History of Mineo, Italy


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Earliest traces of Mineo

When Paolo Orsi (1859-1935) in 1899 enthusiastically announced his discovery of the "remains of a wall" sited in Mineo, he did not know that two of his simple comments would create one of the most intricate “stories” of the history of all of ancient Sicily.

After mentioning his discovery he simply pointed out that Mineo was the ancient "Menai", [Latin “Menae”] and next to it rose “Palika”, a city that archaeologists have to investigate further. His story deserves repeating at length:

"[...] There is no reason to question that Mineo is the ancient Menae, a Sicilian town founded around 459 BC by Ducetius (died c. 440 BC). However, Mineo, and above all its interesting surroundings (Palika) have never been subject to archaeological exploration. In an excursion which I made in the mountain town last November I picked up the first elements for the establishment of regular excavations in the city as well as in the countryside...

... I have high hopes of being quickly able to begin these researches, and I do not (want to wait) to tell scholars of the discovery of a beautiful remain of a wall and a semicircular tower in the existing site called Saint Augustine (...) This work, built with large limestone blocks (the largest has a front of 1.47 m X 0, 67), belonged to a system of defences (...) which precluded the access to the city from the side west,...

... This defence work, that was much more extensive and remarkable until around 1865 had been demolished in order to extract stone (...) I reported my discovery to 'Regional Office for the Conservation of Monuments of Sicily', to promptly provide for their protection (...)  It is open to question if this is a classical work dating back to the 5th century, or a magnificent Byzantine bastion, knowing that Mineo was one of the most fiercely contested strongholds in the ninth century among the Muslims and Byzantines [2] [...]" [1].

We must ask whether these strong fortifications somehow managed to block the advance of the Greeks. The answer is definitely negative; archaeological excavations have shown clear traces of destruction in many towns in the area of Mineo, and the same archaeological data clearly demonstrate the presence of the Greeks:

"Around the mid-6th century all the towns in the hinterland of Leontinoi  and Catania show concrete signs of Hellenization, and we have a documentation of Greek residents. At Mineo and Mendolito votive Greek terracottas are documented, while  at Palikè, the Mountain of Ramacca (...) some 'naiskoi' [graves built in the form of small temples] of Greek origin have been identified (...) " [11].

Aside from the history of relations of the Sikels with the Greeks, the territory of Mineo is of ancient settlement. The first trace of human presence in the Mineo region was found in the cave of Palikè (“Contrada Rocca”) where, in the cave fragments of Flintstone were found dating back to the Paleolithic era:

“In the territory covered by the researches we point out a number of settlements located in the districts called “Costa Finocchio”, 'Rocca S. Agrippina', 'Contrada Rocca', 'Poggio San Giorgio' and 'Contrada Camuti', identified thanks to the various ceramics present in the soil. The human presence is also documented by numerous cemeteries visible in the district of 'Cisternazza' ... The archaic Mineo had a fortified acropolis on the highest point “ [12].

Roman times in Mineo

Roman times, after a happy period linked to the prosperity of the territory, rich in vineyards, olive groves and wheat, saw a further period of crisis in agriculture; the development of large estates involved the displacement of populations towards the plain:

“The ancient Hellenistic cities (...) have, in fact, a gradual economic and demographic regression, of which the poverty of the Roman necropolis of Mineo is indicative. In Byzantine times Menai was an agricultural village and the nature of its territory was on its way to becoming an agricultural medieval settlement with a manorial economy" [13].

Entering the Middle Ages

Also after the Arab conquest, Mineo was in a situation of economic stagnation, with essential functions of a fortified city. In Norman times we see some economic recovery in the area, especially in Lentini and Mineo, which was declared a city belonging to the royal demesne. Under the Normans, who undoubtedly revitalized the ancient cities, Mineo was equipped with walls and a castle.

Later on Mineo, in past times a city belonging to the royal demesne, passed to the “Camera Reginale”. Manfredi Maletta was Count of Mineo and the Maletta family, of Norman origin, ruled the city until the age of Frederick III (1274-1327), when one of its members, also called Manfredi, passed to the side of the Anjou.

Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada later brought together the possession of the town of Mineo and the castle of Mongialino. Later the castle was given with a diploma of 1392 to Manfredi of Alagona, to whom were granted the towns of Mineo and Paternò. We observe, however, that:

"part of the Val di Noto formed a separate fouth administrative unit, which was established in the early 14th century as the queen's appanage (literally the queen treasury= “Camera Reginale”). The territory of the 'Camera Reginale' included the cities of Syracuse, Lentini (...) and Mineo. This territory had near-independent status and was governed by queen's officials” [14].

