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Busuttil, Joseph, Stanley Fiorini, and Horatio Vella (eds), Tristia ex Melitogaudo: Lament in Greek Verse of a XIIth-century Exile on Gozo,.

Busuttil, Joseph, Stanley Fiorini, and Horatio Vella (eds), Tristia ex Melitogaudo: Lament in Greek Verse of a Xllth-century Exile on Gozo, transcribed, translated and edited by Joseph Busuttil, Stanley Fiorini, and Horatio Vella, Malta, Farsons Foundation, 2010; pp. cxxvi, 471; 4 plates; paperback; R.R.P. 40.00 [euro]; ISBN 9789993208334. (Available from stanley.

Three Maltese academics--two classicists and a medieval historian--have meticulously transcribed, translated and edited this long (4043 iambic trimeters and originally longer) Greek poem probably composed by Eugenius of Palermo, a highly educated official in Norman Sicily and recently identified as the historian Hugo Falcandus. The poet had evidently displeased Roger II of Sicily who banished him to Gozo (Melitogaudo), a tiny island off Malta. Both islands were used as places of exile by the Byzantine emperors and continued to be so until the fifteenth century. During his enforced sojourn there (some years between 1135 and 1151) the poet wrote this Tristia (the original title is lost) for the same purpose as Ovid produced his Tristia ex Ponto: to beg leave to return home. Ovid appealed (unsuccessfully) to Augustus, while the Sicilian exile addressed his appeal to George of Antioch, to whom he was perhaps related. As Roger's amir or vizier, George was the most powerful man in Sicily after the king. Even so the poet was only permitted to return a few years before Roger died in 1155. At this time Norman Sicily was the wealthy cross-cultural centre of the western world as well as a major (and ambitious) military, naval and trading power. George of Antioch was a patron of the arts; a mosaic depicting him prostrate in front of the Virgin survives in the church of Santa Maria del Ammiraglio, now called la Martorana, that he built in Palermo. Eugenius had a distinguished career as a public servant in Sicily and (after a further period of exile in Trifels castle in Germany) in Italy.

Other sources and studies testify that the poet was a fluent linguist. He translated Ptolemy's Optica (Arabic into Latin) and contributed to a translation (Greek into Latin) of the Almagest. His poetry is valued by scholars for its insights into contemporary moral and political philosophy and natural history. He had a wide knowledge of Greek letters, the Septuagint, the new testament and classical authors such as Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Lucian, the historians of Sicily, and Byzantine writers notably St John Chrysostom. His texts are littered with reminiscences of the Greek dramatists and proverbial wisdom.

Readers of this edition of this Tristia will appreciate the lengths the editors have gone to in their efforts to identify the literary and other sources the poet drew on to embellish his text. There are references to the bible, ancient history, Greek and Roman literature and Greek mythology. His mastery of Greek verse forms and figures of style is fully investigated.

The Tristia contains references to the poet's life in Gozo and to then still recent Norman conquest of the Maltese archipelago from the Arabs. The editors have reopened the most hotly debated issue among students of Maltese history in recent years. Did Christianity survive three centuries (800-1090) of Muslim rule? The consensus among scholars was that it did not. No significant archaeological finds supported its survival and the sources until now available suggested that there were no Christians in Malta when it was captured by the Normans. One important source records that the only Christians encountered by the Normans when they captured Malta were captives from other lands and these returned to their homes. There is evidence too that the island remained largely Muslim long after Arab rule finally ended in 1123. After visiting Malta in 1175 a German bishop wrote that Malta was 'a Saracenis habitata, et est sub dominio regis Sicilie'. All this sat uncomfortably with many Maltese, proud in what they call the 'Pauline Tradition'--that the Apostle Paul christianized Malta after he was shipwrecked there and that the Maltese have remained Christians ever since. A few academics remained supporters of this popular tradition and they now claim that their faith has been vindicated by this passage in the Tristia:
   [The] most resplendent leader of all leaders (Roger II) ... sailed
   to Melitogaudos (Gozo) ... [and] having encircled [the godless
   (i.e. Muslims)] he banished [them and their numerous black slaves.
   Then he] ... brought out into the open the pious inhabitants of the
   place, together with their bishop, who having departed from the
   Pact of Old got rid of the things by which they used to invoke
   Mohammed ... He then established into most sacred temples, places
   [i.e. mosques formerly] belonging to the [Muslims] sacred and
   useful priests who were worshipping the Holy Trinity from ancestral
   times ... (p. lvii)

In the light of this text the editors argue that Gozo's experience was quite different to Malta's where Christianity may well have been eradicated. Space precludes further discussion of the thorny question here but the thesis is thought provoking. The conclusions of the editors are being hotly debated by scholars and others in the Maltese press. The Maltese take a very healthy interest in their long history.

The editors make a point which is perhaps more telling than a few lines of laudatory verse: 95% of 419 Maltese and Gozitan churches and chapels recorded in a 1575 visitation were dedicated to cults venerated in Sicily before the Arab conquest. If the Normans 're-evangelized' Malta and Gozo would they have encouraged the dedication of chapels and churches to cults following the Greek (rather than the Latin) rite? One suspects not. The editors draw extensively on recent scholarly research into Maltese religious and social history to support their argument that, at any rate in Gozo, the Greek rite survived the Muslim period. On the other hand many will stoutly continue to maintain that a silent gap of nearly 300 years in the history of Christianity in Malta and Gozo is hard to explain except as evidence of its annihilation.

The debate continues.

Roger Vella Bonavita

University of Western Australia
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Author:Bonavita, Roger Vella
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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