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Tag Archives: Sicily

The Greeks Lead the Way

greek

If you had been a citizen of the ancient Greek city of Athens on a fine spring morning in 409 B.C., you would have gathered with thousands of your fellow citizens on a hillside inside the city. You would then have listened carefully to the discussion of various matters of business, conducted by the chairman and secretary of the meeting from a platform below and facing you. You would have seen an Athenian citizen thread his way from the hillside to this platform. This was a sure sign that he had a proposal to make to the voters. The citizen turned toward the assembled throng and spoke in a strong, clear voice. A man named Thrasybulus, he said, should be rewarded with a golden crown for his services to Athens. When the speaker paused, another citizen came to the platform. Yes, by all means thank Thrasybulus and give him a golden crown, urged the second speaker. He went on, these acts were not enough, because Thrasybulus was a foreigner, the best reward for serving Athens so faithfully and so well would be to make him an Athenian citizen. Would the voters of Athens do this? he asked. The chairman called for a vote by a show of hands and tellers counted the votes. A majority was in favour of the proposal and it was declared officially to have been approved by the voters of Athens. The secretary had a copy of the proposal carved on a marble slab to make the record permanent and there the record is to this day, over 2800 years later, but still readable! This old record tells us that Athenian citizens held meetings, discussed their own problems, and decided for themselves What they would do. The voters, instead of a pharaoh or a king, made …

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Victory in Europe 1941 – 1945

Even before Pearl Harbour, there had been cooperation between the United States and Britain. In August of 1941, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met secretly, on a cruiser at sea off the coast of Newfoundland. There they drew up the Atlantic Charter, a document stating the principles on which they based their hopes for a better future for the world. They pledged that neither country would seek more territory. They hoped that, “after the final destruction of Nazi tyranny,” all men in all lands could “live out their lives in freedom from want and fear,” and they called on all nations to give up the use of force and disarm. With the United States in the war, the cooperation among the nations fighting the Axis powers became still closer. There were meetings between the heads of the nations and their representatives — the first of many that would take place throughout the war. Out of the early meetings came an important decision. All possible strength must be thrown against Germany, for once Germany was defeated, Japan would surely fall. On January 1, 1942, all twenty-six nations fighting the Axis signed a pact. Calling themselves the United Nations, they agreed to abide by the Atlantic Charter and not to make a separate peace with the enemy. As the year began, the Germans started an offensive in Africa. General Rommel and his Afrika Korps won back El Agheila, which the British had taken the previous April. By the end of June, 1942, the British had lost 80,000 men and had been forced to retreat 400 miles to El Alamein, in Egypt. This was only 60 miles from the city of Alexandria and there was danger that Rommel would cut off the Suez Canal. Rommel could not take El Alamein. The British …

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Ferdinand and Isabella Unite Spain 1469-1700

IT WAS Wednesday, October 18, 1469 and Princess Isabella of Castile and Prince Ferdinand of Aragon were being married. At the end of the beautiful ceremony, the two thousand guests cheered and the entire city of Valladolid began a week of celebration. Isabella was overjoyed, for she loved her husband and he loved her. They seemed well matched. Isabella was eighteen, tall, blonde and blue-eyed – “The handsomest lady I ever beheld‚” one nobleman said. Ferdinand was slightly shorter than his wife, but he was handsome. Isabella was intelligent, very religious and strong-willed. Ferdinand, too, was intelligent and he was extremely shrewd. The happy couple talked for long hours, went riding, played chess and their love grew. Isabella was glad to escape from the royal court of her brother, King Henry IV of Castile. Castile was the largest of the several kingdoms that made up Spain and under Henry IV it was probably the worst ruled. Isabella hated Henry’s court. The nobles were proud, ignorant and insolent; some were fierce warriors, the rest seemed lazy. Most of them taxed their peasants harshly, then spent the money on magnificent lace-trimmed clothes, on drinking and fighting. King Henry himself set a bad example. He was cruel, he loved to watch spectacles and fires, he let his guard of wild Moorish soldiers insult the young Spanish ladies. When their fathers complained, he told them they were insane and had them whipped in public. The nobles could get anything they wanted from Henry. Sometimes he gave them blank checks to take any sum they wished from Castile’s treasury. Henry was a weak king and became known as Henry the impotent. In the provinces, the nobles were even more unruly. Around Seville, the Duke of Medina-Sidonia and the hot-headed Marquis of Cadiz were at war, …

