Littell's Living Age/Volume 138/Issue 1783/The Saracens in Italy

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From The Westminister Review.

THE SARACENS IN ITALY.[1]

It is a curious, though perhaps idle speculation, to follow out in thought an imaginary change in the history of the world, and try to fancy what would have been the effect on Western civilization — to what extent the current of modern thought would have been deflected, and the tide of modern progress stayed — had Italy, as for a time seemed not improbable, been overrun and occupied like Sicily, by the victorious Saracen hordes.

What manner of renaissance should we have had if Mahometanism, not Christianity, had been its informing spirit — if the Arab, instead of the Latin race, had guided its earliest footsteps — if the subtler but narrower genius of the East had supplanted the broader, more genial, and more universal Italian intellect, in presiding over that new birth of human thought? Would Christian art have been stifled ere it struggled into life, or would the germ from which it grew, taking root elsewhere, have given us perhaps a German Raphael, or a Scandinavian Michael Angelo? How would have fared the buried relics of pagan art, disinterred by a people whose religion enjoined their destruction? Where would the ancient manuscripts brought to light by the agents of the Italian courts, in every remote corner of Europe, have found their eager commentators and jealous guardians, with a Saracen emir ruling Florence instead of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and an African sultan installed at Rome in the chair of Leo the Tenth?

The answer to these, and many similar questions, may perhaps be sought in the history of a country analogous to Italy in position, in climate, and in race. Spain shook off the yoke, and trampled out the religion of her Arab conquerors, but failed to rid herself of the effects of their dominion; nor could all the culture of her Castilian kings, or all the wealth and prestige of her Western conquests ever raise her inhabitants to the level of adjacent peoples. The dark taint of Berb, or Moorish, blood long lingered, and lingers even yet among the Iberian Celts, as it does among the Italian Greeks of Sicily, and the island and the peninsula which lie nearest to the great equatorial continent, still form a connecting link between African barbarism and European civilization.

The land below the Alps seems to our modern eyes an inalienable appanage of the Caucasian race, but in the earlier centuries of Christianity its ultimate fate was still in the balance; and there was no visible reason why the successive surges of white conquest, which had swept over it, might not in their turn have been submerged and overwhelmed by one final surge of black conquest. At one time, indeed, two such dark waves flowing from opposite directions, had nearly met and closed over the cradle of European civilization; and a very slight further impulse, on one side or the other, would have enabled the two great Mussulman dynasties of the West to join hands over the trampled soil of Italy, and make the Mediterranean an African lake. The Moors of Spain, established at Frassineto, had then thrown themselves across the south of France into the mountains of Savoy, whence, for nearly a century — from 889 to 955 — they desolated the valleys of Piedmont and commanded the passes of the Alps, while the Moors of Africa were able during the same epoch, in 934 and 935, to attack Genoa, pillage the Riviera di Levante, and return home laden with booty and prisoners increased by a successful raid on Sardinia. But these chance and aimless currents of invasion, guided by no common purpose, and wanting the master influence of a single will to bind together their scattered forces, ebbed as they had flowed, leaving indeed a temporary track of devastation, but no permanent change in the landmarks of history.

The hordes of fanatics launched from the heart of Arabia like volcanic matter from a vast crater, only retained their conquering power during the first white-hot fervor of their new faith. When that pristine energy subsided they remained like the spent lava torrent, an inert mass of decomposing elements, unless where secondary eruptions of religious excitement fused them into fresh incandescence, and sped them on a fresh career of destruction. Such an impulse was found in the mystic doctrines of the Shiita, or Shia, supporters of the succession of Ali, a sect of Persian origin, organized with rights of initiation like a secret society, by a sort of Eastern Cagliostro known as the Kaddâh, and headed by a mysterious grand master or hidden pontiff, whose name was never revealed to the vulgar. Its apostle in the West, Abu-Abd-allah, selected the highlands of Barbary as his theatre of operations, and labored there for years with such secrecy and success that he burst upon Africa like a thunderbolt, when issuing from the mountains in 801, at the head of the warlike tribe of Kotama, an armed and organized nation three hundred thousand strong; he took the field with strange emblems and ensigns never seen before, and overthrew the reigning Aghlabite dynasty to the rallying cry, "To horse, cavaliers of God!"

And such another revival restored to reformed Islam its first conquering fury, when the tenets of a solitary dervish on an island of the Senegal, after smouldering for years in the bosoms of a few sectaries, suddenly blazed into life among the rude shepherds of the Sahara, and borne by them in their migrations in search of food to the slopes of Atlas and the Pillars of Hercules, soon spread from the desert to the Mediterranean, and from the shores of the Atlantic to the Bay of Algiers. The morâbit, as they called themselves in honor of their founder, from the Arabic ribât, a recluse (whence marabut) founded in 1062 the present city of Morocco, and crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, as the allies of their co-religionists, made the Spanish form of their name, Almoravids, formidable throughout the peninsula. Having defeated the Christian army under Alphonso of Castile at Talavera, in 1086, they quickly absorbed all Arab sovereignty in the provinces they had come to defend, and establishing a branch of their dynasty in the Balearic Islands, became a terrible scourge to the commerce of the Mediterranean. Before their leader's death he was panegyrized in nineteen hundred cathedral mosques as the most powerful of living Mahometan princes, but like all previous hosts of Mussulman invaders, his followers too lost their momentum as the first glow of fanaticism subsided, and their power died away, as it had blazed out, with the rapidity of a shooting star.

