In a Sicilian song written in 2001, Aurelio Caliri related the well-known Homeric tale of Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops who lived on the slopes of Mount Etna and the Greek hero Ulysses, from an unusual perspective.
As you may recall from the Odyssey, Ulysses and his companions had been imprisoned by Polyphemus in his cave on Mt. Etna and were being slaughtered and eaten by the monster. Ulysses succeeded in getting the Cyclops drunk and stuck a burning tree stump into his one eye while the giant was asleep. From the Homeric perspective the villain was clearly Polyphemus, characterized as a brute monster who practiced cannibalism, while Ulysses was cast as a civilizing hero. In the struggle, Ulysses’ wit and intelligence won over brute force.
This was also the perspective that I, as a Sicilian growing up in Sicily, shared as well, and I suppose that this is true for all Western civilization. Ulysses was a part of the heritage that nourished all of us. As children, none of us identified with the Cyclops. He was the other in us, the shadowy part of our psyche, the monster within in whose defeat we saw our victory. The struggle between Ulysses and Polyphemus was a battle between good and evil, intelligence against brute force, civilization against barbarity. That part of the story in which Ulysses tells Polyphemus that his name is “No One” underscores the humiliating defeat of brute force when confronted by a superior intelligence. When the Cyclops tried to enlist the aid of his brothers by saying “No One has blinded me,” they assumed he was drunk and did not help him.
But, Aurelio Caliri saw the event from the perspective of a native Sicilian. Ulysses was viewed as the first of a long line of invaders, the first conqueror who trampled on a native son of Sicily. And Polyphemus who was as Sicilian as Mt. Etna, or the giants who lived in its bowels, Typheus, Bronte and Sterope, was cast as a victim of an external force who came to disturb his idyllic peace. Thus, for him, the story became emblematic of the history of Sicily that has seen 16 different dominations, give or take a few, that have come and gone attracted by the beauty of the Sicilian landscape, by its fertility, its climate, and its riches.
At first, Caliri’s point of view was baffling. As a Sicilian engaged in the promotion of the Sicilian culture, I should have rooted for the local fellow and not for the outsider. The fact that I didn’t, however, seems to me significant. I did not consider Ulysses an outsider. I did not regard the Greeks as outsiders. They were an integral part of the history of Sicily almost from the beginning and I did not see the separation between Sicilians on one side and Greeks on the other. Sicily was Greek. Sicily was an important part, if not the most important, of Magna Graecia.
I suppose that Caliri identified more with the local inhabitants of Sicily, the Siculi. But they were not indigenous either, nor were the Sikans who had come to the island before them, nor the Elymians on the west coast. These people came to Sicily from different places. Scholars have been unable to determine where they came from, even though the Sikans and Siculi may have descended from Northern Italy, possibly the regions of Liguria or Latium.1
So, the question arises: to whom does one owe allegiance? Who were the true Sicilians? Since the Siculi gave Sicily its name, as well as important elements of its cultural and historical heritage, they should be considered first on the list, even though the Sikans also gave us Sikania, another name for the island. From the point of view of the Sikans, the Siculi were the invaders. Indeed, the Siculi who settled on the eastern side of the island pushed the Sikans far to the west, until the two groups assimilated. Too little is known about either of these two groups for them to become a presence on modern Sicilian psyche.
The heritage of the Greeks, on the other hand, is everywhere present and in the end their higher civilization has given us the artifacts that inform our view of history. We know much more about the Greeks who managed to change the face of Sicily and become identified with it. The legend of Ulysses and Polyphemus may be interpreted heumeristically as the real encounter between the Greeks and the older inhabitants of the island, characterized by the victors as uncivilized brutes. No doubt, in Homer’s version, the colors are darkened for effect. The relationship between victor and vanquished was probably less extreme as we will learn from the following excursus into the island’s Greek past.
While Sicily may not have been the first place the Greeks colonized, (Cuma and what is now Ischia were credited as being the first colonies) it was certainly the place in which they invested most of their colonizing spirit. Long before some of the young men from the island of Euboea in western Greece decided to embark on their adventurous journey to Sicily, the island was known through the reports of sailors. Those accounts, which spoke of a more luscious island than it is today, rich with many trees, many abundant rivers, and a sparsely populated countryside must have sparked the Greek imagination. Comparing it to the mountainous and barren land of Greece, Sicily must have appeared to the first daring men of Hellas as an earthly paradise, a kind of Promised Land. It is no wonder then that once the first colonists accepted the challenge, the Greeks from other cities quickly came to populate its shores and founded many cities.
