Territorial Value of Sicily and Southern Italy 600-1870

Apr 2017
What was the general territorial value (meaning how valuable it would seem compared to other European territories by rulers/invaders) of Sicily and southern Italy between 600-1870? I realize this is a broad time period but if possible break it down by general time periods that you are familiar with.
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Mar 2016
I don't know any details on the topic, but I do recall reading that because of its geographical location in the centre (more or less) of the Mediterranean it was highly valuable from a trade and commerce perspective, since most merchant ships would pass by or very close to Sicily and/or southern Italy at some point. It was essentially a major trade hub for Mediterranean commerce, all the way from Roman times to the Early Modern era. From an agricultural perspective I don't know at all, though. I know it obviously wasn't as fertile and abundant as northern Italy, but from what I gather the reputation of Sicily/southern Italy being poor and backwards compared to northern Italy only became a thing in the mid-to-late 19th century, and before that it was generally seen as a wealthy and valuable land.
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Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
Sicily did not have anything going for it other than agriculture and geographic position in all periods as far as natural resources but the remarkable tolerance (relatively for that era) and sophisticated understanding of trade and taxation gave disproportionate revenues from relatively modest agricultural basis under the Hautville Norman rulers.

600-800 Sicily was relatively backwater but mildly prosperous under Byzantine rule with most of the fighting occurring elsewhere. Once Muslim rule was secure in Tunisia and Andalusia the shipyards and eyes of the nearby Muslim rulers turned toward Sicily.

800-950 Sicily was gradually conquered while Byzantines lost most of their territories west of Greece and the Italian maritime Republics took over as the chief opposition to Muslim rule of Sicily as having Muslim fleets with access to safe harbours in Sicily put Pisan, Amalfi, and Genoan trade at risk. Most of the Sicilian exports under Muslim rule were sent to Africa and Egypt while the constant raids did not make for prosperous economic conditions.

950-1050 Taifa period of Muslim emirates with nearly constant wars between small emirs with backing from various outside interests. Byzantines subdued Bulgaria under Basil II in this period and with that front secure looked again to Italy and using contacts in the Varangian Guard with Norman settlers in France many Norman mercenaries were drawn to Sicily in service to the Byzantines. Byzantines were soon distracted and...

1050-1250 Norman conquest and rule of Sicily and southern Italy. Probably the high point of 'value' for Sicily and southern Italy as the Norman court in Palermo benefited from tolerance for the diversity of subjects with Greeks, Syrian, Andalusians, Sicilians, Normans, Germans, N Africans, and some Egyptians rising to high ranks in the administration and military. Sicily was able to organize agricultural output with particularly valuable wheat that was tolerant to sea voyages and the Normans exported wheat, meat, skins (lamb), some cotton/silk, and benefitted from taxes on trade and transportation between all areas of the Mediterranean. The Norman Sicilian fleet was the most powerful single fleet on the Mediterranean for large parts of this period and Normans conquered coastal Tunisia, southern Italy, and attempted to conquer parts of Greece and reinforce various Crusader causes in the Levant half-heartedly.

It is somewhat disputed how exactly the Normans became known for vast wealth (which seems to have been true for some period of time as many of the Holy Roman Emperor's vestments and regalia other than the Crown were from Sicily ) with known revenues from trade not seeming to match the expenditures undertaken. Probably the important missing money for the Norman treasuries was primarily from two sources- 1st the royal lands of Sicily were probably close to 50% or more of the arable land of the island and so if taxes on trade we know from a few surviving contracts only counted the 50% of exports from non-royal lands then we can probably multiply those taxes by triple or more as the proceeds from the sale of exports from royal lands went directly to the treasury. 2nd the Norman fleet was very active and quite successful in this period and while the chronicles rarely catalogue the scale of the raids the fact that Normans often attempted to settle where they raided seems to indicate a somewhat stronger degree of power than some Mulsim raids where we do have an idea of the value of plunder taken which is likely less than the Normans took on many more occasions.

1250-1400 Due to marriage alliances and dynastic intrigues it came to be that the Holy Roman Emperor inherited the Norman Sicilian kingdom and that combined with the wealth of the Italian republics and the reputed wealth of Sicily (much of the inherited treasury of Hautevilles was dissipated in the wars before Frederick Barbarossa settled in Sicily and Barbarossa was often using his own revenues from estates in the north to further his Italian ventures)- led to a century of sputtering small wars with the island of Sicily not suffering unduly with most of the fighting occurring in southern Italy. Aragon emerged victorious over France but had to contend with Papal interference and constant intrigues by local barons- Sicily never again had the strong central rule as it did under the Hautvilles and meanwhile industries and new forms of wealth that greatly eclipsed the agricultural produce of Sicily sped up commerce all over Europe and eventually the world leaving Sicily again as a relatively poor but beautiful backwater.