Islam, however, never brought this living fire of earlier zeal to the shores of Italy, where there was no force to meet it of vitality comparable to its own. There its incessant but desultory attacks resembled rather predatory raids than onsets of invasion, and had no abiding effect on the history of the country, though they probably had in modifying the character of part of its population. In the southern half of the peninsula there was scarcely a place of importance that was not in their hands during some part of the ninth and tenth centuries. The green flag waved over the Ionian sea from the walls of Táranto; on both sides of the blue straits, from the mosques of Messina and Reggio, the muezzin called the faithful to prayer in the name of the prophet; the emir of Sicily exacted tribute from Byzantium as the ransom of Calabria, burning Brindisi and desolating the province if it remained unpaid; the sultan of Bari lay in wait for the commerce of the Adriatic, and ravaged its shores to within sight of the bell tower of St. Mark's; the savage armies entrenched on the Garigliano, and encamped in the amphitheatre of Capua, had the country between them at their mercy, and wasted the Campagna to the very gates of Rome. Nay, Rome itself was not safe from their assaults, and saw the victorious infidels, in 846, defy the capital of Christendom from amid the blazing ruins of the Basilicas of the Apostles, then outside the walls. Salerno, beseiged for a year, from 871 to 872, was only saved, when reduced to the last extremity of hunger, by the united arms of the empire and the papacy. The great monastery of San Vincenzo in Volturno, was pillaged and burned after a stout resistance in 882; the still more famous one of Monte Cassino in the following year; the castle of Cape Misenum, near Naples, and the entrenched camp of Agropoli, in the mountains behind Paestum, were Saracen strongholds; the settlement on the Garigliano resembled an African town; and from it plundering parties went out in all directions, while an auxiliary colony, established at Narni, held the passes of the Apennines, to rob or put to ransom pilgrims on their way to Rome.

Nor did the swarthy adventurers always come as enemies; the republics of Naples and Gaeta favored and harbored them, while they were constantly called in as auxiliaries on one side or the other by the Longobard princes of south Italy in their incessant petty wars, generally to be betrayed by their allies, and fall a victim to the united arms of both parties on the conclusion of peace. Thus, Athanasius, Bishop of Naples, sent to Sicily in 881 for a strong body of Saracen soldiers, and encamped them on the western slopes of Vesuvius, under a leader named Sichaimo or Soheim. Their contract seems to have included full license of rapine in all the neighboring country, for they carried off to their camp all they could lay hands on, particularly arms, horses, and women. Their memory was long perpetuated in the popular distich,—

Quattro sono i luoghi della Saricina,
Portici, Cremano, la Torre, e Resina.

When, however, the pope, John the Eighth, fearing the incursions of such formidable neighbors into his own territory, remonstrated with the bishop, he treacherously consented to abandon them to their enemies; and attacked by the combined forces of Capua, Salerno, and other cities, they were driven, after a vigorous defence, into the mountains of Pæstum, where they remained unmolested. From those days until the present the followers of the prophet have had little cause to admire the superior good faith of Christians.

Fortunately for Italy, the scattered bands of freebooters to whom she was an easy prey, were as disunited as her own inhabitants. Acting under independent leaders, and acknowledging no central authority, their utmost aim in capturing a city was to have a convenient haven of refuge for their pirate squadrons, or base of operations for their predatory hordes—the highest object of their ambition rather store of rich booty to barter in the marts of Sicily, or gangs of captive Christians to sell in the ports of Africa, than extension of national territory or increase of national importance.

Only once in the history of Arab conquest did it seem possible that it might permanently extend its dominions beyond the Faro, when for the first and last time an African prince landed in Italy with the definite plan of subduing it to Islam, and bore the standard of the prophet across the Straits of Messina with the declared purpose of fighting his way to Mecca by way of Rome and Constantinople. There was no insuperable obstacle in his path, nor any force below the Alps capable of withstanding the fierce soldiers of the prophet, fired with a fresh inspiration of fanatic zeal, and led to victory by an able and ardent chief. The native population, debased by the crushing tyranny of the Roman empire, and ground into further disorganization by successive shocks of foreign invasion, was without national spirit as without social cohesion; their rulers, the Longobard counts and dukes, though perpetually at war amongst themselves, seemed incapable of facing an invading army; the nerveless grasp of the Empire of the East was fast slipping from its Italian provinces, and Byzantium itself was at that very moment seriously threatened by another Mussulman leader, as Leo, the renegade of Tripoli, had already collected in the ports of Egypt and Syria, the naval force with which, two years later, in 904, he took and burned Thessalonica. The moral force wielded by the papacy was powerless against an infidel tyrant, who would ask no investiture from the successor of St. Peter for the dominions won for him by the sword of Islam; the Western Empire, without naval forces, could ill contend with a power in command of the Mediterranean; and to complete the anarchy and prostration which prevailed from the Alps to the Gulf of Táranto, the Hungarians were at that moment descending like a swarm of locusts upon Lombardy. The event which to all outward seeming could alone save Christendom, was the one which actually occurred, — the death — miraculous according to Italian tradition, and which even a less believing generation may call providential — of the man who was at the moment the incarnation of the power of Islam, and the impending scourge of Europe.

