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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Rulers of the South

Francis Marion Crawford

published by MacMillan & Co. Ltd.
New York and London

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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The Greeks
(Part 1)

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(Vol. I) The Earliest Time


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Etna at sunrise

In very early times, when demigods made history and myth together, heroic beings moved upon the southern land and sea, in seasons of beauty and of  p2 strength, sometimes of terror, that pursued each other, changing and interchanging forms, appearing and disappearing, rising from the waters as a mirage and sinking into the bosom of the earth, then springing into life again elsewhere in the more vivid day of a nearer reality, half human still but already mortal, to die at the last, to be buried in tombs that endure, and to leave names behind them which history can neither quite accept nor wholly overlook.

First, ancient Kronos is the kindly god of the golden age in all Italy, but changes in Sicily to Baal-Moloch, grasping tyrant, devourer of human flesh, fortified against mankind in the high places of the earth; and he slays Ouranos, his father, whose blood falls as a fertilizing rain from heaven upon the burning Sicilian earth. Armed with the scythe, he rules in wrath, then fades from existence, and leaves his crooked weapon twice buried in the earth in Drepanon, the sickle of Western Trapani, and in Zancle, the wide reaping-hook of land that guards Messina from the southern storms.

Poseidon next, his son, god of the Mediterranean Sea, smites his trident deep into the uncertain land. He is the father of many heroes, of Trinakros and Sikelos, whose names stuck fast, of giant Polyphemus, of the man-eating Laestrygones, of Eryx, Aphrodite's son; he is the father, too, of great Demeter, who fights forever with fiery Hephaestos for possession of  p3 her rich inheritance, of Demeter, who first taught men to sow corn;º while the nymph Aetna, high on her mountain throne, watches the eternal strife, forever umpire of a never-ending war. Still the fight for bread against fire is raging, and in the wild burnt lands between Randazzo and Brontë, the 'thunder-town,' the myth of Hephaestos and Demeter is truth still.

From her springs the lovely fable-allegory of the seed hidden in the earth, dead half the year and half the year alive again. For of Demeter, by Zeus, was born Kore, the 'Maiden,' the girl Persephone, who played in Sicilian fields with maiden Athene and maiden Artemis, and each chose a playground of her own. Athene took Himera, on the west, for hers, and on the east Artemis chose Ortygia in the sea; but Kore loved best the fruitful land of Enna in the island's heart, where violets grew so close and sweet that the Huntress's own hounds could follow no scent there, and the chase ended among the flowers. There Kore wandered, gathering the violets to make a dark blue mantle for her father Zeus, the sky-king; but though the meadows were so fair, the gate of Hades was close at hand, among the trees at the foot of Enna's hill, and thence dark Pluton, master of hell, watched her with glowing eyes, and sprang forward at last and took her in his arms to bear her away. But when he was hard by Syracuse, the nymph Kyane,  p4 Kore's playmate, leapt lightly from the woods and stood in the way as he rushed along, and she prayed with all her heart for her friend's freedom, but could not move the raging god to mercy; so she sank to earth and was lost in her own tears, which made a deep translucent well, the most beautiful of all springs in the world to this day. After that Demeter went out to seek for her lost daughter, and lighted Aetna's fires for a torch, but could not find her, for Kore had eaten the seed of the pomegranate in Pluton's house, and was wedded, and could only come back for half the year. Therefore Zeus gave her Sicily for a wedding gift. By this is fabled the hiding of the seed in the earth, and its return to the upper world in leaf and flower.

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A larger, fully readable scan
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Next came mysterious Daedalus, art and skill in person, flying before angry Minos, king of Crete, touching Sicily first and wandering from island to island, beautifying each and leaving in each some stable work to tell that he had passed there; while the Sicanians burned his enemies' ships, and drowned King Minos in the bath, burying him deep, and building above his grave their temple to Aphrodite. Daedalus built great reservoirs and impregnable cities, treasuries for kings and temples for gods, whose images he carved in rare wood, and set them moving with cunning devices hidden within. So, when bread had first been won, and when husbandry had grown  p5 strong in peace, thought and art came likewise, that Sicily might be a perfect home for men. The great legend of Troy embraced the island then. When old Laomedon had sacrificed his daughter Hesione to atone for his broken word, many Trojans fled, or sent away their children secretly, lest like should befall them. Hippotes sent his child Egesta to Sicily, and she loved Crimisos and bore him Acestes, who went back when he was fully grown, and fought for Troy, but returned again and brought with him Elymos, son of Anchises; and this Elymos left his name to the children of Acestes, who were called Elymians. But some say that these were the Elamites of the Bible.

