BMCR 2007.03.37

Sicilia cristiana dal I al V secolo; Gli albori della Sicilia cristiana

, Sicilia cristiana dal I al V secolo. Testimonia Siciliae Antiqua, 1.14. Roma: G. Bretschneider, 2005. ISBN 9788876891915.
, Sicilia cristiana dal I al V secolo. Testimonia Siciliae antiqua, 1.14. Roma: G. Bretschneider, 2006. ISBN 9788876891915.
, Gli albori della Sicilia cristiana. Secoli I-V. Bari: Edipuglia, 2005. 278 pages.

A little more than twenty-five years ago, the late Eugenio Manni, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Palermo, and doyen for many years of historical studies on ancient Sicily, conceived the notion of a convenient collection of all the ancient sources that survive about the island: it was to be published in a series, entitled ‘Testimonia Siciliae Antiquae’, which would constitute supplementary volumes to Kokalos, the journal he founded in 1955. Manni himself kicked off the series in 1981 with a useful collection of source material for the ancient place names of Sicily, and two years later the sources for a thirty-year period in the fourth century BCE were presented.1 It was followed by another volume on thirty years of the third century BCE in 1988; but apart from one volume published in 1996, on evidence for the presence of Jews in Late Antique Sicily and which can be seen as usefully complementary to the first of the books here currently under review, there have been no others until the present volume;2 so Manni’s dream of a comprehensive round-up of the ancient written sources about the island remains far from being realized.

When Manni was dividing up responsibility for his series, the task of assigning a volume on the Christian sources was easy. Francesco Paolo Rizzo (hereafter R.), his long-time deputy and later successor at Palermo (until he took up his present chair in the University of Macerata in 1995), had already taken an interest in the cristianesimo of Sicily alongside his other historical studies, principally in Roman history: Sicilia cristiana dal I al V secolo, Volume 1, is, therefore, the fruit of a lifetime’s study of the subject. It is the first of two volumes which constitute ‘Testimonia Siciliae Antiquae I.14’. This first book, which bears (p. 266) a ‘finito di stampare’ date of February 2005 but which was not submitted for review to BMCR until 2006, was published first. Volume 2, in two separate parts, was published later in 2006, and will be reviewed by a colleague in a later issue of BMCR; but in order to give readers an understanding of the shape of the work as a whole, I anticipate that review by noting that volume 2 consists of a collection of the relevant Latin and Greek texts (without translations, as customary in the ‘Testimonia’ series; this is vol. 2.2), preceded by a list and discussion in volume 2.1 of a wide range of topics, including a complete listing of Sicilian saints and the sources for them. It is also important to stress, again in line with the traditional format of the ‘Testimonia’ series, that the evidence collected here is exclusively literary: despite their importance for the study of early Christianity in Sicily, inscriptions are not systematically presented here in either part of the work (as R. himself makes clear in his preface to volume 1, p. x), although discussion in both volumes 1 and 2.1 embraces both epigraphic and archaeological evidence.3

Volume 1 of Sicilia cristiana dal I al V secolo, the first book here under review, is quite unlike other volumes in the series, however, in that the whole volume constitutes a sort of prolegomenon to the presentation of the Latin and Greek testimonia themselves which appear in Volume 2; and this prolegomenon is not a conventional introduction to the topic, but a detailed Forschungsgeschichte of the whole study of Christianity in the island. The book is divided into two clear parts: the first (pp. 5-166) is a chronological account (in terms of the relevant scholarship’s order of publication) of the study of Christianity in Sicily; and the second, termed an ‘Appendice’, is an exhaustive bibliography compiled with the help of R.’s research associate, Rosaria Cicitello. This ‘Repertorio bibliografico’, as it is called, is an invaluable tool of research, and will be a starting point for all new work on Sicilian Christianity. R. deserves full credit for having had the vision that such a compilation was sorely needed, and he has put all future scholars of the subject in his debt, who will return to it as an exhaustive and very convenient bibliographical source.4