The Chalcidians from Euboea led the way founding the first city on Sicily at Naxos in 735 BC.2 The dates of the founding of many cities on the east coast of Sicily vary according to the historian you read. But there seems to be agreement that Naxos was the first settlement. The town of Giardini, in whose territory Naxos was founded, recently renamed itself Giardini-Naxos to emphasize its antiquity. Siracusa was founded a year later by Archia from the city of Corinth in 734; the Chalcidians also founded Lentini in 728 and Catania in 727. Once the initial settlement was complete, the Greeks started to fan out westward from their primary settlements to found other cities.
Gela was founded in 688 and nearly a hundred years afterwards its citizens, who hailed originally from Rhodes and Crete, went on to found Agrigento in 580 BC. The inhabitants of Zancle, whose city was founded nearly at the same time as Lentini and Catania, founded Milazzo (around 720-715 BC) shortly afterwards because their primary city, surrounded by mountains on all sides, had little land to cultivate. All the primary cities were founded on the coast, except for Lentini, which is about 15 kilometers inland, in locations that gave the settlers easy access to fertile plains. Also, Zancle/Messina may have been founded as a defensive post protecting the Straits of Messina, the passage between the Ionian and the Thyrrenian seas. The activity of extending their territories continued with the Megara inhabitants founding Selinunte, facing the land controlled by the Carthaginians in the southwest and the Messinese founding of Himera on the northern coast in 689/88.
The Greeks did not have as difficult a time gaining control of the island as the Arabs were to have in the ninth and tenth centuries AD, but there was resistance to their expansion, first by the Siculi and then by the Carthaginians. The initial settlement seems to have been accomplished without much fighting. The east coast of Sicily seems to have been sparsely populated and the local inhabitants moved away or became assimilated with the Greeks.
There are cases in which a local rulers of the Siculi actually granted the Greeks land in which to live and build their city.3 A modus vivendi was found, however, which allowed the Greek cities to grow in importance. Eventually they succeeded in Hellenizing the island completely, establishing a flourishing civilization in their cities. Until the fifth century BC the modus vivendi between the Siculi and the Greeks operated, but halfway through the century a Prince of the Siculi named Ducezio organized various pockets of resistance into open hostilities against the Greek cities, obtaining some military successes. Ducezio wrested control of Etna-Inessa from Siracusa and Motyon from Agrigento and for a time called himself King of Sicily, but he was defeated by Siracusa in 446 BC and exiled to Corinth.4
The Greeks had little to fear from the Siculi from this point on and continued to extend their cultural and military presence in the island with few exceptions, one being the Carthaginians who held cities in the west. But as the Greeks put their mark on the island, Sicily, as it was to do with almost every domination, conditioned and shaped that culture in its own image. The Greeks from the diaspora, Siculi and Sikans eventually came to be known as Siceliots using a Greek suffix, “otu” still in use in Sicilian, to signify “belonging to” (as in vicariotu, bazzariotu). The culture of the Siceliots, though Greek in essence, had special characteristics that made it unique, just as the Sicilian Baroque was different from the Baroque when it found application in Sicily after the shattering earthquake of 1693.
Part of the reason for the Sicilianization of the Greek colonies had to do with their special nature. It’s important to remember that the colonization of Sicily was really more of an immigration.5 The Greeks who came to Sicily from various cities, were not sent as representatives of their homeland, that is, they were not expeditionary forces that came and conquered, in the manner later followed by the Arabs.
The Greeks were primarily men in search of land to cultivate. Considering that Greece had run out of space for its expanding population and considering their innate enterprising nature, people who had no future in their homeland sought their “place in the Sun” in the “Island of the Sun,” as Homer called it. Like the Arabs after them and unlike the many groups who have dominated Sicily, the Greeks came to stay. Once they established themselves, displacing the local inhabitants to get what they wanted, they came to regard it as their homeland, in short, they became Sicilian Greeks and eventually Sicilians, even though the spiritual bond with the mother country was never broken.
The Siceliots fiercely defended their independence from encroachments by people from their original homeland. The battle cry of the Siracusan soldiers as they engaged their Athenian foes was “Sicily for the Sicilians!”
