Sights & Activities
Localities • Places
Good Travel Faqs
Sicily's Top 12
Hotels • Planning
Maps of Sicily
Weather • Climate
Nature • History • People
Food • Wine • Dining
Arts • Literature • Culture
Contact • Follow
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...
• Early History (1000 BC-AD 500)
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
An Island Contested - Greeks and Carthaginians
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 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
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.
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
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 Byzantine Greeks
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.
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 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
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.
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
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.
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.
Top of Page