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The Renaissance in the North and Spain 1400 – 1598

spain

Through the bustling market-towns of the Low Countries passed the traders, goods and gold of all Europe. Here the luxuries of Asia — spices‚ silks, jewels and perfumes — were exchanged for the practical products of the North — woolen cloth and utensils of iron and copper and wood. In shops and inns, wily Italian shippers and bankers bargained with the solemn, solid merchants from Germany and Flanders — and made the profits that built the Renaissance cities of Italy. In tall-spired cathedrals, in palaces, guildhalls and universities, wandering Italian artists discovered works of art and scholarship as great as any they had known at home. The men of the North had needed no outsiders to teach them about money-making or magnificence. Long before the Renaissance spread across Europe from Italy, they had turned to business, formed the guilds, grown rich and invested their gold in displays of splendour. Flanders was the center of a great cloth-making industry. Germany was the home of expert craftsmen—armourers, goldsmiths and engravers. In Haarlem in the Low Countries, a jack-of-all-trades named Laurent Coster had first thought of using movable carved letters to form words and sentences from which pages could be printed. About 1440, Johann Gutenberg and his assistant Peter Schoeffer had put Coster’s idea to use, made the first printed books and brought about a revolution in learning that changed the history of the world. The northern artists also were inventive and their guildsman patrons kept them as busy as the artists of Italy. Of course, their tastes were not Italian and their paintings and statues, like their ideas, were very different from those in Florence, Milan and Rome. When Masaccio was first teaching the Florentines how to paint figures that “stood on their feet,” the wool merchants of Flanders were buying paintings …

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The Crusades 1096-1260

crusade

ON A COLD NOVEMBER DAY IN 1096, a great crowd of people gathered in a field at the town of Clermont in France. They had come from miles around and near them were pitched the tents they had put up for shelter. For some days, Pope Urban II had been holding a great council of cardinals, bishops and princes. Today he was to speak to the people and so many wanted to hear that no building was large enough to hold them all. A platform had been built in the center of the field and as Pope Urban stepped up on it a hush fell over the crowd. Pope Urban was a Frenchman and he spoke to the people around him as fellow Frenchmen. “Oh, race of Franks,” he said, “race beloved and chosen by God . . . set apart from all other nations by the situation of your country as well as by your Catholic faith and the honour which you render to the holy Church: to you our discourse is addressed. . . .” “From the confines of Jerusalem and from Constantinople a grievous report has gone forth that an accursed race, wholly alienated from God, has violently invaded the lands of these Christians and has depopulated them by pillage and fire. They have led away a part of the captives into their own country and a part they have killed by cruel tortures. . .” The people knew what he meant. He was speaking of the Holy Land, that lay on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Here were the cities of Jerusalem, Nazareth, Gaza and Damascus. Here Jesus Christ had lived and preached and had been crucified; here Christianity had begun. Here were many sacred shrines and during the Middle Ages thousands of Europeans …

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Feudal Germany 936 -1250

germany

THE WINTER of 1077 was one of the coldest on record in Italy. Ice and snow choked the mountain passages in the north and snowdrifts were piled high well into the south — as far south as the castle of Canossa, which was southeast of Parma. The fortified castle belonged to the countess of Tuscany and here Pope Gregory VII had taken refuge, fearing an attack by his enemies. On January 25, a man stood outside the Castle gate, barefoot in spite of the snow and cold. He was no ordinary penitent come to ask forgiveness of the pope. He was Henry IV of Germany, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He had made a long and perilous journey with his wife, his young son and a few followers. For three days the emperor waited for the pope to pardon him and lift the ban of excommunication. Excommunication was banishment from the Church and was the most terrible punishment that could be given to a believer of the Middle Ages. Excommunication meant that he was deprived of all the privileges of a Christian. He could not attend church services, he was denied the sacraments, he could not be buried in consecrated ground. In excommunicating Henry, Pope Gregory hoped to force him to acknowledge the pope’s authority to appoint his own bishops. Henry knew that until the ban of excommunication was lifted his nobles would not accept him as king; he had little choice but to humiliate himself. Pope Gregory, for his part, knew that Henry would be a dangerous opponent once he was restored to the throne, but Gregory, too, had little choice; it was his Christian duty to take back into the Church anyone who begged so humbly for forgiveness. As Gregory later wrote, Henry “came in person to …

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Fury from the North 814-1042

viking

“. . FROM THE FURY OF THE NORTHMEN, Good Lord, deliver us.” Until recent times, this line was included in the prayer book used by the Church of England. The raids of the Norse Vikings on Britain were so terrible that the victims never forgot them. For generations the memory of the savage Norsemen was kept alive and Englishmen repeated this prayer for more than a thousand years. It was not only Britain that felt the fury of the Norsemen; they raided the European continent as well. The Norsemen’s ships themselves seemed to threaten terror. The hull of a Viking ship was long and narrow, bristling with sweeping oars and studded with round, brightly painted shields. The square sail was painted with coloured stripes and the towering bow was carved into a dragon’s head. When the ships reached shore, their threat of terror proved to be no empty one. A swarm of blond, heavily bearded warriors leaped from the decks and stormed inland, looting, burning, killing. A French chronicler, writing of the Viking invasions, said, “They destroyed houses and razed monasteries and churches to the ground and brought to their death the servants of our holy religion by famine and sword, or sold them beyond the sea. They killed the dwellers in the land and none could resist them. . . . The Northmen ceased not to take Christian people captive and to kill them and to destroy churches and houses and burn villages. Through the streets lay bodies of the clergy, of laymen, nobles and others, of women, children and suckling babes. There was no road nor place where the dead did not lie; and all who saw Christian people slaughtered were filled with sorrow and despair.” The Norsemen, or Northmen, came from the Scandinavian lands which would later …