Another example of this newly found allegiance to the island they had come to regard as their homeland can be seen in an ancient vase with a painting of the shields of Spartan soldiers who had come to Sicily as part of an expeditionary force. The shields show the Greek letter “Lambda” that stood for “Laecedemoni” as Spartans were also known. The “l” resembles a human leg. Once the soldiers had chosen Sicily as their homeland, the shield decoration was changed and instead of sporting one leg, they painted three legs on it, to identify them as belonging to Sicily. The three legs referred, of course, to the triangular shape of Sicily that was known to the Greeks as Trinacria, the three-cornered island. The three-running legs, with the image of Medusa in the center, is the oldest symbol of the island and it has been chosen as the centerpiece of its regional flag. The face of Medusa has been changed to that of a mother goddess who has stalks of wheat coming out of her head, a reference to Sicily’s fertility, instead of the snakes that girded Medusa’s head.6
The Greek settlements grew into independent and powerful city-states and behaved like the city-states, the poleis of the homeland, who shared an important characteristic: they projected their power outward, always attempting to become more powerful than their neighbors, always reaching for supremacy. And so did the Sicilian cities of Agrigento and Siracusa. These two Sicilian cities together with Athens were the largest and most powerful cities in the Mediterranean, which at that time, meant the world. Siracusa rivaled Athens in power and one of its leaders, known as Gelone, was responsible for saving Sicily and the Italian peninsula from Carthaginian expansion by defeating their army in one of the greatest battles of ancient times in the plains of Himera in 480 BC.
One of the conditions imposed on the defeated Carthaginians was the rejection of human sacrifices which until that time was practiced by the North Africans. The reach of power of the Tyrants of Siracusa, who were not always tyrannical as their title suggests, was long and dominant not only in Sicily but outside of it. Geron, for example, has been credited with stopping the Etruscan expansion toward the south by defeating their army at Cuma, near Naples, in 474 BC.
In the fifth century BC, Siracusa was the largest and most important city of the Mediterranean, especially after it defeated the Athenians in 413 BC. In spite of intermittent civil wars and continuous conflict with the Carthaginians, Siracusa came to establish almost complete control of the island under several rulers who abolished democracy and set themselves up as Tyrants, which at the time meant something like warlord, or military leader and did not have the negative connotations it carries today.7 The first of these rulers was Dionysius I, who made Siracusa an impregnable fortress. Dion succeeded him for a short period and was exiled by Dionysius II. Timoleon was next and finally Agathocles, the last before the island became embroiled in the struggle between the Carthaginians and the Romans known as the Punic Wars that eventually saw Sicily become the first province of Rome. This constituted the beginning of the end of the most splendid eras in Sicilian history. The Romans brought exploitation and depredation that eventually made of Sicily a backwater country, useful only for producing wheat.
But when Siracusa was the predominant power on the island (despite the less than enlightened rule of its tyrants), it enjoyed nearly 150 years of stability that allowed it to develop a society that had nothing to envy in its counterpart in Greece. Indeed, in terms of intellectual activity, commerce, creativity in the arts, sports, entertainment, and theatre there was really no difference between Sicily and Greece. It has been said that Sicily was Greece on a grander scale.8
I cannot help but make an analogy between the ancient Greeks and Sicilians on one hand and the English and Americans on the other. Just as the Americans received their language, laws and institutions, and their culture from the English and went on to develop a civilization of their own that conditioned the language and culture of the mother country, Sicily received the language, culture and institutions of the Greeks and later contributed much not only to the mother country but to the world under the aegis of Greece. If Western civilization owes a great debt of gratitude to Greece, as it certainly does, some of the credit belongs rightly to Siceliots who represented an important part of their world. Sicily, after all, together with southern Italy was called “Magna Graecia” which may be understood as “the Greater Greece.”
If Sicily was Greek in customs, language, and culture, it can also be said that Greece was Sicilian in part, for the influence and exchange did not flow on a one-way street from Greece to Sicily only. It flowed in the other direction as well. Many of the great minds of antiquity that we normally associate with Greece were actually born on Sicilian soil and lived on the island most of their lives. A few names will suffice:
Archimedes, the greatest scientific mind of antiquity was born in Siracusa in 287 BC and lived there all his life. His genius was inexhaustible, and his inventions were of such scope that they changed the nature of mathematics and science. Like Leonardo da Vinci, he was a multifaceted genius. He worked on astronomy, constructing an artificial sphere in which one could observe the movement of the Sun, the Moon and the other planets. Once Geron, the Tyrant of Siracusa, asked him to prove that a goldsmith had cheated him by giving him a crown made of lesser metals than the solid gold he had asked for.
