Old Calabria
By Norman Douglas

Presented by

Public Domain Books


There is a type of physiognomy here which is undeniably Semitic–with curly hair, dusky skin and hooked nose. We may take it to be of Saracenic origin, since a Phoenician descent is out of the question, while mediaeval Jews never intermarried with Christians. It is the same class of face which one sees so abundantly at Palermo, the former metropolis of these Africans. The accompanying likeness is that of a native of Cosenza, a town that was frequently in their possession. Eastern traits of character, too, have lingered among the populace. So the humour of the peddling Semite who will allow himself to be called by the most offensive epithets rather than lose a chance of gaining a sou; who, eternally professing poverty, cannot bear to be twitted on his notorious riches; their ceaseless talk of hidden treasures, their secretiveness and so many other little Orientalisms that whoever has lived in the East will be inclined to echo the observation of Edward Lear’s Greek servant: “These men are Arabs, but they have more clothes on.”

Many Saracenic words (chiefly of marine and commercial import) have survived from this period; I could quote a hundred or more, partly in the literary language (balio, dogana, etc.), partly in dialect (cala, tavuto, etc.) and in place-names such as Tamborio (the Semitic Mount Tabor), Kalat (Calatafimi), Marsa (Marsala).

Dramatic plays with Saracen subjects are still popular with the lower classes; you can see them acted in any of the coast towns. In fact, the recollection of these intruders is very much alive to this day. They have left a deep scar.

Such being the case, it is odd to find local writers hardly referring to the Saracenic period. Even a modern like l’Occaso, who describes the Castrovillari region in a conscientious fashion, leaps directly from Greco-Roman events into those of the Normans. But this is in accordance with the time-honoured ideal of writing such works: to say nothing in dispraise of your subject (an exception may be made in favour of Spano-Bolani’s History of Reggio). Malaria and earthquakes and Saracen irruptions are awkward arguments when treating of the natural attractions and historical glories of your native place. So the once renowned descriptions of this province by Grano and the rest of them are little more than rhetorical exercises; they are “Laus Calabria.” And then–their sources of information were limited and difficult of access. Collective works like those of Muratori and du Chesne had not appeared on the market; libraries were restricted to convents; and it was not to be expected that they should know all the chroniclers of the Byzantines, Latins, Lombards, Normans and Hohenstaufen–to say nothing of Arab writers like Nowairi, Abulfeda, Ibn Chaldun and Ibn Alathir–who throw a little light on those dark times, and are now easily accessible to scholars.

Dipping into this old-world literature of murders and prayers, we gather that in pre-Saracenic times the southern towns were denuded of their garrisons, and their fortresses fallen into disrepair. “Nec erat formido aut metus bellorum, quoniam alta pace omnes gaudebant usque ad tempora Saracenorum.” In this part of Italy, as well as at Taranto and other parts of old “Calabria,” the invaders had an easy task before them, at first.

In 873, on their return from Salerno, they poured into Calabria, and by 884 already held several towns, such as Tropea and Amantea, but were driven out temporarily. In 899 they ravaged, says Hepi-danus, the country of the Lombards (? Calabria). In 900 they destroyed Reggio, and renewed their incursions in 919, 923, 924, 925, 927, till the Greek Emperor found it profitable to pay them an annual tribute. In 953, this tribute not being forthcoming, they defeated the Greeks in Calabria, and made further raids in 974, 975; 976, 977, carrying off a large store of captives and wealth. In 981 Otto II repulsed them at Cotrone, but was beaten the following year near Squillace, and narrowly escaped capture. It was one of the most romantic incidents of these wars. During the years 986, 988, 991, 994, 998, 1002, 1003 they were continually in the country; indeed, nearly every year at the beginning of the eleventh century is marked by some fresh inroad. In 1009 they took Cosenza for the third or fourth time; in 1020 they were at Bisignano in the Crati valley, and returned frequently into those parts, defeating, in 1025, a Greek army under Orestes, and, in 1031, the assembled forces of the Byzantine Catapan-------- [Footnote: I have not seen Moscato’s “Cronaca dei Musulmani in Calabria,” where these authorities might be conveniently tabulated. It must be a rare book. Martorana deals only with the Saracens of Sicily.]

