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The Peoples of Sicily: A Multicultural Legacy. Full of Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Germans
and Jews, the most significant general history of Sicily ever published is about much more than an island in the sun. Can the eclectic
medieval experience of the world's most conquered island be a lesson for our times? Find out as you meet the peoples! (368 pages on acid-free
paper, ebook available) Read more.
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.
A.D. - Anno Domini. After the traditional birth of Jesus Christ. Also C.E. for "common" era.|
B.C. - Before the traditional birth of Jesus Christ. Also B.C.E., before the "common" era.
Barbarians - Roman term for most foreigners.
Byzantine - Pertaining to Byzantium or its culture. Relating to medieval successor of the Eastern Roman Empire until 15th century.
Byzantium - Constantinople (see below).
Christianity - Religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ (c. 4 BC- c. AD 28) as Son of God (and Messiah), revealed particularly through the Bible, including the New Testament.
Constantinople - Later name for Byzantium, city founded by Greeks on the Bosporus strait.
Dark Ages - "Early Middle Ages" from circa AD 476 until circa 700.
Goths - Germanic tribe of central and eastern Europe, divided into Ostrogoths and Visigoths.
Islam - Religion founded by Muhammad (570-632) in Arabia as Prophet of Allah (God), whose message is revealed in the Koran. Islam is Arabic for "surrender" or "submission."
Jews - People whose religion is rooted in Judaism (see below). Often, those whose ethnic origins are Hebrew and Jewish.
Judaism - Monotheistic religion of the Hebrews, based on the Biblical Old Testament and Talmud. From "Judea," a kingdom and later a Roman province.
Latin - Language of Rome, also Italic culture of Rome, the Western Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.
Longobards - Tribe of Baltic origin that settled in northern Italy (Lombardy).
Middle Ages - Period dated from fall of Rome (AD 476) to Goths until fall of Constantinople to Turks (1453), or from 500 to 1500.
Moors - Also Saracens. Arab peoples, usually Muslim, who conquered medieval Sicily, Spain and northwestern Africa.
Normans - People of Frankish and Nordic (Viking) origin in Normandy who conquered parts of Italy and Britain in 11th century.
Orthodoxy - Relating to the original Christian Church and its traditional teachings, as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church.
Roman Catholic - Church of Rome, particularly following the Schism of 1054.
Romans - Citizens of the extended Roman Empire.
Vandals - Migratory Germanic tribe originally from Scandinavia.
Born of the society of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine
Empire lasted throughout the Middle Ages - its traditions and culture at
once Greek and Latin. During Europe's "Dark
Ages" (the earliest medieval period from circa AD 476 until around
700), Constantinople (the former Byzantium) shone like a beacon in an era
of shadow. The Byzantine Empire preserved older Roman
traditions while creating new "Byzantine Greek" ones. It emerged
to become the most important and influential Christianized region of the
Early Middle Ages. Unlike the Roman Empire, converted to Christianity in
its final centuries but founded upon vague pagan philosophies, the medieval
Byzantine state was essentially Christian from its very beginning, though
religious tolerance (for Jews, pagans and eventually Muslims) usually existed
there. It was the Roman Emperor Constantine "the Great," a charismatic
leader of eastern origins, who made Christianity acceptable in Roman law
early in the fourth century. In most ways, this was a form of worship very
similar to what is still preserved in the Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic
Church having altered much of its theology and liturgy since the eleventh
century (more about this later). The defining Byzantine artistic movements
were Christian ones.
It has often been said that the Byzantines were Greek, but they were much more. Ethnically,
the earliest Byzantines were, in fact, essentially Greek, with Roman,
Balkan, Armenian, Slavic and western Asian strains. They called themselves
"Romans" and spoke Greek, though Latin was also spoken in some
quarters. Linguistically and culturally, their society was not very different
from that of the Sicilians in the sixth century. As time went on, Byzantine society encompassed various eastern Mediterranean cultures to a large extent. Throughout most of its history, the Byzantine Empire was a monarchy --though not always a strictly hereditary or absolute one-- having legislative bodies and other democratic institutions considered exceptional in the Early Middle Ages. Over the centuries, Byzantine society and culture greatly influenced eastern Europe, and particularly the Kievan state which became Russia, as well as the cultures of the Caucasus to the east of the Black Sea, facilitating the introduction of Christianity in these regions.
