Sicily between Constantinople and Rome I

Theme of Sicily

Gregory then set sail from the city of Constantinople, and he reached the city of Rome on the twenty first day of the month of June, and there he worshipped the tombs of the holy and most praiseworthy Apostles, and visited every holy place in the city.… They [Gregory, his father, and ecclesiastical leaders] went on to a ship and left Rome of the sixteenth of the month of August, and reached Sicily on the tenth of September, landing in the city of Palermo. And the bishop of the city of Palermo welcomed them with great honour, surrounded by his clergy and all the citizens and all the monks and nuns.

Leontios, Vita S. Gregorii Agrigentini

Pilgrims, messengers, administrators, warriors, saints, and immigrants: Sicily’s shores welcomed a wide variety of travelers during the period of Greek dominion. Between Emperor Justinian’s reconquest of the island from the “barbarian” Ostrogoths in 535 CE and the Muslim invasion beginning in 827 CE, the imperial capital at Constantinople was the primary location that sent official travelers—governors, military forces, and envoys bearing news—to the island and received them in reply. It was also the destination of many traveling Sicilian saints and scholars, since the Greek city was the cultural as well as political capital of the Byzantine Empire. But Constantinople was by no means the only location that was closely linked with Sicily through patterns of travel and communication: many individuals, groups, and the goods and institutions they brought with them also arrived in Sicily from other locations of religious, cultural, and political significance throughout the Mediterranean (especially Rome and Jerusalem), thus tying Sicily into larger networks of culture, power, and communication in the early medieval Mediterranean region.

The ports of Byzantine Sicily, indeed, bustled with ships sailing to and from Constantinople, Rome, Egypt, and North Africa. Muslims, Jews, Latins, and Greeks arrived on the island, at some times for peaceful purposes and at other times for war. The patterns of this travel demonstrate two of the fundamental aspects of the position and role of Sicily within the early medieval Mediterranean: Byzantine Sicily was both a center of political and cultural activity within the region and a shifting, unstable frontier between the three major civilizations of the Mediterranean basin. In these ways, the communication networks in which Greek Sicily was involved reflected many of the larger changes taking place within the early medieval Mediterranean. These were centuries in which Muslims, Latin Christians, Greek Christians, and, to an extent that is hard to quantify in this period, Jews interacted, fought, and shared common cultures, even as political and cultural boundaries in the region were beginning to harden.

Indeed, Sicily’s geopolitical significance took on new meaning during the later centuries of the Byzantine period, as Muslim naval activity in the area intensified and Byzantium struggled to maintain its borders. Sicily under Byzantine rule operated both as the far western frontier of the empire (especially after the loss of Greek territory in mainland Italy to the Lombards, emphasized by the 751 fall of the Exarchate of Ravenna) and as a center of official communication between Constantinople and the western Mediterranean—particularly, Latin Rome and the emergent powers of Muslim North Africa and Frankish Europe. As the western bulwark of Byzantine power, Sicily was often the focus of intense military and political activity during these centuries. Constantinople was determined to maintain its hold over the island despite the difficulty of such a project when so many forces, both in the western Mediterranean and at home in Asia Minor, worked contrary to this agenda. Diplomatically, too, the Greeks often used the island as a site of political discussions, a source of envoys, or a resting place for messengers traveling from Constantinople to the European mainland. At the same time, Byzantine-controlled Sicily never fully pulled away from the orbit of Rome—the island featured both papal estates and numerous Latin Christian churches—and thus could act as a sort of meeting ground between the two Christian civilizations, which were growing increasingly apart in both administrative and cultural senses, especially after the mid-eighth century. After the loss of North Africa to the Muslims in the seventh and eighth centuries, Sicily’s importance to Constantinople was further magnified, even as the imperial government struggled to maintain its hold over this distant island in the face of growing Muslim military and naval dominance in the region. Thus, across the centuries from 535 to 827, the island operated both as a type of physical boundary—although an unstable and incomplete one—dividing the three civilizations of the early medieval Mediterranean and as a locus of cross-cultural communication between them. With ships, goods, information, and people moving between the Greek, Latin, and Muslim worlds via Sicily, the island was the site of overlap and conversation among the three civilizations, just as much as—or even more than—it marked a line of separation between them.

