“Freedom cannot be granted. It must be taken.”
– Max Stirner: The Ego and His Own, 1845.
Americans in general today certainly take for granted the freedoms they still possess. This is not an unfair or inaccurate statement to make. How many Americans, for example, take the time out of their busy schedules watching television, surfing the Net, playing video games, “hanging out” in bars/clubs or just gaining weight to engage in such innocuous activities as educating themselves on the latest bills before their legislators? How many of them go further and contact their legislators to offer them their opinions on these bills? How many even bother to just vote on Election Day? You get the point, I’m sure. Every day things go on among our elected officials that will ultimately affect our daily lives, positively or negatively, and most seem content to remain blissfully detached from these proceedings.
One thing I’ve noticed Americans do like to do, politically speaking, is complain. Americans complain a lot! They complain at the workplace; they complain at the barber shop/hair salon; they complain at barbeques. They’ll complain anywhere they can find an ear to bend. Everyone likes to complain about politics, it seems; few are willing to do anything about it.
It wasn’t always this way. If one takes the time to read books on American history, one will realize that decades ago a greater percentage of Americans became actively involved in politics than now. One can’t help but notice those times in history when Americans were most involved in politics were lean times, economically speaking, like the Great Depression. Affluence appears to breed indolence.
In other parts of the world today, we see something different. In Greece, for example, the government is teetering on the verge of insolvency. During the bull market earlier in this decade corrupt local officials took advantage of the economic boon to throw long-established principles of accounting out the window and spent more than they were taking in, foolishly believing they could “rob Peter to pay Paul”. Now that they are stuck along with most everyone else in the midst of a severe global recession, the Greeks are finding to their dismay the rest of their neighbors in the EU consider their government bonds toxic.
As a result, officials in Athens have been forced to invoke drastic austerity measures to prevent (or at least forestall) an impending implosion of the Greek economy. This has touched a raw nerve among many in the Greek populace, who feel (probably correctly) they are being made the scapegoat for the corruption and incompetence of government officials. Many have taken to the streets in protest. The potential for violence is there! Certainly an enraged electorate is something no elected official in Greece is looking forward to on Election Day.
As a result of our historic national prosperity, Americans, especially when comparing themselves to foreigners, tend to view themselves as superior. That somehow our national greatness is inherent and has always existed. Nothing could be further from the truth! Throughout much of this country’s history the bulk of its citizenry have struggled to earn a living. Furthermore, the relative isolation of this country (to the land-hungry empires of Europe) was in large part responsible for keeping it safe from foreign domination.
America, in fact, began as a “political experiment”; a republic born of compromise between rival factions. Had it not also been for its alliances with Spain and France, there is no doubt in this writer’s mind the vast armies of Britannia would have quickly ground it down into the dirt, and men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin would have, in all probability, found themselves facing a rope!
American history, then, is the story of a political experiment that succeeded. The following is the story of one that failed.
The Kingdom of Sicily was founded in 1130 by Roger II, Count of Sicily, a man of Norman and Italian extractions. His reign as king lasted from 1130-1154 and in its early stages was characterized mainly by suppression of rebellions, fending off foreign invasions and contending with a belligerent Pope, who initially refused to recognize Roger’s title as suzerain of the newly-formed kingdom.
Having finally secured his new kingdom, Roger built up an armada and went about conquering surrounding territories, creating a fledgling empire with its center at Palermo. His expeditions eventually brought him into conflict with the Byzantine Empire to the east, and though his fleets raised hell throughout the imperial dominions, they failed to capture Constantinople, the capital. Roger died in 1154.
Roger established a short-lived dynasty that ended in 1189 with the death of his grandson William II, nicknamed “the Good”. The throne was seized by Tancred of Lecce, an illegitimate son of Roger III, Duke of Apulia, the eldest son of King Roger II of Sicily. After seizing the throne, Tancred had William’s widow, Queen Consort Joan of England (sister of King Richard the Lionheart) imprisoned.