Archimedes went on to prove that the goldsmith had made the inside of the crown in silver and the outside in gold, discovering in the process the principle that elements have a specific weight. He was an engineer who constructed many defensive and offensive military weapons. He devised a way to burn Roman ships in the harbor of Siracusa by directing the sun’s rays on them with huge metal reflectors. It is said that such reflectors produced such intense heat that they could burn wood at a distance of 200 meters, melt lead at 120 meters and silver at 50 meters.9 He invented the value of the Greek Pi; he invented a cochlea, known today as Archimedes’ screw that was used in Egypt and in Sicily and elsewhere to raise water to a higher level. He said that he could move any weight with minimum effort. He once remarked that if he had a point of support he could move the earth. He also discovered many laws of physics, such as the principle of water displacement by a solid body. While taking a bath he found the solution to a problem he had been pondering and he started running naked through the streets of Siracusa shouting “Eureka, Eureka!” (I found it!). And he envisioned modern Calculus.
Archimedes was killed in 212 BC while immersed in his calculations by a Roman soldier who did not know who he was. The contributions Archimedes made to Greek scientific thought were enormous. And this is an important example of how the exchange of information and scholarship actually flowed from Sicily to Greece and not the other way around.
Another example of how such scholarship flowed eastward across the Ionian Sea to Greece from the island concerned Rhetorics, the art of public speaking, which had its beginning in Sicily. Cicero, who was one of the most famous Roman orators, acknowledged that Sicilians were the first to consider the subject a matter that could be taught. They were masters in the art. In fact, Gorgias of Lentini, (483 BC) one of the founders of Greek philosophical thought, traveled to Athens in 427 BC and astonished his listeners with his consummate skill as a public speaker. He often visited the city to instruct young Athenians. Tisias, one of his disciples, who often accompanied him, coauthored with Corax of Agrigento, the first manual on public speaking.
Empedocles, a naturalist philosopher, orator, poet, physician, scientist, whom Bertrand Russell considered the father of philosophy in the West, was so gifted in everything he did that the people of Agrigento regarded him as a god. He traveled throughout Magna Graecia, becoming a legend in his own time. He was also credited with being the first volcanologist. He fell or jumped into Mt. Etna, was swallowed by the volcano, and legend has it that the mountain expelled one of his sandals intact.
Sicilians contributed substantial innovations to Greek theatre through the work of Epicarmus, born in Megara Hiblea or Siracusa. Aristotle credited Epicarmus with the elevation of comedy to the level of high drama. He wrote in a language that was a mixture of Doric Greek with local Siracusan dialect and his comedies influenced Aristophanes who used some of Epicarmus’ scenes in his plays. Sicilians were also responsible for assigning a different role to the chorus in their plays and for introducing the Mime, a new type of poetry. Siceliots loved the theater as much as the Greeks did and as a witness to this love they have left many open-air theatres carved out of the stone and set against dramatic backdrops in Siracusa, Segesta, Eraclea Minoa, Tindari, and Taormina.
In law, Charondas from Catania was of the greatest lawgivers of the ancients. He practically put an end to the practice of sycophants, false accusers, by requiring those who swore false testimony to wear a wreath so people would know their crime. Charondas also promoted the idea of public education for those who could not afford it. His laws were praised by the likes of Aristotle and Plato and were adopted in many cities of Magna Graecia.
Stesicorus of Himera (VI c. BC) was not born in Sicily but lived most of his life in Himera, a city famous for a great victory of the Siracusan army against the Carthaginians in 480 BC. Stesicorus was regarded as the first poet to treat mythological and epic tales in a lyrical way. He was considered a lyrical Homer.
Theocritus (III c. BC) was born in Siracusa and is considered the greatest poet of Hellenistic literature. He was the father of bucolic poetry that inspired so many poets through the ages.
Archestratus of Gela was a famous cook who is credited with the first cookbook entitled The Sweet Taste, making the reputation of Sicilian cooks famous all over the known world. And Mileto of Siracusa sent his own chef to give lessons to the Greeks in the renowned culinary art of Sicily.
