peace with the Romans, who wished to annex Sicily as the Empire's first province. They eventually succeeded, but only after much bloodshed in the Punic Wars.
The Romans were likely to invade Sicily and Tunisia sooner or later, but in the event their pretext was the Mamertine conflict. The Mamertines were Italian mercenaries hired by the tyrant Agathocles of Syracuse. In 288 BC these skilled soldiers occupied Messina, killing the men and taking the women as wives. They were eventually subdued by the Syracusans under the tyrant Hiero II at Mylae (Milazzo). Unhappy under Greek domination, the Mamertines appealed to both Rome and Carthage for help. Carthage responded first, negotiating with Hiero on behalf of the Mamertines, the compromise being that a Carthaginian garrison would remain in the region - though in fact it did not stay for long. Rome could not accept Carthaginian influence in northeastern Sicily and sent troops to occupy the region in 264 BC. Thus did the First Punic War begin. It would not be the last.
Archimedes, the great mathematician and engineer, one of the greatest minds of antiquity, was born in Syracuse in 287 BC. While characteristically deep in thought, he was killed by a Roman soldier during the siege of Syracuse in 212 BC.
With Hannibal's defeat in 201 BC, the Romans consolidated their power not only in Sicily and Northern Africa, but over the entire central and western Mediterranean. However, that didn't mean that the island in the sun, the Empire's granary, was free from civil unrest.
Diodorus Siculus recounts the story of Eunus, a slave of Syrian birth, leading a revolt in the Sicilian heartland in 139 BC, occupying the area bewteen Enna and Agrigento, where he was joined by another slave leader named Cleon. Occupuying territories as far east as the Ionian coast near Taormina, their followers eventually numbered at least fifteen thousand it took a Roman legion, led by the counsul Rupilius, to subdue them in 132. A second revolt, this time under Salvius, broke out in 104 BC in the western region around Segesta. Historians agree that both revolts were an indirect consequence of changes in Sicilian property ownership in the wake of the expulsion of Carthaginian landlords during the Second Punic War. Roman property speculators, such as Damophilus, had rushed to Sicily and purchased vast holdings for almost nothing, bringing thousands of farming slaves with them (and in the process destroying many of the forests of the interior) yet the slaves were poorly-treated and numerous problems ensued, culminating in the "Servile Wars."
Under Rome Sicily was to experience an unprecedented level of corruption and exploitation. In 70 BC Cicero was called to Sicily to argue against the island's corrupt governor, Gaius Verres, who fled in anticipation of being tried by the great orator. The trial is little more than a footnote to history, but Cicero's lengthy indictment of the governor contains many useful descriptions of the Sicily of those times.
There was some unrest under the occupation of the island by Sextus, Pompey's son, in 44 BC, during the civil war that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar. After the defeat of Sextus in 36 BC, Octavian levied heavy taxes on Sicily.
Serious as these problems were, Roman Sicily was prosperous and still largely Greek in customs and culture. Only during the reign of Augustus was any serious attempt made to introduce the Latin language to any meaningful extent, and then only among the privileged classes, the ruling elite and immigrants from Rome.
Around AD 52 (52 CE) Saint Paul stopped at Syracuse to preach en route from Malta to Rome, Greek was the language he spoke. There were already a few Jewish communities in Sicily, and a few followers of specific arcane sects and philosophers, but mythology was the official religion.
Christianity made its first permanent inroads into Sicily sometime after AD 200, and a number of Sicilians were martyred in the century to follow - Agatha of Catania in AD 251 and, during Diocletian's persecution of Christians beginning in 303, Lucy at Syracuse. The cathedral of Syracuse is the classic example of a Greek temple converted into a church, and this became commonplace throughout the Empire as Christianity took hold.
In 313, Emperor Constantine lifted the prohibition against Christians as the Roman Empire shifted its focus to the East, to Constantinople. Christianity grew rapidly in Sicily during the next two centuries. Sicily's prosperity, with Syracuse as its cornerstone, continued unabated. A material symbol of that wealth is the "Villa del Casale" built at Piazza Armerina between 330 and 360. The identity of its owner remains a subject of debate. However, three individuals are usually mentioned: Proculus Populonius, governor of Sicily from 314 to 337 Caeionus Rufus Volusianus, also called Lampadius, an influential and wealthy man and Sabucinius Pinianus, probably of Roman birth.
In 330 Constantinople (previously Byzantium) became the capital of the Roman Empire, and five decades later Christianity became its official religion. In 378 a Roman army was defeated at the Battle of Adrianople during the "Gothic War" (the Goths had been forced into Roman territory by the invading Huns), but this localized military failure at a remote eastern outpost was not immediately catastrophic for the Empire, which split in 395. The eastern half, which did not initially include Sicily, survived in one form or another as the "Byzantine Empire," until 1453 - a year considered by many historians to mark the end of the Middle Ages.
The Vandals and Goths
But what signalled the beginning of the medieval era? Barbarian invasions ensued as Vandals and Goths raided the coasts of Sicily and the Italian peninsula, though during the first stage of invasions the raiders remained, at most, for a few years at a time. Goths, of course, were not all created equal like the ancient Greeks, they often fought among themselves. Scholars generally agree that there was no single reason or cause for the fall of the Roman Empire, no single weakness or shortcoming. Rather, Rome's overextended empire, like any other, could not respond to continuous, simultaneous assaults from every direction - often from peoples it had trained and educated in the arts of war and in every other way.
In 410, Alaric's Visigoths sacked Rome, and the "western" Empire's precipitous Decline began. In 440 the Sicilians saw the first Vandal landings on their island under Genseric. In 468 another wave of invasions led to the Vandals' total occupation of Sicily until 476 afterward they still retained control of Carthage.