Ibrahim-ibu-Ahmed, the terrible Brachimo Affricano of the Italians, stricken down like Alaric, in the prime of his vigor and the zenith of his power before the walls of the same Calabrian stronghold, left no successor to his schemes of conquest; and the projected empire whose sceptre slipped from his dying grasp at Cosenza, was lost forever to the future of his race.

What that empire would have been, and what the fate of Christendom in the hands of such a conqueror, we can best imagine by a glance at his previous career — perhaps the most atrocious recorded in history. The world indeed scarcely knew what excesses human nature was capable of, or at what monstrous perversion it might arrive, until it saw the corrupt civilization of Mahometanism grafted on the innate ferocity of the race of Ham, and the artificial vices of an Eastern satrap united, in the person of this prince, to the savage blood-fury of a king of Ashantee. The Arab chroniclers, not easily moved to surprise or horror by the deeds they narrate, are driven in his case to psychological speculations more in harmony with modern taste, to account for his sanguinary eccentricities; ascribing them to a dark and dreadful melancholy incident to the atrabilious temperament. Born in the middle of the ninth century, he was twenty-five years of age, when, on the death of his brother in 875, he treacherously supplanted the boy nephew, whose rights he had sworn to maintain. The throne gained by crime, he nevertheless filled in the beginning with honor and decorum, nor did the first six years of his reign give any indication save in one perfidious massacre, of the horrors that were to follow. They were marked rather by works of public utility; the erection of a great mosque at Tunis, the addition to that of Kairewân of a cupola supported by thirty-two marble columns; the enclosure of Susa within walls of defence, and the establishment of a system of beacons, which, by a varying number of lights repeated from point to point, flashed intelligence along the coast of Africa, from Ceuta to the delta of the Nile. The tyrant, meantime, took measures to strengthen himself against rebellion, erecting outside the walls of his capital a strong citadel, which he called Abu-'l-Feth, Father of Victory, and substituting for the free body-guard — whose mutiny he had quelled by extermination — a standing army of from three to five thousand negro and Serb or Croat slaves — savages of the torrid zone and northern barbarians, eager, like half-tamed bloodhounds, to avenge on humanity at large their enforced subjection to a master's will.

These undertakings drained the treasury, and to replenish it he debased the currency, and imposed additional taxes — measures of oppression which led to seditious risings on the part of his people, His sanguinary propensities seem to have hitherto lain dormant, but opposition now roused the slumbering tiger within him; rebellion was stamped out in blood, and Tunis and Kairewân saw wagon-loads of corpses paraded through their streets, and trophies of human remains suspended to their gates. His rage for carnage grew with indulgence, and the chroniclers remark that his humor became every year more terrible. One of his many crimes — the treacherous massacre of the Arabs of Belezma — prepared the way for the overthrow of his dynasty. The extermination of this tribe, whom he had lured into his power by promises of pardon, removed a barrier from the path of the Kotâma Berbers, their hereditary foes; and these fierce followers of the Shiita — the mountain chivalry of Barbary — the terrible "cavaliers of Allah" — marched unopposed to the coast and dethroned the house of Aghlab in the person of Ibrahim's grandson, the parricide Ziadet-Allah. Jews and Christians were compelled by his orders to have the figure of an ape and hog respectively painted on their doors, and to wear on their shoulders a white cloth with the same distinguishing badges of their creeds. Mahometan sectaries fared even worse at the hands of the orthodox tyrant. A doctor of the conquered tribe of Nefusa having boldly declared that his countrymen held the Kharegite doctrines denying the sanctity of Ali, he butchered the three hundred prisoners surviving with his own hands, piously returning thanks for having already extirpated the rest of their stock. Their hearts, which he had scientifically transfixed with his spear, were torn from their bodies and suspended to the gates of Tunis.

