Self-government has been rare among the populations of the Mediterranean islands. Their harbors have been an enticement to the commercial Empire builders—the Phoenicians, the Venetians, the British. They have been too small to preserve their independence against sea-borne conquerors—Romans, Arabs, Normans, Ottoman Turks—or to resist being disposed of by will or marriage contract, or by treaty arrangements of Great Powers assembled in congress at Utrecht, Vienna, or Berlin.

During its long history, traced in these three splendid volumes from the eighth century B.C. down to 1967, Sicily has been subject to most of these forms of intrusion and control. At the beginning of its recorded history it was already attracting groups of settlers from the cities of Greece, and the cities which these immigrants founded in Sicily became a part of the ancient Greek world, of interest, incidentally to Plato and to Aristotle, who had closely studied their forms of government. Control of the island was later disputed between Rome and Carthage and, with the victory of the former, it became part of the Roman Empire for more than seven centuries.

Even after the ending of effective Roman rule in the West, Sicily remained for a further three hundred years subject to that eastern part of the Empire ruled from Byzantium until, during the ninth century, it was conquered by Moslems from North Africa. Some two centuries of Moslem rule were ended by a Norman conquest which was contemporary with the Norman conquest of England, and since the end of the eleventh century Sicily has remained part of Western Europe.

Its line of able Norman rulers, who in 1130 became kings, included Roger II, one of the greatest monarchs of his day; but in 1189 the male succession failed, and through the marriage of the heiress the throne of Sicily passed to the Hohenstaufen, who were already kings of Germany and Holy Roman Emperors. All three crowns were worn by Frederick II, stupor mundi, who was born in Sicily and based his power there; but after his death in 1250, and the failure of his line, Sicily was ruled briefly by a younger brother of St. Louis and then, from the late thirteenth century to the last year of the seventeenth, by members of the royal house of Aragon, which in time became part of the kingdom of Spain.

The long period of Spanish rule was brought to an end by the problems of the Spanish succession in the late seventeenth century, and, during the first third of the eighteenth, Sicily belonged successively to a French Bourbon, to the Duke of Savoy, and to the Austrian Hapsburgs. In 1734 it passed to the Bourbon kings of Naples and was governed by them until 1860, the year of Garibaldi’s invasion, when the island became part of the newly proclaimed kingdom of Italy.

In this age of specialists the history of great subjects is sometimes attempted by teams of experts, each contributing a fragment devoted to his particular specialty. This method has had its successes, but it can produce a work of disparate elements, lacking in perspective and continuity. A panoramic view of nearly three thousand years of Sicilian history by a mere pair of highly professional historians is therefore both unexpected and welcome. There are many matters essential to an understanding of Sicilian history which span not only the generations, but the centuries, and which could easily be obscured by a multiplicity of authorship. Private relationships between patron and client, additional and complementary to those between the government and the governed, flourished throughout the later Roman Empire, and were a main foundation of medieval feudalism. In Sicily they have remained important into the present century, and so have ties of kinship.

As early as the second century B.C., Sicily was known as a land of great estates, the latifundia, on which wheat was the principal crop. The history of modern Sicily cannot be understood without constant reference to the wheat producing latifondi and their landlords. The Sicilian Parliament, the origins of which must be sought in the reigns of the Norman kings, existed continuously into the nineteenth century. Disunity among Sicilians, and their inability to cooperate with one another, have been the subject of comment by a long line of observers, from Alcibiades to Mr. Mack Smith himself.

Not that Sicilian history is wholly a matter of continuity. There are strong contrasts as well. In ancient and medieval times Sicily attracted immigrants and settlers, not only Greeks, but Moslems, Normans, and other westerners. In the present century, even in the present decade, there has been large-scale emigration. (Sicilian artists and intellectuals, from Theocritus to Pirandello, seem always to have emigrated and done their best work elsewhere.) Ancient Sicily, and particularly Roman Sicily, enjoyed what the island lacked in modern times: good roads and harbors, extensive forests, prosperous smallholders as well as great landlords. Its wealth was a byword among ancient writers, whose testimony remained to mislead classically educated statesmen, even Italian statesmen, in the nineteenth century.


