Sicily: Three Thousand Years of Human History

Sicily: Three Thousand Years of Human History

by Sandra Benjamin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781586421311
Publisher: Steerforth Press
Publication date: 12/18/2007
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 545,255
Product dimensions: 6.06(w) x 9.03(h) x 1.02(d)

About the Author

Sandra Benjamin was born in Troy, New York, and moved to New York City when she was sixteen. Eleven years ago she published The World of Benjamin of Tudela: A Medieval Mediterranean Travelogue. Since then she has spent much of her time in Sicily. Always fascinated by the varied ethnic groups of New York City, she was similarly attracted by the diversity of peoples who became part of the fabric of Sicily.

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Three Thousand Years of Human History

By Sandra Benjamin

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2006 Sandra Benjamin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-58642-181-6



Warnings against going to Sicily have been broadcast for a long time. Just listen to Homer, as he talks about the strait that separates Sicily from the mainland:

On the western side you'll see a big flowering fig tree, below which is the lair of Charybdis. He vomits thrice daily, then gulps down copious amounts of the waters. Don't be caught near Charybdis at those hours, or he'll swallow you and your ship. On the opposite side of the strait, where the banks are higher, you'll see a rock so smooth that it appears polished. In a cave halfway up that rock lives a monster called Scylla with the body of a dog, but with six necks and six heads. Each of its mouths has three rows of overlapping teeth, which it uses to grab six men from every passing ship.

Scylla and Charybdis sound just as frightening as the Mafia. Today's visitor to Sicily may be reassured to know that he is no more likely to be killed by the Mafia than by Homer's monsters.

* * *

Homer didn't claim to have seen the beasts himself; he was organizing and telling some stories of his people. The team of Scylla and Charybdis was a fanciful explanation for the very real shipwrecks frequent at the northeast tip of the island. As Homer lived in Asia Minor and narrated these stories around 730 B.C., we know that the accounts of sailings to Sicily were then familiar in ports of the eastern Mediterranean — over a thousand miles distant.

The Greeks called it Trinacria, the three-pointed island. We infer from Homer that the island was known not only to sailors but to a broader population: in his war poem The Iliad, he refers casually to the story of Daedalus, in a way that assumes his audience to be familiar with the place. Daedalus — not quite so well known at our time and place — went to Sicily but avoided the straits. Having killed someone in his homeland, Athens, he fled to Crete. There he constructed the Minotaur's labyrinth and generally worked with such originality that the king refused to let him leave. So Daedalus built wings of wax and feathers for himself and his son, Icarus, and they soared away. But the boy flew too close to the sun, his wax melted, and he fell to his death. Daedalus continued to glide, occasionally descending to dip his wings in the water to cool them, until he reached Sicily. So if you are thinking of an escape to Sicily, you aren't the first. Daedalus flew there too.

Sicily became the landing place in that story probably because of its location plunk in the middle of the Mediterranean, which gave the island a central location in the civilized world. At the time of Homer, scaremongers notwithstanding, seamen kept bringing boats safely into Sicily from all around the Mediterranean. Some of their passengers did business in Sicily and then departed, while other passengers remained and developed communities. During the same decades that Homer was becoming the first author in the Western world, Greece was establishing her first colonies on the Sicilian mainland.

* * *

Before making our tour of those colonies, though, we'll visit Lipari, a small island off Sicily's north coast. Today you reach Lipari from Messina by taking a train west for an hour to Milazzo and then a boat northwest for an hour. Yet visiting Lipari is less a trip through space than through time. Homer lived some twenty-seven hundred years before us; if we go back twenty-seven hundred years before Homer, we'll find Lipari already flourishing.