His domestic massacres were not less numerous or frequent than those which had religion or public order as their pretext. Chamberlains, courtiers, and guards were put to death for a suspicion or a caprice; his palace was a human slaughterhouse, and no life within its precincts was for a moment safe from his rage, save that of Sida, his mother. His unfailing regard for her was the one trace of natural feeling in his breast, but with this exception nothing in humanity was sacred to him. Sex and kindred, age and infancy, were alike to his indiscriminate ferocity, or rather it raged more furiously where the ordinary dictates of nature would have stayed its frenzy, seeming to seek in those nearest to him in blood its more especial objects, and in women its choicest victims. One of his sons and eight brothers, beheaded in his presence, paid the penalty of standing too near the throne, and its heir, Abdallah — brave, loyal, and blameless — never felt his neck a moment safe from the scimitar of the executioner. No daughter born to him was allowed to live; and though Sida contrived to save and rear fourteen of the condemned infants from the unnatural decree, she only deferred its execution. With the mistaken idea that the sight of his offspring would soften his implacable determination, she presented them to him when nearly grown up, but though he dissembled his grim resolve under an appearance of amiable satisfaction, he only waited for her departure to order the executioner to bring him, without delay, the heads of her protégées.

Superstition added its contingent to the long roll of Ibrahim's victims, for the prediction of his astrologers that he should be slain by a little one — fulfilled in a certain ambiguous sense by his death in the infancy of the century, in the year 902 — bore for him a more obvious significance, and directed his cruel suspicion to seek the predestined assassin among the boy-pages of his court. Those who showed particular promise of youthful daring were first made away with, the survivors then despatched, lest they should avenge them, and their places supplied by negro youths who quickly shared the same fate. A rumored plot in the palace, caused on one occasion the massacre of three hundred guards; on another, all the attendants were butchered en masse, lest one, unfortunate enough to have picked up a handkerchief with which the tyrant had wiped his lips after secretly drinking wine, should survive to tell the tale, and convict him of a breach of the Mahometan law. So each fresh murder brought several others in its train, tyranny engendered suspicion, suspicion was acted out in massacre, and the terrible cycle of crime went on repeating and renewing itself in an ever-widening orbit of destruction.

A dark and morbid desire to profane and scrutinize the very sources of life, was part of the sanguinary frenzy of this human tiger — indeed all deliberate cruelty, analyzed as an independent passion, will be found to spring from an evil physiological curiosity, lurking in the secret depths of our nature. Thus, as he himself declared, the desire to discover the spirit that had defied him, drove him to tear out and anatomize the yet quivering hearts of his victims, pursuing the hated principle of life to its inmost stronghold, and slaking his rabid thirst for human blood at the fountain-head. Such excesses of ferocity seem rather to belong to some African Moloch — some dreadful imaginary demon of carnage — than to a being with the attributes of ordinary humanity; but they are recorded by too many independent authorities, and affirmed by too much weight of corroborative evidence to be rejected as fables or discredited as exaggerations. They lasted for twenty-seven years of triumphant tyranny, but the complaints of Ibrahim's subjects at last reached the ears of his nominal suzerain, the caliph of Bagdad, who sent him a despatch, requiring his immediate abdication in favor of his son Abdallah. And now comes the strangest part of this strange drama, for the haughty tyrant yielded unqualified obedience to the mandate of his distant superior, although his chagrin on its receipt brought on a severe attack of jaundice. The most probable conjecture of historians to account for his submission is that it was due to the critical position of his own dominions, then menaced by the rapidly advancing followers of the Shiita, inflamed with zeal for their newly adopted creed, and marching from the mountains with the irresistible momentum of its first fanaticism. In any case the fierce African potentate offers the spectacle of a conversion as strange as any narrated in history, whether we ascribe it to policy, hypocrisy, or a genuine, though perverted, impulse of repentance.

Summoning Abdallah from Sicily to assume the reins of government in his stead, he exercised his last acts of sovereignty in reversing his previous abuses of power. He abolished the taxes, threw open the jails, reformed the laws, and gave large sums in charity from his private coffers. Calling the date of his abdication — 902 of our era, 289 of the Ægira — the Brachimo Affricano, he whose crimes had procured for him, even among African tyrants, the distinctive appellation of the Impious, clad himself in haircloth, girt his loins with a rope, proclaimed the holy war in the guise of a humble penitent, and vowed a pilgrimage to Mecca through seas of infidel blood.

His first enterprise was directed to the extirpation of the Christians of Sicily. They still retained possession of the Val Demona, and the country round Messina and Syracuse, in a state of quasi-independence, though tributary to, and liable to incursions from, the Mussulman conquerors; who on their side of the island, were divided by diversity of origin into two hostile camps, the tribes of Arab and Persian lineage settled in and about Palermo, being perpetually at war with the native African colonists of the district of Girgenti. The Palermitans under a Persian leader named Rakamarûweih, had for four years been in arms against the mother country, and Abdallah, when unexpectedly summoned to change places with his father, was engaged in a successful campaign against them, in alliance with their hereditary foes, the Berbers of Girgenti. He had not only taken Palermo after three pitched battles, in which the flower of its population perished, but had defeated the Byzantine army on the mainland, and sacked Reggio, where his clemency to the vanquished had excited his father's indignation. No such gentle treatment had the Christians of Calabria and Syracuse to expect from the fierce penitent, who now came to his island dominions in the full exercise there of the sovereignty abdicated on the continent of Africa.