The main part of the book, a comprehensive account of the contributions (both large and small) to the modern scholarly literature on Sicilian Christianity, is divided into seven chapters, with a marked emphasis on the developments of the last 15 years: half of the discussion, comprising chapters V to VII deals with publications issued as recently as between 1991 and 2004. Such a strictly chronological approach gives one a good sense of how interest in Sicilian Christianity has developed over the years, and how methodology and research agendas have shifted; it is less helpful for those looking for information on particular aspects of the subject, which a topic-by-topic arrangement might have assisted. Nevertheless, in reading the whole, the reader is given an excellent overview of all aspects of the evidence for ancient Sicilian Christianity: hagiographic, literary, epigraphic and archaeological. Its very comprehensiveness is its great strength; it serves as a very useful study in its own right, independent of the contents of volume 2.

The first chapter, which covers a sweep from the sixteenth century down to 1935, starts with a sketch of the contributions of the early antiquarians and continues with reference to the astonishing work of Paolo Orsi at the end of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth. This true father of Sicilian archaeology, who worked in the island for nearly fifty years (from 1888 to his death, in 1935), was an indefatigable excavator and researcher who made pioneering contributions to all fields of the Sicilian past, from earliest prehistory to the Byzantine era; the ‘Repertorio bibliografico’ in this book lists no less than 53 papers by him on Christian archaeology and history alone.5 His excavation reports on numerous catacombs and hypogaea, especially in Syracuse and the Siracusano, are models of lucidity, with accurate plans which have not been superseded; and his scrupulousness in publishing also the objects he discovered, accompanied by detailed drawings, was another aspect of his work far in advance of its time. His Sicilia Bizantina I, a collection of his papers published posthumously in 1942, can still be read with great profit; it is not surprising that it has recently been reprinted.6 One other major contribution of these early years was the fundamental survey of early Christian burial sites in Sicily by Führer and Schultze, briefly noted by R. (p. 6).7 It is symptomatic of the importance of this work, the centenary of the publication of which falls this year, that their plan of the major San Giovanni catacomb in Syracuse has not been superseded.8

Chapter II (‘Stasi e ripresa’) covers the years 1935 to 1962, a period during which a major account of early Christian Sicily by published by Biagio Pace in the fourth and last volume of his monumental Arte e Civiltà della Sicilia Antica.9 While a convenient summary of evidence published by his predecessors, Pace’s account lacks the penetrating insights that mark some other parts of this work, and has generally been criticized for its lack of cohesion; here was a missed chance to provide a genuine new synthesis of early Christianity in Sicily built on literary, epigraphic and archaeological evidence, and Pace was well equipped to do it. R., perhaps out of pietas for the maestro, regrets the generally hostile reception Pace’s work has received, and is sympathetic to the problems inherent in writing such a synthesis (p. 24). Another work of synthesis published in this period, that of O. Garana, is in some ways a more digestible work than that of Pace, but is rightly criticized by R. (p. 29) for its total lack of originality.10 But the ’30s and ’40s, however, marked above all the beginning of the great period of productivity of the two scholars who dominated the study of Sicilian paleochristianity in the post-Orsi era, Giuseppe Agnello and his son Santo Luigi Agnello, whose combined publications span a remarkable 71 years in the twentieth century.11