In AD 324, when Constantine I (the Great) became emperor of the Roman
Empire, Byzantium was little more than a Greek town (founded before 500
BC) on the Bosporus strait. In 330, he made it the capital of the Empire,
which was now essentially Christian. Byzantium was eventually renamed Constantinople
and is now Istanbul in Turkey. Constantine sponsored the Council of Nicea
(a town in Turkey) in 325. With participation of hundreds of bishops from
across the Empire, it codified much of the theological and canonical substance
of the early Christian Church still followed by Orthodox and Catholics today.
Straddling Europe and Asia, Byzantium was destined to play a key role in early-medieval history. In 395, when the Empire was divided into east and west, this growing
city became capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and resisted the raids of
"Barbarians" (Germanic tribes and Huns) which destroyed the Empire
in the West (Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Morocco,
etc.), leaving Rome to fall to the Goths in 476.
The Byzantine Empire was geographically its largest under Justinian I
(ruled 527-565), who extended it to include Sicily and Peninsular Italy,
seizing power from the Ostrogoths. Following a brief period of rule by the
Vandals and Ostrogoths, Sicily, which --at least
nominally-- was previously part of the Western Empire, was conquered (actually
liberated) by the Byzantine general Belisarius in 535 as part of a Gothic-Byzantine
war. Carthage, which was controlled by Vandals, had been conquered by the
Byzantines a year earlier.
Italian society immediately prior the Byzantine conquest had actually
flourished under the Ostrogoth leaders Odoacer and Theodoric, who governed
a quasi-Roman state there and in Sicily, but the Byzantines brought these
regions under their administration and controlled parts of it well into
the twelfth century. In addition to their defense of Christianity, the Byzantines
preserved ancient Greek and Roman thought and traditions. Justinian's legal
code (sometimes called the "Code of Justinian") is the basis for
many legal systems still used today, but in his own time Justinian himself
was viewed as an extremist whose defense of Christianity led to intolerance.
This policy, though exceptional in the Byzantine Empire in successive years,
resulted in the persecution of heretics, pagans and Jews.
Byzantine art was a major influence in Sicily and elsewhere. Often, as
in Christian iconography, it was more representational than realistic. Geometric
motifs were common, and the use of mosaic was highly developed. Churches
and palaces were usually built in the Romanesque style, sometimes with cupolas
(domes). The crafts such as jewelry making and silk weaving flourished.
Works of literature and history were widely appreciated.
Not all Sicilians were Christians. Sicily had numerous Jewish communities,
even in certain small and remote towns. In Sicily, the Jews dominated certain
fields, particularly some of the textile trades. Though (largely by choice)
they lived in certain districts, the Jews were not very different, socially
speaking, from the Orthodox Christians of Sicily. The serious persecution
of Sicilian Jews was essentially a late medieval development in Sicily,
encouraged from Papal and Spanish circles. As their urbanized population
was small and productive, they attracted little negative attention from
the Byzantines, Arabs and Normans.
In Sicily, the few centuries of Byzantine rule were peaceful and prosperous,
though taxation was high. The Byzantine cultural influence lasted well into
the Arab and Norman eras. Under the Byzantines, as under the ancient Greeks
and Romans, the Greek language was still widely spoken in Sicily. This was
an evolving medieval Greek, not that of the ancients. Vulgar Latin was also
spoken, though it was far less prevalent than Greek. Eventually, this Italic
language, with Greek, Arabic and Norman French influences, became the medieval
Romance language known as Sicilian. Linguistic evolution was a slow process,
however, and Greek was still spoken throughout Sicily's Arab and Norman periods into
the eleventh century.
By 600, the Lombards (Longobard descendants in Lombardy in northern Italy)
were gradually occupying much of the Italian peninsula, though pockets of
Byzantine influence remained
--at least for a time-- in Venice, Ravenna and Bari, and a growing "Papal
State" increased its influence around Rome and beyond, owing much to
the efforts of Pope Gregory the Great, who believed in the independence
of the Papacy from the collegial traditions espoused by the other patriarchs.
Developments in Italy did not immediately affect Sicily, where the Emperor
Constans decided to establish his capital in 660. Syracuse, still the island's
most important city, became his residence until his untimely assassination
in 668. The Emperor's tryannical demeanor and costly maintenance did not
endear him to the Sicilians.
Islam was growing, and Muslim Arab armies controlled Egypt, Syria and Palestine
by 642. By 652, Muslim-Arab pirates based in Tunisia were undertaking isolated
raids on the Sicilian coast. By 750, the Byzantine Empire, though influential,
was greatly reduced in size, encompassing Asia Minor (Turkey), Greece, Sicily,
and parts of the Balkans and peinsular Italy. Following a revolt against
Constans, the capital was restored to Constantinople and Sicily found herself
open to attack from abroad.