Then Odoacer's Ostrogoths arrived, their leader having bought Sicily from the Vandals, and the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed in 476. Theodoric, the son of Alaric, killed Odoacer in 493. His forces had already occupied much of Sicily two years earlier. The Dark Ages had begun.
The Middle Ages
'History is written by the victors' only when they have a written language. But it would be inaccurate and unfair to connote the Vandals and Goths as "backward" peoples. In fact, they had learned much from the Romans, who had made several attempts to assimilate some of their communities into Roman society (the Huns were more "foreign"). But like the Celts and Picts, their history has been written by the Romans.
The Byzantine Greeks
Ascending the Byzantine throne (as "Roman" emperor) in 527, Justinian already had his eye on Italy. Nobody in Constantinople seemed willing to tolerate a jewel - and a territory of strategic importance to commercial shipping - like Sicily remaining in Goth hands. In 534 the Byzantine general Belisarius defeated the Vandals at Carthage and the following year he expelled the Goths from Sicily. The island was now officially part of the Eastern Roman, or "Byzantine," Empire. The Christian Church in Sicily fell under the direct jurisdiction of Constantinople. It would remain so until the twelfth century.
But the Goths did not succumb easily. The Ostrogoth leader Totila invaded Sicily in 549 in an attempt to reclaim it for his people. This occupation - if it could be called that - was short lived. Totila's defeat by Byzantine forces at the Battle of Taginae three years later signalled the end of Gothic influence in Italy. The next northern invaders, the Longobards, who became Italy's Lombards, stayed longer.
The Byzantines eventually gained control over much of Calabria, Apulia and the areas around Venice and Ravenna. Their main sphere of influence was Italy's Adriatic coast. The Longobards invaded Italy in 568, displacing the Byzantines in rural areas (where they introduced rudimentary feudalism) while obtaining - at best - nominal support from key port cities like Venice and Bari. For their part, the Byzantines were generally content to rule the more important centers, leaving the rest for the Longobards, but over the next few centuries there were occasional conflicts. Significantly, the bishops in the Byzantine territories, and even in many of the Longobard ones, were under the ecclesial jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople, not the Pope of Rome. Equally important, the Byzantine cities implemented the Code of Justinian while in the Longobardic lands, at least initially, a form of Germanic law was enforced.
Sudden changes in government can be traumatic to the general populace, but in certain respects the Goths and even the Vandals - who were more than familiar with both Christianity and Roman culture - retained some of the fundamental institutions of Roman life in Sicily. Theodoric, who controlled much of Italy, left Sicily virtually undisturbed while confiscating vast estates on the peninsula. To a great extent the invaders had to rely on the local Sicilian hierarchy for civil control of remote towns and rural estates. For most people the transition from Roman to Vandalic to Gothic to Byzantine rule brought few obvious changes to everyday life. Agriculture, trades, worship and taxation continued as before, even if authority seemed less centralized than that of the Romans.
While the Longobardic regions of Italy were undergoing the shift toward feudalism, the Byzantine territories retained a social and economic order more akin to the Roman model, at least for a time. Compared to the intellectual darkness that enveloped most of Europe, Constantinople was a beacon of learning and prosperity.
Under the Byzantine Greeks there was no question of the Church in Sicily being anything but Eastern. Moses Finley stated this most eloquently in his History of Sicily when he wrote that, "by the second half of the seventh century the Sicilian Church was Eastern in every important respect, including the liturgy and ceremonies."
In 652 a small Arab force landed in Sicily but soon departed. Mohammed had died in 633, and the Arabs' greatest assault on the island was yet to come. For now, the northern Africans in Sicily were traders. The Emperor Constans transferred his capital to Syracuse for a few years beginning in 668. His reasons for the move were based on internal politics, but the fact the he considered the Sicilian city sufficiently important to substitute for Constantinople says much for its cultural and economic wealth.
Islam was the impetus for the spread of Arab power from east to west across northern Africa. The most popular modern definition of "Arab," which places any native speaker of Arabic in the same ethnic category, rings as slightly simplistic to the ears of the medievalist. But Arabic is the language of the Koran, and in its earliest years Islam was inextricably linked to Arab culture. Around 670 the Arabs founded Kairouan (Qayrawan), considered the first Muslim city of northern Africa, and by 700 the place we now call Tunisia was already under Muslim Arab influence. Before long the great majority of Tunisians had converted to Islam and Arabic was the language that united them, but they were the descendants of Berbers, Carthaginians, Romans and even Vandals. For this reason, identifying the medieval Tunisians (or even the Moroccans) generically as "Arabs" or "Saracens" or "Moors" is something of a simplification. Whatever we call them, there is no doubt that these peoples flourished as part of a larger Arab society.
The Arabs invaded Spain in 711, and Charles Martel stopped them at Tours in 732. Some years would pass before an invasion of Sicily was seriously contemplated. Asad ibn al-Furat sailed from Tunisia with over ten thousand Arab and Berber troops in 827, landing at Mazara in the western part of the island. This was the result of Byzantine machinations and treachery as well as Arab ambitions. Euphemius, a Byzantine admiral and resident governor of Sicily, found himself at odds with his emperor, Michael II, and was exiled, so he offered the governorship of the island to Ziyadat Allah, the Aghlabid Emir of Al Qayrawan (in Tunisia) in exchange for his support. Euphemius was soon killed - reportedly by Byzantine soldiers in Sicily - and Sicily's Arab period began.