No bad record, from their point of view.

But they never attained their end, the subjection of the mainland. And their methods involved appalling and enduring evils.

Yet the presumable intent or ambition of these aliens must be called reasonable enough. They wished to establish a provincial government here on the same lines as in Sicily, of which island it has been said that it was never more prosperous than under their administration.

Literature, trade, industry, and all the arts of peace are described as flourishing there; in agriculture they paid especial attention to the olive; they initiated, I believe, the art of terracing and irrigating the hill-sides; they imported the date-palm, the lemon and sugar-cane (making the latter suffice not only for home consumption, but for export); their silk manufactures were unsurpassed. Older writers like Mazzella speak of the abundant growth of sugar-cane in Calabria (Capialbi, who wallowed in learning, has a treatise on the subject); John Evelyn saw it cultivated near Naples; it is now extinct from economical and possibly climatic causes. They also introduced the papyrus into Sicily, as well as the cotton-plant, which used to be common all over south Italy, where I have myself seen it growing.

All this sounds praiseworthy, no doubt. But I see no reason why they should have governed Sicily better than they did North Africa, which crumbled into dust at their touch, and will take many long centuries to recover its pre-Saracen prosperity. There is something flame-like and anti-constructive in the Arab, with his pastoral habits and contempt of forethought. In favour of their rule, much capital has been made out of Benjamin of Tudela’s account of Palermo. But it must not be forgotten that his brief visit was made a hundred years after the Norman occupation had begun. Palermo, he says, has about 1500 Jews and a large number of Christians and Mohammedans; Sicily “contains all the pleasant things of this world.” Well, so it did in pre-Saracen times; so it does to-day. Against the example of North Africa, no doubt, may be set their activities in Spain.

They have been accused of destroying the old temples of Magna Gracia from religious or other motives. I do not believe it; this was against their usual practice. They sacked monasteries, because these were fortresses defended by political enemies and full of gold which they coveted; but in their African possessions, during all this period, the ruins of ancient civilizations were left untouched, while Byzantine cults lingered peacefully side by side with Mos-lemism; why not here? Their fanaticism has been much exaggerated. Weighing the balance between conflicting writers, it would appear that Christian rites were tolerated in Sicily during all their rule, though some governors were more bigoted than others; the proof is this, that the Normans found resident fellow-believers there, after 255 years of Arab domination. It was the Christians rather, who with the best intentions set the example of fanaticism during their crusades; these early Saracen raids had no more religious colouring than our own raids into the Transvaal or elsewhere. The Saracens were out for plunder and fresh lands, exactly like the English. [Footnote: The behaviour of the Normans was wholly different from that of the Arabs, immediately on their occupation of the country they razed to the ground thousands of Arab temples and sanctuaries. Of several hundred in Palermo alone, not a single one was left standing.]

Nor were they tempted to destroy these monuments for decorative purposes, since they possessed no palaces on the mainland like the Palermitan Cuba or Zisa; and that sheer love of destructive-ness with which they have been credited certainly spared the marbles of Paestum which lay within a short distance of their strongholds, Agropoli and Cetara. No. What earthquakes had left intact of these classic relics was niched by the Christians, who ransacked every corner of Italy for such treasures to adorn their own temples in Pisa, Rome and Venice– displaying small veneration for antiquity, but considerable taste. In Calabria, for instance, the twenty granite pillars of the cathedral of Gerace were drawn from the ruins of old Locri; those of Melito came from the ancient Hipponium (Monteleone). So Paestum, after the Saracens, became a regular quarry for the Lombards and the rich citizens of Amalfi when they built their cathedral; and above all, for the shrewdly pious Robert Guiscard. Altogether, these Normans, dreaming through the solstitial heats in pleasaunces like Ravello, developed a nice taste in the matter of marbles, and were not particular where they came from, so long as they came from somewhere. The antiquities remained intact, at least, which was better than the subsequent system of Colonna and Frangipani, who burnt them into lime.

