Below the Boot

A History of Sicily: Ancient Sicily to the Arab Conquest

by M.I. Finley
Viking, 256 pp., $7.50

Medieval Sicily: 800-1713 and Medieval Sicily: After 1713

by Denis Mack Smith
Viking, Vol. 1, 256, Vol. 2, 352 pp., (all 3 volumes, $25.00)

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…

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