Bal'harm (Palermo) was occupied by the Aghlabids in 831. By the time the Normans arrived it was one of three de facto emirates in Sicily, although the Fatimids wanted the island to be ruled by a single emir of the Kalbid dynasty. This reflected a number of changes from the status quo ante. For over a thousand years Syracuse had been the island's most important city. Henceforth that distinction was to be reserved for Palermo.
By 903 the Arabs (or "Saracens" or "Moors") controlled all of Sicily, and Islam was the official religion. They tolerated Christianity and Judaism in Sicily, without encouraging either. In Sicily, the Saracens were rulers rather than colonizers, masters rather than governors. Because Islamic law could be harsh to non-believers, many Sicilian Orthodox converted, though precise numbers are not known and in the northeastern part of the island there were Byzantine monasteries into the fourteenth century. However, it must be said that Arab society and culture were advanced under the Saracens Palermo's splendor was said to rival that of Baghdad.
The Arabs introduced mulberries (for silk making), oranges, rice and sugar cane. They built kanats under Palermo. Chess was played, Europe's first paper was made, and Arabic numerals were used.
The Fatimids moved their capital to Egypt in 948, delegating the administration of Sicily to the local Kalbids. In 967 Cairo, one of the most important Muslim-Arab cities, was founded by a Sicilian Jawhar as-Siqilli, in the name of the Fatimids.
In Sicily today there are few visible traces of purely Islamic or Arab art - the Norman-Arab style being more evident - but the museum at Termini Imerese houses the stone Arabic inscriptions from some ninth-century Saracen palaces while Palermo's archeology museum also has some interesting Arab finds. However, Arab culinary culture lives on in the traditional Sicilian cuisine we know today. Panella, rice balls (arancine), cassata, cannoli, caponata (but without tomatoes), the stuffed herring fillets called "beccafico," and the fruity ice creams similar to sorbet all began their delicious existence in Sicily during the Arab period. Sicily's street markets are part of the tradition of the Arab souk.
The Arabs were prolific. They founded or resettled numerous fortified towns around Sicily. Most obviously, places whose names begin with cal or calta bear the phonetic mark of Arabic: Caltagirone, Caltabellotta, Caltanissetta, Calascibetta, Calamonaci, Caltavuturo, Calatafimi. Also in this category are places whose names begin with derivatives of gebal (Gibilmanna, Gibellina) and recal (Regalbuto, Racalmuto). This expansion, and the fact that wealthier Muslims could have more than one wife, explains how Sicily's population doubled during the few centuries of Arab rule. There were also many conversions to Islam, especially of young Greek-Byzantine women marrying comparatively affluent Muslim men. These facile conversions reflect the fact that in the Mediterranean many of the social differences between Muslims, Christians and Jews were fairly subtle well into the Middle Ages. Not for nothing did visitors such as Abdullah el Idrisi and Ibn Jubayr observe that the vast majority of Sicilian women dressed in a similar style which both chroniclers (being Muslim) described as the "Muslim" fashion in fact some kind of veil was traditional among Sicily's Jews and Christians as well as its Arabs.
By the middle of the eleventh century the island's populace was divided about equally between Muslims and Christians, with Jews constituting less than a tenth of the remaining population.
Arab society had its peculiarities for those who were not Muslim. Christians and Jews were taxed more heavily than Muslims, and there were restrictions on the number of new churches and synagogues that could be built (Palermo's cathedral and some other churches were converted to mosques). Church bells could not be rung, and Christians could not read aloud from the Bible within earshot of Muslims or display large crosses in public. Christians and Jews could not drink wine in public, though Muslims sometimes did so in private (something the Normans noticed in the Nebrodi during the eleventh century). Jews and Christians had to stand when Muslims entered a room and make way for them in the souks, streets and other public places. In Arab Sicily there was harmony if not absolute tolerance.
Following the death of Hasan as-Samsam in 1053 three warring emirs divided control of Sicily. Ibn al Hawas ruled northeastern Sicily (Val Demone) from Kasr'Jannis (Enna), Ibn at Timnah ruled southeastern Sicily (Val di Noto) from Siracuse and Catania, and Abdullah ibn Haukal ruled western Sicily (Val di Mazara), a region which included Bal'harm, from Trapani and Mazara. During this period of political chaos and localised power struggles the title of emir came to be abused, occasionally usurped by leaders of certain cities, hence when the Normans conquered the capital in 1072 there was a nominal "Emir of Bal'harm" (Palermo) resident in the Favara palace in what is now the city's Brancaccio district.
Norman Sicily - The Multicultural Experiment
There was conflict among Sicily's jealous emirs, and one of them was in contact with a band of Europeans set on the conquest of Sicily. The Normans had been in Italy for decades, as mercenaries fighting battles for Byzantine, Lombard or Papal patrons. From 1038 to 1043, they found themselves with the Byzantine general George Maniakes during his brief occupation of parts of eastern Sicily. In addition to the Normans, the Norse Varangian Guard was present, led by Harald Hardrada.
The Normans liked what they saw in Sicily, and in light of the Great Schism of 1054 - which divided Christianity into the "Roman" Catholic and "Greek" Orthodox churches - Pope Nicholas II, a Frenchman who enjoyed a good rapport with the Normans in Italy, made it understood that he wanted the island in Latin hands rather than Byzantine ones. This was not the only political consequence of the Schism, but it was the first major event to be shaped by it. Of course, Nicholas also wanted the Muslims out, or at least converted to Catholicism, and made it known that the Normans could have as much of the island as they could wrest from its Arab masters, on condition that they pledge the Church in Sicily to Rome instead of Constantinople.
