Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A Short History of the Aeolian (Eolian) Islands

This is a series of writing attempts that will be put together into a more coherent form later...Please be patient.

This is a photo of me inside the citadel of Lipari. The area in front of me is the excavation of early settlements dating from the bronze age. Parts of the museum are behind me and the Cathedral would be farther along that street(to your right) on the left side.

The Aeolian Islands are a part of a volcanic arc in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Their volcanic activity is the result of Africa pushing north into Europe. In fact, if the volcanoes were not less than 260,000 years old and built upon the bottom of the sea, you might say that they were a part of Africa. Indeed African crust can be seen overlaying parts of the Alps including the top of the Matterhorn.

The volcanic arc actually continues on across Greece even to the Aegean Sea leaving the Mediterranean basin full of hot springs and the resulting Spas.


In legend, the islands were the home of Aeolus, the demigod or keeper of the winds.
As with many early personalities, Aeolus is mixed up in mythology and genealogies that rely on a wish to be related to a god or king rather than fact.
There are three possible sources for the "person" Aeolus.

The first possible Aeolus was the son of Helen and Eponymous. He was the mythical founder of the Aeolian race in what is present day Thessaly in northern Greece.

The second Aeolus, descended from a centaur through his mother, fled Greece following the murder of his stepmother. He supposedly founded the town of Lipara as the center of an Aeolian colony.

The Third was a man named Liparus. He was a Greek colonial leader that was based on the mainland in Calabria. Aeolus was the son of Hippotes(Strangely, Hippo means horse, so this may refer to the Centaur again) He is also the Aeolus from Homeric literature.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus stopped at the island where Aeolus made his home. Aeolus was the demigod who controlled the winds. He gave Odysseus a bag containing a portion of the winds to help him back home. Unfortunately, the crew of his ship opened the bag before reaching home and they were blown back to the Aeolian Islands again where Aeolus refused to help him a second time.

Most of the islands have some evidence of prehistoric (Bronze Age) settlements, including round houses, tombs etc. The best places to see these are at Capo Graziano on Panarea and on the Citadel and countryside around and in the town of Lipari.

The islands were probably settled as early as 3500BC, and the identity of those people can only be guessed at if indeed they were the first there. There were earlier Italic tribes there to be sure, but may have originated in the Aegean or the Iberian Peninsula.  The deposits of obsidian were a valuable commodity in the bronze age and earlier for use as cutting tools and weapons.  This made the islands especially attractive to those early settlers.

The islands are visible from the mainland and from Sicily, and any place visible from inhabited land masses could have been at least visited by any group of humans who might have seen them far into pre-history.

Mycenaeans (well known from stories of the Trojan war) arrived in the islands in about 1400 BC and later the Sicels arrived from the mainland in about 1200 BC. Neither is thought to have established a permanent settlement there, but the Sicels remained active to some extent even after the arrival of the main body of Greek settlers. The Sicels are the source of the name Sicily.


More permanent Greek settlers arrived in Salina around the 4th and 5th century BC. Settlers from Cnidus(In Greek Asia Minor), led by Pentathios, arrived in the islands as early as 580 BC after establishing settlements in the Selinute area of Sicily. The Selinute area is still noted for its magnificent Greek ruins.

There are massive Greek(Hellenic)remains in the form of a necropolis and a settlement on the acropolis in Lipari. There is also a major Greek settlement beneath the town of Santa Marina Salina, which makes sense as the closest point to the next and most historically populated island of Lipari. Inland from Santa Marina are the remains of Greek tombs. There is at least one tomb also at Malfa near a sports facility there.

In this Greek period, Salina, because of its double volcanoes was known as Dydima (The twins) However the island is actually made up of no less than five volcanoes, the oldest of which is at Capofaro where it looks like our Cafarellas are from. Stromboli was Strongyle, the youngest Island, Vulcano was Hiera and Lipari was named oddly enough because it was inhabited by Liparians.


Around 427 BC, both Athenians and Carthaginians attempted to occupy the area. However, by this time, the Liparians had become or had been replaced by Pirates who resisted this new occupation.


Major conflicts took place in the first Punic war at Lipari(in the 200s BC), and eventually, after a number of battles, it became a town under the Roman empire. There are ruins of a Roman villa along the coast of Salina near Santa Marina.

