Oxbow (2020) p/b 400pp £45.00 (ISBN 9781789253566)
Thanks to its fecundity and location the island of Sicily, so central to the economic and military aspirations of its continental neighbours, has been fought over for millennia. In the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic Ages, it was the scene of colonization, expansion and experimentation by Greeks, whose culture evolved in often startlingly different ways to that of their mainland and Aegean island cousins. For example, while Athens embraced democracy, faced off the Persian invasions and engineered an empire, in Sicily tyrants faced down not only Carthaginians and Etruscans but their own subjects, forcibly relocating entire cities to minimise their threat, and repopulating ghost towns with cautiously trusted mercenaries. Meanwhile, relationships with the ‘old country’ were often fraught as Plato and (more especially) the thousands of Athenians imprisoned in Sicily’s mines at the end of their ill-led ‘Adventure’ found out to their cost; and, while romantics might have liked to see the destinies of the two Greek worlds as intertwined (Herodotus pedals the notion that the crucial battles of Salamis and Himera were fought on the same day; and Sicilian tyrants competed at the great Greek games), in truth Sicily, constantly susceptible to attack by ‘barbarians’, became a world apart—until, fought over by two superpowers, it was subsumed into the growing Roman empire.
This welcome collection is the fruit of a workshop, ‘War and Society in Colonial Sicily’, held in Vancouver in April 2018. As the title suggests, it covers three main areas, society, politics and landscape, and the 17 chapters (of which three are in Italian with brief English abstracts) are loosely grouped accordingly. As befits such pivotal events, the two battles at Himera begin the discussion (Stefano Vassallo’s fascinating survey of war graves—an orderly deposition of the victorious dead in 480, a chaotic hotchpotch of hastily covered corpses after the sack of 409), while the impact of the first battle on monumental temple building in Syracuse and on Sicilian life in general features large in other chapters; similarly the two-year Athenian siege of Syracuse from 415 merits two chapters in which Bernd Steinbock and Lisa Irene Hau take different views on Thucydides and PTSD.
Elsewhere, as in the plot of Aeschylus’ Women of Aetna, authors take us to different cities and regions—including Selinous (where spearheads from weapons were apparently ritually lodged in the earth to herald the building of a temple, and curse tablets might suggest tensions within a multi-ethnic community), Leontini (where archaeology reveals the evolution of defence works), Eryx (where finds expose relationships between native Elymians, Carthaginians and Greeks) and territorial borderlands (in J.’s own contribution on the island’s military landscape). With other chapters exploring the impact of mercenaries, slavery, population exchanges and the wider economy, the collection forms a tantalizing if fragmentary mosaic, presenting an always fascinating picture of an area of the classical experience, which until recently has been too often overlooked.
Written primarily for the specialist (as well as some chapters appearing in Italian, quotations from other modern languages often remain untranslated), it is well illustrated with copious black-and-white photographs, diagrams and maps (not least in the chapter by Claudio Vacanti, which proposes the creation of a ‘geopolitical atlas’), including one in colour and is well served by footnotes, a bibliography and a timeline, but inexplicably it has no index.