Palermo, girt with suburbs so extensive as to number two hundred mosques without the walls, and dominated in the centre by the oval citadel known as the Cassaro, was in those days as great a cosmopolitan centre as Constantinople in our own; and its population, in the emphatic words of the monk Theodosius, included representatives of the Saracenic brood, gathered from the four cardinal points of the compass. There Greeks and Lombards chaffered over their wares with Jews and Persians; Arabs and Berbers jostled Tartars and negroes on the crowded quays; beards and hair of every cut and color, every cast of features and tone of complexion contrasted sharply in the liquid shadow of the narrow streets; the flowing robe and majestic turban of the Oriental, the scanty garments of the tropical savage, the rude furs of the northern barbarian, mingled in picturesque confusion under the amber Sicilian sunlight; in short, all varieties of race and costume included in the vast dominions of the Mussulman empire seemed to have sent typical specimens to the City of the Golden Shell.[2] Such was the motley population among which Ibrahim came to recruit volunteers for the holy war, and raise the standard of the prophet to the cry of "Death to the unbelievers!"

He moved thence against Taormina, the central stronghold of Christianity in the island, held by its choicest champions, reinforced by a Byzantine garrison, and excited to resistance by the preaching of Sant' Elia, the aged saint and prophet of Castrogiovanni, who, like a Sicilian Savonarola, exhorted the inhabitants to penance and prayer, foretelling the destruction impending over the city, and the approaching triumph of the terrible Brachimo. His sinister predictions were but too quickly and fatally realized. Ibrahim's fury of bravery and fanaticism secured the victory to his followers in a great battle outside the walls, and his infernal genius contrived to surprise his enemies even within the impregnable fortifications where they thought themselves secure. Urging his negro guards up the precipitous rock on a side deemed impracticable, he launched them among the bewildered garrison to the terrible cry of "Akbar Allah," the knell of the hapless Christians. Mercy to the vanquished was no part of the sanctity aimed at by the warrior penitent of Islam, and a terrible scene of indiscriminate carnage followed; the city was burned, and all the inhabitants who failed to make their escape were ruthlessly put to the sword without regard to age, sex, or condition. Amongst the prisoners taken was the aged bishop, Procopius, and his venerable aspect seems to have inspired some pity in the inhuman breast of the victor, who offered not only to spare his grey hairs if he consented to abjure his faith, but to raise him to such a position that he should be second only to himself in Sicily. Procopius only replied with a smile.

"Why do you smile?" exclaimed the fierce Mussulman; "do you not know who speaks to you?" "The demon, by your lips," was the undaunted answer of the captive, "wherefore I smile at his suggestions." The infuriated tyrant not only ordered his instant execution, but had his heart torn out "that he might seek in it the secret of the proud soul that had defied him;" and, according to the chronicler, he went so far as actually to devour it in his unnatural frenzy. The fellow-prisonersof Procopius, whom he had exhorted to constancy with his last breath, were then despatched, their remains thrown in a pile on those of the martyred bishop, and the whole set fire to, "that men might know," as Ibrahim said, "the fate in store for those who dared to resist him."

Sicily being now at his mercy, he crossed to the mainland, where Abdallah's victories had already broken the power of Byzantium, and, marching unopposed through Calabria, reached Cosenza, which he prepared to besiege in due form. In addition to the Byzantine theme of Longobardia, corresponding to the Calabrias and Basilicata, south Italy was then divided into six hostile states: the Longobard principalities of Benevento, Capua, and Salerno, the republics of Naples, Amalfi, and Gaeta. All were equally terrified at the approach of the formidable Brachimo, and the neighboring towns despatched envoys to his camp to make their submission and beg for terms of peace. He sent them back with the haughty answer, "that Italy was his own, and he would deal with the inhabitants according to his pleasure; that the Greek and Frankish petty tyrants might equally despair of resisting his power; that the city of the old man Peter might first expect his onset, and that then would comb the hour of Constantinople."

On receipt of this menace the cities began to provision and fortify in haste, while the inhabitants of the rural districts flocked into them for refuge. The magnates of Naples, sitting in council under the presidency of Stephen, the bishop, and Gregory, the consul, decided to raze to the ground the Lucullan castle on Cape Misenum; "the villa first built by Marius, then bought and beautified by Lucullus; the scene of domestic crime and unblushing depravity in the hands of the earlier Cæsars, and of the inglorious exile of the last of their line (Augustulus lived there as the pensioner of Odoacer, a.d. 479); transformed in 496 into a monastery and monument to San Severino; and in 846 into a fortress occupied by the Mussulmans of Sicily; its walls were a chronological table of the revolutions of Italian society during nine centuries."[3]