Men-at-arms were not theologians. The Pope's offer meant that the landless knights from Normandy could have their own lands, and to win them they had only to wrest power from a few Arabs - and along with them perhaps a few stubborn Byzantine Greeks like Bishop Nicodemus of Palermo. It sounded simple. In reality, the conquests of the world's most contested island had never been too easy for any invader, and the Normans' experience would be no different. Nevertheless, the temptation was too great to resist.
In 1061, a Norman lord named Roger de Hauteville crossed the Strait of Messina with his brothers and several hundred knights from Normandy, Lombardy and Southern Italy, defeating the Saracen garrison and establishing a foothold under cover of darkness. Unlike their Viking forebears, the Normans were unaccustomed to naval combat. Apart from more immediate concerns, the conquest of Messina against Arab foes would serve as the blueprint for the battle at Hastings against the Saxons a few years later, and several knights actually fought at both battles. This was Roger's second attempt to land at Messina and, though it was successful, Palermo was still far away. It was captured only in 1071 following another epic battle by land and sea. When the fighting was over, Sicily was part of Europe again.
At the time, anybody who might have suggested that an unruly band of brigands from Normandy could establish Europe's first truly multicultural society would have been dismissed as insane. Yet that is exactly what occurred in 1071. It was the beginning of Europe's greatest medieval experiment.
Styled "Count of Sicily" by his knights, and "emir of emirs" by the Arabs, Roger brought to his new dominion a complex, tolerant feudal system. His rule also brought with it religious freedom, multicultural artistic expression and national sovereignty. There was little actual serfdom as that institution was understood in most of Europe, and very little slavery. There were mosques, synagogues and plenty of churches, English bishops and Saracen imams. The Sicilians who didn't speak Greek or Arabic spoke Norman French, and court decrees were issued in several languages, including Latin, Greek and Arabic. Benedictine monks worked alongside Arab scribes. The Normans accepted certain Byzantine, Jewish and Muslim legal practices Islamic law as it then existed in Sicily was fairly sophisticated, and there is evidence that it was exported to England.
Count Roger's son, known to us as Roger II, was crowned King of Sicily in 1130 and ruled a dominion that included Sicily, most of Italy south of Rome, a piece of the Tunisian coast and some territories across the Adriatic, with Palermo as his capital. It was the wealthiest realm of Europe, whose monarch wore Byzantine robes in the manner of an Eastern Emperor and kept a private harem in the style of an Arab emir. A mosaic in the Martorana Church depicts Roger clad as a Byzantine monarch wearing a robe of golden crosses on a blue field, the earliest known representation of what eventually became the heraldic symbol of the French kings. His descendant, King William II of Sicily, son of the highly-educated, politically-sophisticated Margaret of Navarre, wed Joan, daughter of Henry II of England. His cathedral and cloister at Monreale is the perfect synchronicity and symbiosis of Byzantine, Arab and Norman art where a mosaic icon of Thomas Becket is the earliest holy image of the saint.
Universal legal codes such as Roger's Assizes of Ariano were eventually introduced toward the middle of the twelfth century, but until then the Normans permitted each Sicilian - Christian, Muslim, Jew - to be judged by his own law. It would not be an exaggeration to describe the Kingdom of Sicily during the reign of Roger II as the most important realm of Europe and the Mediterranean, politically and intellectually as well as economically. In terms of wealth, the royal revenues from Palermo alone exceeded those of all England.
As promised before the Sicilian conquest, feudalism was gradually introduced as estates were given to Norman knights and the Lombards (and others) who came to Sicily with them. Such an ad vitam and ad personam fief was meant to revert to the crown following the death of its feudatory, but it became common practice to transmit these estates to male heirs. These men followed in their fathers' footsteps, becoming enfeoffed knights and (later) barons and lords. Here we find the early divergence of traditions - the Normans left their fiefs to their eldest sons as universal heirs while the Lombards divided their fiefs among all the sons. There were never very many Sicilian serfs tied to the land, though records survive which imply that at least a few were the feudal system held greater sway in Sicily than the "manorial" system.
Sicily became a springboard for the Crusades, even if relatively few Sicilian knights participated in those undertaken during the twelfth century. Joan's brother, Richard Lionheart, came through Messina - which by now had superseded Syracuse as the island's second most important city - in 1190 en route to Palestine for the Third Crusade during the brief reign of William's illegitimate kinsman Tancred Hauteville. The heart of Louis IX of France is preserved in Monreale Abbey, along the route to - and from - his Tunisian Crusade undertaken in 1270.
The Third Crusade occasioned the early use of heraldry, the practice of knights emblazoning their shields and surcoats with colourful symbols called "coats of arms" for easier identification during combat or tournaments when their faces were concealed by helmets. The practice, which came to entail a great deal of elitism and snobbery, seems to have begun at some point during the third quarter of the twelfth century. By 1200 it was widespread in western Europe, including Sicily. Armorial insignia remained popular for centuries, engraved in sealing rings or carved above the doors of castles and other aristocratic residence. Coats of arms are seen on many Sicilian coins minted after 1200, including the gold saluto (shown here). The earliest royal heraldry was based on symbols already in use by specific dynasties - the Norman lion, the Swabian eagle, the Angevin fleur de lis - but knights displayed either simple geometric designs or heraldic symbols allusive to their surnames (themselves rare outside the nobility until the fifteenth century). A knight named Oliveri might display an olive tree, while a man named Arezzo might display a hedgehog (rizzo). The Chiaramonte family bore three stylized white mountains, literally "chiari monti." Coats of arms became hereditary in theory no two knights in the same kingdom could use the same design unless they were descended from the same armiger. In the thirteenth century even some enfeoffed knights could not sign their own names, so seals often substituted for signatures. Usurping another man's coat of arms was tantamount to theft or even criminal impersonation, and punishable as such.