Evemero of Messina was the first man to interpret the theogonies in a novel way that was to have much success in the middle ages. He attributed human origins to the gods and interpreted their stories as real historical events. His name has given us the adjective “heumeristic.”
Sicilians excelled in the fine arts. The coins minted in Siracusa by Eveneto and Cimone were renowned as the supreme creation of the art. Sicilian sculptors were no less gifted than their Greek counterparts, as is made abundantly evident by visiting the major Sicilian museums. In architecture, Sicilians added their own features to the majestic temples that grace the countryside in Agrigento, creating a style known as Sicilian-Doric. Historiography was also well developed under Philistus of Siracusa and Timaeus of Taormina as was the art of draftsmanship.
The relationship between Sicily and Greece was not, as I said earlier, a one-way street. Many Sicilians returned to Greece to visit the oracles, to participate in the Olympic games, to teach and to learn. And many famous Greeks visited Sicily. Plato, the great philosopher, spent a good deal of time in Sicily as a political advisor to Dion and to Dionysius II whom he wanted to mold into his own figure of the philosopher king as outlined in his work The Republic, without much success we might add. Aeschylus, the great tragedian went there as well and wrote a play entitled “The Women of Etna” now lost, while at the court of Geron. Some of his plays were performed in Siracusa for the first time. Aeschylus died in Gela in 456. The poet Pindar spent some time in Agrigento, which he regarded as “the most beautiful city of mortal men.” Even the greatest woman poet of antiquity, Sappho, was received with great honor when she visited Siracusa. Many of Greece’s most notable poets and writers such as Arion, Simonides and Bacchilides, were guests of the Tyrants.
Greek visitors to Sicily include not only poets and intellectuals. Sicily stimulated the Greek imagination much before they decided to live there. In fact, the image of Sicily as it emerged from sailors’ accounts and poetry was probably instrumental in engendering in those first courageous colonizers the desire to see it first-hand. Greek sailors had probably circumnavigated the island four or five centuries before they decided to colonize it. The fact that they localized so many of their myths on Sicily confirms that they knew a great deal about the geography of the island. Thus, it became the locale for much of the Odyssey, even if we do not accept the theories put forth by Samuel Butler and others which identify Ithaca with Trapani. Ulysses spent considerable time of his ten-year peregrinations after the Trojan War in and around Sicily. And it is the setting for Greek legends and myths.
The legendary Minos, King of Crete, followed Daedalus to Sicily to seek revenge. Daedalus, as you will recall, constructed a wooden cow for Minos’ wife Pasiphae so she could satisfy her desire to join with the white bull of Poseidon. Out of that union the monstrous Minotaur was born and hidden in the maze created by Daedalus. When Minos imprisoned him in the labyrinth together with his son for having given Ariadne the thread that allowed Theseus to enter the labyrinth and slay the Minotaur, Daedalus escaped by fashioning a pair of wax wings for himself and Icarus. His son eventually fell into the sea and drowned but Daedalus managed to reach Sicily where King Cocalus welcomed him. He proved his engineering skills by solving a problem posed by the King. Cocalus asked Daedalus to thread a hair through the inner coils of the spiral of a shell whose end he had broken off. In response Daedalus tied the hair to an ant and put some honey at the opposite end of the shell. The ant went through the spiral carrying the hair after it. Cocalus was impressed, and when Minos asked him to give up Daedalus to him so he could punish him, the Sicilian king gave him a warm welcome and then proceeded to have him drowned in a bathtub.
One interesting tale which can be interpreted as a mythological translation of the passage of culture from Greece to Sicily is the myth of Alpheus and the nymph Arethusa. According to the story immortalized by Ovid and Virgil, the hunter saw Arethusa in the woods of Arcadia and fell madly in love with her. When he was ready to grasp her, Arethusa begged the gods to save her and she was transformed into a stream. The little river flowed into the sea and crossed under the Ionian sea to emerge on the island of Ortygia in Siracusa. Alpheus, unable to stand the pain of the loss of the beloved, asked to be changed into a stream and thus he too crossed the sea to emerge in Ortygia, to be near his beloved. The fresh water source is known to the local inhabitants as “l’occhio di Zillica” and it flows out in the middle of the great port of Siracusa, not far from the Fountain of Arethusa. Thus, Greece and Sicily were connected by an underwater river symbolizing the union of their cultures.
