SICILY – Three Thousand Years of Human History

The Greeks called Sicily - Trinacria, the three pointed island.

The Greeks named the small island of Lipari, Aeolia, after the Greek God of the winds.

The Siculi (Sicel) and Sicani were two indigenous peoples of Sicily. It is from their names the island draws its current name from. The king of the Sicels had a son named Italus, whose name was given to the Italic people on the Italian peninsula.

The story of Damocles and the sword takes place in the year 400 during the reign of Dionysius in Siracusae, Sicily.

In the year 300 one of the first books on cooking was written by Archestratus of Gela who compiled some Greek recipes into a work called Heduphagetica (Sweet Eating). Archestratus was a friend of Epicurus.

One of the Romans’ favorite cities was Centorbi, an old Sicel town in the foothills of Mount Etna. Centorbi had strategic value, overlooking three river valleys and a rock salt mine. Cicero attributed her people as descendents from the Trojans.

The Arabs renamed many towns and today their names remain: Misilmeri (manzil al amir, “resting place of the emir”); Marsala (Mars-al-Allah, “port of Allah”); Gibellina (gibel is Arabic for mountain); Sciacca (as-Saqqah, “fissure”); Caltabellotta (Kalat-al-ballut, “castle of rock”); Caltanissetta (Kalat an-nisa, “castle of women”) and Caltagirone (Qal’at-al ganom, “castle of genies”).

When the Norman knights Roger and Robert Guiscard conquered Sicily in the early 1060s, their exploits were followed closely by their fellow Norman: William “the Bastard”. Irritated by their conquests and fed by his ambition, it is doubtful, without the military and diplomatic models of the Guiscard brother, whether William would have become, in 1066, “the Conqueror”.

Count Roger ordered a census of men and lands. In 1097 he assembled his knights at Mazara and gave them the results. This seems to be the first time a European sovereign gathered his leading subjects to discuss state business, and it is the basis for Sicilians’ claim to having the oldest parliament in Europe.

In 1090, Count Roger married Adelaide, forty years his junior, a Lombard of noble family. Their clan was keen to find a new home and Roger founded for them, the town of San Fratello, a few kilometers inland from the Tyrrhenian coast, north of Troina.

From North Africa the Arabs in Sicily imported a new kind of material to write, made of flax and old linen. Unlike the usual papyrus, it didn’t crack when folded. Palermo was the first city in Europe to use ‘paper’ for documents.

On March 30, 1282, Palermo was celebrating its festival Easter Monday. As the celebration drew to a close, the faithful were ambling towards the Church of the Holy Spirit for its Monday vesper service. They were joined by some French soldiers, also celebrating, but they had been drinking. The soldiers flirted with the women. When a sergeant named Drouet pulled a young bride over to him, the husband attacked him with a knife. The other French soldiers jumped in to do battle. The Sicilian men, all armed outnumbered the soldiers. When the bell tolled Vespers, not one soldier was alive to hear it. As bells in other churches pealed Vespers, crowds crying “Death to the French” filled the streets. At least two thousand French –soldiers and civilians – were slain in Palermo that night. The revolution against the French Anjevins became known as the Sicilian Vespers.

Starting around 1600 and increasing through the seventeenth century, the feudal barons hired managers for their lands, called a gabelloto – the word derives from gabello (tax collector) – the manager was a member of Sicily’s small middle class who might have risen from peasantry, descended from nobility, or been a foreigner. Yet the gabelloto enjoyed supreme power over the estate he managed.

Sicily’s sulfur mines were located in the interior from Enna to Caltanissetta. The landscape looked like Swiss cheese. Laws banned mines within 3 kilometers of residents, but they were ignored. Emissions from the antique fusion process burned plant life for miles around. In the 1880s there were over 500 mines and some twenty thousand men and boys were employed in them. In 1900 mine employment peaked at thirty eight thousand. Boys, age six to eight, known as carusi, carried loads of 25 to 30 kilos from deep in the mine to the surface, for a mere pittance. They worked all day long, every day, making a dozen trips per day. Some carusi were said to live in the mines and hardly ever saw the sun.

As a consequence of the Fasci movement of 1893-94, the parliament began to debate proposals for relieving Sicily’s tribulations. For the first time some deputies admitted the policies of the Kingdom of Italy vis-à-vis its south had been mistaken – they openly addressed the conditions of latifundia and even broached the question of regional autonomy.

The Fasci movement is background for the novel I Vecchi e I Giovanni (The Old and the Young, 1913) by Luigi Pirandello, winner of the 1934 Nobel Peace prize for Literature. The novels most famous lines are: “Poor Island, to be treated like a conquered land! Poor islanders, to be treated as savages who need to be civilized!” Like Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Pirandello came from a Sicilian upper-class family, some of whose recent money had come from sulfur.

Mussolini named Cesare Mori as Sicily’s prefetto (civil governor) charging him particularly to destroy the Mafia. He targeted an area thirty kilometers south of Cefalu, around the town of Gangi, high in the mountains honeycombed with bandits’ tunnels. On the first evening of January 1926 he sent word to the outlaws to surrender. Few did but Mori kept up the hunt and many were arrested, tried and executed.

The duchy-latifundium at Maniace, passed down through Admiral Nelson’s descendants, still had peasants mired in medieval grain lands. Sicilians knew this ex-feudo near Bronte as the site where Garibaldi’s officers executed peasants, claiming lands he had promised them. The Fascists expropriated the property in 1940, but with war’s end the English owners reclaimed it. The duke of Bronte successfully requested the Italians to exempt the English enclave from nationwide social legislation. The local peasants, forced to wait for an adequate diet and land of their own, remained in feudal servitude. On land under control of the English, the peasants would continue in their ragged clothing and ramshackle windowless huts for another generation. Finally in 1981, after intellectuals took up the cause, the town bought the ex-feudo and turned it into a borgo (a village for peasants). So ended Sicily’s feudalism in the computer age.

Indolence depresses the Sicilian economy in general, Giovanni Falcone, a judge who devoted his life to understanding the Sicilian character, tried to explain: The invaders arrived from many countries, and every time [the Sicilians] had to adapt themselves, or pretend to adapt themselves, waiting for them to go away. At the end they did go away, leaving us as legacy a temperament that I would define as misoneist, made up of apparent submission and loyalty to tradition, together with raving pride.”

Sicily - Three Thousand Years of Human History
Sandra Benjamin