From the 15th century a very important economic role was played at Mineo by the Jews. In this regard, the studies by A. Messina are very interesting - by analyzing the notarial documents of that period, Messina also handed down to us some important data about the modern city before the earthquake of 1693:

"[...] Mineo took on a Baroque style after the earthquake of 1693, but the road system did not suffer substantial changes: a range of streets converged in “Piazza del Mercato”, now “Piazza Buglio” (...) The north, culminating with the castle and the district of St. Mary, was reached along the “Via Grande” ["long street"], a paved road near the walls, now “Via Ducezio” and more rapidly by the steep “Via Roma.”...

... Mineo was densely covered with vineyards today disappeared; the Plain of Mineo was covered with cereal crops, now replaced by orange groves, and the coasts, the squat hill chain that closes the Plains to the west, for grazing (...) The large property estate, heir of the old Arab-Norman houses now uninhabited, was displaced to the periphery of the territory and it was subject to the baronial census [...]" [15].

In 1693 the city was almost entirely destroyed by the catastrophic earthquake that struck Eastern Sicily. Today it relies heavily on the tourism sector, thanks to archaeological discoveries of recent years and also because it can rely on a cultural heritage of great importance. Mineo is also the birthplace of Luigi Capuana, considered by critics to be the "father" of Italian realism, and a great friend of Giovanni Verga.

Ancient origins of Mineo - Menai

Let's start with Mineo, which according to P. Orsi was certainly the oldest Menai. Things over the years have become very complicated. As Paolo Orsi pointed out, Menai was the birthplace of Ducetius, who was the champion of the "war of independence" of the Sikels against the Greek colonists. Without entering into the complex history of Ducetius, at a certain point, perhaps to mark the founding of a "new" Independent Sikel State, he founded a new city, called “Menaion.”

The location of Menaion is a very controversial question, but some scholars such as Adamesteanu and Rizzo claimed that Menai and Menaion are the same city with a different name. According to them, the ancient sources stopped talking about Menai after the birth of Menaion. In reality things are a bit more complex, but there are substantial reasons for believing that Menaion and Menai are the same city.

The problem was set by Calogero Miccichè, who writes:

"[...] "As per the handed down texts, we should accept the distinction of Ménainon (new foundation) from Menai (home to Ducetius): indeed the theory of a supposed Ménainon-Menai identity, supported by several scholars, is unreliable, as this hypothesis would render inexplicable the persistence of the name of Menai in a chronological context and we do not understand why Diodorus [90-27 BC] felt the need to clarify later what is the hometown of Ducetius (88.6)...

... I believe, however, that there are valid reasons to support the identity Ménainon-Mena, when we consider the toponym Ménainon to be the corruption of the name “Menaion” ("those of Mena'", the inhabitants of Menai”) and we take into serious consideration the ‘MENAINON’ legend on some coins of Roman times and / or, in the last resort, we give due weight to the relationship between the Greek name Ménainon and the corresponding Latin ‘Menaenum’. [...]" [3].

Although there is some doubt about the identity of Menai and Menaion it is certain that the current town of Mineo is its direct heir. But perhaps Ducetius needed something more to give the Sikels the sense of belonging to a "new nation", and thus he founded “Palikè”, the "Palika" of which P. Orsi spoke.

The new city would probably have a symbolic value and at the same time a sense of impregnability. In fact Palikè was built near the present “Rocchitella”, on the small lake called “Naftia” and near the shrine dedicated to the gods called Palikoi.

In effect, the city was built in a strategic place, in the middle of a densely populated land and among the mountains, in a place that could easily counter any foreign penetration; it was also heavily fortified, as archaeological excavations clearly demonstrate [4].

Origins of the names Palike - Menai - Menaion - Mineo

What does "Palikè" mean? Actually the problem of the etymology is even more complicated than deciphering the ancient origins of Menai-Menaion and the question of the etymology of Palikè is among the most intricate in the history of studies on ancient Sicily. We attempt here to give them an overview, although not overly simplified.

As we said, Palikè was located near the Lake of Naftia, and near the temple dedicated to the Palikoi. The Ancients had a vague knowledge of the location of the lake, of which they gave conflicting opinions. In fact, the volcanic nature of the place caused severe mutations of the site, so the uncertainty of the Ancients seems justified.

However, we see now what was the meaning of Palikè., although the uncertainty is increased by the fact that we do not know if the Palikoi were gods of Greek or Indigenous origin.

Summarizing the various assumptions proposed by scholars, a first interpretation derives Palikoi from the Greek name "Palin e Klein", or "those who came to earth two times” [ Latin "bis genitis"], "those who were born twice"; while for other scholars the name derives from the Indo-European root "pala" (= skin), which would indicate the Palikoi as "gods of the cavities and caves."

For others, the Palikoi derive from the Greek "pallas" (= young man), while, according to Ettore Pais, the name derives from "Pelicus", "an eponymous hero of the 'Peligni'". Still others think the derivation comes from the root "pal", which would indicate the appearance of gray ponds; "pal" then would alternate with "pel", and the Palikoi would be "the fired gods", with reference to the craters which studded this volcanic zone.