The Roman strongman/consul involved at the time was named Gaius Aurelius L.f. Cotta...Hmmm....could there be a relation to the Cincotta name or does the name really mean 58 and refer to pirates from Spain?

Anyway, there was a depopulation of the islands at the beginning of the Roman presence. The Romans felt that the islanders, who had allied themselves with the Carthaginians, were too hard headed and untrustworthy to leave there. Of course, the population was removed to Calabria and to Campagna, where the Romans later collected new settlers to repopulate the islands.

It seems that the population was ferried back and forth from Calabria and Campagna over the centuries.

VANDALS(Barbarian tribes from Europe and the east)

In 440 there was a brief take over of Sicily by the Vandals just before the fall of the Roman empire. They were also heavily entrenched in North Africa.

In 476 Odoacer,(Vandals) a follower of Atilla the Hun captures the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus and the Roman Empire falls.

OSTROGOTHS(A Barbarian tribe)

In 493 Thoderic defeats Odoacer and the Ostrogoths become rulers of all of Italy.


In 535, The Byzantine General Belisarius takes Sicily for the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.


In 827 the Byzantine governor Euphemius has an affair with a nun. He is dismissed by the emperor. Euphemius invites Northern African Muslim kings to help his cause and invites them into Sicily. The Saracens/Muslims take the entire island for themselves.

Pirates again depopulated the islands in the 800s as an episode in this conquest of Sicily and the islands by Muslims. Again there was an eventual re-population from the mainland.

I feel that I should mention that people were prone to fleeing to the hills and hiding amongst the boulders, caves and rude shelters on all those volcanoes when adversity threatened. I do not for one minute believe that every last human was removed in all these catastrophes. I do believe that any who were left behind probably high-tailed it to Lipari for a safer shelter after each instance. This often left the islands to livestock as grazing land.

In 902, the last of Sicily falls to the Saracens at Taormina.

One of the many ethnic groups that allied to invade the islands and Sicily during the Muslim conquest was a group from Crete. Of course there were many groups from Greece in the area over the centuries, but my suspicion is that this may have been the time when the Malvasia wine was developed, as the grapes originated in Crete.


In 1061 Emir Inb-al-Timmah feuds with his co-ruler Ibn-al-Hawas. He invites the Norman, Roger de Hauteville to help him in this feud. Will they never learn? This is the beginning of the Norman occupation of Sicily. By 1091 Muslims are completely driven out.

The Muslims were a major force in Sicily and the islands till 1091. Of course they were only one of the many cultures that influenced the area till Italy finally became a single nation in the mid 19th Century, France(Norman and Angevin), Spain, Germany (Holy Roman Empire)and Byzantines being the other major players.

It was in this time period that King Roger II of Sicily made an agreement with the local bishopric, granting the church rights to the land in all the islands. This affected land use and apportionment in the islands right up to the 1860s.

The church contended that they owned the land and granted rights to the people on the islands at its whim, while most others believed that the Bishop was given Feudal Rights to the area, which does not necessarily mean ownership but perhaps an income source or a stewardship of the land in return for services to the crown.

When that crown no longer existed and was replaced through conquest by the crown of Sardinia and later Italy, I would assume that those rights would lapse, if they had not already lapsed somewhere in the shuffle of rulers over the centuries.

The Bishop was able to exercise his power when the booming wine trade was at its height. The Bishop had to place severe restrictions on the use of the land on Salina as farmers had worked their way right up the mountains, threatening it with complete deforestation. The farmers were forced to abandon all the land that had been encroached upon to allow the natural vegetation to return.

Today, much of the land on the mountains is preserved in its more natural state.


In 1194, Henry VI invades Sicily and is crowned king in Palermo. He is the Holy Roman Emperor and father of Frederick II,(Known as Stupor Mundi{wonder of the world}).  Sicily is officially a part of the Holy Roman Empire(German)


1266 Charles II gains the Sicilian throne for France.


War of the Spanish Vespers from 1282-1302 replaces the French with relatives of the Aragonese/Catlan kings. The area is now Spanish.

In 1544, when Spain declared war on France, King Francis I of France asked the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman for help. The latter sent a fleet headed by Khair ad Din. (He was also known as Barbarossa. He should not be confused with the Holy Roman Emperor by that name) He was victorious over the Spaniards, and managed to retake Naples from them.

