The Human History of Sicily in 1345 Words

Humans first began colonizing Sicily about 14,000 years ago.  Historians aren’t sure where these people originated, but they probably came from what today is mainland Italy, Spain, and/or North Africa.  Different tribes roamed various parts of the island where they fished, hunted large mammals, and foraged in the forest for plant foods.  The oldest known culture is the Mycenaean, a people who established trade routes and flourished on the island from 1600 BC-1200 BC.  This culture died out, possibly following some natural disaster, such as an earthquake that weakened the stability of that society.  Greeks started colonizing the island in 734 BC, forcing the native tribes away from the coast and into the interior.  The Greeks were 1 of the dominant civilizations in the Western World during this time, but they weren’t a single country.  Instead they were made up of many different city states–some were democratic while others were ruled by autocratic kings.  The Greeks fought with the Carthaginians for control of Sicily, and the Greeks eventually forced them off the island.  The Carthaginians descend from the Phoenicians of the bible and were a sea-faring, trading civilization.  The Greek city states of Sparta and Athens then fought for control over the island, and the former were victorious.

Almost a century later Carthaginians invaded the island again. The first great king of Sicily, Gelon, led an army that defeated the Carthaginians in battle.  (The Carthaginains still controlled a small part of the island, but Gelon had most of it.)  Gelon also founded the Greek city of Syracuse on Sicily where he established the capital of his state.  He forcibly moved the richest, best educated people he conquered to Syracuse, and the city became renowned for its high culture.

Gelon, the first great king of Sicily.

Sicily was ruled by a series of tyrant kings after Gelon’s death.  They all varied in their competence and cruelty.  Timoleon was the next great ruler of Sicily.  He drove the Carthaginians off the island after they had tried to regain control once again.  His sensible administration of the island led to it becoming the first great granary of the rising Roman empire.  Rome became the big world power during the 3rd century BC and after they defeated Carthage in 2 major wars, Sicily became part of the Roman empire, though most of the inhabitants spoke Greek instead of Latin.  Rome ruled Sicily for centuries and aside from several slave revolts Sicilian history was uneventful during this time period.

The Roman empire collapsed circa 500 AD and split into 2 kingdoms.  Western Rome, influenced by the pope, was Roman Catholic, while eastern Rome, ruled from Constantinople and known as the Byzantine Empre, was Greek Orthodox.  For a brief time the German Ostrogoth tribe conquered the western empire and ruled Sicily, but this didn’t last long.  The Byzantines took control of Sicily for about 200 years until Arabs invaded the island when they were spreading the Muslim religion across the Mediterranean at the point of a sword.  The Byzantines frequently tried to regain control of Sicily, but they could never beat the Arabs.  However, Arab kings, though they were brothers, were constantly fighting each other in a kind of Civil War that made them weak.  Meanwhile, the Normans, used as mercenaries to protect the western Roman empire, were becoming numerous and troublesome to the pope in southern Italy.  (Normans were Vikings that had conquered northern France and shortly after assimilated the French culture.) To get rid of them, the pope gave Sicily to King Robert of the Normans.  Sicily, of course, was ruled by Arab brothers and wasn’t the pope’s territory to give.  Nevertheless, Robert and his Viking army invaded Sicily and eventually defeated the Arabs.

Image result for Norman conquest of Sicily

Illustration of Norman invasion of Sicily.

The Normans ruled Sicily for over an hundred years, until 1 of their kings married into German royalty and passed the torch onto them.  There was 1 great German King during this era by the name of Hohestaffer.  The Pope asked him to lead a Crusade to retake Jerusalem.  But instead of all out warfare, he managed to regain the city with a peace agreement.  This pissed the pope off because he hated Muslims and wanted bloodshed.  Worse yet, Hohestaffer was reportedly decent to the Muslim citizens who still lived on Sicily.  So the pope sent an army after Hohestaffer, but the German king defeated it, took his army to Rome, and made the pope surrender.

The Catholic church always hated this German line of kings, and several generations later they replaced this lineage with French Royalty.  The French kings never lived on the island and seldom even visited it.  Instead, they doled the land out to their buddies who served as absentee landlords that got rich from the poor laboring peasants.  Sicily was always kind of a backwater region controlled by distant royalty who gave their powerful friends vast estates.  This created enormous income inequality that persists today.  The Sicilians often rebelled, and during 1 rebellion King Ferdinand of Spain came to their rescue and established Spanish rule.  Spain owned Sicily for centuries, but again, the system of vast estates that enriched super rich land barons remained.  Most of the population consisted of poor peasants who never even had the chance to own land, despite the existence of large amounts of fallow acres on these huge estates.  Spain introduced the Inquisition to Sicily, explaining why it remained backwards for so long.  Many Muslims and Jews were expelled from Sicily during Spanish rule.  At this point in history Muslims were more civilized and scientifically advanced than Christians, and Jews were worldly merchants.  The Mafia probably originated during Spanish rule.  The land barons paid bandits protection money–in other words they paid them not to be robbed.  In return the bandits helped the land barons suppress peasant rebellions.

Spain ruled Sicily for about 400 years, but in a war against the Holy Roman Empire they lost it.  Austrians defeated the Spanish in a major battle on Sicily, and the Holy Roman Empire briefly owned it.  Another peace treaty granted the island to a king of the Piedmont province located in what today is Italy.  The next peace treaty granted the island to Austrian royalty who ruled Sicily from Naples.  The French under Napoleon’s brother ran the Austrian royalty out of Naples, but the British (at war with Napoleon) occupied Sicily and protected the royalty, until Napoleon’s eventual defeat.  Austrian royalty regained Naples after Napoleon lost.

Naples and Italy were controlled by Austrian royalty until Italian independence in 1861.

Unhappy peasants often rebelled in Sicily and Naples.  Royalty often were forced to flee, and they would agree to democratic reforms.  But as soon as the kings repressed the insurrections, they would tear up the newly written constitutions and re-establish autocratic rule.  Emmanuel II of the Piedmont kingdom in central Italy was different.  He supported democracy and wanted Italy to be united.  He invited the French to help him kick the Austrians out of a couple Italian provinces which were then united under his rule.  However, it was a mercenary, Giuseppe Garibaldi, who liberated Sicily and Naples from Austrian rule.  Italy was born in 1861.  A decade later the French were forced to leave Rome after their defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, and the pope retreated inside the Vatican.  (The pope and the Catholic church always opposed democracy).  This established the modern day boundaries of Italy. Nevertheless, the peasants in Sicily were still oppressed, squeezed between land barons and the mafia.  Many left for a better life in the U.S. and South America.

Italy was democratic until 1922 when Benito Mussolini took over.  He suppressed the mafia on Sicily for 14 years, so they were glad to help U.S. troops, when along with the British, they kicked the Germans and the Italian army off the island in 1943. The loss of Sicily caused Mussolini to lose power.  Since World War II, Sicily and Italy been under a democratic socialist government, and the people are probably better off than at any other time in their history.

Reference:

Norwich, John

Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History

Random House 2015

2 Responses to “The Human History of Sicily in 1345 Words”

  1. ina puustinen westerholm Says:

    typing with one hand. other one..resting in a sling-cast..from a fullon..80 pound , direct hit..from a lab puppy..at 70 pounds. I love reading history..so..keep on..keeping on. ina

  2. dorrie Says:

    Interesting!! thank you

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