The demigod Hercules is known to have visited Sicily and to have killed a local hero named Eryx, a personification of Mount San Giuliano on which the city of Erice was built. Aphrodite herself had an important cult there. But of all the myths, the most important was the myth of the Great Mother Goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone.10
According to the myth, Pluto kidnapped Persephone near Enna’s Lake Pergusa and brought her down the underworld. The myth related how Demeter, distraught over the loss of her daughter allowed all vegetation to perish. The situation became extremely serious and required the intervention of Zeus who ordered his brother Pluto to return Persephone to her mother. Pluto acquiesced, but before releasing Persephone he made her eat a pomegranate, which symbolized for the ancients the wedding vows, essentially forcing her to return to the underworld. The ancient mythographers claim that Persephone by order of Zeus was supposed to spend two thirds of her time with her husband and the remaining third with her mother on earth. But as Sicily has only two seasons: winter and summer, Persephone spends half her time with Pluto fulfilling her marital duties and half on earth with her mother. Thus, when she is released from the underworld, nature is reborn.
Sicily is the birth of spring, probably because it is the land where the almond tree blooms first in Europe. That Sicily embodied the birth of spring is probably emblematic of how the Greeks felt about the island. Demeter brought wheat to Sicily and Bacchus was said to have given mankind wine after he discovered grapes in Sicily. The goddess Athena is credited with having given the Sicilians the olive tree. These three products, of course, identify the main staples on which Sicilian agriculture thrived at the time. Hephaestus, the smith of the gods, whom the Romans called Vulcan, had his shop in the bowels of Mount Etna; as did the Cyclops Polyphemus and the giants Bronte, Tipheus and Sterope. Many other Olympians are connected with Sicily. The god of the winds, Eolus, lived in the Eolian islands within sight of the coast of Sicily and the waters of Sicily were home to nymphs like Galatea and monsters like Scylla and Charibdis in the Straits of Messina.
The gods of the Greeks became the gods of the Sicilians. Their temples were dedicated to Aphrodite in Erice, to Hercules, Jupiter, Hera, Castor and Pollux in Agrigento, and to Apollo and Artemis in Siracusa. Even the cathedral of Siracusa was built on the site of a temple to Venus, incorporating the ancient columns into the walls of the church.
Conversely, though not quite so universally, the gods of the older Sicilian population came to be associated with Greek gods. Local divinities who were clearly a product of the native imagination and who were unknown in the Pantheon of Greek gods, were given in time Greek genealogy and absorbed.
A few examples will suffice. On the slopes of Mt. Etna, near Paternò, the native Sicilians were extremely devoted to the goddess Hyblaia, a telluric divinity associated with the underground rumblings of the volcano. Her cult, which involved the use of priests and diviners of dreams known as Galeotai, had already become Hellenized and may have been associated with Aphrodite or Venus as the protectress of the fecundity of the earth.
Another local myth that became hellenized was that of the Palici Twins, who represented telluric phenomena and were considered the protectors of the Sicilian people under Ducezio and of the Sicilian slaves who revolted against the Romans in 210 and 113 BC. Though the more ancient tradition claims they were the sons of Adrano, the God of Etna, later mythographers tell us they were the sons of Zeus and the Nymph Talia. They were born underground because their mother feared the wrath of Zeus’ wife, Hera. The divine twins were honored by the people with the erection of a great temple where people came to swear oaths. The punishment for those who failed to keep their oaths was death or blinding.
No one dared to lie before the altar of the Twins. Those who were found guilty of lying were exposed to the emanations of dangerous vapors from the nearby lake Naftia which caused blindness. This fear was so great that even today when Sicilians swear to the veracity of their statements, they utter the sentence: “Privu di la vista di l’occhi” (May I lose the sight of my eyes).
Another important indigenous cult that became hellenized was the cult of the God Adrano, a personification of Mt. Etna who had a temple on the slopes of the mountain in the middle of the fields of lava before the city of Adrano was built. In fact, the city was built in sight of the temple by order of Dionysius the Elder in 400 BC in pursuit of his political aims of domination of the Etnean territory. For the Greeks he represented the god of fire and his name was often given as Hephaestus and Vulcan. As he was portrayed in statues in a defensive posture holding a lance in his hand he was associated also with Ares or Mars. Thus, he was seen as a protector and defender.
