Although the presence of the imperial administration and court in Sicily was brief, Constantinople continued to send officials, messengers, and administrators to Sicily on a regular basis. Many official visits to Sicily from Constantinople were occasioned by violent incidents and rebellions on the island, much like the one following Constans II’s assassination. For example, Theophanes the Confessor (d. 818) notes in his Chronographia that in 718 Emperor Leo III (r. 717–741) dispatched to Sicily a man named Paul, whom he appointed to be the stratēgos (general) for the island. Paul traveled with a group of imperial guards charged with regaining control over the island after Sergius, the previous governor, had rebelled against Constantinople and declared a rival emperor in Syracuse. This Sicilian rebellion took place during a massive Muslim siege of Constantinople (717–718), but the emperor was nonetheless willing and able to dispatch officers to quell it and thus maintain control over the government of Sicily. He clearly considered it to be in the empire’s best interest to deploy the resources necessary to do so, even in the face of threats to the imperial capital, a conclusion suggesting that the loss of the western frontier would also threaten the center of Byzantium.
The final outcome of this story, and its analysis by Theophanes, shows that the maintenance of order in and control of Sicily was of central importance for the entirety of Byzantium’s western possessions. The rebel Sergius fled to the Lombards in Calabria, leaving behind his puppet emperor Basil (renamed Tiberius), whom the imperial appointee Paul beheaded alongside the rebellious generals. Those heads were sent back to Constantinople while Paul remained on the island to enforce order. According to Theophanes, “As a result, great order prevailed in the western parts … all the western parts were pacified.” Pacifying Sicily was thus equated with bringing order to all of Byzantium’s western holdings.
Sergius’s rebellion was not the only such uprising on the part of the Sicilian Greek leaders. Sicily’s significant distance from Constantinople, and its position at the edge of the empire, meant that, despite imperial efforts to control the island, it was in a prime location for those wishing to break free from Byzantine central authority. Likewise, the relative independence from Constantinople of the southern Italian Greek cities may have provided a model for the aspirations of Sicilian governors hoping for greater local power. In 780/781, for example, the Sicilian ruler Elpidios rebelled against imperial authority after having been in office only a few months. In response, the empress Irene (regent, 780–797, regnant, 797–802) commanded a spatharios (a member of the imperial guard) named Theophilos to sail to Sicily and arrest Elpidios, but the Sicilians refused to hand the latter over. The following year, Irene sent to Sicily an entire fleet, led by an official named Theodore, to put down the revolt; the Byzantine forces at last triumphed over the rebels.
The latter rebellion took place during a period of peace between Byzantine Sicily and Muslim North Africa—a pause in the semiregular raids on Sicily’s southern shores. This peace between Syracuse and Qayrawān was one of several treaties that halted the regular raiding parties from Egypt and Ifrīqiya that had been attacking the island for around a century by that point. The initial aim of these raids does not appear to have been the conquest of the island, but rather the collection of booty and slaves. Nonetheless, Greek Sicily was facing regular security threats that prompted Constantinople to increase its grip on the island. The late eighth century was a time when Constantinople tried to preserve Sicily as a Byzantine stronghold in the Mediterranean, perhaps fearing that the island’s loss would spell the end of Byzantine power in the western Mediterranean. At the time, Byzantium maintained only loose control over other formerly Greek lands in Italy, having lost direct influence in the majority of southern Italy. Even the Exarchate of Ravenna had been drifting away from Greek control and functioned independently in many arenas; it would fall to the Lombards in 751, leaving Sicily as the last holdout of direct Byzantine power in the West. Despite Irene’s successful defense of Sicily against internal rebellion, less than fifty years later the island would fall under Muslim control, and Constantinople would never again wield great influence in the western Mediterranean. The imperial government could not know this future, however, and the continued efforts (even until the eleventh century) to reclaim the island demonstrate Sicily’s centrality in the Byzantine agenda.
