Sicily: Three Thousand Years Of Human History, by Sandra Benjamin
One of the advantages of reading several books about the same subject is that one gets to see the characteristic biases of the people who write the books. When it comes to the chronology of the book, this volume does a good job at showing the transitions between who ruled over Sicily, demonstrating that the island struggled for a long time with the problems of self-rule and to this day struggles to attain free and responsible self-government as an area. While the author does a good job with the organization, showing how Sicily very quickly became dominated by wheat farming as well as the occasional luxury farming that allowed for groups like the mafia to profit, all of which tended to depress the well-being of the common people, this book is clearly written with some agendas, namely the feminist agenda that the author has. And this sort of agenda is not one I can really get on board with, as it leads the author to distort her work to go out of her way to speculate about women. It’s not a surprise that the author has this agenda, but it’s just not something that works well for me.
This book is about 450 pages long or so, and is divided into 11 chapters of varying length. The author begins with acknowledgements and an introduction, and then moves into a short chapter about Lipari, a prehistoric site of considerable importance in the ancient obsidian trade (1) before moving into the Greek period and the Roman conquest of the island between 263 and 212BC (2). After this the author talks about the Romans and then the movement of the German peoples south (3) before looking at the rule of the Vandals, Goths, and Byzantines over the island (4). She then transitions to discussing about the rule of the Muslims (5) and then the Normans (6) over the island, and like many people who write about Sicily she appears to greatly appreciate the Normans. After this comes a discussion of the Hohenstaufens and Angevins (7) and then the long Spanish rule over the island (8) which had a brief break where the Savoyards and Austrians ruled over the island for a while before the Spanish Bourbons ruled again for more than a century (9). After that the book ends with a discussion of the Kingdom of Italy (10) as well as the transition to the Republic of Italy where Sicily is an autonomous region (11), after which there is an appendix with statistical tables, some glossaries, notes, suggestions for further reading, and an index.
One thing that rings true when one looks at the history of Sicily is that the island has never been able to unify in the absence of external control, external control that has always been resented and rebelled against. The times when the island was the most peaceful were times where the island’s nobles were not particularly ambitious and when the people were downtrodden growing grain for the export market. If all of that meant that Sicily has seldom been a dynamic society, it at least means that the island has known at least some periods of peace, but they were periods when the material poverty of the island’s people and the intellectual poverty of its rulers kept taxes low and expectations low and allowed the centuries to go by. Such times were all too view as active government generally pushed the island to change in ways that have consistently encouraged violent resistance from those who profited from the island as it was before. Short of divine intervention, it seems difficult to imagine how Sicily could rise to the level of Northern Italy, much less Northern Europe.