The legend tells of the one thousand Cirnechi dogs, a breed that can still be seen in the mosaics of Piazza Armerina, that assisted the god in his task. These dogs were so intelligent that they welcomed the many visitors to the temple during the day and escorted them home at night, but those who came to the temple at night with evil intentions were quickly discovered and the dogs proceeded to eat them alive. Liars and perjurers had much to worry about with these dogs. An element of this myth remains in the phrase Sicilians commonly use to denounce liars: “Chi ti pozzanu manciari li cani!” (May you be devoured by the dogs!). These indigenous Sicilian myths, together with many others we cannot address, went on to enrich the Pantheon of Greek divinities for a time but have disappeared almost completely.
The connections between Sicily and Greece extend beyond the collapse of Magna Graecia before the advancing armies of Rome. Even after the Roman conquest, Sicily did not abandon its Sicilian-Greek heritage. The people of the island continued to speak Greek even though Rome imposed its language for official functions. Greek remained the written language of Sicily alongside Latin. Indeed, even after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, when Sicily fell into the orbit of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Eastern religious rites were introduced, Greek became once again the predominant language. Those who survived the onslaught of the Arabs in Northeastern Sicily continued to speak Greek until the Normans reintroduced Latin in the 11th century. Through the Norman period, Greek, Arabic and Latin were the three official languages at court. Greek and Arabic began to lose ground when the new vulgar languages, Sicilian at first and Tuscan afterwards, gained wider acceptance.
It’s clear that the histories of Sicily and Greece are closely bound by language, customs, and affinities of character and attitude. None of the people who came to Sicily have been as compatible with the Sicilian people as the Greeks. Sicilians, especially those from the eastern part of the island who resisted the infiltration of the Arabs, inherited from the Greeks their sense of drama, along with their liveliness, their sense of hospitality, their gift for reasoning, their diffidence and even their physical appearance.
The Sicilians from the provinces of Messina, Catania and Siracusa to name the major cities of the east coast are much closer to Greeks in looks and attitudes than they are to the inhabitants of Venice or Milano. If I were to identify those peoples with whom Sicilians have an affinity I’d say the Greeks are in first place, followed closely by the Arabs, then the Normans and the Spaniards. All the others, the French, the Piedmontese, the Austrians, and also the Romans, were considered foreigners and were tolerated, but never accepted, and did not leave much of a trace on the Sicilian psyche.
The many men whose fame extended far outside the island advanced the cause of Hellenic civilization in that they wrote and spoke in Greek or a Sicilianized version of it, but having been born and raised on Sicily they represented their homeland. Their allegiance was to the city that gave them birth. Thus, if someone happened to be born in Siracusa, he was first Siracusan and then Sicilian, especially when Siracusa was at the height of her power and controlled almost all of the island. Siracusa and Sicily at that point were one reality.
Naturally, they showed pride in belonging to a larger world that included the Greek city-states because they spoke a language they understood and shared common values and customs. They had a sense of belonging to the larger context vis à vis the non-Greek world. They were conscious of belonging to a superior civilization and regarded the non-Greek as barbarians. The Carthaginians and even the Romans were part of the outside world.
If all the men I have mentioned were able to flourish and live in Sicily, it must be clear that they found the right atmosphere and conditions there to develop their talents. The artistic and scientific developments of the island, if we do not want to claim that it had reached even higher levels of achievements than Greece itself, certainly was on par with it. The island, together with some of the cities founded by the Greeks in Calabria and Campania such as Locri, Crotone, Sibari, Paestum, Metaponto, and which constitute Magna Graecia, shared Greece’s intellectual orientation, the same spirit and the same life, and embodied the highest form of civilization in the world. After all, the great Greek philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras who founded the great school of thought known as “The Italic School” lived in Crotone, Calabria, for 20 years and then moved to Metaponto for the rest of his life. The philosophers who subscribed to his philosophical concepts and ideas were known as the “fisosofi italici” or the Italic philosophers.
It cannot be denied that Greece gave the world the bases of a new civilization, and it cannot be denied that part of the civilization was deeply rooted in Sicilian soil. The island and the cities of Magna Graecia in Southern Italy were, in fact, launching pads for the civilizing impetus that radiated northward into Europe. On this occasion, Sicily played a role that seems congenial to her, destined to be repeated in the aftermath of the Arab domination when it became the filter through which the scientific knowledge of the Arabs was passed on to Europe. But whereas in the latter case, Sicilians were relatively less involved in the elaboration of the product they were transmitting, in the former they were active participants, creators as well as transmitters of the message.