Most of these etymologies were (obviously) rejected, and, according to Carlo Battisti [5] we should think rather think of a Mediterranean root, that is “pala/palla” and the variant "pela", which would indicate "the bare and steep rock "; "paradoxically , as Alain Meurant explained, the Palikoi became "the [gods] of the height."

According to G. Alessio the term "height" would refer to the Latin concept of "Caelum", so the Palikoi became the "Caelestes" ["The Gods"]. In front of such a plethora of interpretations, R. Schilling [6] capitulated and agreed it was a "non liquet" ["it is not clear"] [7].

However, despite this "non liquet" of Schilling, in more recent years an important study by K. T. Witczak was published, who observed:

“[...]“Lusitanian Trebo-pala (name of a deity) < IE. trebo-pala ‘protector of the dwelling’, cf. Vedic Vioe-pala (f.), a horse-like goddess or heroine connected with the twin gods Aoevins (See Maggi 1983), Latin Pales (dat. pl. ‘Palibus’), a divine pair of Old Roman deities, the patrons of flocks and herds. Also the Indo-European name of the divine twins Pal-ikoi (du. Paliko), preserved in the name of the Sicilian twin gods Palici and Celtic Alci (cf. Witczak 1995, 1997), contains the same Indo-European root pal- ‘to protect’ [...]” [8].

In conclusion, the Palikoi would be the protectors (the patron saints) of Palikè, which could be quite convincing and reasonable, and it would also explain the symbolic value of Palikè; in fact "the toponym has in itself a kind of divine protection on the new city; the divine couple of the Palikoi (divine children of Zeus and the nymph Thalia). They held off the plague and the famine, but both were ruthless with those who committed injustices:

“The Palikoi were very cruel and it is confirmed that they were placated only with human blood" [10].

Palikè was a new centre of power:

“In the mid 5th century both the sanctuary and the settlement were built up once again. Diodorus says that the Sikel leader Ducetius transferred the population of Menae to a new foundation that he called Palikè near the Sanctuary of the divine Palikoi and that he divided the surrounding land... The santuary is likely to have served as the seat of Ducetius Sikel League” [9].

References

1. See P, Orsi, “Notizie degli  scavi di antichità,”  Accademia dei Lincei, 1899, p. 70

2. Amari, History of the Muslims of Sicily 1, p.. 278 et seq., 285-289

3. See C. Miccichè, “Ducezio tra Akragas e Siracusa”, in  AA.VV., “Diodoro Siculo e la Sicilia indigena”, Atti del convegno di studi, Caltanissetta,  21-22 maggio 2005, Palermo, Assessorato Regionale ai Beni Culturali e Artistici, 2006, p. 125, footnote 25

4. On these aspects of strategic and symbolic value to the city, See the excellent article by Ma Cruz Cardete de Olmo, “ El silencio de los oprimidos: el culto de los Paliki”, in “’Illu.Revista de Ciensas de las religions”, 2007, XIX, pp. 67-84

5. "Sostrati", 1959, p. 34, 127, 27

6. R. Schilling (1964-1965, pp. 284-286)

7. for an analysis of all the etymologies here briefly indicated, See Alain Meurant, "Les Paliques, dieux jumeaux siciliens ", 1998, pp, 21 ff. and note 39 et seq.

8. See K. T. Witczak,  “On the Indo-European origin of two Lusitanian Theonyms”, in “Emerita”,  1999, LXVII,  1, p. 66

9. See L. Maniscalco-Brian E.Mcconnel, “The Sanctuary of the Divine Palikoi (Rocchitella di Mineo, Sicily): Fieldwork from 1995 to 2001”, in “American Journal of Archaeology”, 107, 2,  April 2003, p. 177

10. Servius;  in A. Meurant, p. 31, note 91

11. See E. Procelli, “Aspetti e problemi dell'ellenizzazione calcidese nella Sicilia orientale”,  in: “Mélanges de l'Ecole française de Rome. Antiquité”,  T. 101, N°2, 1989, pp. 679-689,   p.684

12. See A. M. Grasso, “L'evoluzione storica del territorio di Mineo dal Paleolitico all'età greca”, in “Agorà”, 2002, VIII, pp. 16-23

13. See “Ricerche archeologiche e topografiche nel territorio di Mineo”, in “Cronache di Archeologia” , 1980, pp. 17-18

14. See N. Zeldes, “The former Jews of this kingdom: Sicilian converts after the Expulsion, 1492-1516”, Brill, 2003, p. 4

15. See A. Messina, “Gli ebrei di Mineo nel registro del notaio Pietro Pellegrino”, in “Archivio storico messinese”, 2001, No. 82, pp. 6 ff.).