When Richard arrived in Sicily with his army on his way to battle the Muslims in the Holy Land, he demanded Tancred free his sister and return her dowry. When Tancred refused Richard attacked his dominions, eventually securing her release. When Richard left for the Holy Land in 1191, Tancred found himself facing the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and his wife Constance, who was a daughter of King Roger II of Sicily by his third wife Beatrice of Rethel, and his rightful heir.
Though an epidemic caused Henry to temporarily withdraw his armies to the north, and Constance for a time was taken hostage by Tancred, his death in 1194 along with the premature death of his young son (and co-ruler) Roger III effectively ended his attempt at establishing a dynasty. When Henry returned later that same year, Tancred’s other son William III was taken prisoner to Germany and Henry had himself proclaimed King of Sicily, ending Norman rule in Sicily.
The accession of Henry and Constance to the throne of Sicily saw the establishment of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Their son Frederick II was crowned King of Sicily (as King Frederick I) at the age of three in 1197, with his mother Constance relinquishing her title as Queens to remain as regent. He would go on to become King of Germany and Burgundy as well as Holy Roman Emperor.
Charles was an energetic, ambitious ruler who was determined to be master of all Italy and the eastern Mediterranean. Unlike the Norman and Hohenstaufen rulers before him, Charles made Naples his capital. Sicily was to be his springboard for an eventual invasion of Byzantine lands to the east.
To finance his military campaigns, Charles heavily taxed his subjects and debased the currency. This all but ruined trade on Sicily. He also brought in French nobles loyal to himself and put them in various positions of authority. Though historians paint Charles as a tough but fair ruler, more often than not he was anywhere but on Sicily, leaving his French nobles to run affairs. The Sicilians chafed under their rule, which was characterized as cruel, oppressive and rapacious. Circumstances were rife for rebellion!
While all this was going on, external forces were conspiring against Charles’ ambitions as well. Emperor Michael VII Palaeologus, restorer and ruler of the Byzantine Empire, attempted to reconcile the Orthodox Church of his domains with the Catholic Church centered in Rome. The purpose of which was to drive a wedge between the Pope and the rulers of the Latin states now occupying formerly Byzantine-held lands. Michael also intrigued with Pedro III, King of Aragon.
When Charles of Anjou defeated Manfred, title to his kingdom passed to his daughter Constance, who was wife of Pedro. Pedro now had claim to the Kingdom of Sicily. Through the machinations of Giovanni da Procida, a Campanian physician and diplomat, Pedro was able to further stir up discontent amongst native Sicilian nobles to Angevin rule. Procida then travelled to Constantinople to seek the aid of Emperor Michael, who refused to enter into intrigues with Pedro unless it had the blessings of the Pope. Giovanni da Procida was able to secure the consent of Pope Nicholas III, who feared Charles’ growing power in Southern Italy.
What happened next is subject to debate among historical scholars to this day. That Pedro and Michael conspired to end Charles’ rule of Sicily there can be no doubt. How much their intrigues contributed to the rebellion there against Angevin rule remains an open question. The events surrounding the rebellion itself are also far from certain. The opinion of many historians (and this writer) is the insurrection occurred parallel to the intrigues of Pedro and Michael, who simply took advantage of a good thing.
According to one version the inhabitants of the city of Palermo were holding Easter Monday festivities just outside the town when French soldiers arrived to check for weapons, which Sicilians were forbidden to possess. The Frenchmen took the occasion to molest their women, which triggered a murderous riot that mushroomed into a full-blown insurrection!
Another version has it that a group of drunken French soldiers “crashed” a Sicilian wedding, harassing and vexing those in attendance before committing an outrage against the bride! Pandemonium predictably followed suit.
