Book Review: Sicily

Sicily:  An Island At The Crossroads Of History, by John Julius Norwich

In this book the author captures the melancholy of Sicilian history.  What is it that makes an area of sunshine and agricultural wealth (at least from the time of the Greeks and Romans) so gloomy and so sad?  One might be tempted to blame it on the mafia, but the mafia is a relatively recent (albeit powerful) source of violence on the island.  Indeed, the island has been, as the author says, at the crossroads of history for a long time, a place full of conflict for nearly 3000 years now, and a place that has frequently found itself as the object of control for a great many outsiders as diverse as the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, and Italians.  Its strategic location at the boundary between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, so close both to mainland Europe and to North Africa, has given it a great deal of importance in the geopolitical calculations of many a ruler, with the result of a great deal of unhappiness for its people throughout history.  As fun as it might seem to be in such a strategic area, it tends not to be a good thing, as the history of Sicily makes all too plain.

The author cover the subject of the history of Sicily in 17 chapters that cover more than 300 pages.  First the author begins with the Greeks and Carthaginians who fought over the island, although neither was a native–the native Sicels appear not to have made any cities or had a written language of their own (1,2).  The author then breezes over the next few hundred years when Sicily was ruled over by the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, and Arabs in a single chapter (3) because little of record happened on the island during those few hundred years aside from some slave revolts.  After that the author spends a couple of chapters on the Norman rulers who then conquered the island and set up a kingdom there (4, 5) and another chapter on Frederick II, who was descended from the Normans and was fond of the island (6), and then a chapter on the Vespers (7) that accompanied the French ambitions to rule Sicily under the House of Anjou.  Another chapter covers the domination of the Spanish (8), the problems of piracy and political revolution (9), and teh coming of the Bourbons (10).  The author gets a chance to talk about the Hamiltons, Nelson, and Napoleon after that (11), as well as a couple of chapters on Naples during the Napoleonic war and the fate of the Murats (12, 13).  From there we move on to the tumultuous early part of the 19th century (14) and the efforts by Cavour and Garibaldi to bring Sicily into a Piedmont-ruled Italian kingdom (15).  A chapter on the mafia and fascism (16) and one on the second world war (17) close the main material, after which the book ends with an epilogue, acknowledgments, illustration credits, bibliography, and index.

As strange as it may seem, Sicily has never had an indigenous civilization of its own.  Every realm that has included Sicily, every time where Sicily has been unified or part of a larger government, has been formed and ruled by outsiders who have tended to view Sicily as a source of taxation, food, and manpower for wars fought elsewhere or palaces mostly built elsewhere.  That sort of experience cannot help but be deeply dispiriting to a people who has nonetheless not proven itself to be able to unify on its own or to govern itself.  While Sicily has on occasion risen up against invaders who were particularly exploitative, for long periods of time Sicily has been quiescent with the alien rulers who have ruled over it, and that is certainly a puzzle that is worth pondering over as well.  Perhaps Sicily has, in some ways, resigned itself to the rule of others so long as that rule is not too exploitative or too demanding of blood and treasure.  Such lowered expectations are a bit tragic, to be sure, but the alternatives to it can be pretty terrifying, as the occasionally violent history of the island bears out.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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