XVIII. AFRICAN INTRUDERS
There is a type of physiognomy here which is undeniably Semitic - with curly hair, dusky skin and hooked nose. We may take it to be of Saracenic origin, since a Phoenician descent is out of the question, while mediaeval Jews never intermarried with Christians. It is the same class of face which one sees so abundantly at Palermo, the former metropolis of these Africans. The accompanying likeness is that of a native of Cosenza, a town that was frequently in their possession. Eastern traits of character, too, have lingered among the populace. So the humour of the peddling Semite who will allow himself to be called by the most offensive epithets rather than lose a chance of gaining a sou; who, eternally professing poverty, cannot bear to be twitted on his notorious riches; their ceaseless talk of hidden treasures, their secretiveness and so many other little Orientalisms that whoever has lived in the East will be inclined to echo the observation of Edward Lear's Greek servant: "These men are Arabs, but they have more clothes on."
Many Saracenic words (chiefly of marine and commercial import) have survived from this period; I could quote a hundred or more, partly in the literary language (balio, dogana, etc.), partly in dialect (cala, tavuto, etc.) and in place-names such as Tamborio (the Semitic Mount Tabor), Kalat (Calatafimi), Marsa (Marsala).
Dramatic plays with Saracen subjects are still popular with the lower classes; you can see them acted in any of the coast towns. In fact, the recollection of these intruders is very much alive to this day. They have left a deep scar.
Such being the case, it is odd to find local writers hardly referring to the Saracenic period. Even a modern like l'Occaso, who describes the Castrovillari region in a conscientious fashion, leaps directly from Greco-Roman events into those of the Normans. But this is in accordance with the time-honoured ideal of writing such works: to say nothing in dispraise of your subject (an exception may be made in favour of Spano-Bolani's History of Reggio). Malaria and earthquakes and Saracen irruptions are awkward arguments when treating of the natural attractions and historical glories of your native place. So the once renowned descriptions of this province by Grano and the rest of them are little more than rhetorical exercises; they are "Laus Calabria." And then - their sources of information were limited and difficult of access. Collective works like those of Muratori and du Chesne had not appeared on the market; libraries were restricted to convents; and it was not to be expected that they should know all the chroniclers of the Byzantines, Latins, Lombards, Normans and Hohenstaufen - to say nothing of Arab writers like Nowairi, Abulfeda, Ibn Chaldun and Ibn Alathir - who throw a little light on those dark times, and are now easily accessible to scholars.
Dipping into this old-world literature of murders and prayers, we gather that in pre-Saracenic times the southern towns were denuded of their garrisons, and their fortresses fallen into disrepair. "Nec erat formido aut metus bellorum, quoniam alta pace omnes gaudebant usque ad tempora Saracenorum." In this part of Italy, as well as at Taranto and other parts of old "Calabria," the invaders had an easy task before them, at first.
In 873, on their return from Salerno, they poured into Calabria, and by 884 already held several towns, such as Tropea and Amantea, but were driven out temporarily. In 899 they ravaged, says Hepi-danus, the country of the Lombards (? Calabria). In 900 they destroyed Reggio, and renewed their incursions in 919, 923, 924, 925, 927, till the Greek Emperor found it profitable to pay them an annual tribute. In 953, this tribute not being forthcoming, they defeated the Greeks in Calabria, and made further raids in 974, 975; 976, 977, carrying off a large store of captives and wealth. In 981 Otto II repulsed them at Cotrone, but was beaten the following year near Squillace, and narrowly escaped capture. It was one of the most romantic incidents of these wars. During the years 986, 988, 991, 994, 998, 1002, 1003 they were continually in the country; indeed, nearly every year at the beginning of the eleventh century is marked by some fresh inroad. In 1009 they took Cosenza for the third or fourth time; in 1020 they were at Bisignano in the Crati valley, and returned frequently into those parts, defeating, in 1025, a Greek army under Orestes, and, in 1031, the assembled forces of the Byzantine Catapan - - - [Footnote: I have not seen Moscato's "Cronaca dei Musulmani in Calabria," where these authorities might be conveniently tabulated. It must be a rare book. Martorana deals only with the Saracens of Sicily.]
No bad record, from their point of view.
But they never attained their end, the subjection of the mainland. And their methods involved appalling and enduring evils.
Yet the presumable intent or ambition of these aliens must be called reasonable enough. They wished to establish a provincial government here on the same lines as in Sicily, of which island it has been said that it was never more prosperous than under their administration.