Soon after that came great Ulysses, wandering by sea, when he had dragged his unwilling companions from the shores of the Lotus land; and first he came to the eastern shore of Sicily, where Polyphemus dwelt  p6 among cliffs and caves, pasturing huge sheep, and he was taken with his companions by the giant; but he blinded him and escaped with those who still lived; and the Cyclops tore up great boulders, that were like hills, and sent them whirling after the Greeks, but could not hit them, being quite blind; so the rocks fell into the sea and became three islets, fast and firm to this day. One of them, moreover, is like a vast monster's head rising above the water, and where the eye should be there is a round aperture, through which the light shines brightly from side to side; for which reason it may well be that the Cyclops was made a one-eyed creature in the imagination of early men, as any one who may understand who will go to Aci Castello or to Trezza and look at the rocks for himself.

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Isles of the Cyclops, near Catania

Thence Ulysses sailed by the southern coast, round Sicily, touching here and there, and landing on islands where many advantages befell him, and along the Italian shore, so that his name and fame linked Sicily and Southern Italy with Greece.

Next, still from Troy, came Trojans with Aeneas and his fleet, wandering hither and thither, and founding the great temple of Idalian Venus, of Venus Erycina, on Mount Eryx, named after Aphrodite's son; and then Orestes came, crossing to Sicily when he had purged himself of his crime in Rhegium, and he built the temple of Artemis in Mylae, which is Milazzo, to hold the sacred image he had brought from far away.

 p7  So gods and heroes came and went, and left their names upon the south, and some of them found their last resting-places there; and tradition grew out of myth, and history was moulded upon tradition, till the legends would have filled volumes, and gradually concentrated themselves toward the point of transition at which fable becomes fact. Out of it all results clearly the main truth, that from very early times the rich south was a possession for which several races fought one with another, Orientals, Greeks, and peoples who  p8 had come down from Italy, and who were afterwards driven back by degrees into the inner country, the Sicanians and the Sicelians.

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Isles of the Sirens, Gulf of Salerno

The most learned modern historian of Sicily, Adolf Holm, has proved almost conclusively that these two peoples were of common and Italian origin, and came in succession from their Latian home, somewhere near Anxur, which is now Terracina. The Sicanians came first, in small bands of wanderers, leaving many at home, whence afterwards arose the confusion of names, by which the stronger Sicelians were sometimes called Sicanians, but when the latter sailed down in force and took possession, the confusion ceased. The first comers had intrenched themselves in strong passes and had built fortresses on inaccessible heights, as men do who know that they may be easily destroyed. But the Sicelians came in hordes, driven from their homes by the vast immigration of the Pelasgian race when it moved westward and descended into Italy. They were Latins, speaking a Latin language, closely allied with that of the Romans, for they called a hare 'leporis'; and a basin 'katinon,' and they named a certain river 'Gela' because the hoar frost settled along the banks more thickly than elsewhere. And so, as Holm says, the Sicelians are proved by their language to have been closely connected with the Latins and the Oscans, and descended from the common Pelasgian stock; and it is clear that they had wandered from the Haemus  p9 to the Apennines, before they reached the island to which they gave their name, and that in their immigration they had overrun and filled the southern mainland of Italy. Once there, they built all those early cities of which remains exist that are not manifestly Greek; they built ships and sailed out on marauding expeditions, and some of them even attempted to plunder the Egyptians, joining themselves with Tyrrhenians and Sardinians, Achaeans and Lycians, as is proved by a hieroglyphic inscription found in Thebes, which tells how two hundred and fifty Sicelians were slain, under King Merenptah, and their hands were struck off and brought to him, twelve hundred years before our era began. It is sure, also, that even for centuries after the Greeks had settled in Sicily, the Sicelians dwelt there still, a flourishing and active race. They were therefore the first permanent element of a Sicilian population, and most probably of the south Italian people also; for Thucydides says that Italus, from whom Italy was supposed to have been named, was king of the Sicelians, and Aristotle states that he taught his pastoral people the more civilized arts of agriculture.

