The name Calatabiano may derive from the Arabic word Kalaat meaning castle and possibly ‘bianco', meaning white, although it used to be held the this was the classical Castello di Bidio.  Supposedly the local Hellenic population utilised the flat zone in the lower part of the present castle to build a place of worship.  The resulting 75'x30' temple was ashlar built with igneous stone blocks and a limestone cornice.  Of this nothing survives but some limestone ashlars mixed with fragments of the temple, some 30 Greek terracotta vases, a Greek lantern and a golden fibula found buried in the nearby 26' deep cistern.  The presence of cow bones and a goddess statue might indicate votive sacrifices to the likes of Ade, Persefone or Demetra.  Finds in the upper castle or castrum, inside a rectangular hole at the base of the big cistern include shards of Greek vases, a section of column and several coins dating from 343-337 BC.  Other site finds include coins, a tripod, a Greek pan and a bronze spear point.  All this suggests a heavy occupation of the site and cannot preclude some early form of fortification here.

From the Roman period comes amphoras and bricks made in the Roman ovens in Naxos.  There is also a triangular arch, similar to those of the Greek theatre in Taormina, set above a Byzantine stone compartment being used first as storage place for food and then as a prison.  There is a representation of a stylized fish, the ancient Christian's Ictus - Iesus Cristos Theu Ios Soter (Jesus Christ Son of God the Saviour) - on the external stone walls.

General Belisarius, under the Emperor Justinian (d.565), retook Sicily for the Byzantine Empire in 535.  It is assumed that he or his successor had at least the castrum at Calatabiano built.  The fortress may have been attacked some 300 years later when the Muslims were putting pressure on the district - Messina fell in 842/3, Enna in 859 and Syracuse in 878.  Radiocarbon dating says that a Viking, probably fighting for the Byzantines, was killed around 840 AD and his corpse was buried 13' deep under a layer of burnt soil in the tank outside the castle.  The 6'2" tall man has two holes in his skull and jaw, which are interpreted as his death wounds.  With him were found several coins from the reigns of Leone VI (866-912) and the Empress Irene Bisanzio (780-802).  One coin was as old as the Emperor Eraclio who reigned from 610 to 641 AD.

Earlier there had been Muslim incursions into Sicily in 652, 669 as well as later.  These had resulted in the unspecified building of Byzantine fortifications on the island.  In the eighth century Arabic forces attacked the Syracuse area repeatedly before being repulsed.  The final war began in 827 with the rebellion of Euphemius, but it was only in 902 that Taormina finally fell and it is assumed that Emir Ibrahim laid waste to the castles around there, namely Taormina, Calatabiano, Francavilla and Castiglione.  As Radiocarbon dating is not precise, the Viking may have died as late as this.

After the Islamic conquest, Calatabiano seems to have been abandoned as excavation found no trace of Arabic occupation.  Soon after 1060, when the Hauteville brothers Robert Guiscard (d.1085) and Roger Hauteville (d.1101) invaded the country, it is to be presumed the castle was refortified.  Messina was taken early in their advance, but the area around Catania held out until 1071.  Taormina between the two only fell in 1079.  Presumably by this date Calatabiano had also surrendered.  The castle then seems to have remained in Hauteville hands.

Two generations after the Norman conquest the castle was allegedly given by King Roger (d.1154) to the Paris family in 1135, but it seems unlikely that they actually arrived in Sicily before 1162.  The castle appeared as Kalaat-al Bian in Idrisi's Book of Roger of 1154, although this reading has been challenged.  Later, in or after 1162, Bartholomew Paris, King William I's executioner and lord of Mascali, is said to have bought the castle for the next to impossible amount of 100,000 golden tari.  The fortress subsequently passed to Bartholomew's eldest child, Pain Paris (d.1167), and then to his brother, Walter (d.1201).  These 2 were successively counts of Avellino.  Pain lost Calatabiano due to his treachery to the king in 1167, his title, but not Calatabiano, passing to his brother, Walter (d.1201).  At this time a certain Robert Calatabiano, their possible successor at the castle, was accused of multiple acts of theft, rape and cruelty and that he had restored a Muslim shrine in Mare Castle.  He also ran what seems to have been a brothel where the implication was that the inmates were coerced into prostitution and even killed for pleasure.  Robert was consequently jailed in a Mare castle dungeon and died there soon afterwards, presumably in 1168.  As a consequence Calatabiano castle, if it was held by Robert, seems to have been resumed by the Crown.