Ibn Jubayr described Sicily at length. Abdullah al Idrisi, an Arab geographer in the court of Roger II, travelled across Sicily and authored what may be considered its first travel guide. He observed that castles had sprung up everywhere. Benjamin of Tudela described Sicily's Jewish communities and much more. The Golden Age of Sicily had begun.
In 1198 the very young Frederick II von Hohenstaufen succeeded his father, Emperor Henry VI, to the throne of Sicily. The Swabian dynasty were Holy Roman Emperors Henry's father was none other than Frederick Barbarossa. But it was through a Norman connection that Sicily came into Hohenstaufen hands, for young Frederick's mother, Constance de Hauteville, was the posthumous daughter of Roger II. Frederick ascended the throne and ruled for more than half a century. His first wife, also Constance, who like Margaret of Navarre came from what is now Spain, was an intelligent strong-willed woman whose presence seemed suitable to Sicily's importance. By now, the Golden Age of Sicily was in full flower. From Palermo's splendid royal palace, the enlightened Frederick ruled most of Italy and also parts of Germany as Holy Roman Emperor, though in truth he spent little time in Sicily. Rather few Sicilian knights took part in the Crusades and the other wars of the day, and Frederick's own "crusade" to the Holy Land - for he was King of Jerusalem - was actually an excercise in diplomacy. Frederick was considered brilliant. His Constitutions of Melfi are a benchmark of medieval European law, legalising divorce as a civil right and unequivocally outlawing rape. "Stupor Mundi" (wonder of the world) was the Latin nickname given to the most powerful man of Europe and the Mediterranean.
By the middle years of the oft-excommunicated monarch's long reign, subtle, gradual changes were taking place as Sicily's Muslims converted to Christianity. They became Roman Catholic rather than Greek Orthodox the latter were fewer and fewer. Under the Normans some Sicilians had been multilingual many spoke both Greek and Arabic, and some managed a bit of Latin, Italian or Norman-French. The vernacular language of the Sicilian Jews was an Arabic dialect. Now Sicily was being Latinized in every sense, and Ciullo of Alcamo composed poetry in the Romance language which was becoming the Sicilian vernacular. This was a new Italic language embellished by Arabic, Greek and Norman-French borrowings, and later recognised by both Dante and Bocaccio for its literary value. Ciullo's "Dialogue" is considered the earliest true "Italian" poetry of the Middle Ages, almost a bridge between the Latin Vulgate and the language that became the medieval tongue of Tuscany.
Siculo-Arabic, the tongue spoken by Sicily's medieval Arabs, survives as Maltese, the only Arabic language written with the Roman alphabet.
During Frederick's reign the Catholic Church - through its bishops and abbots - became the largest landholder after the king himself. This was a slow but constant process. In addition to outright grants from the crown, the Benedictines and other religious orders succeeded to the estates of Eastern (Orthodox) monasteries as Latin (Catholic) abbots replaced those under Constantinople's jurisdiction lost through attrition. Frederick permitted the knightly orders to found a number of preceptories and commanderies in Sicily these were quasi-monastic institutions. The Teutonic Knights were already present during the brief reign of his father, Henry VI, after 1194. The Hospitallers of Saint John ('Knights of Malta') had been in Sicily during the Norman era but expanded their presence under Frederick. Frederick assigned most of Sicily's Templar commanderies to the Hospitallers following what he believed to be an affront by the arrogant Templars in Palestine during his Sixth Crusade in 1228.
Under Frederick the feudal system developed further than it had under the Normans. Feudal towns were controlled by their resident lords, but there were also royal or demesnial cities - Trapani and Agrigento but also smaller ones like Vizzini, Taormina and Calascibetta - that answered directly to the crown and were administered by local councils of minor nobles called "giurati." The king's justiciars, a roving court of circuit judges, sought to ensure justice around Sicily. But certain areas seemed to be governed by neither feudal or desmenial principles.
This was the case of several Arab towns. Usually tolerant of Islam, Frederick and his German barons were unwilling to accomodate the many demands of the Muslims who still inhabited a few parts of the Sicilian interior. For some years before 1220, Ibn Abbad, a Saracen leader, had been acting as an independent sovereign, only to have his ambitions thwarted by the real sovereign, who resettled some of Sicily's Muslims in Apulia. But though Sicily's Church was gradually becoming Latinized, and the Pope supported local suppression of the Muslims, the Papacy was only rarely happy with Frederick's use of power. He ruled two-thirds of Italy, with the Papal State sandwiched in between, and his death in 1250 was met in Rome with a sigh of relief.
The throne was ascended by Conrad, one of Frederick's sons, in 1250, but he died in 1254, leaving behind a young son, Conradin, in Germany. In 1258 Manfred, Frederick's illegitimate son, was crowned at Palermo.
Frederick's legacy survives him. He founded one of Europe's first universities at Naples and he is credited with maintaining at least a semblance of the spirit of cultural diversity and intellectual curiosity that flourished at the court of his grandfather, Roger II. Nor was he forgotten in the Holy Roman Empire, where his building programme included one of Europe's most magnificent Gothic cathedrals at Cologne. German tourists can sometimes be seen leaving flowers at his tomb in Palermo Cathedral.
The Angevins and the Sicilian Vespers
Frederick's heirs proved themselves far less able than he, even if Manfred and young Conradin managed to preserve the Hohenstaufen patrimony for a few years and were willing to fight to defend it. Sicilian independence came to an effective end with Manfred's defeat and death at the Battle of Benevento in 1266, and young Conradin's beheading two years later following the battle of Tagliacozzo. The new monarch sent his French justiciars, castellans and officers to Sicily, confiscating estates and giving them to his own nobles while generally trampling on the rights of the Sicilian barons. Worse yet, whatever religious or ethnic diversity still existed in Sicily during the Hohenstaufen era died when Charles of Anjou became king. In the words of historian Denis Mack Smith, Charles "represented religious intolerance in a country which had flourished through toleration."