Its prosperity was greatest when it was part of a larger economic unity, to which its wheat exports could make a full contribution, as they did in the Roman Empire and, in the ninth and tenth centuries, in the Moslem world of North Africa. On such material resources outstanding cultural and political achievement could be founded. In the fourth century B.C. the autocratic Dionysus was among the most powerful of Mediterranean rulers and his city of Syracuse was among the greatest and richest in the western world. The same could be said in the twelfth century A.D. of King Roger of Sicily and his capital at Palermo.

Modern Sicily has never been the seat of an independent government; its peasantry has been regarded as primitive and its urban society as a provincial backwater; it has been a place of poverty and underdevelopment. Why the change? Blame is often laid on the successive foreign governments. These have been seen as the suppressors of Sicilian national feeling which, from the Sicilian Vespers onward, has shown itself in the great revolts; which for centuries has been preserved from extinction by the Sicilian Parliament; which has even been seen as embodied in “the one successful form of Sicilian association,” the Mafia.

It is a principal theme of Mr. Mack Smith’s two volumes that these explanations belong to the realm of myth. Foreign governments were not necessarily oppressive. During the long centuries of Spanish rule, its objectives were often minimal: to produce a revenue, much of which was always spent outside Sicily; to support a garrison; to provide enough cheap food, especially for the population of Palermo. To secure this, the Spanish were prepared to indulge the aristocracy, which was the most powerful group in Sicilian society, and to leave local power in their hands. It was an easy-going unambitious program, and under subsequent, more active rulers, there were Sicilians who looked back to it with regret.

The Parliament of the later Middle Ages and the Ancien Régime was in no sense a defender of national interests. At no time in its long history did its members represent the whole Sicilian community, nor were they concerned with the general interests of that community. It met in three groups: one was composed of the bishops and abbots, the second of the lay nobility, the third of representatives of the towns. But these urban representatives were not elected burgesses, but were either government nominees, or were appointed by members of a nobility which dominated much of urban as well as all of rural life. They therefore dominated the Parliament as well, and they used it to ensure that the government did not encroach on their privileged position, especially that of remaining the most lightly-taxed group in the island. But since the Spanish government always recognized that Sicily was most easily governed if the nobility were not antagonized, this was a position which usually needed little defending, so that attendance at Parliament was thin and sessions short. Sicilian society was long characterized not by national feeling or common concern for the public good, but by organized groups, concerned to preserve the special privileges secured to them by law, and especially powers of jurisdiction. Sicily of the Ancien Régime was a complex mass of special jurisdictions, all jealously guarded.

All this made for an immobility which was reflected in economic life. The great estates can be seen both as a cause and as a symptom of Sicily’s lack of material progress, and they remained so during periods which saw elsewhere in Europe enlightened government and far-reaching agrarian and industrial change. The noble latifondisti continued to be absentee landlords. Their estates produced one main crop—wheat. With rare exceptions, they were not concerned with the improvement of their land, or with long-term aims, or with the public interest. They were moved by immediate and short-term benefits to themselves, however wasteful the methods used to achieve them. Nor did they make it possible for others to undertake development. Their agents and managers were generally appointed for only short periods, and so were encouraged to make quick gains, without regard for future ones. As for the peasants, they were given short leases. Even in the early twentieth century these were rarely for as long as six years; more often they were for three. In addition, these tenants lacked agricultural education and had no access to cheap credit.

Sicily was almost wholly an agrarian society in which no one chose, or was able, to plan ahead. Until the last twenty-five years, attempts to establish industries have been largely unsuccessful. Although her natural resources lack metals, they do include the raw materials for textiles, glass, dyestuffs and, what could once have been been important, gunpowder. But she has always imported manufactures. Sicilians with money to invest continued to prefer putting it into government bonds to risking it in new industrial enterprises. As for trade, it was always hampered by conditions which raised costs: bad roads, or the absence of roads; ill-equipped ports; difficulty in getting debts paid, partly because of the labyrinth of special courts and jurisdictions; government taxation; pirates; and, in the course of time, the Mafia.