For five days the Neapolitans labored at the destruction of this monument of antiquity, and brought thence the relics of the saint in solemn procession to Naples, where they were deposited in the monastery which still bears his name. The hymns were chanted in Greek and Latin, both languages being then spoken indifferently by the people. The universal panic culminated when a portentous rain of stars towards the end of October seemed a menace from the sky of some dire calamity; but the omen was viewed differently, and was interpreted to herald the overthrow of the invader, as soon as it was reported that San Severino appearing in a vision to a child had bidden him reassure the Neapolitans with the promise of his advocacy in heaven. The Arab chroniclers record that that year (902 a.d.) was called the Year of the Stars, and add that it had thus received three names, since Ibrahim had entitled it the Year of Justice, and others the Year of Tyranny. The faithful followers of the prophet had, however, no reason to look with apprehension on the blazing meteors, since the Koran teaches that they are nothing but curious demons hurled down by the angels for listening too closely at the gates of Heaven.

Yet simultanously with that portent in the skies, Azrael, the smiter of the strong, had entered the Mussulman camp; the siege of Cosenza languished, for the tyrant whose fierce purpose and adamantine will alone welded together the discordant elements of his unwieldy host, was stricken with mortal disease, and the fermenting hates and jealousies of his followers were only waiting for his last breath to break into open dissension. The actual manner of his death is variously told by Italian legend, some versions ascribing it to an apparition of St. Peter, some to the prayers of Sant' Elia, and others to the direct vengeance of Heaven itself in the shape of a thunderbolt.

His worthless grandson, Ziadet-Allah, had no control over the mutinous host, whom he led back to Sicily without delay, transporting thither also the remains of the deceased tyrant. Authorities are divided as to their final resting-place, and none knows to-day which continent is polluted by their touch. His tyranny of twenty-seven years had been followed by but seven months of penance, when his death, at fifty-three years of age, so unexpectedly cut short the career of conquest on which, to all human forecast, he seemed but entering; liberating Italy from the greatest danger to which she has been exposed during our era, and averting from her forever the threatened ruin of permanent African dominion.

It is indeed true that for yet a century and a half desultory eddies of Mussulman invasion ebbed and flowed over her southern provinces; but the maritime republics were already gathering strength to stem their progress, even before the fair-haired northern warriors appeared upon the scene, like demigods among the races of fallen humanity, to hurl back forever the dark tide that had so long threatened the shores of Europe. The new champions of the cross, come of a race fresh from Scandinavian fiords and forests, and but recently converted to Christianity from the worship of Thor and Odin, brought the vigorous vitality of their northern blood, and the first fervor of a purer faith, to overthrow by the mere impact of their touch the hectic civilization of the East and the spent fury of Mahometan fanaticism. The record of their conquest reads more like an heroic poem than a sober page of history, and we should doubt the veracity of its chroniclers were not the bare outline of its manifest results as wonderful as any of its romantic episodes. A little band of warriors cast away upon a foreign shore, who become within a few years one of the leading powers of Europe, sought as allies by both empires, courted by princes and pontiffs, and dreaded by the followers of the prophet from the Atlantic to the Ægean — their story is surely as wonderful as that of any paladins of romance.

But while they overthrew Mussulman rule in the Two Sicilies, they could not so easily obliterate the traces of Mussulman colonization. The manners and morals of the conquerors were first modified by its influence; those of the ruling family so notoriously so, that the descendants of the pious house of Hauteville were renegades in all but name, and the second Roger and the second Frederick kept court at Palermo more in the style of Eastern sultans than of Christian princes. Mere local corruption of manners, however, introduced by a luxurious court, passed away with the foreign dynasty; while the effect of a strong infusion of African blood among all classes of the native population is still perceptible after the lapse of six centuries; and no one can estimate the difficulties of the present Italian government in ruling its southern provinces who does not take into account the survival of the Saracen element among their inhabitants. This persistence of race in Italy, where the boundary of a commune sometimes has been for centuries a line of demarcation between two hostile states, and a few miles of water channel still form an impassable barrier to hereditary traits of feature and costume — where a dialect of Greek lingers still among the mountains of Calabria, and a dialect of Arabic is the common language of Sicily — must always be a problem to Anglo-Saxons, whose mother country has blent so many discordant elements into one homogeneous whole. The most superficial observer, however, cannot but conjecture the terracotta-tinted skin, the lizard-like rapidity of glance and gesture, and the mobile irregularity of feature common to the natives of Sicily and Calabria to be inherited from other ancestors than those of the more sedate and lighter-complexioned Roman or Tuscan, while a more intimate knowledge of the people only brings to light a still greater difference in their morals and modes of thought.

The condition of Sicily is notorious; but while Liberals and reactionaries dispute over the share of their respective parties in causing it, they do not care to trace its origin further back, and connect it with the history of the remote past. Yet it is a striking fact that the ancient geographical distribution of Saracens and Sicilians still influences the comparative degree of public safety in the island, and that tracing on a map the territory where violence and anarchy at present reign supreme, we accurately define the zone where Christianity was almost extirpated under the rule of the Moslem, where Mahometanism triumphant struck its roots deepest, and persecuted, found its last refuge in the land.