Three epochs stand out from the chaos of myth, legend, and history: the development of farming by the Sicelians, about 1200 B.C., the introduction of commerce with the Phoenicians after that time, and the gradual growth of a higher civilization under the Greeks, from the time of their landing in the eighth  p10 century before the Christian era, until the Carthaginian or Punic wars with Rome, and the subsequent wreck of Greek art and thought under the atrocious governor­ship of Verres, between 73 and 71 B.C., during which, with the connivance of his father, the senator, he pillaged all Sicily at his will.

The Roman rule became in the fourth century the rule of Constantinople, and next in history, when the Goths had ruled for a time, the Arabs began to take Sicily, in the year 827 A.D.; the Normans came after them, completing their conquest of the island in 1091, and through them the German Imperial house of Hohenstaufen, reigning from the fifth year before the preaching of the first Crusade, until the downfall of the Ghibellines in 1268. Then the French, under Charles of Anjou, during the few years that ended in the Sicilian Vespers, in 1282, after which the Sicilians chose for their king Peter of Aragon, and because both he and Charles of Anjou continued afterwards to call themselves kings of Sicily, the two kingdoms of Sicily and Naples became known from that time as the 'two Sicilies,' and were still so called under Ferdinand the Catholic, after Naples was annexed to Aragon, and both became Spanish monarchies. In 1700 began the war of the Spanish succession, after which Victor Amadeus of Savoy was king of Sicily for a time, until Sicily and Naples were again united under Charles the Third of the house of Bourbon.  p11 Last of all, in 1860, the two Sicilies were united to the modern Kingdom of Italy.

All these, through nearly three thousand years, were Rulers of the South in turn, Sicelians, Phoenicians, Greeks; Romans, Byzantines, Goths, and Arabs; Normans, German Emperors, and French; Spaniards of Aragon and of Bourbon, and Savoyard Kings of Italy. Every great race that has won rights on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea has, without an exception, sooner or later called the south its own, and has left the broad mark of full possession on the country, where it may still be seen, sometimes grotesque and sometimes grand, now rough, now beautiful; now vulgar, but always very strong and clear, as if the south had been a most cherished possession which each hoped to hold forever. There is no part of Europe which has been dominated by a greater number of different races, and none where each has left such deep traces of its domination. The Goths and Vandals are the only people who ever held the south for a time and left no sign of their presence; but their holding was short, and their occupation was followed by a disappearance so sudden that their brief rule never earned the designation of a kingdom.

The Italian south differs in one prime condition from all the other countries that open upon the Southern Sea. It has never at any time been the independent arbitrator of Europe or of civilization, and it has been  p12 held in succession by those powers that have ruled the rest, or most strongly influenced them, from very early times. Greece held it, and Imperial Rome, the wide-spreading Arab and Saracen domination, the all-grasping Normans, the Holy Roman Empire, and France and Spain. It has never been the source of an individual power that began in it, spread from it, and enveloped others. It has lacked strength of its own from the beginning, it has lacked the genius without which strength breeds monsters, it has been wanting in the original character which bears modification but resists extirpation, it has produced no race which another has not been able to enslave; one people after another has taken possession of it, each amalgamating in some degree with the last, but the welding of races has not become a great race, nor has any first element outlasted and outruled the others. It has been the prize of contending warriors, it has been the playground of magnificent civilizations, but it has neither acted the part of conqueror itself, nor has it ever produced a civilization of its own. It has resembled Greece and Rome, Arabia and Spain, in language, institutions, and manners, but its people have never gone forth in the flesh or in the spirit to impose upon others a resemblance to themselves. In the balance of the world's forces Sicily has been feminine and reproductive rather than masculine and creative; endowed with supreme natural beauty, she  p13 has been loved by all, she has favoured many, and she has borne sons to a few, sons such as Archimedes and Theocritus, Dionysius and Agathocles, King Roger and Frederick Second of Hohenstaufen, of Greek, Norman, and Norman-German blood. But if we ask for a great man whom we may call a Sicilian, we must ask what Sicilians were, and we shall receive different answers in different ages, — Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, and Italians have all been Sicilians at one time or another.