During this period Italy saw the growth of two political factions - the Ghibellines who supported the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor represented by the Hohenstaufens, opposing the Guelphs who advocated the power of the Papacy and the Angevins embodied by Charles of Anjou in Naples. With the battlefield defeat of the Hohenstaufens, one might think the cause of the Ghibellines all but lost. But some of the Hohenstaufens' old friends, notably John of Procida, kept Swabian hopes alive.
Sicilian baronial opposition to Charles seemed to vanish with the execution of brave young Conradin in 1268. The Angevin dynasty of France ruled Sicily from Naples until 1282, when a bloody uprising, the War of the Sicilian Vespers, expelled Angevin troops.
The political reasons for this war were indeed rather complex. The local aristocracy and John of Procida were certainly involved, but so were several European monarchs and even the Pope. The Sicilian conflicts mirrored those between Guelphs and Ghibellines elsewhere in Italy. In the wake of the Vespers, during which the Sicilians had slaughtered most of the Angevins on their island, the barons offered their nation's Crown to Peter of Aragon, who gladly accepted. Peter's wife, Constance, was the daughter of Manfred Hohenstaufen (the illegitimate son of Frederick killed at Benevento in 1266), and on this tenuous basis the Aragonese monarch was thought to be the best dynastic candidate for the Sicilian throne since his sons carried Hohenstaufen blood in their veins. This led to the island being ruled, except for brief periods, from Aragon (and then Madrid) for the next four centuries.
The Vespers, with Sicily claimed by two monarchs - Charles of Anjou and and Peter of Aragon - spawned the ironic phrase "Two Sicilies" because until now the Kingdom of Sicily included not only the island itself but most of Italy south of Rome, and neither Charles nor Peter would renounce his claim to the Sicilian crown even though Peter alone now held it in fact. Eventually the peninsular region would be called, more appropriately, the "Kingdom of Naples."
The "Peace of Caltabellotta," a treaty signed between Aragonese and Angevins, finally ended the hostilities in 1302. The Late Middle Ages found Sicily in the Aragonese (and Spanish) orbit rather than the Italian one. Although Peter of Aragon had promised that Sicily would always have its own king (through the line of his second son) who would rule from Palermo, there were to be Aragonese kings of Sicily who rarely ventured beyond Barcelona, entrusting their authority to Aragonese and Catalan delegates in Sicily. These were not yet "viceroys" but the Sicilian barons were resentful of them just the same.
For a few decades rule by Aragon seemed a solution to all of Sicily's problems, but this "honeymoon" didn't last long. Sicily soon came to be seen as a colony to be exploited. Taxation was increased. This included taxes on grain and everything else, as well as the collecta or donativo, an arbitrary "one-time" tax which was not levied at regular intervals but could be decreed at royal whim to cover any exigency (and which still exists in Italy today as the "tassa una tantum" deducted directly from bank accounts). Most of the forests that remained in Sicily were harvested - but never replanted - to provide wood for the Aragonese to build their ships, with the former woodlands turned over to grain production.
The zealous, jealous baronage, the same class which had instigated the Vespers uprising in 1282, grew even more greedy than before. Yet Sicily had no Magna Carta, nor a true parliament (despite widespread misuse of that term to denote any gathering of nobles) to either guarantee baronial rights or to rein in the barons. That said, the Sicilian parliament - such as it was - met fairly regularly beginning around 1400.
In 1295 a "parliament" was convened by Frederick, the younger brother of the absentee King James of Sicily (both were sons of King Peter of Aragon). At this session, the Sicilian baronage nominated Frederick, who was Sicilian by birth and upbringing, as their sovereign, and crowned him at Palermo the following year as Frederick III of Sicily. His elder brother objected but could do nothing to alter the course of events. In the wake of the Vespers, this was an early example of the importance of the assent of the people, or at least that of the baronial faction, in deciding who would rule Sicily.
In 1347 ships arriving at Messina from the eastern Mediterranean brought the bubonic plague (Black Death) to Europe. By 1400 more than twenty million Europeans had died from this disease. This catastrophe was a signal event in western European history, eventually bringing about the end of serfdom where it still existed. Chroniclers and poets - as well as serfs - were becoming ever bolder. In 1353 Giovanni Bocaccio's Decameron mentioned Palermo's Cuba palace and King William II. This was the beginning of a serious historical critique of Sicily's rulers of the High Middle Ages.
By 1385 there were more than forty guilds in Sicily, reflecting the growth of a class of artisans and tradesmen, but little changed outside the larger towns. The nobility took increasing control of the countryside and the smaller towns. The worst abuse of baronial power to be seen during the Middle Ages occurred late in the fourteenth century.
A dynastic interregnum facilitated the Chiaramonte family seizing a certain degree of feudal power for some years after the death of Frederick IV in 1377. The wealth of this family known for its castle-building came from confiscated estates that had belonged to the displaced Angevin feudatories before the Vespers but, with the sovereign so far away, families like the Chiaramonte, Peralta, Ventimiglia and Alagona, the so-called "Four Vicars" of the crown, vied for local power. Essentially, what happened is that King Frederick's young daughter, Maria, was in the care of the Alagona family when he died, and the barons effectively kidnapped the girl in order to secure her marriage to a husband - and potential king - they considered suitable. Maria was abducted from Catania Castle by a rival baron, Antonio Moncada, and spirited off to Barcelona to marry her cousin, Martin, a grandson of the King of Aragon and potential heir to the Sicilian throne. The rebels were brought to justice when Martin arrived in Sicily in 1392 to ascend the throne and restore order. For his treason, Andrea Chiaramonte, the leader of the rebels, was executed at his Palermo castle, now called the "Steri," and his lands were confiscated.