A popular version of events, one advanced by the late British historian Steven Runciman, has it that during the Easter Monday festivities a group of drunken French soldiers attempted to mingle with the locals. The Sicilians coldly kept their distance from the Frenchmen. One of their group, a sergeant named Drouet, spied a comely young Sicilian lady and forcibly pulled her out of the crowd. His attempts at l’amour accomplished nothing but to incite the fury of her husband who was standing nearby. Pulling out a dagger, he rushed the overbearing Drouet and stabbed him to death! When his comrades attempted to come to his aid, they were quickly surrounded by a larger group of Sicilians who fell upon them with daggers and swords, dispatching them all.
At that moment the bells of the Vespers began to ring in Palermo. The Sicilians, realizing nothing but the most hideous and brutal reprisals awaited them, decided to “go for broke”. Raising their weapons, they shouted in the Sicilian language: “Moranu li Franchiski!” (“Death to the French!”). Racing through the streets of Palermo, they struck down every Frenchman they came across, while simultaneously exhorting their fellow townsmen to do the same. Since the French by this time were universally hated, it was not a hard thing to do. No one was spared: men, women and children. By the next morning every Frenchman in the city of Palermo was dead. It should be noted many modern historians think the magnitude of the slaughter was probably an exaggeration.
Whatever the truth, the insurrection quickly spread over the whole island. Most French officials were killed, though those who had ruled wisely were spared and allowed to depart in peace. Example: William Porcelet, the Vice-Justiciar of Western Sicily, had won the love of the Sicilians for his fairness and benevolent rule. The rebels escorted him and his family with honors to Palermo, allowing them to board a ship bound for Provence. Likewise the town of Sperlinga, at the heart of Sicily, allowed the French garrison there to retire safely to Messina.
By May the whole island was in rebel hands. Each major town proclaimed itself a commune answerable only to Papal authority. Charles of Anjou’s fleet which he had amassed just outside Messina in preparation for an invasion of Constantinople was put to the torch.
Significantly, the rebels decided on establishing a rudimentary version of a federal republic. They appealed to the Pope for protection. Unfortunately, by this time Nicholas III was dead and Martin IV, a lackey of Charles of Anjou, occupied the Papal throne. No aid of any kind would be forthcoming.
With Charles amassing a fleet in preparation for a punitive expedition to Sicily, and no one else to turn to for aid, the Sicilians reluctantly petitioned Pedro III for help. Conveniently sitting at the head of a large fleet near Tunis just 200 miles from Sicily, Pedro sailed for the island. Marching up the coast, he arrived in Palermo on September 2, 1282. Needless to say, the Sicilians weren’t exactly enthusiastic about replacing one foreign king with another. However, since Pope Martin IV had reasserted Charles’ right to the island, and Pedro promised to honor the islanders’ ancient privileges, they agreed to recognize him as their suzerain. One September 4th, 1282, Pedro III was crowned King Pietro I of Sicily by a mandate of the Sicilian people.
Charles would spend the rest of his reign as King of Naples trying to reestablish his control over the island of Sicily, and would fail every time. He would exhaust his forces in the endeavor, thereby sparing the ailing Byzantine Empire from almost certain destruction. The Sicilian Vespers triggered a war in the central and western Mediterranean regions that lasted until 1302, when the rulers of the kingdoms of Naples and Aragon signed the Peace of Caltabellotta, the last of a series of treaties that basically maintained the status quo. Charles II (son of Charles I) was recognized as King of Naples, and the island kingdom of Sicily, now known as the Kingdom of Trinacria, passed to Federico III, third son of Pedro III of Aragon. A house divided, the Kingdom of Sicily would remain under foreign domination.
As mentioned earlier in this article, America’s only reason for existence was the aid extended to it by the French and Spanish, as well as its isolation relative to Europe. Sicily, sadly, is located at the center of the Mediterranean, historically making it a coveted spot for empire-builders. One is left to wonder how different the history of that region might have been had the Sicilians, like the Americans long after them, found a benefactor for their fledgling republic.
• Steven Runciman: The Sicilian Vespers; Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995.