It is at least a coincidence that the country round Palermo, Girgenti, and Trapani, known to-day as the disturbed provinces, was described in the thirteenth century as the Saracen march. There in the wild borderland, where the war of race was fought to the bitter end, the dim tradition of violence still survives under other forms, and adapts itself to altered circumstances. There the Mahometan settlers, again and again expelled from their homesteads, harassed and plundered the new occupants from their retreats in the mountains; and there the modern brigands, lording it over the land as if they felt themselves its lawful proprietors, still levy fine and blackmail as the ransom of its possession by others. There the Saracens, driven from their capital by religious persecution, organized themselves in the wilderness as bands of outlaws, resuming their hereditary classification as Arab tribes; and there, in Palermo and its district, the names of those very tribes, imported by the aristocracy of the desert from the Land of Yemen, survive in the nomenclature of the criminal associations to this day. These fugitives, finally starved into submission and deported by Frederick the Second, formed the great military settlement of Lucera in Apulia, and colonized great part of the Calabrias, where the conquerors of Sicily, exiled by the grandson of Barbarossa, have left their wild blood and long inheritance of wrong to filter through many a generation and break out in many a form of crime.

Amari's description of the depredations systematically committed by the despoiled and outlawed Palermitans in the thirteenth century, might almost pass for an extract from the Italian papers in our own day; and the capture by the Saracens in 1221 of Orso, Bishop of Girgenti, who ransomed himself for a large sum of money, after fourteen months' captivity, differs little from the case of the English banker kidnapped by Leone's band in the autumn of 1876. Nay, to go even further back, we might, with little alteration, make the account given by Ibu-Haukal, an Arabian traveller, of the ribât of Palermo in 972, serve to describe the haunts of the Mafia of Palermo in 1877. The ribât were barracks for volunteers, who, kept in the frontier towns at the public expense in readiness to repel invasion, formed a sort of Mahometan militia; and degenerating with the degeneracy of Islam, became a public evil instead of a public safeguard. Retaining nothing of the zealot save his disregard of human life, and nothing of the soldier save his contempt for all peaceful avocations, every form of depravity and crime found in them instruments ready made to its hand. The swaggering cutthroats who lord it in the streets of the Sicilian capital to the present hour, disdaining every trade save that of violence and bloodshed, have faithfully preserved the characteristics of their Saracen prototypes.

In Sicily, however, a fortuitous concurrence of circumstances might possibly have caused a single though startling coincidence; that between the boundary line separating conquerors and conquered six centuries ago, and the frontier of order dividing comparative tranquillity from open violence to-day. But on the Italian mainland, where we can invariably connect isolated Saracen colonization with localized modern brigandage, and track it from point to point by the moral taint it has left in the population, we are forced to ask ourselves if the recurring association can be due to mere chance? The great Saracen settlement of the Garigliano — the plague spot of central Italy — has transmitted its inheritance of violence to Fondi and Itri, the robbers' nests of the Neapolitan frontier. Round the former of these roved Marco Sciarra, the courteous bandit of the sixteenth century, immortalized by his message to Tasso, while the latter is distinguished as the birthplace of the still more famous hero, Michele Pezza, known to opera-goers as Fra Diavolo. Bovino, on the edge of the great table-land of Apulia, enjoys the reputation of being the greatest brigand nursery in that part of Italy, and a glance at the map shows its proximity to Lucera, where Frederick the Second established his swarthy chivalry in 1239. So tender was he of their religious susceptibilities, that Christian worship was prohibited within the walls of the Saracen sanctuary, and the fierce warriors, when expelled from their stronghold thirty years later, must have carried with them to the neighboring mountains a bitter sense of wrong, and undying enmity to civil order. A band of turbaned marauders occupied at Agropoli, in the mountains of Pæstum, the very haunts of the brigands who still hold at their discretion the province of Salerno, while the whole population of Calabria, which, from the deportation of exiles across the straits became assimilated to that of Sicily under the Normans, may for irreclaimable violence and savagery be classed with that of Sicily to-day.

The trade in human flesh and blood seems to spring from some instinct inherent in the African race, like that of the predatory black ants, whose expeditions are always directed to the capture of prisoners of a different species. White captives, either to put to ransom or sell as slaves, were the choicest booty of the Saracen pirates of the Mediterranean; the slave trade is still the main obstacle to civilization throughout Africa; and the same propensity, modified by circumstances, breaks out in the favorite practice of the Italian brigands of kidnapping to exact ransom. That it is no modern invention is shown by the instance above quoted — no doubt one of many — of its practice by the Sicilian Saracens as far back as the thirteenth century.

