Sicily: Wonder of the Mediterranean – BBC 2


Word PressSicily has a rich and fascinating history, but it’s unfortunate that Michael Scott, especially in the second of these two episodes, seemed more interested in using it to fit his views on present-day political issues than in telling it for its own sake. Oh well. Despite that, it was a very interesting series on an island whose history probably isn’t very well-known in the UK. We started off – the indigenous inhabitants didn’t get much of a mention, but, to be fair, not that much is known about them – with Sicily being colonised by both the Greeks and the Carthaginians. I always feel as if the Carthaginian contribution to Western civilisation is overlooked. For a kick-off, we wouldn’t even have the Greek and Latin alphabets had they not developed from the Phoenician alphabet. And then there are all the trade routes. But, whilst the achievements of the Greeks and the Romans are lauded, the poor old Carthaginians only seem to be remembered for crossing the Alps with elephants!

Anyway, then along came the Romans – and a reminder that Sicily was the first Roman conquest outside the Italian peninsula. Having finished off the Carthaginians, and killed Archimedes – the Greek bloke who shouted “Eureka” in the bath – the Romans turned Sicily into a source of grain, creating large estates with absent landowners. They didn’t make much attempt to Romanise the island, which remained largely Greek culturally, and it became something of a backwater.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, it fell to the “barbarians” … but not for long, because the Byzantines took it, and used it as a base for trying to retake mainland Italy. When the Lombards took control of Milan etc, Sicily remained in Byzantine hands, and for a while Syracuse even replaced Constantinople as the Byzantine capital. But then the Byzantines fell out amongst themselves, and a rebel naval commander called in the Arabs, who took the island over.

The Arabs – well, it was a mixed group of people, but the term “Arabs” is generally used (rather than “Moors” when talking about the Iberian peninsula) – made a very important contribution to Sicilian and general European culture and economics, notably introducing sugar, citrus fruits, improved irrigation systems and, according to some reports, maybe even pasta! No-one’s denying that … but Michael Scott didn’t half go on about it! I appreciate that he was trying to promote a better understanding of the Arab world and the historic links between it and the West, but this programme was actually supposed to be about the history of Sicily, not twenty-first century attitudes!

He then ignored the Vikings and moved straight on to the Normans. OK, the Vikings and the Normans were linked, but the Vikings did deserve a separate mention and they didn’t get one. However, the Norman period, especially the reign of Roger II, under whom Sicily became a kingdom in 1130, was particularly interesting, with Sicily becoming a very wealthy and powerful state, and comparable to the Caliphate of Cordoba in terms of multiculturalism. It was also in Norman times that Sicily moved away from the Eastern influence and became Latinised and predominantly Catholic. However, again, Michael Scott seemed more interested in trying to make a point about present-day issues than in the history of Sicily.

Due to succession issues, Sicily then came under the control of the German Hohenstaufens. Who was related to whom, and how, is very complicated and confusing, and it’s understandable that the programme didn’t try to go into all, but Scott could at least have tried to say a bit more about Swabian Sicily. Maybe the repression of the Islamic population of Sicily by the Hohenstaufens didn’t fit with his political agenda. He completely missed the Angevin involvement and the whole Sicilian Vespers thing as well, and jumped straight on to “six centuries of Spanish rule”.

Er, no – not quite that simple. Things all get very confusing in the Mediterranean in the 13th and early 14th centuries, with Counts of Barcelona and Kings of Mallorca and different branches of the House of Aragon and all the rest of it, but Sicily was ruled by a separate branch of the House of Aragon – and it was Aragon, not “Spain”! – until 1409, and only then came under the direct rule of the main branch. It was strangely unaffected by the Italian Wars, but it then got handed over to Savoy when everything got divvied up after the War of the Spanish Succession. Then, in one of those bizarre territorial swaps that went on in Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries, it got swapped for Sardinia and so came under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs … and then, whilst the Austrians were off sticking their noses into Poland, was grabbed by one of the Spanish Bourbons. But the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily), as it became, was definitely not ruled directly by Spain.

Black mark for oversimplification, Scott!   There are limits. Instead of explaining all this, he went on at length about the Spanish Inquisition. And chocolate. Not that the Spanish Inquisition isn’t important. And chocolate is definitely important. But a better explanation of the actual historical events would have been nice. He did at least manage to cover the 1693 earthquake and the rebuilding after it. The Napoleonic Wars pretty much skipped over, and it was straight on to Garibaldi. Biscuits were mentioned. So was British support for Garibaldi. The Expedition of the Thousand left from Sicily, so the island did play a very important role in Italian independence and unification, and became part of the new Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Scott made it sound as if everyone in Sicily was ecstatic about this, ignoring the revolts and unrest which went on throughout the 1860s. Then he spent a lot of time talking about the mafia – but, OK, no-one’s going to make a programme about Sicily without talking about the mafia.

Then he finished the programme by going on and on about the refugee situation, and , whilst obviously this is a very important issue and one which is not being dealt with adequately, the programme was meant to be about the history of Sicily and he seemed to keep twisting that towards current political issues. The programme was supposed to be about the history of Sicily. I sound as if I’m being really critical, and I don’t mean to be – both programmes were very interesting, and there’s only so much you can cover in two hours. But I would prefer to be able to watch a historical documentary without modern politics being insinuated into it like that. It got a bit too much. But it was still a good series. Nice to have something different!


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