Several categories of travel and communication help to illuminate the system that developed in the central Mediterranean during these centuries. The first, and most prevalent, type of travel to and from Sicily during the Byzantine period was that conducted for political, military, or diplomatic reasons. The abundance of governmental travel in the extant sources is partly a result of the preservation of certain types of texts relating to the Byzantine centuries and partly due to the interests of those sources. Latin papal letters and Latin and Greek chronicles reveal diplomatic and military travelers tasked with maintaining or restoring order in the empire’s territories in Italy, negotiating with the popes in Rome, or, settling peace treaties with Muslim North Africa.

A second kind of traveler in the Byzantine Mediterranean world was those people who took to sea in the course of their religious careers, spiritual pilgrimages, and intellectual pursuits. A number of such travelers went to or through Sicily on their journeys to Rome, Jerusalem, or Constantinople, while others were born and raised on the island and traveled toward the intellectual and religious capital at Constantinople in order to advance their careers. Greek hagiographies from Sicily and southern Italy record the lives and deeds of Greek saints from the region, as well as their travels throughout the Mediterranean world. These hagiographical sources are particularly numerous for the ninth and tenth centuries, and they therefore provide instructive anecdotes about individual interactions between Greek monks and Muslim invaders to Sicily, such as monks who sailed on Muslim ships as captives or those who defended their lands against the Muslim raiders by miraculous means. Early medieval Latin pilgrimage accounts, papal letters, and papal biographies also inform us about travelers to Sicily from Europe.

A third type of travel was that which connected Sicily to broader economic networks within the Mediterranean system. Virtually none of the extant sources from this period directly pertain to commerce or the shipments of the grain annona. Because this type of activity is so rarely represented in the surviving source material from the Byzantine era, definitive conclusions are impossible to establish. Interest in Sicily’s contribution to the early medieval Mediterranean economy is persistent, however, particularly because of its historical status as a major source of grain for the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, it is possible to assume that shipments of merchandise hovered just below the surface of the travel for which we do have records: that is, for every sea voyage of a saint, official, or pilgrim, we might presume that an entire shipload of unrecorded mercantile products made the voyage as well. The bulk of the travel that we can trace may not have been explicitly economic, but it may imply economic exchange that would have taken place along similar routes and on the very same ships. Still, Sicily’s economy in the Byzantine period is impossible to fully understand, and we are left with more questions than answers.

After Sicily was politically united to Constantinople in the sixth century—as part of Justinian’s efforts to regain the lost glory of Rome by means of conquest in the western Mediterranean—it initially held the status of a provincia and was governed by a praetor, a civil provincial official in charge of local security, finances, and judicial affairs. However, in the late seventh century, the island was designated a theme—a major military and territorial unit of the empire—after which time it was ruled by a stratēgos, a military general also responsible for financial and judicial administration. Status as a theme raised the importance of Sicily within the empire, and particularly within its western regions. At some point in the eighth century, Constantinople also took direct control of the ecclesiastical administration of Sicily, transferring it from the jurisdiction of Rome to that of the patriarch of Constantinople. Sicily’s status as both a military and an ecclesiastical province necessitated a high level of communication between the island and the empire’s distant capital. Given that most of the imperial holdings in the West would fall away over the course of the seventh and eighth centuries, maintaining control of Sicily was of high importance to Constantinople, even when that proved to be difficult, and therefore the patterns of communication between the two locations emphasize the island’s significance in the empire.

Constantinople was an imperial capital that lay at a considerable distance from Sicily—roughly 1,300 nautical miles, depending upon the route taken—meaning that communication between the two places was a serious undertaking that necessitated a long and potentially dangerous journey by sea. Nonetheless, the emperors at Constantinople regularly dispatched administrative officials and military forces to the island—even, sometimes, when the capital was under siege. This type of political communication between Sicily, as the province, and Constantinople, as its imperial capital, took place for a wide variety of reasons—from military actions and the suppression of rebellions to administrative updates, the transmission of important news, and personnel replacements. Armies, naval fleets, governors, and administrators arrived on the island at various times to enforce the political order, restore central rule, or attempt to conquer or recover the island. Sometimes, directed by leaders from the capital, Sicilian governors or military troops were enlisted in movements against other regions—for example, Rome or Byzantine territories in Italy. At other times, Sicily itself was the target of military attacks or forceful attempts at restoring order after attempted rebellions. Through all of these acts of travel and communication, it is evident that Sicily played a key role in the western agenda of the Byzantine Empire. Without the ability to quantify the communications that linked the province and the capital, it is nonetheless possible to clearly see the vital role that Sicily played in the Byzantine conception of its empire and its role in the Mediterranean world system.