The hereditary or traditional character of brigandage is indicated by its localization for each band, while its component members are always changing, is yet perpetuated in its own district with a mysterious persistency, like some indigenous product of the soil. Its vague and undefined identity endures from generation to generation, outlasting dynasties and surviving revolutions; so that we find the actual banditti of Fondi and Itri represented in Tasso's time by Marco Sciarra, and nearer to our own by Fra Diavolo. The territory of these outlaws is as definite as that of more regularly constituted communities, and the laws of their organization far more unchanging. Who shall say that they have not subsisted for ten centuries as well as for three?

If moral evil could be compensated for by æsthetic good, the conquerors of southern Italy might put in a just plea for indulgence, and monuments of architectural beauty, wherever they have been established, oblige us to confess that Europe has not been altogether a loser by the inheritance of the Saracens. In Sicily, though we have no remains of their actual period of domination, their eastern fancy touched with its visionary grace the more ponderous and material taste of their conquerors, and the combination created a group of buildings unique in Europe. All know how the Arab genius, triumphing supreme in Spain, has bequeathed to us in the very names of the Alhambra and the Alcazar a spell by which to summon to our fancy vistas of shining courts and airy colonnades as our ideal of all that is most exquisite in stone or marble. And who, visiting the beautiful Moorish remains of Ravello, and gazing across the Bay of Salerno to the ruins of Pæstum, and down on the sapphire cove where Amalfi nestles a thousand feet below, does not feel in his heart half tempted to forgive the pirate crews whose galleys so often furrowed that blue expanse, and brought terror and desolation to those smiling shores?

The great subterranean reservoir on Cape Misenum, known as the Piscina Mirabilis, though generally attributed to the Romans, might, perhaps, with greater justice, be ascribed to the Saracens. There is at least the negative evidence that it is not mentioned by any Latin author, while the character of its architecture suggests, though it does not prove, Moorish origin. The safety of the Mussulman garrison, cut off from all communication with the land, must naturally have depended on an artificial supply of water, of which the Romans, masters of the country, were independent. Even the Roman fleet, for whose accommodation it is supposed to have been built, would hardly require so exceptional a contrivance on their own shores, while the Saracen galleys, whose crews could not scatter in safety on a hostile beach, may often have been obliged to resort to it before they could continue their voyages. A great underground tank was also built at Lucera for the use of the Mussulman garrison, and all eastern nations construct subterranean reservoirs like the vast artificial lake which underlies part of Constantinople, and whose extent has never even been explored.

To analyze the Sicilian and Calabrian dialects would require the science of a skilled philologist; but it is interesting to note in a more superficial way how many Arabic words have crept into modern Italian, and how some have made their way into our own language. To begin with, the name Saracens, by which, however, they never called themselves, but were known by other nations, is apparently derived from sarkin or sarrakin, strangers. The Italian darsena (dock yard), and our own arsenal come equally from dar-es-se-na'h; giarra and jar, from the Arabic verb giarr, to draw; applied in Sicily to large vessels for holding oil, or small ones for sweetmeats. Marg, in Arabic a meadow, in Sicilian means a marsh. Perhaps the flower African marigold has brought its English-sounding name from the land of its birth. Cake, which we trace to the German kuchen, has a striking similarity of sound to ke'k, a sweet dish eaten in Africa as far back as the tenth century. Rokûk, Arabic for paper or parchment, applied figuratively to scroll-shaped ornaments, became rococo. Camlet has nothing to do with camel, but comes direct from khamlah, a hairy cloth; as cotton does from kattân, a weaver. Augia, an arch, gives us ogive; while aztire, admiral, alembic, almanac, camphor, cipher, magazine, tariff, zero, and zenith, with many other scientific and commercial terms are as Arabic in form as they are in origin.

In Italian cuffia (cap) from kufia, a headdress; acciacchi, from as-shiakwa, ailments; bali and baliato, magistrate and magistracy, from wâli and waliato, an emir and his jurisdiction; cânova, (wine-cellar), from khânuwa, a vaulted shop on the ground-floor; catinella, from catù, basin; dogana, from diwân, a council or assembly, in low Latin transformed into dohana; tiratoio (cloth-mill), from tiraz, a silk-factory; with tarsia (inlaying), scialbo (pale whitish), camicia, giubba, gabella, and taccuino are among the more obvious and patent derivatives.

Itria, the Arabic name of vermicelli — as much manufactured in Sicily under the Saracens as it is at the present day — may have given its name to Itri, the notorious brigand colony near Gaeta; and if so, the coincidence would point to its having been founded, or at any rate occupied, and rechristened by the Mussulman fugitives from the Garigliano, and would be another link in the chain connecting the mediæval with the modern plague of Italy.


  1. Storia dei Musulmani in Sicilia. Per Michele Amari. Florence: 1858
  2. Amari. Storia dei Musulmani in Sicilia, vol. ii., p. 32.
  3. Amari. Storia dei Musulmani in Sicilia, vol. ii., p. 90.