Sicily: A Short History from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra by John Julius Norwich - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

Grain Store of Empires

Sicily: A Short History from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra


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In his preface, John Julius Norwich, author of two fine histories of the Normans in Sicily, writes: ‘The Strait of Messina is only a couple of miles across and the island is politically part of Italy; yet somehow one feels one has entered a different world.’ This is a fair comment, even though one might remark that Calabria on the Italian side of the strait is every bit as distinct from northern Italy as Sicily, and has much the same unhappy history of hardship, poverty and misgovernment. Indeed, in one respect Calabria is even less fortunate, for there is nothing there comparable to the rich corn lands and lemon groves of Sicily.

Nevertheless the island’s history is mostly wretched. Norwich, like many before him, quotes the explanation offered by the Prince in Lampedusa’s classic novel The Leopard: ‘For over twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilizations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own … And yet for two thousand five hundred years we’ve been a colony.’

Who the original Sicilians were is unknown. Thucydides thought that some were refugees from Troy. Perhaps they were. Refugees from Troy turned up everywhere, even in Britain – if we are to believe the medieval pseudo-historian Geoffrey of Monmouth. More to the point, Sicily was subsequently invaded and in part

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