Between the sixth and ninth centuries CE, Sicily remained dependent on its political capital for governors, military leaders, and administrators, despite several attempts at revolt against Constantinopolitan authority. Local officials were appointed from Constantinople and often returned there when their service ended. Moreover, whenever a Byzantine Sicilian governor attempted to gain political independence, Constantinople was quick to quash the rebellion. At the same time, Constantinople depended on Sicily and its governors both to maintain the conceptual boundaries between Byzantine and non-Byzantine territories and to push against those supposed borders, as well as to enforce Constantinople’s will in the western Mediterranean. The balance of power between Greek Christian, Latin Christian, and North African Muslim polities in the central Mediterranean was maintained or upset, in large part, by means of communications in and through Sicily.

The very fact that Constantinople appointed, monitored, and replaced Sicily’s governors necessitated the establishment of a fluid communications system between Constantinople and Syracuse. Administrative travel and the movements of Greek officials to the island and back created the sea route between Sicily and the eastern Mediterranean, a route which was then utilized for broader communications between province and capital. That Constantinople closely watched over the island’s affairs is quite clear. For example, the letters of Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604, pope from 590), many of which refer to the administration, agriculture, and churches of Sicily, mention several times that a praetor had been replaced by Constantinople for his poor performance or misdeeds. During Gregory’s pontificate, in fact, Sicily was ruled by four different praetors: Justin (590–592), who was replaced by Libertinus (593–598), then Leontius (598–600), and Alexander (600–?). In order for Constantinople to know about poor leadership in Sicily, there had to have been relatively regular communication between the two locales providing regular updates on provincial administration. Ships, messengers, overseers, and replacement officials—both seen in the sources and surmised from other evidence—must have arrived regularly at Sicily’s ports and been dispatched from there on the voyage to Constantinople; this traffic was likely even more regular than our sources can reveal. Regular but unremarkable communications between province and center—tax collection, appointment of lower-ranking officials, and the sending of regular administrative news—necessitated frequent travel to and from Sicily’s ports, but those acts might not have been deemed worthy of inclusion in the written records that survive. And yet, the arrival and dispatch of news about the events in Sicily or Constantinople demonstrate that a significant pattern of communication existed between the two places. Once established, these lines of regular ship traffic and communication could then be used for other purposes, such as mercantile, spiritual, and other types of journeys.

One of the most politically significant acts of travel between Constantinople and Sicily was the transfer of the imperial capital from Constantinople to Syracuse in 663 by Emperor Constans II (630–668, emperor from 641). His journey from Constantinople to the island was not taken via the direct sea route but was mediated through both Byzantine and Latin territories in mainland Italy, in reverse of many important diplomatic or military journeys between East and West that included a stop in Sicily: most often, we see political travelers from Constantinople stopping in Sicily before then traveling north into Italy. This move of the imperial administration to Sicily took place after Constans unsuccessfully attempted to defend Byzantine Italy from the Lombard invaders and then visited Rome. He abandoned the military endeavor in Italy, retreated to Sicily, and set up his imperial residence in the provincial capital of Syracuse. During his time in Sicily, Constans fortified the island’s navy and defensive structure and reformed the imperial mint at Syracuse. His administrative and military concerns were thus clearly focused on Sicily itself, both as an important province within the empire and as an outpost of Byzantine power in the Mediterranean.

While the island served as the seat of the entire imperial government, Sicily’s importance within the Byzantine Empire reached a high point, but this was an isolated episode of such imperial attention. Constans’s imperial rule from Syracuse was cut short by his assassination in 668 CE and a subsequent attempted rebellion. The emperor was murdered in the baths of Daphne in Syracuse by one of his servants, named Andrew son of Troilos, after which an Armenian named Mizizos was proclaimed emperor in Syracuse. Imperial agents quickly arrived from Constantinople, executed the rebel, and restored order to the island. The chronicler Theophanes attributed Constans’s murder to his unpopularity in Constantinople due to his rough handling of his opponents in the theological debate over the nature of Christ; he had several adversaries, including his brother Theodore, the Roman pontiff Martin (whom he had exiled), and the prominent spiritual leader Maximus the Confessor, but it is not clear who exactly was behind the emperor’s death. On the other hand, the Latin life of Pope Vitalian in the Liber Pontificalis claims that Constans’s death resulted from his tyrannical rule over the Sicilian population, suggesting that local governance rather than imperial politics was to blame for the failure of this experiment in having a western capital for the empire.

