Your RDA of Irony

Dubious Italians

October 12, 1492:  Christopher Columbus Is Killed by the Aztec Navy

At least, that is what happened in an alternate, more logical universe.  In our three-dimensions Columbus simply mistook the Bahamas for Japan.  Other than desperation, he had no reason to think so.  The Arawaks did not exactly look Japanese.  Both the Mongol invasions and Marco Polo had provided Europeans with a fairly accurate stereotype of the Oriental appearance.  And even if the Japanese were just a third-rate, hand-me-down imitation of China, the Arawaks still failed any cultural or sartorial comparison.  On the other hand, if Columbus acknowledged his obvious failure, a very disappointed King Ferdinand might have turned the Genoese over to Torquemada.  Yes, the flammable Columbus was safer to insist that he had landed at the nudist colony of Kyoto.

And that is why Italian-Americans celebrate October 12th or at least its nearest Monday.  Columbus might have appreciated the attention but he certainly would have wondered why those people were claiming to be Italian.  Genoa and Naples may have shared a peninsula, but nothing else.  As any Lombard, Tuscan, Roman or Venetian would have agreed, the real Italy only extended as far south as Gaeta.  Beyond that–Campania, Calabria and Sicily–was western Greece.  Ironically, those Neapolitans, Calabrians and Sicilians (the forebears of most Italian Americans) would have agreed.  They did think of themselves as Greeks.  When Rome was just an obscure village Sicily and Southern Italy were valued regions of the Hellenistic world.  Naples originally was Neopolis, and Athens lost the Peloponnesian War because of its disastrous campaign in Sicily.

This Hellenic identification continued in the Middle Ages. The Byzantines held Sicily until the Arabs invaded in 827; and the Greeks and Sicilians put up such a tenacious resistance that the Moslem conquest of the island took more than a century. Indeed, the Moslems were too exhausted to effectively threaten the Italian mainland.

Southern Italy remained Byzantine until the 11th century, when a less heralded but equally profitable Norman invasion conquered the region. The final schism between Rome and Constantinople began at that time when the Catholic Church, under the auspices of those Norman parishioners, began appointing clergy in what had been Greek Orthodox dioceses.  Even after the loss of their Italian provinces, the Byzantines maintained their covert ties to the Sicilians and Southern Italians. In the 13th century, a weakened Constantinople could no longer reconquer its lost lands but it could help determine who would rule them. A French dynasty in Southern Italy seemed more hostile than its Aragonese rival. Demonstrating a genius for conspiracy that our CIA would envy, in 1282 the Byzantines helped organize an uprising against the French that we know as “The Sicilian Vespers.” The French were driven out, and the Aragonese moved in.  They then would spend the next two centuries dueling for control of Southern Italy, leaving the Byzantines free of further threats from the West.  (The Turks were coming from the East.)

Even today,  in isolated areas of Southern Italy the populace speaks a dialect of Greek.  So Columbus certainly would wonder why all these Byzantines were claiming to be his paisanos.

  1. Ed bedermanthanks says:

    Thanks for the history lesson but we are
    Living it right now. Had lunch on the Corinthian shore and will consult with the oracle at Delphi tomorrow.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Eduino, Hellas once extended from Sicily to Armenia, and its roots reached far to the North. Russia is the child and heir of Byzantium.


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