Chapter III (‘Espansione della ricerca’, pp. 35-70) deals with years from 1963 to 1986. While the study of epigraphy and of the hagiographical texts proceeded apace during this time, it was above all further archaeological discoveries which marks the main advances in knowledge during this period, with the excavation and publication of new paleochristian churches at such places as Punta Secca (‘Caucana’) and S. Croce Camarina. But whereas this chapter and its predecessor dealt with publications issued in periods of between twenty and thirty years, the work of the last two decades from 1986 to the present is treated in no less than four separate chapters, each covering only a handful of years.12 This in part reflects a greater interest in Sicilian Christianity which has gained fresh impetus in the last few years, with the appointment on the one hand of Rosa Maria Bonacasa Carra to a new Chair in Paleochristian and Medieval Archaeology at Palermo University, and the energetic activities on the other hand of Salvatore Pricocco of Catania, who organized and published four important conferences in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, and who has continued to write prolifically since.13 At times, parts of these chapters seem a little self-indulgent, summarizing themes (such as the study of brick-stamps and the reconstruction of possible latifundia-holders’ names on the basis of them) which are not directly relevant to Sicilian Christianity as a whole; but overall R. provides an able and succinct summary of the current issues as they have been debated in print, and he is not afraid of expressing opinions of his own. Sicilia cristiana dal I al V secolo, Volume Primo, provides therefore an excellent overview of the relevant publications to date, and will prove an invaluable mine of material for future students of the subject; but it is not, and was not intended to be, a straightforward account of the first five centuries of Sicilian Christianity.

The second book by R. under review, Gli albori della Sicilia cristiana. Secoli I-V, gives every appearance from its title as having just that aim: a popular account of the subject by the man who knows more about Sicilian Christianity than anyone else alive. If that was indeed its aim, the book disappoints. The organization is curious. In less than 250 pages, there are no less than 67 chapters roughly grouped into fourteen sections. The longest occupies five pages; the majority are two pages or a page and half long (and that includes illustrations). These therefore constitute a series of little sketches on aspects of Sicilian Christianity and its wider context, but this staccato presentation and the rather inconsequential organization of the material, with no clear thread running through the whole, makes life difficult for the general reader to whom this book appears to be aimed: the plentiful illustration and the liberal use of color, together with a restraint in annotation, suggest as much. Again not all the material is strictly relevant to the theme: two chapters, for example (pp. 127-33), discuss the road itineraries and the identification of place names, hardly central to a study of Sicilian Christianity. The illustrations themselves do not do justice to the subject. There is no overall map of Sicily, and no photographs of Sicilian landscapes (I do not count the two sunsets), apart from one of the Temple of Concord at Agrigento, and a highly pixilated image of the (modern) entrance to Messina harbor. Of the twenty-plus early Christian churches in the island, we are offered the plan of only one (Pace’s 1916 plan of that near Salemi); and we are not given the plan of a single Sicilian catacomb. Most pictures in fact are Byzantine or medieval representations of saints and figures who appear in passing in the narrative; they are not essential to understanding the text.14

R. now has at his disposal all the tools necessary for writing a definitive in-depth history of Sicilian Christianity between its true beginnings at the end of the second century CE (at which date the S. Lucia catacomb at Syracuse starts), and the fifth century CE — a work which is sorely needed. R. is principally a historian, but one who is well able to deal with the epigraphic and archaeological material germane to his subject, as the first book under review here ably attests. Early Sicilian Christianity is a rich topic, as R. has amply demonstrated in the two books here reviewed, and deserves full treatment in a continuous narrative. Let us hope that R. will now proceed to write just such a definitive account, and that Gli albori della Sicilia Cristiana counts as its prolegomenon.


1. E. Manni, Geografía fisica e politica della Sicilia antica [Testimonia I.1] (Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider, 1981), with a detailed critical review by the present writer in Journal of Roman Studies 75 (1985), pp. 296-99. M. Sordi, La Sicilia dal 368/7 al 337/6 a.C. [Testimonia I.8] (Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider, 1983).

2. R. Marino, La Sicilia dal 241 al 210 a.C. [Testimonia I.12] (Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider, 1988). C. Gebbia, Presenze giudaiche nella Sicilia antica e tardo-antica [Testimonia I.13] (Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider, 1996).

