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7-08-2015, 21:30

Sicily

In radical contrast to the separatism evident in most of the Byzantine territories in the Italian peninsula, Sicily assumed a more central place within the imperial orbit from the seventh century. In the first half of the century it appears to have been a prosperous backwater, secure from the Lombard assaults which devastated much of the mainland, and retaining civil government under a prait¯or and resilient elements of civilian society. Following the first major raid by the Arabs in 652, repulsed by an expedition led by the exarch Olympius, it assumed a more central role on the political stage. After Constans II’s decision to abandon Constantinople in 661 and his unsuccessful campaigns against the Lombards of southern Italy, the imperial court moved to Syracuse (see above, p. 232). Although the emperor was murdered in 668, the island gained new importance as a naval base used to opposeMuslim advances in North Africa, and Justinian II elevated it into a theme in the early 690s. Its strat¯egos came to assume authority over imperial territory in southern Italy, and after the fall of the exarchal government in 751 he came to play a leading role in diplomatic negotiations with the Franks, the Lombards and the papacy.77 The effects of these changes were mixed. The influx of officials and soldiers from the east accelerated a wide-scale process of hellenisation. The origins of this are uncertain, but there is evidence that a dual Greek and Latin culture existed in the Roman period and that theGreek substrata were reinforced by immigration, most notably from Greece and the Balkans, by the early seventh century. The church remained under the jurisdiction of the see of Rome, but the hellenisation, reflected in the Greek monks encountered by eastern visitors such asMaximus the Confessor and by the Greeks from Sicily who ascended the papal throne, is in sharp contrast to the impression of Latin predominance given in the letters of Pope Gregory the Great (590–604). On the other hand, the militarisation and decentralisation involved in theme organisation must have served to strengthen local elements. One reflection of this was the revolt of the strat¯egos Sergios in 717–18 (see above, p. 440): he responded to the Arab siege of Constantinople by crowning one of his subordinates, Basil Onomagoulos, as emperor. However, after his defeat of the Arabs, Leo III had no difficulty in quelling the rebellion, executing Basil and forcing Sergios to seek refuge with the Lombards across the Straits of Messina. The new emperor was prompt to recognise the economic as well as political and military value of the island. He ordered that the vast revenues previously paid to the Roman church should be transferred to the imperial fisc, and Sicily was one of the areas transferred from papal jurisdiction to that of the patriarch of Constantinople (see above, p. 285). Partly as a result of these moves, the Latin element virtually disappeared and the process of hellenisation continued apace, as is demonstrated by a number of important saints’ Lives and the prominent Greek scholars and churchmen from Sicily of the eighth and ninth centuries, for example Gregory Asbestas, Joseph the Hymnographer, Constantine the Sicilian and the patriarch Methodios (843–7). The dominant Greek culture, with its strong cosmopolitan links with the capital, appears to have been largely confined to elite groups and was limited in its local impact and character. Although several iconodules were sent into exile on Sicily and its neighbouring islands, there appears to have been no large-scale migration as a result of iconoclast persecution. In general the iconoclast crisis seems to have had little impact on the island, apart from the execution of the strat¯egos Antiochos together with eighteen other iconodule officials in Constantinople in 766, and the appointment of the strongly iconoclastic Theodore Krithinos as archbishop of Syracuse during the second wave of the movement.78 Rather, the island’s attachment to icons and to Greek saints helped to bind it more closely to the empire. Nevertheless, unrest was clearly growing by the eighth century, although the pattern of this was different from the mainland. One likely factor here was economic decline. Although a full picture is only gradually emerging fromarchaeological surveys,79 the island’s prosperity was probably adversely affected by the increasing frequency of Arab raids and by the severe plague of 745–6 (see above, p. 256). The island’s ties with the centre were so strong that revolts seem to have reflected personal ambition, or the political and religious conflicts of the capital, rather than local separatism. A case in point is the crisis of 781, when the strat¯egos Elpidios was accused by the empress Irene of conspiring with her brother-in-law, and the Sicilian exercitus prevented his arrest. Irene responded by sending an expedition, which defeated Elpidios’ forces and compelled him to seek refuge in Africa, where he had himself crowned emperor with Arab support.80 Unlike the mainland provinces of Italy, Sicily lacked one dominant political and cultural centre analogous to Ravenna, Rome or Naples, or an independent-minded military elite with a strong sense of local collective identity and a tradition of autonomy. As a result, the population’s reaction to the upheavals of the 820s was divided and in some respects passive. Discontent broke out early in the decade, possibly sparked off by the revolt of Thomas the Slav in the east. An attempt byMichael II (820–829) to raise taxation from the island triggered a rising by an anti-imperial faction. By 826 this faction was led by the ambitious commander of the Sicilian fleet, the turmarch Euphemios, who had led successful raids against North Africa.81 When the strat¯egos Constantine moved to arrest him, probably for his disloyalty rather than as result of the romantic excesses ascribed to him by later legend,82 Euphemios responded by seizing Syracuse, proclaiming himself emperor and then defeating and killing Constantine in Catania. However, some of Euphemios’ supporters then switched their loyalty to the imperial government and he was forced to flee to Africa, where the Aghlabid amir Ziyadat Allah I recognised his title and granted him a fleet to attack the island. In June 827 the predominantly Arab force landed at the western port of Mazara and soon afterwards defeated the Byzantine strat¯egos Plato. Despite fierce resistance and some Byzantine successes, the Arabs gradually extended their hold over the island, conquering Palermo in 831, Cefal`u in 857 and Enna in 859. A decisive blow was struck when the capital, Syracuse, fell after a nine-month siege in 878 and its population was massacred.83 A few outposts, however, survived into the tenth century. The worst-documentedByzantine province in the Italian theatre is Sardinia. In the seventh century it had close administrative ties with the exarchate of Africa, although ecclesiastically it came under the see of Rome. It suffered from Lombard naval attacks, but these appear to have been successfully repulsed, to judge from an inscription attributing victories to the emperor, whether he was Constans II, Constantine IV or even Constantine V.84 After the fall of the exarchate of Carthage in 698, imperial rule over the island became increasingly nominal. However, Byzantine-style institutions and Greek titles survived in the eighth and ninth centuries. By the latter century numerous attacks from the Arabs further weakened links with Constantinople and power became concentrated in the hands of locally appointed officials (iudices).

 

 

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