Whatever one may think of the condition of Sicily under Arab rule, the proceedings of these strangers was wholly deplorable so far as the mainland of Italy was concerned. They sacked and burnt wherever they went; the sea-board of the Tyrrhenian, Ionian and Adriatic was depopulated of its inhabitants, who fled inland; towns and villages vanished from the face of the earth, and the richly cultivated land became a desert; they took 17,000 prisoners from Reggio on a single occasion–13,000 from Termula; they reduced Matera to such distress, that a mother is said to have slaughtered and devoured her own child. Such was their system on the mainland, where they swarmed. Their numbers can be inferred from a letter written in 871 by the Emperor Ludwig II to the Byzantine monarch, in which he complains that “Naples has become a second Palermo, a second Africa,” while three hundred years later, in 1196, the Chancellor Konrad von Hildesheim makes a noteworthy observation, which begins: “In Naples I saw the Saracens, who with their spittle destroy venomous beasts, and will briefly set forth how they came by this virtue. . . .” [Footnote: He goes on to say, “Paulus Apostolus naufragium passus, apud Capream insulam applicuit [sic] quae in Actibus Apostolorum Mitylene nuncupatur, et cum multis allis evadens, ab indigenis tcrrae benigne acceptatus est.” Then follows the episode of the fire and of the serpent which Paul casts from him; whereupon the Saracens, naturally enough, begin to adore him as a saint. In recompense for this kind treatment Paul grants to them and their descendants the power of killing poisonous animals in the manner aforesaid–i.e. with their spittle–a superstition which is alive in south Italy to this day. These gifted mortals are called Sanpaulari, or by the Greek word Cerauli; they are men who are born either on St. Paul’s night (24-25 January) or on 29 June. Saint Paul, the “doctor of the Gentiles,” is a great wizard hereabouts, and an invocation to him runs as follows: “Saint Paul, thou wonder-worker, kill this beast, which is hostile to God; and save me, for I am a son of Maria."]

It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the coastal regions of south Italy were practically in Arab possession for centuries, and one is tempted to dwell on their long semi-domination here because it has affected to this day the vocabulary of the people, their lore, their architecture, their very faces–and to a far greater extent than a visitor unacquainted with Moslem countries and habits would believe. Saracenism explains many anomalies in their mode of life and social conduct.

From these troublous times dates, I should say, that use of the word cristiano applied to natives of the country–as opposed to Mohammedan enemies.

“Saraceno” is still a common term of abuse.

The fall of Luceria may be taken as a convenient time-boundary to mark the end of the Saracenic period. A lull, but no complete repose from attacks, occurs between that event and the fall of Granada. Then begins the activity of the corsairs. There is this difference between them, that the corsairs merely paid flying visits; a change of wind, the appearance of an Italian sail, an unexpected resistance on the part of the inhabitants, sufficed to unsettle their ephemeral plans. The coast-lands were never in their possession; they only harried the natives. The system of the Saracens on the mainland, though it seldom attained the form of a provincial or even military government, was different. They had the animus manendi. Where they dined, they slept.

In point of destructiveness, I should think there was little to choose between them. One thinks of the hundreds of villages the corsairs devastated; the convents and precious archives they destroyed, [Footnote: In this particular branch, again, the Christians surpassed the unbeliever. More archives were destroyed in the so-called “Age of Lead"–the closing period of Bour-bonism–than under Saracens and Corsairs combined. It was quite the regular thing to sell them as waste-paper to the shopkeepers. Some of them escaped this fate by the veriest miracle–so those of the celebrated Certoza of San Lorenzo in Padula. The historian Marincola, walking in the market of Salerno, noticed a piece of cheese wrapped up in an old parchment. He elicited the fact that it came from this Certosa, intercepted the records on their way for sale in Salerno, and contrived by a small present to the driver that next night two cartloads of parchments were deposited in the library of La Cava.] the thousands of captives they carried off–sometimes in such numbers that the ships threatened to sink till the more unsaleable portion of the human freight had been cast overboard. And it went on for centuries. Pirates and slave-hunters they were; but not a whit more so than their Christian adversaries, on whose national rivalries they thrived. African slaves, when not chained to the galleys, were utilized on land; so the traveller Moore records that the palace of Caserta was built by gangs of slaves, half of them Italian, half Turkish. We have not much testimony as to whether these Arab slaves enjoyed their lot in European countries; but many of the Christians in Algiers certainly enjoyed theirs. A considerable number of them refused to profit by Lord Exmouth’s arrangement for their ransom. I myself knew the descendant of a man who had been thus sent back to his relations from captivity, and who soon enough returned to Africa, declaring that the climate and religion of Europe were alike insupportable.