If as Goethe said, Sicily represents the key for understanding Italy, it is also undeniable that Sicily also provides the key for understanding Greece. It is no wonder then that many of the European intellectuals such as von Gloeden, D.H. Lawrence, Sartre, De Maupassant, Gregorovius, and others flocked to Sicily, not to Greece, to experience first-hand the essence of Greece. They came to Sicily to discover the spark of life that had been extinguished in their northern climates. Ancient Sicily and Greece are inextricably bound by their common past. You cannot think of one without the other. To realize that this is so, consider for a moment Greek civilization without Sicily.
Notes and Bibliography
1 The question of the origins of the Sikans and the Siculi does not seem to be resolved, at least until additional information is uncovered. Even the ancient writers disagree on the subject. It’s generally believed that the Sikans came originally from Spain and the Siculi from Central Italy. Some believe they came from Latium and spoke a language not too dissimilar from Latin.
2 The chronology of the foundations of the Sicilian cities is naturally opened to debate. The most complete discussion on the subject is in Jean Berard, La Magna Grecia: Storia delle colonie greche dell’Italia meridionale, Torino, Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi, 1963. On p. 95 Berard offers a table with the foundation dates given by Thucidides, Eusebius, Girolamo, and various other authors, none of whom seem to agree. Their differences are often minor, but nonetheless enough to throw doubt on accepting any of the dates given as the absolute truth. Eusebius for example considered Zancle the first Greek colony on Sicily, founded in 757-756, twenty-three years before Naxos.
3 I am referring to the granting of some land to the Chalcidians by the Siculian King Iblone. The Chalcidians founded Megara Iblea and lived there for 140 years until they were forced to abandon the area by Gelone of Siracusa. See Berard, op. cit., p. 118.
4 The figure of Ducezio has become a symbol of the struggle for Sicilian independence. A noble and generous Prince, Ducezio offered his life when his army was finally defeated by the Siracusans at Nome in order to spare retribution against the Sicilians who had participated in the revolt. The Siracusans spared his life and sent him into exile to Corinth. But the Sicilian Prince quickly returned from exile and founded the colony of Calacte (present-day Caronia). He died before he could organize another rebellion against the Greeks. After his death all the cities of the Siculi fell to the Siracusans. See Santi Correnti, Storia di Sicilia come storia del popolo siciliano, Longanesi, Milano 1982.
5 See Georges Vallet, Sicilia greca, Napoli, Edizioni del Sole, 1988, p. 13.
6 See Gaetano Cipolla, “A Banner for Sicily” in Arba Sicula, Vol XV, 1 &2, 1994, pp. 98-107 and the chapter on the Trinacria in the present volume.
7 Brian Caven has written an interesting biography of Dionysius I in which he tries to restore his reputation which has been tainted by democratic historians inimical to dictatorships. He claims that most of the negative lore about Dionysius I — his overly suspicious nature, his fear of being assassinated to the point that he taught his daughter how to shave him or the singeing of his beard to avoid contact with barbers who might harm him, his presumed whimsical condemnation to death of poets who criticized his poems etc. were fabrications by the political opposition in Greece. See Dionysius I: Warlord of Sicily, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1990.
8 British historian Denis Mack Smith who wrote a two-volume history of Sicily calls Sicilians megalomaniacs. Sicilians, he says, have an excessive need to aggrandize their accomplishments. This is visible in the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento which contains 5 temples, out of the nine they had envisioned, designed to surpass the ancient models found in Greece. See A History of Sicily, Dorset Press, New York, 1968.
9 F. G. Arezzo, Sicilia, Flaccovio Editore, Palermo, p. 225.
10 Some historians believe that the myth of Demeter was native to Sicily and preceded the arrival of the Greeks. This is Holm’s view. Another German historian named Freeman believes that even the myth of Persephone was of Sicilian derivation. See Holm, Storia della Sicilia nell’antichità, Vol I, p. 172 and Freeman, Geschichte Siciliens, Vol I, p. 479. The prevailing opinion is that the two myths were brought by the colonizing Greeks from Gela. See Emanuele Ciaceri, Culti e miti nella storia dell’antica Sicilia, Giuseppe Brancato Editore, Catania, 1910, rpt. 1987.
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