Fitting the Puzzle Together

Just seeing Sicily helps fit about forty-plus pieces together in my mind about Greece and Rome and Carthage. Why was Sicily so seriously fought over? What happened to the native Sicilians? Why did Sicily become a backwater? Were there other players in the political power game in the Mediterranean besides the Greeks, the Carthaginians, and the Romans?

Sicily was such a serious battle ground because the land is tremendously fertile, and it grows all the crops for which the Mediterranean is famous. Wheat, barley, oats, almonds, grapes, pistachios, lemons, oranges, limes, dates, figs and bananas all grow in Sicily. It’s an agricultural paradise. You can raise sheep, goats, and cattle, and the waters around Sicily teem with fish. The waters off the south coast are also home to the Murex shellfish, which is the source of the purple dye that gave thePhoenicians their name.

The native Sicilians were enslaved. When the Phoenicians and the Greeks established trading ports on the coasts, they were literally locking the natives into the valleys of the interior. What I saw of the coastline was either shallow beaches or serious cliffs. The beaches were often dominated by the ruins of Greek or Phoenician cities, and these cities often used the cliffs as their akropoleis. Controlling the ports, the Greeks and Phoenicians would have rapidly worked to transform Sicily into a mercantile economy, and that would mean overvaluing foreign imports, and undervaluing local goods for export. The political division of the natives into Sicans, Sicels and Elymi and other peoples would have abetted this foreign occupation and hegemonization. The known evidence argues for only limited uprisings by the native population against their foreign masters.

Sicily became a backwater only after its local power structures were reduced. More on that anon.

The real question is, were there any other power centers besides Greece, Rome and Carthage? The answer is yes: Sicily. The cities of Akragas, Selinunte, Gela, Syracuse and Messene actually had a league going, whose stated purpose was 1) to dominate Sicily, 2) control east-west trade, and 3) counter-balance the Italians, the Carthaginians and the Greeks. The Sicilian colonists of the 7th century are thinking of themselves as Sicilians by the 5th century, and they’re entering their own Golden Age by 470 BCE — about the same time that Athens is hitting its Golden Age, and about the same time that Rome is embarking on the conquest of southern Italy, and about the same time that Carthage is trying to take over Spain.

Akragas, Selinunte, and Syracuse are all building temples and theaters that rival those in Rome and Athens. They’re using the Greek architectural style, but they’re developing their own tools and motifs. They have the wealth to do it, too. The temples at Akragas and Selinunte, for example, are the only Greek temples that have carved metopes. That represents wealth and artisanship. The Sicilian wine and pottery manufactories are going strong by the middle 450s BCE, and Athens actually embarks on an attempted conquest of Sicily during the Peloponnesian War.

Carthage fights in Spain in order to defeat Tartessos. Rome fights in Italy to reduce the Italics and the Etruscans. The Greeks fight in Sicily to reduce the Elymi; the Carthaginians fight the Greeks to keep them from controlling Sicily; the Romans fight the Carthaginians to keep them from controlling Sicily.

All these wars, from the 6th century BC to the 2nd century BCE, are to keep Sicily from becoming a power center on its own. It could have, had it been united early on under a single ruler. It was in a good position to dominate the Mediterranean and the surrounding littoral. It’s just four days from Spain by sail, ten days from Egypt, sixteen days from the Black Sea.

Sicily became a backwater because the Carthaginians, Romans and Greeks adopted a systematic pattern of knocking down the temples and city walls of the towns they conquered, and carrying off the populations into slavery. They deliberately savaged every town they could, in order to prevent those towns from threatening their hegemony. Moreover, Sicilian slaves would have been literate; they would have been skilled craftsmen and capable people. So there’s also butchery going on: huge numbers of the most skilled and clever are in fact being murdered, and some refugees are escaping into the countryside. The result is a genetic inheritance for Sicily: waves of different invaders, settling, flourishing and ultimately failing, with their best and brightest carried off into bondage. A peasant population remains, to pick stones out of the fields, grow grapes, and live in villages which present no threat to the established order of the wider outside world.

Sicily in the ancient world was the Acquitaine: the province no one could do without, and yet the one which was riskiest and most difficult to hold. The winner of the struggle gets a thousand-year empire, ruling a global ecumene. The losers get ruins, and UNESCO recognition as fabulous places to look at broken Greek vases.

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