That said, not all of the acts of travel between Constantinople and Syracuse indicate the island’s importance to the empire; in fact, some imply nearly the opposite. At several points during the eighth century’s political tumult, for example, Sicily served as a place of exile for political rebels whom the Byzantine ruler wanted to keep far away from the political center of Constantinople. Theophanes’s Chronographia mentions several cases of political exiles who were sent to Sicily so that they could not continue to cause trouble in the imperial capital. Despite the island’s history as a site of repeated rebellions, Sicily presented itself to some emperors as an expedient spot for marginalizing political troublemakers. In these cases, the distance between the two locations was key to the effectiveness of the political move.
In 789/790 both Emperor Constantine VI (780–797) and his mother, Empress Irene, banished their political rivals to Sicily. Constantine VI likewise sent rebels to exile on this and other islands in the year 792/793. Distance and relative inaccessibility were vital for keeping an exiled person far from the center of political power. However, because Constantinople maintained regular communications with Syracuse, it was possible for the rulers to remain aware of the activities of their exiles. It is important to note that Sicily was not the only location chosen for receiving political deportees, as there were many islands closer to Asia Minor that routinely served as places of exile, such as the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara and Aegean islands such as Patmos. In some cases, Sicily may have been preferred because a particular governor of Sicily was deemed to be trustworthy in safeguarding against rebel activities. In any event, the island was both geographically far from the capital and conceptually near to it—near enough that the imperial government could keep a close watch on its rivals’ actions, by means of established networks of communication. Thus, it seems, Sicily could be considered both close to and far from Constantinople, depending on the political need.
While geographically distant from Constantinople, the island was directly adjacent to Greek-claimed territories in southern Italy. Proximity to these Greek regions of southern Italy was thus another advantage Sicily had in its political utility for Constantinople. During its years under Byzantine rule, Sicily often functioned as a link between Constantinople and the Byzantine territories in mainland Italy, both as a transit point for messengers and as a base for enforcing order in Italy, particularly when the mainland Greek cities were more successful in their efforts to establish their independence from imperial rule. Greek imperial officers often sailed to Sicily and stayed there briefly before taking the land or sea route to Greek lands in Italy.
One example of Constantinople’s use of Sicilian government officials against Byzantine territories in Italy occurred around the year 709. Felix, archbishop of Ravenna (r. 705–723), attempted to liberate his city from Byzantine rule, and so Emperor Justinian II (669–711, r. 685–695 and 705–711) sent the governor of Sicily, Theodorus, to take hold of Felix and the rebels. Theodorus and the Greek fleet sailed from Sicily to Ravenna to carry out the order. He arrested and shackled the rebels aboard a ship, alongside the riches they had purportedly stolen, and sent them to Constantinople. Felix was exiled to Pontus until around 712, when the next emperor, Philippicus, restored him to the church in Ravenna and had him sent back there with an escort, again by way of Sicily. Sicily does not necessarily lie on the most obvious route between Ravenna and Constantinople, and, notably, other trips between the two cities did not always involve Sicily. Therefore, on these trips there must have been compelling but unstated reasons for the entourage to stop on the island. It is not clear from the text if Sicilian officials were involved in this return trip or why Sicily was the chosen route between Constantinople and Ravenna. Nonetheless, this anecdote allows us to see Sicily and its officials as key factors in Constantinople’s attempts to maintain power in southern Italy, even when geography was not the determining reason for using Sicily as a way station along the journey.
The Royal Frankish Annals contain a reference to similar activity in the year 788. It is recorded that Emperor Constantine VI ordered the governor Theodorus to destroy the city of Benevento in revenge for the emperor not having received Charlemagne’s daughter as his wife. The Byzantine forces traveled from Sicily to Calabria, where they met the Frankish-allied Beneventan troops in battle but were defeated. Thus we again see a Sicilian governor tasked with carrying out imperial edicts on the mainland. While its placement close to mainland Italy certainly made the island useful geographically, the presumed ability of the island’s officials to raise appropriate armies and attack the mainland, along with the trust the emperor placed in those distant representatives to carry out such campaigns, demonstrates the island’s conceptual utility to the Byzantine Empire. Sicily was not simply a distant province at the periphery of the empire but was at times an integral extension of the central authority of Constantinople.