Like Peter after the Vespers, Martin granted fiefs to a new influx of Aragonese barons. Even during the reign of Frederick II men were knighted who were of Arab or Byzantine stock, but by 1400, with haphazard feudal succession and the frequent transmission of lands to "foreigners," the Sicilian nobility could no longer claim exclusively Norman or Swabian roots - and such pretensions can now be disproven by genetic testing.
Martin called a "parliament." It wasn't the first and it would not be the last, but it was not particularly effective, and it led to few real reforms except to enforce royal prerogatives.
We may observe that matters were not much better elsewhere in western Europe, but for the average person justice was more easily had in kingdoms where the king was present to guarantee the order of law, where the prosperity of his humblest subjects was in his own interest. In this important regard Sicily compared unfavorably to the northern Italian comunes and the patchwork of small monarchies of central Europe. Aragonese policy, or perhaps the absence of a firm "Sicily programme," set a terrible precedent. The exploitation of the land, its people and its economy was to continue for many centuries.
The guilds were one sign of the late-medieval development of a kind of "middle class," but there were other encouraging signs as well. During the fifteenth century a growing number of peasants and tenant farmers were able to obtain their own small parcels of land, even though the common areas of many towns were under feudal control - and even if most of these new smallholders were as illiterate as their parents. However great the power of the landed classes was, there were occasional signs of relief. Labour wages were, in theory, established by national law, and in 1446, when the baron of Calatabiano prohibited the pasturing of sheep on common land, the shepherds took their case to the crown courts and won.
Welcome as these things were, Sicily was virtually ignored by the Renaissance, both artistically and philosophically. There was one prominent exception. In 1428 Francesco Laurana, an early Renaissance sculptor, established a workshop in Palermo. Yet well into the 1490s, while a new architectural movement was flourishing in northern Italy, in Sicily the churches and palaces of the fifteenth century were more medieval in appearance. The Catalonian Gothic movement was an example of this it was a style popular with the Aragonese, modified only slightly to accomodate Renaissance sensibilities. In church architecture, Sicily rarely experienced the true Gothic so much as a peculiar Romanesque Gothic.
Sicily's first university was founded at Catania in 1434. In general, however, education was left to the schools of the religious orders - at first the Benedictines but then the Dominicans and later (in a few cities) the Jesuits, followed by others. These monastic schools were not all seminaries or convents wealthier citizens and even some tradesmen sent their sons to them. Except for nuns and noblewomen, literacy was a male monopoly, but it was the exception for either gender.
Here we encounter an interesting phenomenon. In the two or three centuries immediately before the Angevin period (1266), Sicily probably had a higher general rate of literacy than it did in 1400 or 1800, even if the great majority of people - as ever - could not read or write. Sicily's Byzantines (who were Orthodox Christians), Muslims and Jews, strongly advocated literacy. Indeed, learning was a distinguishing feature of the culture of all three civilizations, something in which their people truly believed. Instead, Sicily's Catholic hierarchy viewed literacy as less important for the general populace. The nobility, of course, used the general illiteracy of Sicily's poorer classes to its own advantage all the easier to control them. At some point after 1300 a hopeless cycle of poverty and illiteracy began. The destitute classes grew while the better-educated ones stagnated. Today's popolino, an urban underclass, is the heir to these poor peasants. Yet these peasants were not serfs tied to the land serfdom was never instituted universally on the island and at all events it did not last much beyond the Swabian period.
Alfonso V was crowned in 1416 and ruled for forty-two years in 1442 the Sicilian and Neapolitan crowns were united under him. Henceforth the Kingdom of Sicily was politically linked to peninsular Italy, and one spoke of the kingdoms "of Naples and Sicily" or even the "two Sicilies." But for the most part the rulers remained in Spain Aragon and Castile were united in 1479 to form the cornerstone of what was to become the Kingdom of Spain. Soon the Spanish kings would send governors and viceroys to administer Sicily on their behalf. Alfonso was a slightly more generous patron of learning and the arts than his immediate predecessors, and founded the University of Catania, but the Sicilians had to bear the cost of his petty wars against the maritime cities of northern Italy.
Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453. The Hundred Years War ended in the same year. The Middle Ages were at an end and the Renaissance was firmly established. Sicilian-born Antonello da Messina was part of this new movement. So was Antonio Beccadelli, the aristocratic diplomat and chronicler known as 'Panormita.' Both spent the greater part of their careers outside Sicily.
The nobility may not have been very concerned for their welfare, but during this period the common people of Sicily began to assume hereditary surnames. This made it all the easier to identify them for taxation. Until now, actual hereditary surnames were the perquisite of the landed classes, whose families were often known by toponyms based on the names of a county, barony or other important fief they held, or perhaps an important position. Before the fifteenth century a common man might be known by a patronym (as the son of Giovanni, Giuseppe, etc.) or perhaps a familial profession (cipolla for the onion grower, maniscalco for the maker of horse shoes, etc.) but these were not formal appellations. Hence Antonello "da Messina," who was not born into an aristocratic family, was known for the city of his birth. Among the greater part of the population, surnames would be based on a professions, personal characteristics or towns of origin.