In Islam's advance westward through Arab efforts, Carthage fell in 689.
Muslim conquest often resulted in mass conversion of the conquered. In keeping
with Koranic principles, the religious freedom of Jews and Christians was
usually respected, but Muslims were accorded greater civil rights. Within
two decades, several islands under Sicilian influence (such as Pantelleria)
were occupied. Though the Sicilians traded with the Arabs (sometimes called
"Saracens" or "Moors"), coastal raids became commonplace.
These diminished somewhat after 750 owing to internal struggles among the
By 800, there were Arab merchants living in several Sicilian cities.
In 805 and again in 813, the governor of Sicily signed trade treaties with
the Aghlabids of Tunisia. Matters in Constantinople were not so serene.
In 827, the Emperor ordered the arrest of Euphemius, governor of Sicily and a distinguished general. This prompted a revolt in which the general declared himself emperor. Faced
with further dissension, Euphemius sought help from the Aghlabid emir, offering
him Sicily (a profitable source of tax revenue) in return. The emir accepted,
and soon a multi-ethnic force of at least ten thousand Persians, Berbers,
Arabs and Spaniards occupied the western city of Mazara.
Bal'harm (Palermo), formerly Panormus, was taken in 831 and soon became
capital of one of the island's several emirates. Syracuse fell only in 878,
and Taormina, the last Byzantine stronghold, in 902.
Beginning in 867, the Emperor Basil and his descendants promoted a period
of prosperity and scholarship in Constantinople. The Empire continued to
exist as an important force in the Mediterranean, but only as a shadow of
its former self. Some Italian cities remained under Byzantine control, at
least nominally, but Sicily was lost. (Constantinople fell to the Turks
in 1453, a date considered by many scholars to indicate the end of the Middle
Byzantine culture was not simply a question of Byzantine rule. In Sicily
and elsewhere, Byzantine society and culture melded with Arabic
culture. Indeed, Arabic and Islamic art and society were greatly influenced
by Byzantium. Mosques were constructed, often with the help of Byzantine
craftsmen, and in Sicily the Church, formally under the Patriarchate of
Constantinople from 732, remained solidly Orthodox into the early years
of Norman rule, when the beginnings of Latinization took place.
The Schism between the Patriarch of Rome and the patriarchs of the
East occurred in 1054, when Sicily was ruled by Muslim emirs. Long before
this date zealous Patriarchs of Rome (the Popes) were already encouraging
Norman knights in southern Italy to conquer Sicily, thus bringing it into
a sphere of influence which was not only Christian but specifically
Latin. The reasons for the Schism were political as well as
theological. In the wake of this bitter separation, the "Catholic"
Church of Rome was to grow further away from the "Orthodox" Church of
Constantinople and the entire East. Catholic theology, doctrine and liturgy
became increasingly altered. The Normans conquered Messina in 1061 and
took Palermo a decade later. In Sicily, the introduction of Latin
clergy, and the use of the Latin language in liturgy, were
gradually introduced in the years following. By the
time Frederick II ascended the throne as a young man early in the thirteenth century, little
remained of Orthodoxy in Sicily except a few icons. The new Latinization
attenuated the importance of Byzantine culture generally --even
linguistically. In Frederick's Palermo, Greek and Arabic were
still spoken. This soon changed, however. Generation by
generation, the Greek language was cast aside, and Sicilian
emerged as a solidly Latin (Romance) tongue, albeit with Arabic and
Greek influences. (This Latinization of the Sicilian
vernacular was not unlike the Normans' Latinization of English during the same period.)
Yet, in the context of a society made up of several cultures, Byzantine art
flourished in Sicily well into the twelfth century. Bearing the marks of
Orthodoxy, the Normans' earliest Roman Catholic churches, featuring
mosaic icons and other Byzantine elements, look more Eastern than Western.
(The Martorana of Palermo, and the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù
come to mind, but also numerous smaller churches and monasteries, particularly
in "Byzantine" northeastern Sicily.)
Byzantine rule did not result in a mass "colonization" of Sicily
like those of the ancient Greeks or medieval Arabs, but there was certainly
immigration and trade. Constantinople's lasting effects in Sicily far transcended
her waning political influence.
About the Authors: Luigi Mendola is the History Editor of Best of Sicily and author of several books. Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno, who contributed to this article, has
written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.