In the course of these battles, the Aeolian Islands were placed under siege and were depopulated. Some of the former citizens that had been ransomed in Messina and immigrants from mainland Italy, Sicily and Spain re-established communities on Lipari.(see the story of the siege of Lipari in a separate post)

I might note here that there were long periods of abandonment all through the history of the islands. The isolation, lack of good water sources etc., made it very difficult to rebuild after the repeated devastation of the islands.

All the histories of the time leave little openings for speculation where the word "most" is used instead of "all" when it came to the depopulation stories.

Despite the possibility that islanders were never completely removed, here is no evidence that we can trace our collective bloodlines back to Greek, Roman, Etruscan or Italic tribes in continuous residence on the islands. I like to think however that these lapses in story telling leave room for the possibility that some people fled into hiding in the country, returned from brief exile, or returned when the threat was over in isolated pockets.

Only genetic research is going to get us any closer to understanding our connections with the past.

Some islanders returned almost immediately as stated above. Barbarossa was no longer a threat, but there were still pirates working the Mediterranean (including Barbarossa's brother) for a couple of centuries. It was safer for most to stay in Lipari where the fortress still stood and was actually strengthened and where they could congregate together for safety.

Thanks to his feudal rights, the Archbishop was basically in charge of the land, granting parcels to people for agricultural use, and bringing in families from Calabria, Campagna and Sicily to help rebuild the population.

If there were settlements on the other islands, it would have been safer to keep the families based in Lipari and to visit their land for the purposes of planting, cultivating and tending livestock. Eventually shelters were built, houses repaired and rebuilt.

By 1610, there was a census. The islands were not wealthy, but they certainly supported a population, often with large land owning Padrones. Hired labor or their extended families worked the land.

Commerce recovered in a modest way. However, it took about 200 years and the machinations of a short Corsican for the real boom to occur.

When Napoleon Bonaparte swept through Italy, bringing siblings and in-laws with him to sit on the old thrones throughout Italy, the British were determined to stop his advance into Sicily, across the straights of Messina. They established an encampment at Messina to help prevent his crossing.

When you have a large body of military men, you have to feed them. Most could make do with the common wines and produce of Sicily, assuming that they could not get Marmite from home. The officers however had a taste of Malvasia.

There were varieties of Malvasia that were not much more than a rather low grade of table wine, but on the other end of the spectrum were the marvelous sweet wines made from partially dried grapes. These rivaled the finest wines available anywhere. Of course, when the Malvasia of the islands appeared on the tables of the military stationed there in Messina, it was not long before officers returning to England brought the love of Malvasia home with them, joining Sherries, Madeiras and Ports as favorites on the English table.

It was not long before a lively trade in raisins, capers and pumice joined the Malvasia in ever expanding trade with the mainland of Italy, England, France, Portugal, the Adriatic and eventually to the new world.  There was also trade in obsidian and coral for jewelry.  Often obsidian, but more often coral would be taken to Torre Del Greco on the bay of Naples not far from Pompeii to be converted to jewelry.

All this trade started locally and expanded outward in small ships with Lateen sails like slightly larger version of the Feluccas still seen on the Nile.

Malvasia was not a new wine. Those of you who remember your Shakespeare may remember that in the Middle Ages, the Duke of Clarence was drowned by the henchmen of his brother Richard III at the Tower of London in a "butt of Malmsey".  Malmsey was an earlier name for Malvasia. I am not too sure where THAT "Malmsey" would have come from, as the grape originated in Crete where they had been making a similar wine for centuries.

Many of the families of the islands built small trading empires, sailing the Mediterranean in small boats carrying the wine and other local products.  This trade is detailed in the book: "Mercanti di Mare", by Marcello Saija.

The economy boomed till 1889, when Phylloxera infections that had already devastated many of the vines in Europe finally hit the islands' Malvasia vines. (The little insect carrying the virus, was native to eastern North America and brought to Europe by botanists in Britain.  Here was another case of the Americas having their little revenge on the old world!) The destruction of the vines devastated the wine based economy which did not fully recover till the 1960s.  The virtual end of the wine production along with the advent of steam vessels that few of the local island families could now afford to invest in, presented the islanders with hard choices.  They could stay on islands that had difficult living conditions in the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, even when the economy was being kind to them, or start off fresh in America, Australia, Argentina and more industrial areas of Europe.  Nearly half of the population of the islands emigrated, and some of the islands were nearly deserted.   

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