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History of Sardinia

The History of Sardinia covers several millennia of civilization of this Mediterranean isle.


In 1979 human remains were found that were dated to 150,000 BC. The first men to settle in Gallura and Northern Sardinia probably came from Italian peninsula, possibly Tuscany. The central region may have been populated by people arriving from the Iberian Peninsula through the Balearic Islands.

Prehistoric arrowheads (3rd millennium BC) and sculptures of the Mediterranean Mother Goddess (now in the Archeological Museum of Cagliari) were retrieved which demonstrate a well developed industry of stone carving.

Already in the Stone Age Monte Arci played an important role. The old volcano was one of the central places where obsidian was found and worked for cutting tools and arrowheads. Even now the volcanic glass can be found on the sides of the mountain.

The Archeological Museum of Sassari displays ceramics from the Copper or Aneolithic Age (2600 BC).

The era of the nuraghi

The prehistorical era of Sardinia is characterised by the typical structures in stone that are called Nuraghe. There are about 7000 of these structures, more or less complex. The most famous is the complex of Barumini in the province of Cagliari. The Nuraghe were built in the period from about 1800 to 1200 BC, though many were used until the Roman period. Next to that holy waterplaces have been built (for example Santa Cristina, Sardara) and the grave structures called Dolmen. It is known that the Sardinians already had contact with the Myceneans, who traded with the West Mediterranean.

The alleged connection with the Shardana, the sea people that invaded Egypt has not been proven. Tombs (Tombe dei giganti) have tombstones shaped like a sinking ship, probably witness to a tragedy on sea expeditions. Euboians, the first Greeks to navigate westwards, called the island Hyknousa (later latinized in Ichnus(s)a). The Nora stone has been seen as proof that the island was called Sharden by the Phoenicians, and from there it derived the name Sardinia.

Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans in Sardinia

From the 8th century BC, Phoenicians founded several cities and strongholds on Sardinia; Tharros, Bithia, Sulcis, Nora and Karalis (Cagliari). The Phoenicians came originally from Lebanon and traded in the Mediterranean. They settled everywhere in the region. Sardinia had a special position because it was central in the western Mediterranean between Carthage, Spain, the Rhone river and the Etruscan civilization area. The mining area around Iglesias was important for the metals (lead and zinc). The cities were founded on strategic points, often peninsulas or islands near estuaries, easy to defend and natural harbours. After the Phoenicians, the Carthagianians took over control in that part of the Mediterranean, around 550 BC. They expanded their influence to the eastern and southern coast from Bosa to Karalis, including a wide fraction of the respective mainlands. The cities were administrated by plenipotentiaries called Sufetes, which stressed the growing of grain and cereals.

In 240, in the course of the First Punic War, the Carthaginian mercenaries on the island revolted and gave the Romans, who some years earlier had defeated the Carthiaginians in the sea off Olbia and had occupied Sulci, the opportunity to land on Sardinia and occupy it. In 238 BC the Romans took over the whole island, without meeting any resistance. They took over an existing developed infrastructure and urbanized culture (at least in the plains). Together with Sicily it formed one of the main granaries of Rome until the Romans conquered Egypt.

A revolt, led by two Sardo-Punic nobles, broke out after the crushing Roman defeat at Cannae (216 BC). A Roman army of 23,000 men, under Titus Manlius Torquatus, met the Carthagianian-Sardinian allied forces in the south of the island, defeating them and killing 12,000 men. The so-called Sardi Pelliti ("Fur-covered Sardinians") living in the impervious mountains of the interior resisted the Roman colonization for more than a century, Marcus Caecilius Metellus subduing them only in 127 BC.

Under the Roman domination, the Sardinian language gradually came under the strong influence of Latin, turning eventually into a Romance tongue. The Phoenician-Punic culture remained very strong under the Romans until the first centuries AD. Tharros, Nora, Bithia, Antas and Monte Sirai are now important archaeological monuments where architecture and city planning can be studied.

The Middle Ages

For more details, see Giudicati.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Sardinia was subject to several conquests. In 456, the Vandals, coming from North Africa, occupied the coastal cities of the island. A brief Eastern Roman reconquest did not las longly, and the Vandals imposed garrisons guarded by African auxiliaries, like the Mauri of what was later called Barbagia, whose troublesome presence lasted probably for centuries. In 534 the small Vandal forces surrendered immediately to the Byzantines when news of the Vandal collapse; thenceforth the island was part of the Byzantine Empire, included in the African prefecture. The local governor sat in Caralis. During the Gothic Wars much of the island fell easily to the Ostrogoths, but an army sent from Carthage and the final fall of German resistence in the mainland reassured the Byzantine control.

Starting from 705-706, the Saracens from North Africa (recently conquered by the Arab armies) harassed the population of the coastal cities. News about the political situation of Sardinian in the following centuries are scarce. Due to Saracen attacks, in the 9th century Tharros was abandoned in favor of Oristano, after more than 1800 years of occupation; Caralis and numerous other coastal centres suffered the same fate. There are news of another massive Saracen sea attack in 1015 from Spain, led by one Mujahid (Latinized in Museto), who established a colony in the north in 1018-1028. Pope Benedict VIII asked the aid of the maritime republics of Pisa and Genoa in the struggle against the Arabs.

