The Muslims of Medieval Italy

By Alex Metcalfe | Go to book overview

1
Muslim expansion into the
central Mediterranean

From the fall of Rome to the rise of Muslim Africa

At the height of Rome’s power, long after the great enemy of Carthage had been absorbed into vast imperial provinces, their ancient rivalry reduced to mere legend, it was still attractive to imagine that the origins of empire were intimately bound up with the fate of Africa. In Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid such dim historical memory found literary expression in the figures of the resolute colonist Aeneas, and his smitten and spurned lover Dido, the queen of Carthage, driven to suicide by divine conspiracy. As in the Aeneid, the island of Sicily was the stepping-stone from Africa to Italy, but by Virgil’s day it was something of a rural backwater in the middle of the Mediterranean, far from the empire’s frontiers. Links to non-Latin African elements persisted in Sicily, but they did so at only a minor cultural level, visible in the decoration of funerary steles and audible in the neo-Punic dialects of its western ports like Lilybaeum (Marsala). The island’s strategic importance to the Italian peninsula had also faded with the Romans’ domination over a sea they had grown accustomed to call their own.

In the fifth century, when this control was partially undermined by the incursions of Vandal fleets, the challenge to the central Mediterranean islands and Italian mainland originated from the same coasts of north Africa. The riposte of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian (d. 565) and his illustrious general, Belisarius, was to break Vandal power in Africa. This allowed the Byzantines a platform for victories over the Ostrogoths in Sicily, and from there to make their own advance north into the Italian peninsula. The Eastern Empire’s gains were famously short-lived and, in the face of Lombard and Frankish expansion southwards, a montage of statelets emerged, which constantly reconfigured Italy’s amorphous political geography throughout the early medieval period. In amongst these states, Byzantine power was concentrated mainly around Ravenna in the north-east, across Apulia and Calabria in the the far south and on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily.

When Arab-Muslim armies expanded into Byzantine Syria and Egypt from the 630s and across north Africa from the 640s, the first raid against Sicily was

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