At the first glance it might be thought that the result in history must be confusing and often disconnected, breaking off at a point to begin again at another with little or no apparent connexion, so as to present a series of detached episodes without logical sequence, and consequently without consecutive interest. But this is not at all the truth. That has been the case in some parts of the world, as in the plains of Central Asia, where one horde of invaders has succeeded and exterminated another of which it knew nothing, learned nothing, and desired nothing except plunder. The connexion between the Chinese Mongols and the Turanian Tartars, for instance, is not any closer, beyond the bounds of China, than that between white men and red Indians in America. But in the story of Sicily the continuous, reasonable cause of change lies in the unmatched attraction of Sicily, a charm so strong and lasting as to be a source of  p14 interest in itself, so that we may figure the island as the undying heroine of an unending romance, wooed, won, and lost by many lovers who have met and fought and have conquered, or have been vanquished in the struggle for the possession of her beauty. Sicily has been the Helen of a European Epos.

The southern mainland has for the most part served only as a stepping-stone to the conquest of the island. Pyrrhus, called over by the Greeks to help them, crossed the straits; Alaric meditated the passage, but withdrew, and Genseric took Sicily from Africa, but Roger the Norman and Charles of Anjou went over as conquerors of all the south. Yet in many respects Southern Italy has never been far behind the most coveted spot in the Mediterranean; there is great natural beauty in the mainland and great wealth of soil, and such climate as is hardly to be found elsewhere; there, too, the Greeks built marvellous temples to their gods, and there thinkers, philosophers, poets, and soldiers have been reared of successive races; Horace himself was of the south, and so was Zeno of Elea, founder of the great Eleatic school. Tarentum lost all manliness and vigour in a delicacy of thought and manners that outdid the refinements of Syracuse, and the civilization of Greece trained its growth of beauty like a climbing rose from tower to tower. But in spite of all, the mainland never rivalled Sicily in art or  p15 thought or war; in the vast construction of empires Lucania, Apulia, Calabria, were never names to conjure with, nor were they ever numbered among the kingdoms of fable, wherein godlike shapes of terror and of loveliness figured the drama of nature in immortal allegory. They were not divided from the  p16 world by the mystery of the moving sea nor hidden from it by the morning mist of the straits, nor brought to it in the magic mirage of the Fairy Morgana. There was no secret in them for men to learn at risk of life, there was no marvel in the thought of them; they were among the world's commonplaces, and every one might go to them and live in them who chose. It was not until the middle ages substituted romantic tragedy for classic myth that the inaccessible mountains of the south were filled with a sort of mysterious interest which they have not yet wholly lost.

The story of the Rulers of the South is as much a history of places as of the persons whose character marked them and left them as they are, since almost throughout history it was the nature of the places themselves which played so great a part in the lives of those who coveted them, grasped them, and ruled them, or who dwelt in them and made them famous. We cannot easily imagine Syracuse without Dionysius the Elder, nor Dionysius without Syracuse, nor would any one ever think of Theocritus as a poet of the mainland. The great story of Roger the Norman moves towards Palermo as the sun to the splendour of its setting, and Charles of Anjou is better remembered by the awful Vespers of the Church of the Holy Ghost than by the long life of struggle, conquest, and murder which won him a kingdom and founded a long-lived dynasty.

 p17  It is true that in such a narrative it is necessary to return again and again to the same pieces, and to cross the same ground many times; but in successive ages the cities of the south, while many of them have kept their names, have so changed that it is hard to recognise them as the same; and each of them is therefore not one but many, all of which must be seen in imagination and understood, as far as possible, in order to form a clear and reasonable idea of the whole as it was and is.