In general, then, early medieval Sicily’s communications with Constantinople show the island in a number of important roles: a site of political rebellion and exile, an agent of imperial authority within Italy, and a stronghold of Byzantine power along the vulnerable three-way border at the far western edge of the empire. Sicily and its governors acted in the West as an extension of Constantinople, relying on a steady stream of officials, news, messengers, and troops between the capital and the island. The island also functioned as a specific site of imperial authority when it was the temporary capital of the empire under Constans II, and even though this was a brief and isolated instance, it demonstrates the multiple ways in which Sicily was deemed central to the goals and safety of the Byzantine Empire as a whole. As the bulwark of Byzantine power in the central Mediterranean, Sicily both protected the empire’s western edge and represented imperial authority in the region. And, in the case of revolt against Constantinople, the island could serve as a base for rival power and as a stepping-stone to the center of the empire: if rebels were to gain power on the island, they might be able to use the established relationship between Syracuse and Constantinople to assert their claim to authority over all of Byzantium. Even when the emperors were distracted by business closer to home, the imperial authorities strenuously worked to maintain their hold over Sicily. By keeping control of this island borderland, the Byzantines were able to use Sicily in the enforcement of their will in Italy as well as in diplomatic relationships with sites of power in the Latin world, Rome, and the Frankish court (represented by Aachen) and, after the mid-seventh century, with the new centers of Muslim power in North Africa.
While Sicily functioned as an important Byzantine borderland in the western Mediterranean and maintained close communications with Constantinople, ties between Sicily and Rome and the Latin world also remained strong. Having been a Roman province for several centuries, the island featured a population with many Latin speakers and numerous Latin churches. Due also to the persistence of communication networks between Rome and Sicily, the island was never fully detached from the Latin West in terms of culture, religion, and, to some degree, politics. Simply because the island shifted from Roman to Germanic and then to Greek administration does not mean that cultural or social connections between the island and Rome were severed. The endurance of these links is partly due to the continued presence of a Latin population and the maintenance of papal estates on the island, and many Sicilians remained adherents of the Latin Church. Simultaneous connections to Rome and to Constantinople allowed the island to function, in some ways, as part of both the Latin and Greek worlds and therefore as a vital point of connection between them. Thus, in addition to functioning as a link between Constantinople and the Byzantine-claimed territories in mainland Italy—both as a transit point for messengers and as a base for enforcing order in Italy—Sicily could serve as a mediator in communications between Constantinople and Rome.
Indeed, Sicily functioned as an important node in the networks of communication that existed between emperors in Constantinople and popes, kings, and emperors in the West. In terms of papal-imperial business and diplomacy, Sicily appears to have been a regular stop on the route between Constantinople and Rome, although it was not the only path for information or messengers between the two places. Official and political business between Rome and Constantinople was conducted often by way of Sicily and, it appears, less often via an overland route. Many early medieval travelers between Constantinople and Italy made Sicily a way station on their travels, even if their business did not directly involve the island. For example, in 653 Pope Martin I (649–655) was arrested in Rome and taken by ship to Constantinople. The journey, which lasted from the middle of June until mid-September, followed a route through Sicily as well as many other Mediterranean ports. In this case, even though the affair had nothing to do with Sicily, a Sicilian Byzantine official was involved in the delegation sent to Ravenna. A similar journey took place in 709, when Pope Constantine (708–715) answered a summons by the Byzantine emperor Justinian II to appear at Constantinople. The papal party, as detailed in the pope’s vita in the Liber Pontificalis, journeyed to the Byzantine capital by way of Sicily, although their return trip did not follow the same route, and they skipped Sicily on that second leg. Evidently, therefore, various itineraries were available for travelers between mainland Italy and the Byzantine capital during the early eighth century. Sicily was, however, an obvious choice of route when the pope and his entourage were traveling on the orders of the Byzantine emperor or through the political agency of Sicilian officials—even when they did not have any particular business to transact on the island. This fact may have been due to a larger number of Constantinople-bound ships sailing from Sicilian ports than from other ports in Italy. Likewise, Sicily’s importance as a transit point for papal-imperial business may have resulted from the involvement of Greek Sicilian officials as representatives of the imperial government. In either case, officials frequently chose routes involving Sicily over other routes to Constantinople; that is, Sicily often found itself at the nexus of Byzantine-Latin relationships even when a stopover there was not necessitated by the involvement of Sicilian personnel.
