I know we’ve already been to Sicily recently (the lockdown has a lot to answer for)…
…but that was with a 19th century female traveller, Frances Elliot, whose romantic flights of fancy are quite different from what I’m proposing today. 🙂
I don’t remember when exactly I got John Julius Norwich’s book, Sicily: A Short History from the Ancient Greeks to the Cosa Nostra, but I had it on the mantelpiece (where I keep the books I haven’t got round to reading yet) for at least a couple of years. All this extra time in lockdown finally gave me the chance to read it…
Sicily: A Short History from the Ancient Greeks to the Cosa Nostra
An Irregular Book Review
It started off really well. The Introduction already won my approval, as it started with quoting Goethe, not something that English authors often bother with – I mean, he was a Continental, a German… Quoting a Continental, it’s practically unheard of. 🙂
Sicily is the key to everything.
It continued well too; Norwich writes in an entertaining style. If you sense that there is a but coming, you’re right. Not just yet though.
The Ancient Greeks
The Ancient Greeks were great and in Sicily they were particularly great; as you can witness by the photo of the temple of Concordia in Agrigento above.
Norwich tells you about Agrigento (particularly beautiful around sunset), Selinus and Segesta, Syracuse, the tyrant Gelon, the battle of Himera and an attempted Athenian invasion, not to mention the eagle that dropped a tortoise on the bald head of the great dramatist, Aeschylus. [Exit Aeschylus.]
Carthago delenda est.
Carthage must be destroyed.
(Cato the Elder)
The Carthaginians too were great, albeit in a very different way from the Greeks (and we will ignore the Roman accusations that they practiced human sacrifice). We owe our alphabet to the Phoenicians (which is who the Carthaginians were) and they were the first to circumnavigate Africa. None of these feats is part of the history of Sicily however so don’t expect Norwich to tell you about them.
The Carthaginians first turned up in Sicily because, quite simply, the Greeks called them in. In typical Greek city state fashion they constantly made war on each other, and outside help was welcome. So the Carthaginians came, saw… and eventually conquered. Then the Romans came, saw and conquered too, and all those Hamilcars, Hannibals, Hasdrubals and Scipios pass through the pages of Norwich’s book as in a pageant. You also get the story of Archimedes and his (almost) single-handed defence of Syracuse.
Which brings us to the third chapter in which…
Romans, Barbarians, Byzantines and Arabs
…are all jumbled together.
Of particular interest in this chapter is the career of Gaius Licinius Verres, a corrupt Roman governor:
In just three years, Sicily suffered greater depredations from Verres than she had from the Punic Wars and the slave revolts combined. He taxed, he impounded, he confiscated, he seduced, he raped, he tortured, he imprisoned, he robbed, he looted – not only from temples, but from private houses as well, of Roman citizens and Sicilians alike. A special ship had to be built, capacious enough to transport his collection back to Rome.
Well, he was clearly something notable to go down in history, albeit not in a good way. The Sicilians eventually engaged the services of no lesser personality than Cicero to bring him to trial and Verres wisely did not wait to receive the verdict. He fled to Massilia (today’s Marseille in France) where he lived out the rest of his life in comfort. There is no justice in this world.
Here we bypass the rest of the jumbled people of the previous chapter, because in fact they remained jumbled together in Norman Sicily too.
Everybody knows that the Normans invaded England in 1066; it’s much less well-known that some of them fancied the good life in the sun instead (and who can blame them). Which is how we have kings of Sicily called Roger, a distinctly un-Italian name.
Norman Sicily was a wonderful melting pot of cultures and left behind such wonders as the Capella Palatina in Palermo:
It’s a shame it didn’t last very long.
Sicily After the Normans & Before Nelson
All those centuries after the Normans and before Nelson were just so much misery. The glory days were over, never to return. The island in the sun went into a perpetual decline, starting with the War of the Sicilian Vespers. Lawlessness, piracy, various foreign powers coming and going; Sicily became a stale backwater, largely ignored by it rulers and continuously threatened by just about everybody, including the inhabitants themselves who never stopped threatening each other.
The Spanish managed to stay for a few centuries, as evidenced by their handiwork, the beautiful Baroque town of Noto:
Although the history of Sicily in these chapters is not very interesting, we can’t really blame the author for the lack of great happenings. But then came…
The Confusingly Numbered Frederick and the Hamiltons
And if you sensed the but before, here it comes. (If you haven’t sensed it, it’s still coming.)
Frederick the III or the IV, depending on whether you’re counting him as King of Sicily or as King of Naples, ruled for a very long time and for most of that time had the tiresome Hamiltons for company. In particular this means Emma and her cringy ‘attitudes’ – you know the woman Admiral Nelson fell in love with. Although this whole affair is (evidently) of great interest to the English, it’s difficult to see why this extremely tedious melodrama takes up some 50 pages in a short history of Sicily which is altogether, introduction and epilogue included, only 350 pages long.
After the affair is finally finished, it seems that Sicily has almost got forgotten as we continue with this wretched royal family, whether or not they are anywhere near Sicily (they mostly weren’t).
The Rest of Sicilian History
Thankfully everything comes to an end, even Fredericks many troubles during the Napoleonic wars.
The rest of Sicilian history is then summed up in a couple of paltry chapters, and it is not so much a history of Sicily but the history of the unification of Italy and what happened after. I suppose at least Garibaldi did start out from Sicily, the mafia is indeed a Sicilian specialty and the Allies did land in Sicily in second world war… so that’s that. Phew.
Yes or No?
Do I recommend this book?
I know the above ended in a disappointing fashion but overall, yes, I do recommend it. It’s well written; whenever the history is interesting, the book is a great read, and Sicily certainly has some fascinating history. But it does help if you’re interested in the private life of incompetent royalty (which I’m not).
Perhaps I should have stopped reading it halfway. 🤔
Further Reading: ⇒ Oranges Like Blazing Fire ⇒ An Idle Woman in Sicily ⇒ An Idle Woman in Sicily by Frances Elliot ⇒ Quick Travel Guide to Sicily