Michael Scott Reveals Sicily's Diverse History
Tuesday, 20 February 2018
Bolton School Girls’ Division was delighted to welcome Dr Michael Scott back to talk to pupils and the wider local community, this time about Sicily: an island for everyone. His address was based on his most recent television programme, Sicily: Wonder of the Mediterranean and encompassed the history of the island from the Neolithic period to the present day.
Firstly, to answer the question ‘Why Sicily?’, Michael talked about the island as a mirror for globalisation. People came to Sicily from all across the Mediterranean, causing not only difficulties and conflicts but also a huge creative force. His talk therefore explored both the advantages and disadvantages of migration in context throughout history.
The island’s physical location, right at the heart of the Mediterranean, is part of what has made Sicily so important throughout history. It served as a gateway between east and west, and even during the Neolithic period was a trading post. He noted that it is very difficult for archaeologists and historians to identify Sicily’s indigenous population, as even the very earliest stories of the island talk not about the inhabitants but about people coming to Sicily.
Moving ahead in time, he discussed the way the Ancient Greeks viewed Sicily with a mixture of trepidation and desire, as evidenced in the many mythological stories set there: it was the island of the monsters Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, and the place where Persephone was abducted by Hades; but also the island of Dionysus and the location of Hephaestus’s forge. However, the island was not a mystery to the Greeks. There were thriving colonies on the island during this period, fed by rich trade which put the island at the front and centre of Greek culture. The first recorded Olympian victor of the Pankration was Sicilian, and the hugely wealthy “tyrant” rulers of Sicily brought together artisans from across the Mediterranean to create extraordinary temples on Sicily and craft lavish offerings to be presented to the gods at Delphi.
This connection with the world around it continued even though dark periods in Sicily’s history. After the Punic Wars, Sicily was occupied by the Romans, yet a villa dating from the 4th Century AD features mosaics using materials and techniques from North Africa, which was the most sophisticated style at the time. There is also evidence of Jewish and Christian places of worship and temples to the Egyptian goddess Isis from this period. After the fall of Rome, the island was re-conquered by the Byzantines and Constans II actually considered abandoning Constantinople and moving the capital of his empire to Sicily! During its Arab occupation, between the 9th and 11th centuries, the island became very cosmopolitan, enjoyed religious tolerance, and went through a revolution of science and technology.
After the Norman conquest of Sicily in the 1060s, the same decade as the Norman conquest of Britain, the resulting kingdom became the third largest in Europe at the time. Michael also described its rulers, Roger I and II, as overseeing a wide range of cultures in harmony, unlike most of the rest of the Mediterranean at the time. During this period there was the Great Schism of the Eastern and Western Churches and the Crusades, yet in Sicily Roger II built the Palatine Chapel which features a western Italian-style basilica, eastern Byzantine mosaics, and an Arab-style wood-crafted ceiling: a strong amalgamation of all Sicily’s cultural influences. The Palermo Opera House, built in the 19th century following Garibaldi’s successful campaign to ‘take back Sicily’ as part of his plan to reunify Italy, is a similar “storyboard of highlights” from throughout the island’s past.
Michael also talked about some of the disadvantages that Sicily has faced in its history, particularly when the island was absorbed by Spain. Although this brought influences from the New World, such as chocolate, it lost out on the Italian Renaissance and also came under the influence of the Spanish Inquisition. At one point, there was a demand to expel all Jews and Muslims, which accounted for a tenth of the population in some places, many of whom were in key jobs. Roman occupation was also a difficult time for the island, which became the ‘breadbasket’ of Rome. In modern times, the Mafia pose a real, ongoing and dangerous problem for the island, which Michael touched upon at several points.
He also discussed the impact that mass immigration has had upon the island in recent years, with the Italian coastguard picking migrants from sinking inflatables in their thousands. He noted that the Sicilian view on this is surprisingly positive. The people believe that welcoming others is in their DNA, after centuries of conquest and trade, and this is also their best guarantee of safety.
Michael’s talk also included some ‘behind the scenes’ anecdotes from filming Sicily: Wonder of the Mediterranean, including the fortuitous appearance of a dog which turned out to be very popular when the programme aired!
The evening drew to a close with a series of questions from the audience. Michael was asked about the one place in Sicily he would recommend and replied that, apart from insisting on sampling the excellent ice cream, he would suggest an Ancient Greek quarry near Selinous where they cut the stone for the temples. It was attacked by Carthaginians during the Punic Wars, forcing the workers to down tools and run, and has therefore been frozen in time with columns half carved from pieces of rock. When asked how the rife corruption during the Roman rule of the island was possible, he described Rome’s view of Sicily as the place where they sent things they were ashamed of and mentioned that the soldiers who survived the disastrous Battle of Cannae against Hannibal were re-assigned to Sicily for the remainder of the war as punishment. He also discussed what sparked his personal interest in the island, and reiterated that it was its location and the fact that it was a melting pot of culture and ideas which makes Sicily deserving of attention. He also added that although it makes for a great tourist and holiday destination, it’s more than just a place of history: Sicily’s past has a lot to teach, and the island is also at the forefront of the present day.
Dr Michael Scott is an Associate Professor in Classics and Ancient History at the Warwick University and their admissions tutor. He also writes books and articles, takes part in radio programmes, and has written and presented several TV series about the ancient world for History Channel, National Geographic, BBC and ITV.
This event was the latest in a series of Arts and Sciences Evening Enrichment Lectures organised by the Girls’ Division. The talks will continue with The Royal Society of Statistics William Guy Lecture, which this year will be given by Jeff Ralph on the subject ‘Society and Teenagers: How statistics reveal the changes in young people’s lives through the last century’. The full programme of events is available here.
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