There is also evidence that, during the seventh through ninth centuries, Roman Church officials traveled to Sicily on administrative business that did not involve transactions with Greeks. Representatives of the Latin Church at Rome traveled to the island to govern the Latin churches there and the agricultural lands in papal estates. The papal patrimony in Sicily was concentrated in the cities of Syracuse and Palermo, and some Sicilian lands were also held by the churches of Milan, Ravenna, and other mainland Italian cities.33 Latin sources show that early medieval popes frequently traveled to Sicily, either personally or via their officials, on routine affairs of land and church administration. Papal visits to Sicily are recorded from the sixth century and continued at least through the eighth century. One of the earliest papal visitors, Pope Vigilius (537–555), arrived on the island very soon after Justinian’s reconquest of Sicily from the Goths: he traveled from Rome to the Sicilian city of Catania, where he appointed priests and deacons. He then sailed to Constantinople in order to negotiate with the emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and empress Theodora (500–548) about a dispute over ecclesiastical leadership. Later, after an illness, Vigilius died in Syracuse, whence his body was taken to Rome for burial. Vigilius obviously deemed the island useful both as a stopover en route to the eastern Mediterranean and as a significant place within the wider Latin Church. Other popes and their officials, throughout the sixth through ninth centuries, likewise traveled to Sicily regularly, demonstrating the island’s integral position in the Mediterranean system and its role as a node of Rome-Constantinople communications.
This integration of Greek-ruled Sicily with the church in Rome is most evident in the corpus of letters written by Gregory the Great (pope from 590 to 604). Pope Gregory maintained continuous contact with Sicily and left a series of letters concerning the island that serves as the most important source of information about Sicily in the sixth century. For example, one of Gregory’s earliest extant letters, written in 590, was sent to all of the island’s bishops, and in it he appointed Peter as his subdeacon on the island, in charge of administering the Sicilian patrimony on the pope’s behalf. Throughout his letters, Gregory shows himself to have been deeply concerned with the political, ecclesiastical, and economic affairs of the island. Also the personal owner of extensive lands and the founder of several monasteries in Sicily, Gregory remained, throughout his papacy, in regular contact with his agents and with the Roman clergy on the island. He intervened often in the affairs of the Sicilian churches, appointed and corresponded with local bishops, founded monasteries and convents on Sicily, and kept a watchful eye on the Greek praetors who ruled the island on behalf of Constantinople. For example, he wrote a letter in 590 to Justin, the praetor of Sicily, in which he noted that he would be closely observing Justin’s administration of the island.
The connection between Greek Sicily and the church at Rome continued throughout the seventh and eighth centuries, even at the highest level of church authority.40 In fact, several popes from those years were born and educated on the island, some from the Latin population and some from the Greek. Pope Agatho (r. 678–681) was originally from Sicily (natione Sicula), although very little is known of his life there; he seems not to have maintained a particularly close relationship with the island. Likewise born in Sicily was Pope Leo II the Younger (682–683), who was renowned for his knowledge of both Greek and Latin; his biographer asserts that he translated into Latin the acts of the Third Council of Constantinople (680–681), which condemned Monothelitism. Another seventh-century pope, Conon (686–687), was born in Greece but was raised and educated in Sicily before he traveled to Rome and took leadership of the Latin Church. Also raised and educated in Sicily was Pope Sergius I (687–701), whose father, Tiberius, was of Syrian origin, having migrated to Palermo (called at the time Panormus; see figure 2) from Antioch. Likewise, Pope Stephen III (768–772) was born in Sicily and moved as a youth to Rome, where he became a cleric and a monk in St. Chrysogonus’s monastery before ascending to the papacy. Despite having been transferred to Greek political control, Sicily was, to some significant degree, still considered part of the Latin Church, such that the island could be the source of so many popes during these centuries. The island may have served as a convenient source of Greek-educated candidates during a period in which Constantinople continued to try—increasingly unsuccessfully—to appoint and approve the election of the popes. Sicily, with its connections to both churches, may have been an easy place for emperors to find candidates for the papacy with enough familiarity with the two traditions to serve the interests of both institutions.
