Ahh, the nose, the center of olfactory pleasure and pain. Raise it in defiance or wrinkle it in disgust. There’s the Roman nose and the hawk nose; the Nubian nose and the snub nose. Only once, however, did a nose change the course of history. Put your P.J.’s on and snuggle up, while I tell you the true tale (more or less) of Greeks, Arabs, and the island of Sicily.
When you think Sicily, you think Italy, right? Well back in the B.C.’s that little island was passed around like a Mediterranean hot potato. Everyone was hoping to set up shop on those sunny beaches. Around 800 BC the Greeks decided it was their turn to have a go at the little island. “The homeland is so crowded these days,” some said. “And frankly the lack of unity there is producing some bad vibes. We need a fresh start.” And so they donned their winged sandals and, with gifts in hand, they went out to take over the island.
Like any new place, they had to put a lot of work into their home and they did a pretty good job redecorating. The city-states of Syracuse and Selinus grew large and powerful. Syracuse in particular was very sophisticated, with temples, monuments, and even a theater. Little Sicily was growing up. Things there were going so well they dubbed the place Magna Grecia, which loosely translated means “Nah, nah, we have more Greeks than Greece itself.”
Yes, Sicily was a new world, a place where wealthy Greeks could live and be successful. Plato liked it so much, he said it could be Utopia. Maybe that’s the reason it also happened to be home to many Greek gods. Persephone, Hades, and Hephaestus were just a few who made Sicily their playground.
Now the Romans had been watching as the Greeks polished their little island gem and greed being what it is, decided they must have it. A few Peloponnesian wars later it was theirs. They built large imperial estates, brought in slaves to work them, and grew lots of grain for the empire. And of course they collected lots of taxes. The cities, especially Syracuse, prospered under the Romans. Culturally however, they didn’t add much. In fact it took many years before they even tried to teach the people Latin. This actually worked out well for the Greeks because culturally they still dominated.
About 600 years passed and by then Rome was an old man with arthritis and bad vision. Everything in the Empire was falling apart. In the end, they had too many problems to worry about Sicily so back into the hands of the Greeks it went.
For the people of Sicily the shift to the Eastern Empire must have been pretty special, and the return to their roots pretty exciting. They celebrated with dances, parties, and Friday night fish fries. Everyone was happy as eggplant in moussaka until about 827.
There’s always a party pooper in every group and this time it was a man named Euphemios. He was the commander of the Byzantine Naval fleet and owned lots of land. Everyone liked him, and he walked into the weekly fish fries confident in the thought that chicks always went for the guys in uniform. One day, across a paper plate of haddock, he saw a beautiful woman named Homoniza. Try as he might to get her attention, she oddly showed no signs of interest in him or his uniform.
“Darling, you’re wonderful. You’re everything I ever wanted in a woman and I’ve picked you to be my own,” he told her when she went for a plate of Baklava.
“Did you notice my clothes? I’m a nun,” she said. “Nuns don’t get married.” Euphemios didn’t want to take no for an answer.
As it so often is in cases like this, Euphemios let his power and popularity go to his head. What did it matter if she was dedicated to God? He wanted her and he would take her—with or without her consent. Unfortunately for everyone, it ended up being without.
“I’m Euphemios,” he cried, “I’m smart, powerful and oh-so-charming. Who would dare stop me from getting my way?”
Well, Your boss, Euphemios, that’s who.
Yes, Constantine Soudas, the general in charge of the island wasn’t a real big fan of Euphemios, or of abducting nuns. The uniform didn’t have any effect on him either, especially since his was better. Knowing Euphemious needed to be punished for his crime, he appealed to the Emperor in Constantinople, Michael II.
“Off with his Nose,” came the Emperor’s verdict. Euphemios wasn’t fond of the idea.
“I like my nose. As a matter of fact, I’m rather attached to it. It won’t matter how handsome I look in my uniform . . . without a nose, I’m toast.”
Then and there Euphemios vowed nothing would come between him and his nose, especially a steel blade. He gathered his troops, killed Constantine, and took over the city of Syracuse.
“That nose knows how to make things happen,” said the troops when the battle was won. High with joy, they made Euphemios Emperor of Sicily. Of course, he was overjoyed and swelled with pride.
“Congratulations Euphy old boy, it’s all on you now. You get to protect the whole island from interlopers, invaders, marauders, busybodies, and fussbudgets. Oh, and of course Constantinople. Boy I bet the Emperor is going to be pretty mad when he finds out what you did. I bet he’ll send a whole fleet just to bust your chops.”
Suddenly the job didn’t sound so exciting. Euphemios knew he couldn’t defeat Constantinople on his own, and when they came for him that beautiful nose of his wouldn’t be the only thing lost. Euphemios thought and thought about how to get out of his conundrum. He considered all the people he knew that wanted the little island. He pondered, calculated and scratched his head until he came up with the solution.
Euphemios knew the Arabs had been trying to get their hands on Sicily since 652, things just hadn’t really gone their way. He decided to take the chance and strike a deal: his nose for the island. So he set sail for Ifriqiya, modern day Tunisia, to talk to the Muslim leader Ziyadat Allah.
“I’m in a bit of a jam,” he said, “But if you let me keep my command—and my nose—I’ll hand over Sicily.”
Ziayadat Allah couldn’t be more happy. Just 14 years earlier the Arabs had almost conquered Sicily. They would have had it were it not for a huge storm and the meddling of Charlemagne. Now this Byzantine was offering to drop the island in his lap—it was better than Christmas.
Things didn’t go quite as smoothly as the Arabs had hoped, but by 831 their bags were pretty much unpacked. The last Byzantine stronghold finally fell in 965, and by 1060 half the island’s population was Muslim. And so it was that Euphemios got to keep his nose. Although in the end he found out crime really doesn’t pay. He was stabbed to death not long after he sided with the Arabs. It wasn’t all a wash—at least he died with his nose intact.