From the Middle Ages, perhaps even earlier, gangs had flourished in the interior of the island, which the central government, based on a coastal capital, always found hard to reach. And because government was weak in the interior, gang leaders and their followers, ready to commit brutal crimes to achieve their ends, carried out some of its roles. There were always those who had work for the bosses to do—local magnates in pursuit of a feud, or with restive peasants to keep in submission; even the public authorities with other criminals to hunt and with too few police at their disposal. Or gang leaders themselves could take the initiative, extorting protection money, compelling landowners to take them into their employment as guardians of their estates.

As Mr. Mack Smith demonstrates, Mafia activities were highly developed long before the word itself appeared about a hundred years ago. And there have been times in the comparatively recent past when the Mafia has grown stronger, especially in western Sicily. The liberal institutions of the kingdom of Italy, introduced after 1860, like the activities of the Allied Military Government after 1943, enabled the Mafia and all it stood for to flourish as never before. It infiltrated parliamentary and local politics, local administration, the island’s agriculture, industry, and trade. Because of the support they could give in electioneering, the bosses and their henchmen were given wide latitude by liberal Italian governments at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And if reformers from the mainland did try to reduce their influence, the mafiosi could count on a measure of support from local Sicilian sentiment.

None of these conditions was created by governments, foreign or otherwise. On the contrary, since the early eighteenth century many of Sicily’s rulers, even those infamous Neapolitan Bourbons, made attempts to improve them. But Sicilian conditions and, as Mr. Mack Smith convincingly emphasizes, Sicilian customs and attitudes were for long too intractable for mere government regulation. Only since 1945 has there been rapid improvement. During these twenty-five years Sicily has received a measure of regional autonomy and more financial help than ever before from the Italian government, which has also increased expenditure on roads and public works, and has put pressure on landowners to carry out improvements, with the sanction of expropriation if they failed to do so. This has resulted in the transfer of a large acreage to small and medium-sized holdings. Crops have been diversified, and the number of tractors in use has been multiplied many times over. In the same short period there has been a small industrial revolution, made possible by the discovery of methane gas and oil, the establishment of oil refineries, and the development of potash deposits. The Mafia, still strong in western Sicily, has lost ground in the more open, better-educated society in the East.

In a survey of Sicily’s development through some twenty-seven centuries the two authors cannot of course give equal coverage to all epochs and aspects of its history. They are limited by the availability of sources, and the island has known many catastrophes, natural and man-made, from the sack of Syracuse by the Moslems in 878 to the Allied bombings of 1943, in which written records have been destroyed in bulk. Thus Mr. Finley is dealing with the Vandal raids of the fifth century only two pages after discussing the island in the time of Augustus, and Mr. Mack Smith has to dispose of the two important centuries of Moslem rule in fewer than ten pages. Little is known, too, of life in the interior of the island at any period.

Nor is the work all of a piece. In Mr. Finley’s volume we are shown the character and variety of the sources on which he relies, and the skill with which he extracts from them significant conclusions, while remaining aware, and making his readers aware, of their limitations. With Mr. Mack Smith in charge, the reader is less clear about the materials on which the work is based, but they do enable the author to construct an impressively close and sustained economic and social analysis of a kind which is not possible for the remote centuries with which Mr. Finley deals.

With so much discussed in what is relatively so short a space, the reader is bound to be left with some unanswered questions. How did aristocratic landlords who were generally absentees so effectively dominate the countryside? Inefficiency, dilatoriness, poverty are so convincingly and so often demonstrated that it is not always easy to understand how so many churches, palaces, villas, and theaters were built when these things were at their worst. (Neither author, incidentally, regards the art and architecture of the island as part of his brief.) Sulphur mining suffered so many handicaps from which foreign competitors were free that it seems always to exist on the very brink of extinction; yet somehow Sicilian sulphur, mined in Roman times, is mined still. Only very occasionally do allusions to another point of view intrude into the crisp authority of Mr. Mack Smith’s writing. There are readers who would like to know which matters are controversial, even when the details of the argument cannot be set out. But these are minor complaints, dwarfed by the two authors’ remarkable feat of compression and expert, highly readable elucidation, which will put all general readers and students deeply in their debt.

This Issue

March 26, 1970