History of Sicily Part II

by | June 15, 2021

In 395, the Roman Empire was divided into the Western Roman Empire, which had Rome as its capital, and the Eastern Roman Empire, where the capital was Byzantium. Vandals finally became the Western Roman Empire. The Vandals were a Germanic tribe that emigrated around the year 100 from the area that is today Poland. They destroyed Rome around 455 AD, thereby also making a name for it as “vandalizing” or being a “vandal”. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Vandals held power in Sicily from 468-535. But the Romans were not much for giving up the lush island. The Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, prospered, and in 535 the Byzantines seized power over the island. At this time Syracuse was still a mighty city, and for five years from 663 onwards it was the city of government of the great empire.

Unfortunately, the change of power did not lead to improved conditions for the Sicilian peasants. The grain was now simply shipped to North Africa, where it was still sold at low prices. The Byzantine rule that lasted for nearly 300 years can be traced in today’s Sicilian culture. The food in Sicily is more spicy than in the rest of Italy and this is attributed to the fact that the Byzantines brought the spices of the East to the island. The dominion of that time has also had a great influence on the decoration of the churches. The Byzantines were phenomenal at making beautiful mosaics, and even after the Byzantines lost control of the island, they continued to be adorned with churches. Thus, one finds in several places churches with well-preserved, Byzantine mosaics, i.a. in Cefalù, in Monreale and in Palermo.

In 827, a Byzantine admiral came into conflict with the Byzantine Empire, and he turned to the Emir of Tunisia for help. This led to a long and bloody war, which ended with the Arabs taking power over Sicily. They remained at the helm until 1091. There are not many remains of Arab constructions. Most well preserved is a washing area in Cefalù, seen in the picture to the right. The culinary traces of the Arabs, on the other hand, are clear: they were the ones who introduced rice, cane sugar, oranges, lemons, dates, couscous, sorbet and spices. Unfortunately, Arab dominance also had negative sides: the Arabs felled many forests and kept goats that ate the new shoots that broke out so that new forest did not grow. Moreover, the Arabs did not value the cultural values ​​of the island and castrated the many statues of naked men. During the Arab period of the island there were many wars,

To move forward in the story, we just shift the focus to the North of France for a moment. In short, Vikings from Norway and Denmark had arrived there, and the French king gave them Normandy, in exchange for the Vikings becoming Christians. The successors of the Nordic Vikings, now called the Normans, set out to eliminate the Islamists from southern Europe. In this connection, the two Norman brothers Roger and Robert arrived in southern Italy. Robert became Duke of Puglia, and initially Roger of Sicily was a vassal under his brother, later he became king. He was a great diplomat, skilled at cooperating and very tolerant, so it became a good period for all the ethnic groups on the island. Very unusually, he gave religious freedom to all and equated the languages ​​Arabic, Greek, Latin, and French. Although Syracuse was the island’s largest city, Roger preferred Palermo as its capital.

When Roger died in 1101, he was succeeded by his son, who was also a great diplomat and very intelligent. Like his father, Roger II was also very religious and founded a number of amazing cathedrals in Sicily. The picture below shows the cathedral of Cefalù, which according to a legend was built after a promise Roger gave to God when he sank on a ship trip from Naples to Palermo in a storm and was washed up on the beach at Cefalù.

Whether he was in Naples to negotiate the annexation of southern Italy to Sicily remains to be seen; but during his reign the two territories were united into the Kingdom of Sicily – later called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Roger II was succeeded by Giuglielmo I – called the Cruel – and then Giuglielmo II – the Good.

A legend tells that Giuglielmo II fell asleep under a tree during a hunt. In a dream vision, the Virgin Mary asked him to build a church on the site. He did as required, which led to the construction of the Cathedral of Monreale outside Palermo.

Giuglielmo II’s only son died in 1188, a year before the father, who thereby died without a descendant to hand over power to. The harmonious period under the Normans thus lasted only about a hundred years, from 1091 to 1194. After some complications, the kingdom passed to Giuglielmo II’s aunt, Costanza of Sicily, and her husband, Henry VI of Germany, nephew of the famous Frederik Barbarossa (Red beard).

Under Henry VI, Sicily became part of the Holy Roman Empire by the German Nation, in Danish usually called the German-Roman Empire. There followed some years of much terror. It was no sorrow that Henry VI died already after three years, and Costanza died the following year. Their son, who was only four years old, got the Pope of Rome to tutor. The boy grew up in Palermo, and in 1220 he was crowned Frederick II, Emperor of the German-Roman Empire and King of Sicily. He introduced a strict tax system that brought a lot of money into his own pockets. These were i.a. used to build castles around the island. We find the remains of one in Cefalù. Now it is a ruin; but with its fantastic location it is still worth a visit. The castle in Enna is also his work. This too has a well-chosen location right next to one of the Greek religious sites.

The time under Frederick II was a relatively good period for Sicily; but when he died in 1250, a period of decline began. Frederik had had numerous confrontations with the pope, and when Frederik’s son was to be crowned, the pope betrayed him and took advantage of the situation to appoint Carlo d’Angiò, a brother of the French king, instead. Carlo took up residence in Naples and allowed cruel officials to rule in Sicily. As a result of the abuse, a spontaneous uprising arose in 1282, which has gone down in Sicilian history as The Sicilian Vespers, today probably best known from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera about the uprising.

History of Sicily Part II