It was immediately apparent when I landed in Catania that Sicily was distinct from the rest of Italy. I rapidly became familiar with “Sicilian time,” the universal explanation for tardiness, absence, and confusion. During afternoons the streets are vacant and shops are shuttered for siesta. Some weeks, the weekend begins on Thursday.
After World War II, Regione Sicilia gained broad political autonomy from Italy, which it retains today. Determined to exert independence even from Italy, the island seems to take pride in its isolation. Sitting at the confluence of winds and trade routes in the central Mediterranean, though, Sicily can’t help but be a hub of interaction and commonality. Throughout its long history, Sicily has blurred and challenged the borders between cultures and continents.
In the 8th c. BCE, Greek colonists from crowded Aegean city-states began to settle Sicily’s eastern coast. Later known to the Romans (along with Italy’s southern Gulf of Taranto) as Magna Graecia, or “Great Greece,” the region developed a distinctive Hellenic culture. These colonies rapidly became independent, and relations with eastern mother cities were as complex, and sometimes as fraught, as those with the neighboring Italians. As Rome spread southwards, encounters with these cities introduced influential Greek culture. The Greeks who settled Sicily’s eastern coast may be the island’s most famous colonists, building powerful cities like Syracuse and raising such legendary figures as Archimedes. But the Greeks were not Sicily’s first colonists.
Centuries before the first Greeks partook of the local aranchino and gelato, Phoenician colonists were making landfall in western Sicily and nearby Tunisia. Though a simple narrative of Greco-Italian cohabitation is tempting – and encouraged by stereotypes of African, European, and Middle Eastern cultures – Sicily’s history is far more multicultural, conflicted, and nuanced. As Carthage, the Phoenician colony near modern Tunis, grew in power and influence, the Sicilian colonies fell into its orbit, absorbing its distinctive culture as well. As much as Sicily was Greek, it was also African, though culture, bias, and nationalism use the southern Mediterranean as a definitive border for a European world, Sicily has often defied these lines, serving instead as a point of first contact, continued connectivity, and even unification.
It was Sicily, and conflict between its disparate cultures, which drew the burgeoning Roman confederation beyond the Italian peninsula and fully into the Mediterranean world. The Marzamemi II wreck, carrying remarkable products of an interconnected, complex, and powerful Mediterranean economy, owes something to the island’s nuanced connective role. As we dig, this legacy continues to confound racial and cultural expectations.
Outside the marina wall, an isolated fishing boat lists abandoned on the shoreline, bleaching from blue to white in the sun. It is a refugee boat, abandoned by the human traffickers who owned it. The southern tip of Sicily sits at the center of a massive modern human migration – a crisis which is overwhelming the Italian Navy, blindsiding the European Union, and fueling xenophobic rancor across the Eurozone. Marzamemi, along with nearly half of Sicily, lies farther south than the northernmost points of Africa. With Libya in crisis, and Tunisia and Egypt mired in economic stagnation, people seek safety, stability, and opportunity in the EU in unprecedented numbers. To them, Sicily has become the nearest gateway to the Schengen Zone.
Like Marzamemi’s squat blue fishing boat, the migrants who survive the treacherous crossing go unclaimed. The EU and its member states have only reluctantly confronted the legal and social uncertainties surrounding the migration, and the influx strains existing resources. In contrast to the bright, if faded, colors of most migrant boats, inside Marzamemi’s harbor wall nearly all the boats have been painted white. Colored boats carry the stigma of migration, and of African origin. Modern Europe draws away from Africa, reinforcing the mental wall in the Mediterranean. As connections wither, Sicily shows the maritime detritus of its relationship with Africa.
Sicily is once again a crossroads for travelers seeking economic opportunity as well as political asylum. But these immigrants and refugees need not, in an ancient sense, be total foreigners. Families from Libya are sailing north from the birthplace of several of Rome’s most powerful emperors. Young men from Tunisia, home to the final grave of the Roman Republic and one of the empire’s foremost cities, come to Sicily in search of better jobs. Two millennia ago, similar young men may have made their journey in reverse. Other migrants come from across the Sahara, where Rome turned for salt and gold, not just wild beasts.
Gerhard Kapitän, who first explored the Marzamemi II wreck, theorized that the church wreck’s marble cargo had been intended for a North African destination. Regardless of whether Kapitän was right, the stonework would have arrived not at a provincial backwater or proto-colonial outpost, but in a cosmopolitan, multicultural region with nearly a thousand years of Mediterranean history.
What’s important is not that North Africa was once Romanized, but rather that the Classical Mediterranean world was a diverse whole. The sea comprised not a liminal space between distinct regions living under irreconcilable conditions, but rather the connective tissue of a single multicultural world. In the late empire, North Africa was an integral part of the Mediterranean world, and no less a part of the Roman world than Spain or France. In later centuries, Sicily remained more closely tied to the Byzantine East and Arab North Africa than to Medieval Europe. At a time when northern and Western Roman lands were receding into parochialism, Sicily was once again multilingual and culturally diverse. Throughout Sicily’s long history, connectivity has come with conflict. Cultures have not only communicated but clashed. Today, Sicily is again a hub in the Mediterranean, between two continents whose religious, cultural, and economic borders it has the potential to blur and even erase. The faded blues of the rotting migrant boat perched on the edge of Marzamemi feel hopeful, even though the boat’s occupants were likely turned away from a Sicily claimed wholly by Europe, or detained somewhere in between. Passing the boat every day on my way to excavate, I can’t help but wonder about Sicily’s continuing role in the Mediterranean world.