Before going any further, however, it is necessary that the reader should have a general conception of the extraordinary country in which the events took place which are hereafter to be narrated.

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Old Fortification in Manfredonia

Southern Italy is little more than a range of volcanic mountains which rise abruptly from the sea on the west side and descend on the east in a succession of fertile tablelands, the lowest of which is a vast foreshore only slightly raised above the level of the Adriatic. There is not a single natural harbour, really deserving the name, on the whole coast of the southern mainland, from the Gulf of Naples on the west to Manfredonia on the eastern side. The nearest approach to one is perhaps Tarentum, and it early owed its prosperity to the nature of the land, which there afforded tolerable shelter to large vessels before any harbour was constructed. Even at the present day there is no safe port for large ships between  p18 Naples, or Stabian Castellamare,º close by it, and the straits. Messina, once called Zancle, the beautiful 'sickle' on the Sicilian side, was therefore the natural place for all vessels to put in that sailed round the coast.

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Mare piccoloº at Taranto, — the harbour of ancient Tarentum

At the extremity of the range which thus forms Southern Italy, and divided from it by a channel little more than two miles wide, lies Sicily, a mountainous, three-cornered island over five hundred miles in circumference by straight lines, and over six hundred, if one closely follows the irregular coast. Viewed from the sea, the island appears almost everywhere as a vast assemblage of rocky peaks which often fall abruptly away in huge cliffs and bluffs. Only on parts of the eastern and southern side do the hills recede some distance so that rich plains open to the sea; but all round the coast the mountains are broken at intervals  p19 by deep valleys that lead to others at a higher level in the interior and there are more safe natural harbours on the northern and eastern sides of the island, from Trapani at the western extremity to Syracuse near the southeastern corner, than are to be found on an equal extent of coast line in any part of the world. The history of Sicily has been largely the history of those harbours and of those who held them; and as the size and draught of ships increased with the development of navigation under the Romans, after the Punic wars, the importance of the harbours grew likewise, while the cities on the southern side that possessed at most half-sheltered sandy beaches on which small vessels could be hauled up high and dry, steadily lost value, and did not recover until the construction of artificial harbours in modern times supplied what was deficient in nature.

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Lighthouse at Colombaia, harbour of Trapani

The fertility of Sicily is proverbial, and seems incredible when one considers how large a part of the island consists of high mountains. It is hard for one bred in the north to realize that in southern latitudes a mountain five thousand feet high may be richly cultivated to its very summit; it is even harder to understand that the climate and soil are such that certain plants bear two crops in the year without exhausting the land, after three thousand years of cultivation; it is hardest of all, perhaps, to believe that the old-fashioned methods of agriculture, originally introduced  p20 by the Greeks, are really the best adapted to the country, as well as to the genius of a people possessed of unbounded industry and vast traditional experience, but wholly unlearned in the ways of modern science.

Let it be considered that out of six millions of acres, barely one hundred and fifty thousand are barren; that the soil will bear anything, from wheat and barley to the orange, the lemon, the date palm, and the banana, from the papyrus to the manna-ash, from cotton and sumach to the carob and the Indian fig; that at a short distance below the surface lie the most valuable  p21 sulphur mines in the world, as well as excellent mines of rock salt; that the finest fisheries in the whole Mediterranean exist upon the coast; and finally that the most valuable coral is found in the same waters. Consider these few facts and it becomes plain that Sicily is one of the richest islands in the world, well worth the endless struggle for its possession that has been waged by a dozen different races since the beginning of all history. There is probably not to be found anywhere an equal area of land of the same value, not containing mines of diamonds, gold, or silver. The mainland opposite is very different. The plains to the eastward are indeed prosperous agricultural regions, but they are nowhere as fruitful as the island, nor do they produce any such variety of crops; and the mountains of Southern Calabria consist for the most part of barren rocks among which a few herds of goats can hardly find a precarious pasture. Sicily has been called the granary of Rome and the garden of the Mediterranean; no such epithets have ever been applied to Calabria or Apulia.