Homer heard tales of Lipari that were already ancient. Seafarers told him of this island where the people worked a hard rock to make various kinds of blades. The stone workers claimed to be the island's first inhabitants, having found it empty when they arrived from the Sicilian mainland. But the Greeks who returned from Lipari, recalling how they had shivered there, saw its past differently: here lived and ruled the god of the winds, Aeolus. Homer tells the story of the Ithacan king Odysseus landing on Lipari. When he was about to depart, Aeolus offered him a wine bag of wind to speed his voyage, and Odysseus stowed it in the hold of his ship. Nine uneventful days at sea brought the ship within sight of Ithaca, so close they could see the fires on shore. The crew, meanwhile, had been eyeing that wine bag and speculating about its contents: doubtless some valuable gift from Aeolus that Odysseus didn't intend to share. So the men untied the bag, the winds escaped, and a storm arose that drove their ship all the way back to Aeolus.

The Greeks called the island Aeolia; it's the largest of a group of islands now known as both "Aeolian" and "Lipari." Had Odysseus remained on Aeolia, he would doubtless have joined the men there in working the hard volcanic rock, obsidian.

This obsidian was born of an eruption of the volcano Monte Pelato, in Aeolia's northeast, around 7000 B.C. Generations passed, into the period we call neolithic. On the big island of Sicily people were beginning to plant crops and raise animals, but they still obtained food through gathering and hunting. Those who went to seek food in the mountains behind Sicily's north coast could, in clear weather, see small islands in the distance and doubtless wondered if food might be easier to find on those islands. But for a long long time they couldn't get there to investigate. Eventually, sometime during the fifth millennium B.C., they improved their boats and navigational techniques sufficiently to send out a few of their most intrepid explorers, who discovered some of Lipari's appealing features: it was unpopulated, certain parts were extremely fertile, and in the northeast part of the island large areas were covered by shiny black rocks with edges of greater sharpness than anything they had ever seen before. The explorers decided to fetch their friends.

* * *

The neolithic era is the period when humans used stone implements. They used a lot of flint, as it is relatively easy to shape. Although flint is very hard, neolithic persons found that by pressing a stone or a bone against a piece of freshly dug flint they could make its edges flake off and in so doing sharpen an edge for cutting. Obsidian, having natural sharp edges, required less work to make a knife, so the people of Lipari brought it into use alongside flint. The new islanders turned pieces of obsidian into cutting tools and before long (just a few centuries) they had an export industry.

The Lipari craftsmen became skilled in working obsidian, but the demand for their product had less to do with their skill than with the scarcity of the raw material. A few other volcanic Mediterranean islands had small quantities, but Lipari had by far the largest supply. Although obsidian is a product of volcanic eruption, most volcanic eruptions yield no obsidian. Obsidian is that rare lava that cooled very quickly, into a kind of natural glass; usually lava is exploded by hot air, making pumice, a light-colored, lightweight substance for which prehistoric man had no use. But apparently he could use all the obsidian implements he could get, certainly all that Lipari could produce. The location of Lipari in the center of the Mediterranean facilitated the transport of the heavy product. Craftsmen streamed into Lipari — so many that some of the newcomers had to settle and practice their trade on nearby smaller islands. In the Mediterranean basin during the neolithic era, the Aeolian archipelago was a major population center, and Lipari a boom town.

As I type away at my computer, beside it on my desk stands a three-kilo hunk of obsidian. The laptop, matte black, symbolizes international commerce of our time. The obsidian, its shiny black brightened by straight, narrow white lines running irregularly through it, represents international commerce at its very beginning. Neolithic man wanted sharp tools for cutting his animals and his enemies. Obsidian was the sharpest workable material he knew, and most obsidian came from Lipari, so Lipari enjoyed a seller's market. For some seventeen hundred years.

That was around 4500–3000 B.C. But more significant than the when is the where: notwithstanding the fertility of her lavic soil, Lipari's strong winds precluded the growth of grain sufficient to feed the population. The migrants from the mainland had to spend much of their time fishing, seizing sea-animals and wild birds, gathering wild fruits, and trying to eke what crops they could out of the land.

Of course the obsidian producers added to their alimentary stocks by their trade. The food and drink naturally arrived in containers, most of them ceramic. Neolithic people used ceramics for pots and drinking cups, for statues and construction elements, and for containers of all kinds — for them ceramic was as multiform and as ubiquitous as plastic is for us.