Some of the relations between Byzantium and the leaders of western Europe, as directed through Sicily, were more hostile. For example, the vita of Pope John VI (r. 701–705) records that the Byzantine exarch of Italy, Theophilactus (r. 701/702–709), traveled from Sicily to Rome for unknown reasons and encountered there a violent reception. In Rome he was met by the local military troops (“militia totius Italiae”), who attempted to kill him. The pope sheltered the Byzantine official, thus demonstrating his commitment to maintaining an amiable relationship with the Byzantine emperor, even if the local population was less welcoming to the Greek envoy. A more detailed account of hostile relations between Rome and Constantinople being negotiated via Sicily concerns a confrontation that took place in 732, during the first iconoclastic period. Pope Gregory III (731–741) sent a representative named George to the Byzantine capital with a condemnation of Emperor Leo’s position on iconoclasm. George failed in his mission the first time he traveled from Rome to Constantinople, so he was sent a second time. This second attempt to deliver the pope’s message was disrupted by George’s yearlong detention in Sicily, and the letter never made it to Constantinople. Later, the pope tried again to send the Byzantine emperor a condemnation of iconoclasm, this time with Constantine the defensor. On his way to Constantinople, he passed through Sicily where he and his party were arrested and imprisoned by Sergius, the stratēgos of Sicily, who was acting on the emperor’s orders. Sergius confiscated the letter and held Constantine captive for nearly a year. In this extended episode, the Sicilian Byzantine official obstructed the ability of Rome to communicate with Constantinople its displeasure on the divisive issue of iconoclasm. Sicily, as a regular stopping point on Rome-to-Constantinople journeys, was well situated to act as a regional representative of the emperor and his policies, as well as an intermediary in the relationship between pope and emperor—whether that enhanced or limited the actual communication between the two parties.
Like these popes, the Frankish ruler Charlemagne also used Sicily as a locus of political leverage with the Byzantine Empire. In this, he appears to have been following the established pathways of East-West communication by way of Sicily. One potential point of tension between Charlemagne and Constantinople was the political and military opportunity the island presented to western rulers: one could invade Sicily to claim it as his own and thus gain a foothold in a Byzantine territory with strong connections to Constantinople. This suggestion is not found in Latin sources, however, but only in Greek ones: for the year 800/801, Theophanes recorded that Charlemagne had planned a naval attack on Byzantine Sicily in order to conquer the island for his new empire. The chronicle stated that the Frankish emperor then abandoned this plan and decided instead to seek the hand of Empress Irene as his wife and thus sent ambassadors to Constantinople on that mission. Even if this story was fabricated by the Greeks in their response to Charlemagne’s claim to be the Roman emperor, it demonstrates that they recognized the possibility that Sicily could potentially be used as a stepping-stone between West and East. Another example of Sicily as a locus of political conflict between eastern and western claimants to the Roman imperial title concerns a Byzantine official from Sicily who defected to the court of Charlemagne in the year 800, for an unknown reason. He stayed in Charlemagne’s service for ten years before requesting that he be sent back to Sicily. The story of this official may reflect the competition between East and West over claims to authority. Both of these examples, however tenuous, suggest that Sicily served, to some western political leaders, as a nearby representative of the Byzantine Empire and thus as a mediator of both diplomacy and potential aggression. Charlemagne’s supposed choice between conquering the island and marrying the empress suggests that the island could, in fact, be as much of a key to uniting the two empires as could a marriage alliance.