Looking at modern values Sicily and Campania are the most prosperous areas of southern Italy but both are somewhat less prosperous than almost every area of northern Italy and on a per capita basis Sicilians are quite poor with less than half the average European income- below 18.000 Euros.
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Ad Honorem
Jul 2009
This is a very complex topic, especially because of the time frame. I am not any expert, but the time frame encompasses Byzantine, Arabic, Norman and early-modern (Spanish and so on) influence before the rise of "national" sentiments and political importance.

All I can say in conclusion is that, according to a barber that I patronized for a long time, he emigrated to the US from Calabria because of "poverty."
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Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
Sulfur was mined in Sicily during 18th and 19th centuries but it was a raw resource and did not bring in much value despite being important on the world trade especially for the British navy.
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Feb 2019
Very broad period with many events and developments happening, so it varies.

Sicily in the Napoleonic Wars was very important for the British war effort in the Mediterranean. It served as the obvious base of operations in the centre of the sea and as a place where the Neapolitan royal family took refuge. Southern Italy (Which I will refer to as Kingdom of Naples or just Naples.) was conquered by Napoleon in 1806 with his brother Joseph being king until 1808, after which he was replaced by Murat. The area around Southern Italy was interesting, the British and the Russians sent a few thousand men in 1806 in an attempt to support Naples against the French invasion but not much came of it. There were some landings in Calabria and the Bay of Naples, perhaps the most famous action here was the Battle of Maida. This didn't have many strategic consequences but was a good morale boost to the British. There were some minor actions at islands around southern Italy such as Capri but these didn't have too much strategic value. Sicily itself was important as a base to the British but it was plagued by internal problems, mostly involving the squabbles of the Royal Family and the Neapolitan nobility with the British stationed there. There were several plans by the French to take the island but most didn't amount to much with the British naval superiority blocking the Straits of Messina.

The most serious attempt was made in September 1810 when Murat assembled some odd 25.000 men and 500 ships in Calabria with his artillery and main forces being in Scilla and Reggio some 4.000 men crossed the strait and landed south of Messina itself, however in a confused action they were repulsed with some 1.200 losses. It is worth noting that the British had some issues garrisoning the island due to limited troop numbers and civil unrest as well as the political squabbles.

The administration was interesting, both Murat and Joseph, while Napoleon's vassals, tried to some degree to be independent. They faced fierce resistance in the form of a guerilla war carried out by Neapolitan partisans, which, while nowhere near as severe as the one in Spain, it did do a number on them with the French de facto having limited control over Calabria until 1808. Naples was required to pay upkeep for the French troops stationed in it and give trade benefits to Napoleon's France. Under Joseph the main ministers were French, while under Murat the Neapolitan ones wielded more influence. In 1811 Murat tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to make his French officials adopt Neapolitan citizenship.

Naples was less developed than Northern Italy and thus was slower to adopt reforms initiated by Napoleon. Starting in 1806 there were some land reforms, for example requiring landlords and towns to divide their share of land with local peasants.

All in all the area was important strategically for Napoleon and even more for the coalition with a colourful, though unstable political climate in both Sicily and Naples. I might expand on this later as I'm writing this post early in the morning and there is a lot of info to be written.


Literature used: Forgotten War Against Napoleon: Conflict in the Mediterranean 1793-1815 by Gareth Glover.
Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe by Alexander Grab.
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Forum Staff
Oct 2011
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Well, in the first part of the period you indicate [Middle Ages, in good substance] Sicily had overall a strategical value: it was the door to enter Southern Italy [which had the same strategical value ... to reach Rome and the Pope you had to pass through Southern Italy if you came from Northern Africa].

In a few words those lands were in what we can call the "area of attrition" between the Christian and the Islamic civilization in the Mediterranean Sea. The dream of the Caliphate to conquer Rome was always less or more alive and Muslims tried and obtain such a goal.

Our country is not rich of natural resources and in the past probably the most valuable natural resource here was salt. So generally we don't tend to think that the whole Italian peninsula [not only the Southern regions] had "desired" and conquered because of its richness. Probably the first Germanic populations [the Ostroghots] did this to enjoy the richness collected by the Romans, but the following conquerors didn't find that much [under the Lombards the Italian territory was extremely poor, just to say].


Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
As with so much land around the Mediterranean, it's how it is used and how it can be connected to neighbouring regions that can produce what it cannot is key. Specifically, the Hautvilles managed to achieve central Mediterranean naval dominance for a period, which brought in enormous revenues, as Charles Stanton has recently argued. Parts of southern Italy may also have been well-suited to early medieval climatic conditions as well, such as Byzantine Apulia (Arthur, Paul, Girolamo Fiorentino, and Anna Maria Grasso. “Roads to recovery: an investigation of early medieval agrarian strategies in Byzantine Italy in and around the eighth century.” Antiquity 86 (2012): 444–55.)