At a remove of fifty centuries, and despite the fragility of ceramic ware, many thousands of pieces of early pottery can now be examined on Lipari. The archaeologists who study the pieces of pottery know how to read them like words in books — from the form of a piece they usually know how it was used, and from the form and decoration they usually know where it was made and when. The scholars move from provenance to foreign trade, for having determined the kind or kinds of ceramics produced in a given locality, they can attribute the discrepant pieces to foreign production. The foreign pieces indicate either the presence of foreign peoples or commerce with them. Archaeologists collectively can determine the provenance of most pottery pieces. Pottery is therefore important not only as work of art but also as document about the movement of peoples.

The ceramics found on Lipari claim special attention because Lipari produced relatively little pottery. The soil being lava-based, it lacked clay. When the islanders made pottery using just the local kaolin soil, the result was poor. They imported clay from the north coast of Sicily to mix with the local kaolin soil and made other pieces more successfully. Lipari residents used a great deal of pottery made by other peoples.

Fragments found on Lipari are among the oldest known from the Mediterranean area. Some pieces have elegantly incised and stamped decorations of a type characteristic of the culture of Stentinello. Stentinello, probably Sicily's earliest agricultural society, had its base in southeast Sicily. The ceramics found on Lipari suggest that the first settlers there originated in Stentinello and drifted up to Sicily's north coast. They would be the first known group of Sicilian migrants.

* * *

In the fifth and fourth millennia B.C. — a period about as long as that separating us from Christ — Lipari lived prosperously if not always tranquilly. As Lipari had a corner on a prime material for tools and weapons, foreigners cast envious eyes on her. Typically for seafarers, the Aeolians in Lipari had built their first housing on the coast, but in time they felt threatened enough to move their settlement to a hill in the southern part of the island's east coast, a natural fortress from which they could dominate the best landing places on the island; later the hill would be called "il Castello" (the Castle).

A group is known to have invaded around the start of the fourth millennium, probably from across the Adriatic. The newcomers battled the locals for a long time and seem to have gained hegemony over the island. A lot of obsidian from Lipari has been found along the Dalmatian coast.

Lipari continued to live well. It appears that the new leadership had less concern about defense. Around the middle of the fourth millennium new settlements were begun, one on flatland close to il Castello and others, tiny, on the plateau. Lipari's population increased, so that in the second half of the millennium Lipari, the city on the Aeolian Island of the same name, was one of the greatest in the Mediterranean basin. The obsidian that underlay the island's importance can still be seen in the residual fragments from the era that dot the islands of the Aeolian archipelago.

But all good things come to an end. The distressing chain of events started in the lands to the east, where during the first half of the third millennium Greeks were learning about metals. When they used copper and then bronze (copper alloyed with tin) to make tools and weapons, these gradually replaced obsidian.

Modern economists tell us that the developments causing technological unemployment will give rise to new kinds of work, and so it happened for Lipari. As the Greeks accelerated their travel around the Mediterranean to sell their metal products, Lipari regained importance, since she could control the ships passing through the Strait of Messina. Some mainland Greeks settled on Lipari; they were later given the name Aeolians because they were of the people who told the story about the wind god Aeolus. Quite skilled in navigation, the Aeolians maintained commercial ties with Thessaly and places further north on the Greek mainland as well as with the Aegean islands. The Aeolians took Lipari into the Bronze Age.

Starting around 1800 B.C. the residents of il Castello moved to higher ground, where they built a new kind of housing, round or oval huts with sunken floors. The hilltop was rocky and less comfortable than their coastal sites — they must have moved because near the coast they felt threatened. Other indications of their new insecurity are the increase in the size of the communities in which they grouped themselves on the hilltop, and the construction around their villages of strong stone-and-mud walls.

The Aeolians feared other Greeks. All Greeks were good navigators and were seeking land for expansion. In the wake of new metal products came trade wars that rippled waters around the Mediterranean. The Aeolians on Lipari traded with the different Greek peoples. Throughout the five centuries when Mycenae was one of the world's most advanced civilizations, Lipari traded regularly with her. By the sixteenth century B.C. the Aeolians had returned to il Castello on the coast.