It is commonly said that the population of the eastern and southern portions of the island is of Greek descent, while the strongest traces of the Arab race are found in the central and western parts, and in a general way the statement is true. It is true also that the predominating type on the southern mainland is Greek rather than Latin. Both in Sicily  p22 and on the mainland there are still villages where only Greek is spoken and Italian is learned at school as a foreign language; and in the Maltese islands, only sixty miles south of Sicily, the modern tongue is Arabic, so far as it can be said to be anything definite. It is not more remarkable that Arabic should have wholly disappeared from Italian territory than that it should have been altogether lost in lower Spain. The absence of a social constitution in the Arab nation is the reason for the short endurance of its language, manners, and faith wherever it has become subject to a people more advanced in this respect. It has left us much of its art, and its profound genius laid the foundations of modern science, in mathematics, chemistry, and astronomy; but it has left nothing of itself behind it, and it is much harder for any one who has not lived in the East to evoke even a faint picture of Arab life in Palermo, than it is to call up very vividly the sights of Greek Syracuse under Dionysius or Agathocles. The point is one that deserves the consideration of the student of ethics, but it is worth noticing that the same truth applies to the Semitic Phoenicians, who, perhaps, did more for civilization at large than all the Pharaohs together, but whose surviving image in the imagination of modern man is as vague as that of the Egyptians is bright and sharply defined. We may recall one more striking instance in the Goths,  p23 another people of whom it cannot be said that they had a definite social constitution, who held all Italy for a hundred years, and left few signs of their presence after them except the graves in which they were laid.

The main influences that have worked upon the south have been Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Norman, of which the Roman is the one least strongly noticeable at the present day, and even, perhaps, in earlier centuries. For, in the south, the Romans themselves lost character, and their decided taste for Greek art and manners hellenized them into insignificance. When their reign was over, the Goths dominated them and the Arabs made slaves of them. They had accepted and imitated all they had found, and they were themselves wiped out of social existence by those who conquered them; yet their works remain, of gigantic and sometimes not without a certain borrowed Greek grace, and we have no more difficulty in fancying how they lived and ruled and worked in Agrigentum, than in Rome itself. Yet, to speak figuratively and familiarly, we do not 'see' the Romans when we think of Sicily, excepting perhaps Verres and his train of satellites, and though we must follow their history, we do not wish to 'see' them more than is necessary to an understanding of their position in the succession of the rulers. We are chiefly concerned with the Greeks, the Arabs,  p24 and the Normans. That far-reaching Spanish domination which attained the height of its power in the sixteenth century was a part of modern history upon which the limits of this work will not allow us to dwell.

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Spring called the "Fonte del Sole,"
in a grotto near Taranto

What has here been said by way of introduction shall not afterwards be repeated. The sum of it, in brief, is this: For three thousand years Sicily has been looked upon as the fairest among all the richly endowed lands that border on the Mediterranean Sea or lie as islands within it, a sort of earthly paradise, to obtain which no sacrifice could be thought too great; its claim to be so esteemed can be established  p25 by the short proof of any thoughtful man's first glance, even to the present day; its history is the narrative of fierce struggle fought by great and manly races for its possession, and is told in monuments and ruins still to be seen. It is of all lands the one in which the most enthralling romance is interwoven with the most stirring fact, for it has always been the debatable country where fact has met romance and vied with it for supremacy. It is much talked of, yet few travellers visit it, and those who do so see it through much misunderstanding and often at a great disadvantage. Its history is confused by an enormous number of small details, and by such endless accounts of insignificant personages and of minor actions, that the main stream of interest is diverted into a thousand channels where no single rivulet has much strength or beauty left; and sometimes all the channels are quite dry. For Sicily has been the favourite ground of the specialist for a long time, and in the specialist's minute work the smallest detail may possess for him the very highest importance.

It is the writer's aim, in this book, to give a simple and true account of the successive dominations by which Sicily and the south of Italy have sometimes prospered and sometimes suffered from the days of the early Greek settlers down to the establishment of the house of Aragon.

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Page updated: 23 Jun 18