In Saracen times the Venetians actually sold Christian slaves to the Turks. Parrino cites the severe enactments which were issued in the sixteenth century against Christian sailors who decoyed children on board their boats and sold them as slaves to the Moslem. I question whether the Turks were ever guilty of a corresponding infamy.

This Parrino, by the way, is useful as showing the trouble to which the Spanish viceroys were put by the perpetual inroads of these Oriental pests. Local militia were organized, heavy contributions levied, towers of refuge sprang up all along the coast–every respectable house had its private tower as well (for the dates, see G. del Giudice, Del Grande Archivio di Napoli, 1871, p. 108). The daring of the pirates knew no bounds; they actually landed a fleet at Naples itself, and carried off a number of prisoners. The entire kingdom, save the inland parts, was terrorized by their lightning-like descents.

A particular literature grew up about this time–those “Lamenti” in rime, which set forth the distress of the various places they afflicted.

The saints had work to do. Each divine protector fought for his own town or village, and sometimes we see the pleasing spectacle of two patrons of different localities joining their forces to ward off a piratical attack upon some threatened district by means of fiery hail, tempests, apparitions and other celestial devices. A bellicose type of Madonna emerges, such as S. M. della Libera and S. M. di Constantinopoli, who distinguishes herself by a fierce martial courage in the face of the enemy. There is no doubt that these inroads acted as a stimulus to the Christian faith; that they helped to seat the numberless patron saints of south Italy more firmly on their thrones. The Saracens as saint-makers. . . .

But despite occasional successes, the marine population suffered increasingly. Historians like Summonte have left us descriptions of the prodigious exodus of the country people from Calabria and elsewhere into the safer capital, and how the polished citizens detested these new arrivals.

The ominous name “Torre di Guardia” (tower of outlook)–a cliff whence the sea was scanned for the appearance of Turkish vessels–survives all over the south. Barbarossa, too, has left his mark; many a hill, fountain or castle has been named after him. In the two Barbarossas were summed up the highest qualities of the pirates, and it is curious to think that the names of those scourges of Christendom, Uruj and Kheir-eddin, should have been contracted into the classical forms of Horace and Ariadne. The picturesque Uruj was painted by Velasquez; the other entertained a polite epistolatory correspondence with Aretino, and died, to his regret, “like a coward” in bed. I never visit Constantinople without paying my respects to that calm tomb at Beshiktah, where, after life’s fitful fever, sleeps the Chief of the Sea.

And so things went on till recently. K. Ph. Moritz writes that King Ferdinand of Naples, during his sporting excursions to the islands of his dominions, was always accompanied by two cruisers, to forestall the chance of his being carried off by these Turchi. But his loyal subjects had no cruisers at their disposal; they lived Turcarum praedonibus semper obnoxii. Who shall calculate the effects of this long reign of terror on the national mind?

For a thousand years–from 830 to 1830–from the days when the Amalfitans won the proud title of “Defenders of the Faith” up to those of the sentimental poet Waiblinger (1826), these shores were infested by Oriental ruffians, whose activities were an unmitigated evil. It is all very well for Admiral de la Graviere to speak of “Gallia Victrix"–the Americans, too, might have something to say on that point. The fact is that neither European nor American arms crushed the pest. But for the invention of steam, the Barbary corsairs might still be with us.



[Buy at Amazon]
Old Calabria (Marlboro Travel)
By Norman Douglas
At Amazon