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Christian Knights and Mongol Horsemen A. D. 099-1404

genghis khan

THROUGHOUT THE eleventh century, the divided Arab Empire became weaker in all its parts. Meanwhile, the Christian lands to the north became stronger. Adventures from northern France snatched Sicily and Southern Italy from the Arabs. The pope called on the rulers of Europe for a united Christian attack on the Moslems. By the end of the century, European knights in chain-mail armour were streaming into Syria by land and sea, determined to recapture the holy places of their religion. This campaign was the first of many. The Crusades dragged on for two centuries, with long periods of peace coming between bouts of fighting. Christian kings and noblemen carved small states out of Moslem territory, only to lose them. In 1099, Frankish troops seized Jerusalem, the Christians’ holy city, and made it the capital of a kingdom. In 1187 Saladin reconquered the country for Islam. After the Moslems forced the last Crusaders to leave Syria in 1291, only the island of Cyprus remained under the Christian flag. So, in the end, although the Crusades did not change the balance of power between Christianity and Islam, they left behind bitter memories which were to poison Moslem-Christian relations for centuries. Not all of the results were bad, however. The Crusaders, who came to the Near East convinced of their own superiority, found that their despised enemies knew more than they did about a great many things. They took the knowledge they had gained home to Europe. The brave deeds of the warriors on both sides gave rise to thousands of poems, songs and tales which enriched the literatures of Europe and Islam. The Christian heroes included two kings — Richard the Lion Hearted of England and Louis IX of France, who was made a saint. Among the Moslem heroes, the most famous were …

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Rival Caliphs and Amirs in the West A.D. 750-1492

caliph

IN 750, when the first Abbasid caliph ordered a wholesale massacre of the family that had ruled before him, hardly any of the Omayyads came out alive. One who did was a twenty-year-old youth named Abd-al-Rahman, a grandson of the tenth Omayyad caliph. Fleeing from a Bedouin camp on the Euphrates, he wandered in disguise through Palestine, Egypt and North Africa. Again and again he barely escaped being discovered and seized by Abbasid spies. His desperate flight lasted, altogether, five years. Finally he came to the town of Ceuta, on the northwest coast of Africa, where some Berber chieftains, who were uncles of his on his mother’s side, gave him shelter. The young man sent word across the Strait of Gibraltar to the chiefs of the Moslem divisions in southern Spain. Being Syrians, and therefore loyal to the Omayyads, the officers were overjoyed. They sent a ship to fetch him. Soon, he commanded a sizable army of Arabs and Berbers. When he led his soldiers through the countryside, the cities opened .their gates to him, one after another. The worried Abbasid governor tried to bribe him with rich presents‚ but he refused them. In May, 756, he captured the Spanish capital, Cordova. Within a few years be held all but the northern part of the Spanish peninsula. CONQUEST OF SPAIN Not long after this, the new Omayyad regime successfully defied the two most powerful rulers in the world. In 763, a governor of Spain appointed by al-Mansur was assassinated on Abd-al-Rahman’s orders. Abd-al-Rahman had the governor’s head sent to the caliph wrapped in a black Abbasid flag. Al-Mansur was beside himself with rage‚ but he was too busy fighting his enemies at home to answer the insult with force. In 778, Abd-al-Rahman and his Arab-Berber army defeated an army of …

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The City Divided 130 B. C. – 70 B. C.

MARCUS TULLIUS CICERO, a young statesman known for his dramatic speeches, stood before a panel of judges in a courtroom in Rome. He stared at them angrily. For fifty days he had travelled through Sicily, collecting facts about the crimes committed by Caius Verres, the man who was on trial. Now the judges had told him that there would not be time to listen to his evidence. Cicero knew that the judges had been bribed. For it was no ordinary criminal that he meant to send to prison or to death. Caius Verres was an aristocrat and a senator and had served for three years as the governor of the province of Sicily. Verres’ lawyer was Hortensius, the leader of the aristocrats. Indeed, every rich or important man in Rome seemed to be supporting Verres, but Cicero was determined that this man should not escape judgment. He turned to Hortensius and offered to present his case in one day. “Would the court have time enough for that?” ‘ he asked sarcastically. Hortensius was surprised, but he smiled and told Cicero to try it if he liked. The judges agreed. For a moment there was silence in the courtroom, as Cicero turned to face the benches where the long lines of judges sat. Sternly he looked from man to man until he was certain all their eyes were on him. Then he began to speak. He listed Verres’ crimes: When he was governor and the commander of Rome’s army in Sicily, he had taken for himself the money raised to pay the troops. When he was governor and responsible for order and justice in the province, he had taken more money to allow pirates to rob the ports, to set criminals free and to condemn innocent men. For gold, he had …

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