A compact history of the Mediterranean’s largest island, the most frequently conquered spot on earth.
Sicily’s natural resources, agricultural importance and strategic location have made it a prize since antiquity. Benjamin (The World of Benjamin Tudela, 1995) separately chronicles the successive periods of Greek, Roman, Vandal, Goth, Byzantine, Muslim, Norman, Holy Roman, Spanish, Bourbon and Italian occupation. The island’s geography, topography and climate remain fixed, but the art, architecture, cuisine, religion, education and government altered with each conquest. Sicily’s story is the tale of obsidian and sulfur, Zeus and Mohammed, the farmer and the sailor, the slave and the master, migration and emigration, war and more war. A procession of famous people—Archimedes, Empedocles, Cicero, Pompey, Caesar, Richard Lion Heart, Goethe, Coleridge, Nelson, Garibaldi and Patton—all played out at least a portion of their lives at this seemingly inevitable crossroad. No single volume can hope to do more than touch on so many topics or so many actors, making it likely that this one will be more often referred to than read through. Still, the unflagging author does an especially good job of explaining how history never quite goes away in Sicily, how through the accretion of centuries, through so many varied influences, the island’s unique culture has emerged. For the reader who knows Sicily only as an irregular triangle on the map, the home of volcanic Mt. Aetna, or the birthplace of the Mafia, the densely packed information here will seem overwhelming. This may account for the author’s occasionally awkward shifts in tone from the professorial to the jaunty, as if she feared readers would lose heart if she didn’t jolly them along.
A useful introduction to a portion of the world whose crowded history is not easily condensed.