* * *

Waves of immigrants broke upon Lipari's shores from time to time. Around 1300–1200 Ausonians came down from the Italian peninsula, lived peacefully with the islanders, yet gained hegemony over them. A large group of Sicels arrived from mainland Sicily and clashed violently with the islanders. And around 900 B.C. some group destroyed Lipari, just destroyed her, interrupting all indications of human life.

Who overthrew Lipari? There are theories, but there's nothing sure. The answer may be discovered someday, perhaps in the cave where King Aeolus kept his winds.

Don't smile — those winds are important. They won't bother you on the streets of Lipari, for modern buildings provide a windbreak. But walking along the seafront you'll feel the winds just as Homer's sailors did twenty-seven hundred years ago. Even there don't lament the winds, for they have been instrumental in preserving Lipari's great legacy of earlier peoples.

Strong winds are usually a destructive force. On Lipari though strong winds lay soft blankets. In the crumbly highlands the winds, blowing mostly from the west, whip up cumuli of dust that they then sweep down to the coastal areas. Along Lipari's east coast new ground builds up with extraordinary speed. The rapid dust cover made a coating between strata, so that the works of successive generations weren't jumbled together. Lipari is rather like an underground multistory garage, with a different civilization on each level.

So many remains of ancient civilizations are scattered around Sicily that archaeologists call it "Europe's museum." Nobody can keep track of all Sicily's ruins. Unique to Lipari is the accessibility in a small area of many excavated strata. It's the best place to see earliest Sicily.


The Greek Period


Maybe at the time Lipari perished, certainly in the following century, the northeast coast of Sicily was bursting with life. Thither came Greeks and Phoenicians to dominate commerce and piracy. The Phoenicians had travelled much farther than the Greeks, for their homeland lay on the Mediterranean's far eastern shore. Their merchant marine had already been trading around Greece, and the Greeks were so impressed by the easterners' specialty purple dye that they called them "Phoenikes" ("purple").

Around 800 — all dates during the Greek period are of course B.C. — the Phoenicians, in their homeland having trouble with their neighbors, decided to move. On North Africa's north coast, from where they could control traffic between the eastern and the western Mediterranean, they established the city of Carthage and became known as Carthaginians. By then they were familiar with the central Mediterranean and knew the three-cornered island to be the largest island in the entire sea — sailing around it took almost eight days. They were expert at sailing through the Strait of Messina; indeed Scylla and Charybdis are Phoenician names, the first meaning "the rock" and the second "the hole of death."


Excerpted from Sicily by Sandra Benjamin. Copyright © 2006 Sandra Benjamin. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     xi
Introduction     xiii
Lipari     1
The Greek Period     9
Transition: The Romans Conquer the Island (263 B.C.-212 B.C.)     72
Romans     78
Transition: Germanic Peoples Move South (ca 425-468)     114
Vandals, Goths, Byzantines     115
Transition: The Coming of the Muslims (827-902)     129
Muslims     132
Transition: The Coming of the Normans (1061-1091)     145
Normans     150
Transition: From Hauteville to Hohenstaufen (1189-1194)     182
Hohenstaufens     185
Transition: From Angevin to Aragon (1282-1285)     217
Spanish     221
Transition: A Break from the Spanish (1713-1734)     260
Bourbons     266
Transition: Garibaldi (1848-1860)     302
The Savoy Kingdom of Italy     311
Transition: World War II and Its Aftermath (1943-1948)     378
Autonomous Region     384
Statistical Tables     457
Glossary and Notes on Italian Word Endings     461
Glossary of Names     463
Notes     473
Bibliographical Note     479
Index     483

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Sicily: Three Thousand Years of Human History 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Anyone with a relative from Sicily will find this book of great interest. My grandfather emigrated from Sicily and this book enlightened me. Understanding the historical location and economic background of the island provided some great family insight.
anonymously More than 1 year ago
good read
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:D gtg brb!!