3. Publication of the Christian inscriptions of Sicily is widely scattered, but the selection of the key inscriptions then known, published over fifty years ago by S. L. Agnello, Silloge di iscrizioni paleocristiane della Sicilia (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1953), retains its value. Cf. also A. Ferrua, Note e giunte alle iscrizioni cristiane antiche della Sicilia (Vatican City: Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, 1989).

4. I did, however, miss a reference to Et lux fuit: le catacombe e il sarcofago di Adelfia (Palermo and Syracuse: Arnaldo Lombardi Editore, 1998), pp. 110, the catalogue of an exhibition at Syracuse.

5. For an assessment of his contribution to our knowledge of Roman and Byzantine Sicily, cf. G. Libertini, in Archivio Storico per la Calabria e la Lucania (ed.), Paolo Orsi 1859-1935 (Rome: 1935), 237-51, and S. L. Agnello, ‘Orsi, Roma e l’Alto Medioevo’, in F. Finotti (ed.), Atti del Convegno Paolo Orsi e l’archeologia del ‘900 [Supplemento agli Annali dei Musei Civici di Rovereto] (Rovereto: 1991), pp. 81-93.

6. P. Orsi, Sicilia Bizantina I (1942), reprinted by Edizioni Clio, S. Giovani La Punta [Cτ], 2001; a second volume was never published. By contrast S. Giglio, Sicilia bizantina: l’architettura religiosa in Sicilia dalla tarda antichità all’anno mille (Acireale and Rome: Bonannio Editore, 2003), pp. 256, while updating Orsi’s work and drawing as well on the contributions of others in the last fifty years, is a superficial and derivative work. It is missing from R.’s ‘repertorio bibliografico’, perhaps deliberately.

7. J. Fhrer and V. Schultze, Die altchristlichen Grabstätten Siziliens [Jahrbuch des Kaiserlichen Deutschen Archäologschen Instituts, Ergänzungsheft 7] (Berlin: 1907), pp. xii + 323.

8. It has many times been reproduced, e.g. F. Coarelli and M. Torelli, Sicilia (Rome and Bari: Laterza 1984), p. 267; R. J. A. Wilson, Sicily under the Roman Empire (Warminster: Aris and Phillips 1990), p. 141, fig. 125.

9. B. Pace, Arte e Civiltà della Sicilia Antica. Volume Quarto. Barbari e Bizantini (Rome, Naples and Città di Castello, Società Anonima Editriice Dante Aligheri, 1949), pp. viii + 557.

10. O. Garana, Le catacombe siciliane e i loro martiri (Palermo: Flaccovio Editore, 1960), pp. 444.

11. Cf. R., pp. 173-6: the former published 36 books and articles between 1929 and 1976, the latter 43 items between 1947 and 2000.

12. Chapter IV: ‘Nuove prospettive (1987-1990)’ (pp. 71-87); Chapter V: ‘Conferme e approfondimenti (1991-1997)’ (pp. 89-110); Chapter VI: ‘Esigenze di sintesi (1998-2001)’ (pp. 111-136); and Ch. VII: ‘. . . e il viaggio continua (2002-2004)’ (pp. 137-66).

13. The conferences were Cristianesimo in Sicilia (Caltanissetta 1987), Storia della Sicilia e tradizione agiografica nella tarda antichità (Soveria Mannelli 1988), Sicilia e Italia suburbicaria (Soveria Mannelli 1991) and Sicilia nella tarda antichità (Soveria Mannelli 1999). The scale of Professor Carra Bonacasa’s contribution to our knowledge of Sicilian paleochristianity can be assessed from the bibliography: pp. 189-91 list 39 items by her.

14. Some are simply irrelevant, like a detail from the Neumagen ‘school scene’ relief (fig. 54, p. 183) in a chapter on Fulgentius; or the two third-century gladiator panels from Rome now in Madrid (incorrectly labeled ‘scene di circo’: fig. 36 a-b, p. 124), which appears in a short piece about Symmachus and his sons’ games in the fifth century (which involved charioteers and animals but not gladiators).