Also unclear is Constans’s motivation for abandoning the historical capital of Constantinople in favor of a distant island in the West. A complex combination of political and military needs may have prompted Constans’s temporary westward move of the imperial court: that is, this may have been an attempt to reconfigure the empire with its capital closer to the “heart” of the Mediterranean (and closer to Rome) in response to contemporary events. The mid-seventh century saw the beginning of large-scale Muslim invasions of Byzantine territory, and Constans’s activities in Sicily had the (temporary) effect of strengthening the island’s resistance to the Muslim onslaught. Very early in his reign—prior to the relocation to Syracuse—Constans had had to contend with the loss of Alexandria (abandoned by the Byzantine garrison in 642) and Arab movement west into Byzantine North Africa. Constans’s empire also faced Muslim assaults in Anatolia and Armenia and the first Muslim naval strikes into the Mediterranean. He responded to the attacks of Arab ships on eastern Mediterranean islands by initiating diplomatic contact with Muʿāwiya ibn Abī Sufyān (governor of Syria from 640, caliph, 660/661–680), but warfare within the Mediterranean continued.

Constans’s transfer to the western capital, therefore, may have been part of an effort to fortify the position of Sicily in the Mediterranean against the Muslim naval threat, shoring up Constantinople’s western provincial outpost and thus, by extension, protecting Constantinople itself. It is also possible that the move may have been intended to shift the center of the empire westward, away from the increasingly aggressive Muslim state, based in nearby Damascus. However, Constans’s son, Constantine IV, continued to fulfill some functions of the imperial government from Constantinople while his father was in Syracuse; Constantinople was not completely abandoned, and indeed the imperial administration returned there after Constans’s murder. Whatever the specific motivation—whether for defense or for offense—it is clear that seventh-century Sicily was considered vital to the safety of the Byzantine government and useful as a possible bulwark against Muslim advances. Nonetheless, Sicily during this period began to experience the first of a century-long series of semiregular raids on its southern shores by Muslim forces from North Africa, bringing the island slowly into the orbit of the dār al-Islām even as Greek emperors struggled to maintain the island’s position within the Byzantine Empire.

Constans’s move may also have been a political decision to protect himself from enemies in Constantinople. Sicily was often utilized as a site of exile for political enemies of the imperial family, and a type of self-exile may have been one of the motives for the transfer by the emperor, who had made plenty of enemies with his policies on matters of theological doctrine. Sicily’s status as a theme provided Constans with a location that was at once far from the center of action in Constantinople and administratively important enough to serve as the capital of the empire. Moreover, Syracuse and Constantinople needed to have already had a regular and dependable flow of communications between them in order for the Sicilian capital to have served, even briefly, as a viable seat of rule for the empire as a whole. The preexistence of this communications system shows that the Byzantines had been sending governors and officials and messengers to the island regularly—in fact, much more regularly than the extant sources demonstrate—and that Constans knew he could rule adequately from there. This already-established route of communications facilitated the transfer of the central government to such a (relatively) remote edge of the empire and allowed for the flow of information from the periphery necessary for governance of the center. At the same time, the location of the imperial government in Sicily would not and could not have taken place if the island had not been considered an integral part of the imperial agenda in relation to the western Mediterranean powers.

The choice of a borderland region as a temporary imperial capital also speaks to the importance of the western frontier zone in seventh-century Byzantium. While much of the historical scholarship has focused on the Syrian frontier with Islam and the Balkan frontier with the Slavs, the western frontier with Islam was also clearly considered vital for protecting Byzantine interests. This was an empire focused on its limes—its boundaries with the Latin world, the Greek territories in southern Italy that were breaking away, the Bulgars and other groups on the Balkan frontier, and the Muslim world on the Syrian frontier and, indeed, in the central Mediterranean region. Constans’s decision may have been one intended to shore up the frontier in one region, by means of his imperial presence; if so, his choice to strengthen an island in the Mediterranean, rather than the Syrian or Balkan frontier, may reflect his perspective on the importance of this particular border zone within the empire as a whole.

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