Coinciding with this development, we find the earliest "complete" property census in Sicilian history, undertaken primarily to facilitate taxation of assets. These rivelli (for they "revealed" assets) listed smallholdings as well as larger (feudal) ones. Not only could the crown levy taxes, but until 1812 (with the abolition of feudalism) the nobles and other feudatories (including the church) could still impose certain minor taxes upon the residents of their territories. The sad fact that medieval terms such as villico and villano (from the French villein for "serf") appeared in Sicilian records into the eighteenth century, while the names of the wealthy were preceded in civil and ecclesiastical documents by titles such as magnifico, indicates that the road to equality was indeed a long one.
The Spanish Inquisition arrived in Sicily in 1487, with horrific consequences. In 1493 Spain's edict against the Jews was enforced in Sicily, prompting widespread conversions and some emigrations. At the same time, the arrival of Columbus in America was a turning point that began to shift the focus of European power away from the Mediterranean and Sicily. With the exception of a few Orthodox Christian refugees arriving from Albania in the wake of the Turkish invasions of the Balkans, Sicily was exclusively Roman Catholic by 1500. With the Inquisition and the growing dominance of Sicilian society by the Church, divorce (a fundamental civil right upheld by Frederick's Constitutions in 1231) was now outlawed, while crimes such as rape - though condemned officially - became nearly impossible to prosecute. The lives of of the common folk, the popolino, were as miserable as the ruling class could make them. The island, which Spain viewed as a colony in all but name, was exploited in every imaginable way. Sicily's true 'Dark Ages' had begun, and they were to be endured for several arduous centuries. history of sicily wikipedia, sicily wikipedia
Archaeologists in Sicily excavate an ancient Greek city remarkably preserved beneath earth and sand
In 409 BC, Carthaginian troops from North Africa slaughtered and enslaved the 16,000 soldiers and residents of Selinunte, a Greek metropolis whose ruins were preserved in ancient times by blowing earth and sand. Working for many years, archaeologists have examined and excavated the entire city to find 2,500 houses, the streets and harbor and an industrial zone that produced exquisite pottery.
Archaeologists have compared Selinunte to Pompeii in the degree of preservation. Pompeii, on the Italian mainland, was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.
About 15 percent of Selinunte, including a spectacular acropolis and temples, had remained above-ground and was visited on what the British of the Georgian and Victorian used to call the Grand Tour. They called it the City of the Gods. More than 500 years ago a temblor knocked down those buildings. Two of the temples were re-built in the mid-20 th century and have been a tourist attraction ever since.
“Selinunte is the only classical Greek city where the entire metropolis is still preserved, mainly buried under sand and earth. It therefore gives us a unique opportunity to discover how an ancient Greek city functioned,” Martin Bentz of the University of Bonn, head of excavations now underway at Selinunte, told The Independent .
This pot, which was made in Selinunte, shows a rider with a spear and an attendant. (Photo by Marie Lan-Nguyen/ Wikimedia Commons )
Before Selinunte, scholars had found not one single entirely intact ancient Greek city and were able to study only fragmentary city plans and ancient city life. The study of Selinunte has shed much light on the ancient world and its demographics and lifestyles. Researchers never knew how many residents there were in any ancient Greek cities until Selinunte.
Archaeologists found a half-eaten meal inside a dozen bowls around a hearth in a building that burned during the invasion and will analyze the food residue. They have also found dozens of unfired ceramic pots and tiles in the city, which was a major producer of ceramics. Terrified locals apparently left these products unfired because the invasion interrupted their work.
Recent excavations have brought to light pottery kilns and entire workshops. Archaeologists have found pigments used to paint the ceramics and 80 kilns, including large circular ones for producing roof tiles and amphorae jars and a dozen large rectangular kilns for firing giant amphorae and coffins. In smaller kilns, workers fired weights, tableware and small statues of the gods.
The ceramicists had a chapel for worshiping a working-class goddess, Athena Ergane of Athena of the Workers, and Artemis, Demeter and Zeus, the supreme deity.
A pottery piece made in Selinunte showing Artemis with a bow and arrow in front of an altar (Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen/ Wikimedia Commons )
Scholars are examining pottery from around the Mediterranean to determine how much of it originated in Selinunte, which produced much more than it could use on its own. They estimate the city’s residents produced 300,000 ceramic pieces per year, but less than 20 percent of that was for domestic use. In addition, amphorae produced in Selinunte may have been used to transport the city’s surplus wheat and olive oil, The Independent says.
Researchers have been studying Selinunte’s man-made harbor and will use geophysical surveys to find the foundations of warehouses that would have been positioned around it. Artifacts in the city’s shops and houses, including pottery, glass and bronze pieces from Egypt, Turkey, southern France and northern Italy, show that ships from far and wide docked in the harbor.
The city, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, didn’t exist for very long. Ancient Greeks founded it between 650 and 630 BC. A bit more than 200 years later, Carthage attacked and killed and enslaved its defenders and residents.
The Carthaginians, at war with Greece, besieged the city for nine days and then breached its walls and overwhelmed its defenders.
“What followed was an orgy of destruction, torture, rape, murder and looting that was considered abhorrent even by the standards of those days,” says the site Best of Sicily . “According to Diodorus Siculus, about 16,000 of Selinunte's estimated 25,000 or so civilians were butchered outright and 7,000 were enslaved. Only a scant two thousand managed to escape the bloodbath and make their way to Agrigento.”
The Carthaginians repopulated the city some, but it never regained its former power or prestige. During the first Punic War with Rome in 250 BC, Carthaginian forces destroyed the city before fleeing Roman troops.
Featured image: The interior of what researchers call Temple E in Selinunte (Photo by Evan Erickson/ Wikimedia Commons )
Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.