From the mid-11th century the Giudicati ("held by judges") appeared. The title of "Judge" was an heir of that of the Byzantine governor after the creation of the Exarchate of Africa in 582 (Prases or Judex Provinciae). In the 8th-9th centuries the four partes depending from Caralis grow increasingly independent, the Byzantines being totally cut off from the Tyrrhenian Sea by the Muslim conquest of Sicily in 827. A letter of Pope Nicholas I of 864 mentions for the first time the "Sardinian judges", their autonomy now clear in a later letter by Pope John VIII, which defined them "princes". At the dawn of the judicial era the Sardinia had some 330,000 inhabitants, of which 120,000 free. These were subjected to the authority of local curators (administrators), in turn subjected to the judge (who also administrated justice and was the commander of the army). The church was also powerful, and at this time it had completely abandoned the Eastern Rite. The arrival of Benedictines and other monks boosted the agriculture in a land which was to be extremely underdeveloped.

There were four giudicati: Torres, Cagliari, Arborea and Gallura. Often warring one against the other, they made a great number of commercial concessions to the Pisanes (who established a fortress in Caralis in 1216) and the Genoese, who soon became the true masters of the Sardinian economy. The first victim was the giudicato of Cagliari, destroyed by an alliance of the Pisane and the other three giudicati. In 1288 Pisa acquired also the giudicato of Torres, while that of Gallura was divided in the late 1290s between the two families of Bas Serra from Arborea and the Doria from Genoa. Sassari declared itself a philo-Genoese free commune in the same period. In the early 14th century wuch of the eastern Sardinia, Caralis included, as under Pisan authority. The giudicato of Arborea survived until 1420. The most remarkable Sardinian figure of the Middle Ages, Eleonora d'Arborea, was co-ruler of that reign in the late 14th century: she laid the foundations for the laws that remained valid until 1827, the Carta de Logu.

Aragonese and Spanish rules

In 1323 the Aragonese under Peter, son of King James II, disembarked near Iglesias, in south Sardinia. The Pisane intervened but where defeated both by sea and by land, and were forced to cease all the Carali area and the Gallura, mantaining only their castle in Carali. In 1353 Mariano III of Arborea, allied with the Doria, waged war against the Aragonese, defeating them at Decimum and besieging Sassari, but being unable to capture Cagliari. The Peace of Sanluri (1355) granted a period of tranquillity, but hostilities were resumed in 1395, with the Arborea initially able to capture much of the Island. However, in 1409 the Aragonese crushed a Genoese fleet coming in support the Sardinians, and destroyed the judicial army at the battle of Sanluri. Oristano, the Arborean capital, fell on March 29, 1410. After a momentary reaction, the last giudice of Arborea sold his remaing territories in 1420, in exchange of 100,000 florins.

The watchtowers all along the coast are called Aragonese towers and served to protect the island against the Arab incursions. Some of these towers were built with the stones of the Phoenician cities because these lay on strategic sites. A nice example of reuse for secular and ecclesiastical architecture can also be found in the church of Santa Giusta where the old city of Othoca had been.

The loss of the independence, the firm Aragonese (later Spanish) rule, with the introduction of a sterile feudalism, as well as the discover of the Americas, provoked an unstoppable decline of Sardinia. A short period of resurgence occurred under the local noble Leonardo Alagon, marquess of Oristano, who managed to defeat the viceroyal army in the 1470s but was later crushed at the battle of Macomer (1478), ending any further hope of independence for the island. The unceasing attacks from North African pirates and a series of plagues (from 1582, 1652 and 1655) further worsened the situation. In 1637 a French fleet sacked Oristano.

From the kingdom of Sardinia until the present day

The treaty of Utrecht (1713) assigned Sardinia to the Austrian Habsburgs and Sicily to the Piedmontese Savoyards. Philip V of Spain however recover the island in 1717, but for territorial convenience the European powers assigned Sardinia to the Savoy and Sicily to Emperor Charles VII.

Until the Unification of Italy in 1861, Sardinia and Piedmont were joined in the Kingdom of Sardinia. In 1802 King Victor Emmanuel I was ousted from Piedmont by the French army, and four years later moved his court to Cagliari: the brief Republic declared tht year, soon thwarted by the Savoy army, was the sole concrete attempt of independence from the Sardinians. The King returned to Turin in 1814. In the early 19th century the situation of the island was the following: 99% of illiterates, absence of any developed economy or trade, cities and forests abandoned. The development of the infrastructure was slow, as the Piedmontese initially did little to improve the conditions of the population. Under King Carlo Felice, a main road, still bearing his name, was built from south (Cagliari) to north (Sassari), while the universities of the two centres were enhanced; however, the few riches remained in the hands of a restricted number of barons and clergymen, banditism attracted a lrge number inhabitants, and the force immigration of Corsi, Ligurians and Maltese could do little to solve the demographics void. The concession to Sardinia of the same rights than Piedmont in 1847, under King Charles Albert, was of little help.

In 1883 the first trains travelled between Cagliari and Sassari and under Mussolini the swamps around Oristano were laid dry and the foundation of the most successful agrarian community was laid, Arborea. Mussolini also founded Carbonia, the centre of the mining activity. In 1927 the province of Nuoro was created, and works to dry the numerous waste lands favoured the arrival of immigrants. World War II saw Sardinia as the theater of minor activities, but the main event was the successful fight against malaria, obtained also with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation. Sardinia was declared an autonomous region, with some special tax raising and cultural privileges, in 1947. First regional elections were held on may 8, 1949.

After the war coal decreased in importance and that of tourism increased. Many efforts to create jobs have failed because of the high costs of transport that could not compensate the cheap labor.

Today Sardinia is still an underdeveloped region, whose history is still visible in language and culture. Noticeable is also the difference between coastal regions and the inland. Coastal regions have always been more open to outside influences. Nowadays Sardinia is most known for the northern coasts and island (La Maddalena, Costa Smeralda) and the coast near Cagliari because these are easily reached by ship and by plane.

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