Sometimes the Rome-to-Constantinople route through Sicily is only implied in the extant sources by notifications about the transmission of news. Several early sources relate that western leaders received important messages from Constantinople by means of ambassadors sent to Rome by Greek Sicilian officials, but we learn nothing else about the trips to and from Sicily. For example, in 713 a messenger arrived in Sicily from Constantinople and announced that Anastasius II (713–715) had deposed Philippicus (711–713) and replaced him as emperor; this news then traveled from Sicily to Rome. Another similar incident is found in the brief notice that in 799 Michael, the governor of Sicily, sent a representative named Daniel to the court of Charlemagne, although the business he was charged with conducting between Charlemagne and Sicily’s governor is unknown. He may have been carrying news or orders on behalf of Sicily or, like many of the other messengers found in the sources, on behalf of Constantinople via Sicily’s Byzantine officials. It is likely that other such travel between the two courts occurred but was not documented, as the arrival of a Sicilian envoy to Charlemagne’s court was not recorded as an incident out of the ordinary. Most travel by messengers is only implied in our sources, through the record of the news that was transmitted or by a report that envoys appeared as passengers on ships on which other travelers were sailing. For example, there is a brief reference in a saint’s life to both imperial and papal envoys sailing on the same ship from Constantinople to Sicily as the holy man, but we learn nothing of the missions on which these messengers traveled. The travels of these particular envoys are not known from other sources, and it is likely that many other such journeys took place but were not recorded in surviving texts.
Two letters dated November 813, written by Pope Leo III (795–816) to Charlemagne, also provide evidence that news traveled from Constantinople to both Rome and the Frankish imperial court via Sicily. In the first, Leo mentions a letter sent to him on Charlemagne’s behalf by the Sicilian stratēgos, Gregory, in response to one that the pope had delivered. The pope’s letter conveys that the Byzantine emperor Michael (Michael I Rangabe, r. 811–813) had entered a monastery and had been replaced on the imperial throne. Leo explains to Charlemagne in the letter that he had learned the news from a papal representative who had traveled from Rome to Gregory’s court in Sicily. The second letter from Leo continues the discussion of the events in Constantinople, bringing news about the ascension of Leo V, “the Armenian,” (r. 813–820) to the imperial throne. These two pieces of correspondence indicate that at times both Rome and the emperor’s court relied on Sicilian officials for news from Constantinople and that Sicilian envoys were accustomed to taking such news to Europe. The movement of information via Sicily also suggests that travel both between Constantinople and Sicily and between Sicily and Rome was routine: Sicily stayed regularly connected to both the Greek and Latin Christian worlds, simultaneously sending messengers to and receiving them from multiple places.
On the other hand, some accounts of communications between Constantinople and Rome highlight the fact that Sicily was not the only route by which information or envoys traveled between Constantinople and the West. In 797, the emissary Theoctistos, sent by Nicetas, the stratēgos of Sicily, arrived at Aachen with a letter for Charlemagne from an emperor (Constantine VI, r. 780–797) who had in the meantime been deposed in Constantinople (by his mother, Empress Irene, r. 797–802). That vital piece of information had already reached Aachen by another route before the Sicilian messenger arrived, making the deposed emperor’s message obsolete before it even arrived at Aachen. This anecdote shows that the overland route was sometimes faster than the sea route through Sicily. This, then, suggests that Sicily acted as a significant node in the communication linkage between Rome, the Frankish court, and Constantinople not simply for its geographical expedience but for other reasons as well. Indeed, if messages could reach Rome or Aachen more quickly by routes not involving Sicily, then the utilization of the island as a stopover in other instances must have been related to other factors, such as the perceived reliability of particular Sicilian officials or the ease of finding passage to the island’s ports from the eastern Mediterranean. The use of Sicily as a transit point reflected official needs and communication patterns, not simply the necessity to transmit information in the fastest way possible, meaning that in certain instances Sicily could serve as a proxy for imperial authority within the western Mediterranean and a point of connection between East and West. At the edge of the empire, Sicily was also a useful mediator of the relationships between Byzantium and the societies at its borders.