History of Levanzo


See Levanzo guide for highlights and historic monuments

Apart from some important examples from Prehistoric times, we do not have important sources that tell us much about the history of Aegadian Islans or Levanzo.

With regard to Levanzo itself, we have very few traces of Roman times, except for a building to salt the fish, even if today Archaeology (including underwater Archaeology) is bringing to light increasingly numerous and important evidence.

Note that in the 16th century the town was called "Levanto" (or “East”) by the Genoese, to remind them of a small village in the province of Genoa.

Ancient history of Levanzo

However, even this small island (just six square kilometers) was involved, albeit marginally, in the events relating to Sicily. It was occupied first by Cuma in the 5th century BC, then the Athenians attempted to take it from the Cumans, while the Sicilians called for help from the Carthaginians, who immediately began the invasion of Sicily and probably also settled in Mozia and Favignana.

The Aegadian Islands were involved in the first half of the third century BC when the Roman fleet was heavily defeated by the Carthaginians under the command of Hannibal (247-182 BC) and also in the Second Punic War (third century BC) several battles took place in the waters of Levanzo.

After the Romans

With the fall of the Roman Empire the Aegadian Islands including Levanzo passed into the hands of Genserico (389-477 AD), the king of the Vandals, in about 440 AD, until in 551 the Byzantines took over, and then in turn ousted by the Saracens in 827.

In the following centuries Levanzo was dominated in turn by the Normans, Swabians, Angevin, Aragonese, Spaniards, Genoese, French and the Pallavicino Counts. This dynasty activated various economic enterprises, which were then continued by the Florio family, who in particular enhanced the fish processing.

Origins of the name Phorbantia

Called "Phorbantìa Nésos" (“Island of Phorbantia”) according to Ptolemy (90-168 AD) and "Buccina", according to Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), both referred to the ancient island of Levanzo in the Egadi Archipelago. But what does "Phorbantia” mean? The hypothesis proposed by various scholars are all particularly fascinating.

According to P. Champault, "Phorbantia" would not be a Greek name, but would have a Phoenician derivation. If the hypothesis is correct, "Phorbantia" would mean "mare" and also "knight". This name is derived no doubt from the Semitic root “prš”, "horse", "a saddle horse". And not only "horse" but also "rider" [1].

The hypothesis has been validated by other linguistic studies, which point out that the name "Phorbantia" could be a form of a Greek ancient name:

"[...]'Levanzo', of which the classic name is "Phorbantia" (‘Phorbantìa’ according to Ptolemy), could be a Greek form of a local name such as ‘Herbantia’, according to the equation with the Latin ‘herba’ ('grass') and the Greek 'Forbé' ('pasture') [...]" [2].

Apart from the difference in meaning, what combines the two cases is that both assume that "Phorbantia" is an archaic term preceding the Greek colonization. However, Frederick E. Brenk notes that the name might have an affinity with the Greek cult of “Phorbas”:

“[...] At Ialysos and elsewhere on Rhodes, Phorbas was most likely honored with propitiatory sacrifice at the opening of the sailing season. In the Rhodian-Knidian saga he himself had been shipwrecked ... but had landed safely and been treated with hospitality by the local ruler. Levanzo on the west tip of Sicily, only about 10 kilometers from 'Drepanum' (modern Trapani) and Aeneas point of departure to Italy, was known in classical time as 'Phorbantia'...

... It has been conjectured that Rhodian seafarers established a 'Phorbanteion' there, such as at Athens. The rites for Phorbas and Rhodes might have included throwing the victim or part of it into the sea ... If similar rites were performed on Phorbantia to assure good sailing, his introduction into the voyage from Sicily to Italy would be particularly apt. Phorbas would them be associated with Sicilian landscape and mythology, with a propitiatory sacrifice before sailing [...]” [3].

Both the hypothesis are worthy of great consideration, but determining which is right is difficult; though, nevertheless, we note that the shipping and Phoenician colonization were older than the Greek, and it is possible that the Greeks established the cult of "Phorbas" because of the similarity of the name of the island with that of their god who "propitiated the navigation."

The scholars, therefore, who "suspect" a Greek form of a name actually far older probably have more reasons to support them. Therefore, giving the "primogeniture" to the Phoenicians, who colonized the island long before the Greeks, we can say that "Phorbantia" means "The Island of the Horse or Rider" [4].

Origins of the name Buccina

With regard to the Latin name "Buccina" of Pliny (we do not actually know if "Buccina" refers to Levanzo), the etymology refers to the Latin term "bucca" (mouth);

"bucca" means “inflated cheek”, "in the act of eating", but “bucina” and “buccina” (diminutive of “bucca”), as Pliny reminds us, is also the “shell”. “ ‘Buccini’ were shells that the Ancients used to dye their clothes purple" [5].

For this reason "Buccina" could mean "island in the shape of a shell," in the concavity of which the ships found their port.

For completeness, and recalling that the island of “Buccina” has not been identified with certainty, we remember also the curious fact that the "buccina", as the shells, if brought to the ear gives the hiss of the wind, and "Buccina" was also the "horn" that was played in ancient times to call and involving the swelling of the cheeks.

However, what is the relationship of "bucca" ("inflated cheek") with the name of “Buccina” mentioned by Pliny? Once again one must go back to the sagacious observations of  P. Champault, who deepening the issue of "Phorbantia", notes that the Aegadian Islands have a relationship with Aeolus, the god of the winds.

Champault takes into account the geographical diversity of the ancient world and the fact that the sea level was still different from the current one. At a certain point he notes that:

"Ptolemy gives five names to the Aegadian Islands in the following order: Phorbantia, Aegusa, Hiera, Paconius, 'Insula Aeolia'."  Or "the island of Aeolus." Given the different situation of the islands and the sea in the ancient time, we can not identify with certainty the exact location of the "Aeolia Insula," but the fact is that the whole area was swept by the winds.

Among other things, in mythological iconography Aeolus is often depicted "with puffy cheeks" in the act of blowing winds. If this hypothesis is true, "Buccina" would mean the "Island of the Winds," "the island where the winds blow", or "the island of Aeolus”, the god of the winds for “antonomasia” [6].

See the travel guide for Levanzo.

References

1. See P. Champault, "Phéniciens et Grecs  en Italie d'après  l’Odyssée" Bibliobazaar, 2008: 393

2. See, “Biblioteca del centro di studi filologici e linguistici sicilani”,1956:  25

3. See Frederick E. Brenk, “Clothed in Purple Light, “Studies in Virgil and in Latin Literature”, Verlag, Stuttgard, 1999: 71-72

4. "L'ile 'Paras' etait donc indistinctement  l'ile du cheval et du cavalier "(See P. Champault: 373)

5. See“Nuovo giornale dei Letterati d'Italia”,  Modena, 1773, Vol. I: 318

6. See Champault: 396 et seq.