The Emperor Frederick II (d.1250), while residing at Palermo, gave Calatabianum with all its tenements and appurtenances to Bishop Bernard of Messina (1196-1227/31) in June 1201.  Probably before this, the aforementioned Walter Paris or a man of the same name, once again lost the castle for the crime of lese-majesty in disobeying orders.  As late as 1208, even though supposedly dead, he seems to have been recognised as head of the Paris family.  Meanwhile, the castle was given to Arnold Reggio, otherwise known as Count Armaleo Monaldeschi, the son-in-law of Walter Paris.  He seems to have obtained the castle as heir to Paris.  Despite this, the Emperor's wife, Constanza of Aragon (d.1222), while acting as regent from 1212 to 1216, gave the castle of Calatabianum with all its hamlets, villains, lands, tenements and appurtenances (casalibus, villanis, terris, tenimentis et pertinentiis suus) to Bishop Walter Pelear of Catania (1208-29/31) at Messina in March 1213.  She stated that this was done as the two counts had repeatedly violently attacked the bishopric and committed treason to their lord with the result that their lands had been confiscated.  She further stated that after the downfall of the counts, the castle had been given to Count Arnold only at the mandate and licence of the Crown for which the bishop was now to pay 15,000 tari to Arnold in compensation.  Consequently the castle was now to be held by the church of Catania for ever without molestation, peacefully and quietly.  The bishop is then claimed, without evidence, to have expanded the castle during his remaining years.  Despite this the castle seems to have reverted to the Crown and may have been held by Crown appointees.

After the death of the Emperor Frederick II on 13 Dec 1250, the castle was given to John Moro, the son of a Saracen slave, by King Conrad IV (d.1254).  Later, in November 1254, Pope Innocent IV confirmed his lands when he joined the papal cause against King Manfred (d.1266) after the death of Conrad IV.  Soon after this John was killed by the Saracens of Lucera who proved loyal to the Swabians.  With John's death the castle fell into the hands of Peter Ruffo of Messina (d.1256+).
  He had previously been made count of Catanzaro in Calabria by Frederick II (d.1250) and the king's marshal of Sicily on 15 December 1250 by Manfred for the young King Conrad.   After Peter's defeat at Piazza Armerina in November 1254 all his Sicilian castles were surrendered by him to the Messinans.  Calatabiano was subsequently granted to the church of Messina.

When Charles Anjou (d.1285) seized the throne in 1266, Vassallo Amelia became lord of the castle depriving the bishopric of Messina of his rights in Calatabiano.  Consequently, the bishop of Messina complained to the apostolic legate and in 1268 the pope decided that Calatabiano was to be returned to the bishop of Catania.  At this point William Amendolea claimed the castle and the Crown seized it due to the many unanswered disputes over its ownership.  On 3 May 1272 it was recorded that the castle should have a garrison of either one knight or a squire.  With the war of the Sicilian Vespers (1282-1302), Admiral Roger Lauria (d.1305) was given Calatabiano in 1285.  Subsequently, after plotting against the Crown, all his belongings, except Aci castle, were confiscated and Calatabiano reverted to the Crown.  In 1296 it was held from King Frederick III (d.1337) by the heirs of Brancaleonis Aurea, who had also been lord of Rachalmuto. 

With the Peace of Calatabellotta in 1302, Charles of Naples (d.1309) and King Frederick III
(d.1337) between them confiscated all the lands of any nobles guilty of rebellion.  Around this time Roger Lauria of Aci (d.1305) gave his rights in Calatabiano to his daughter Margaret.  This seems to have been disregarded by King Frederick III, who around 1303 gave the castle to Brancaleone Doria, from whom it passed before 1330 to unnamed heirs.  Brancaleone was the son of Bernabo Doria of Genova (d.1325).  His direct family does not appear to have retained the castle, it having been reclaimed by the Crown before 1350, possibly on the death of Brancaleone's brother in law, Manfred IV Saluzzo in 1340.  In 1354 King Louis (d.1355) travelling with his Catalan entourage was refused entry to the castle unless he came without the Spanish.  He consequently spent the night in the burgh at the foot of the castle hill.  The next year the castle was taken by Artale Alagona.  The now royalist castle was a centre for the operations which led to the 1357 victory of the Aragonese over the Angevins near Ognina.  The Alagonas also acquired Aci castle about this time and held them as outlets for the produce of their estates on Mount Etna.  They lost their estates when they rebelled in 1390.

Berengario Cruillas, who had been viceroy of Sicily as early as 1391 as well as royal chamberlain, obtained the castle by exchange with Tommaso Romano in 1396.  The skeleton of Giovannello the son of Giovanni Cruyllas, one of the last owners of the castle, is displayed in the Weapon Room.  It has been identified by a radiocarbon date of around 1450, the contents of the burial and historical considerations.  The castle withstood a Turkish assault in 1544 when the town was sacked.  Once again in 1677 the castle held out while the town suffered, this time from a French attack.  In 1693, due to the earthquake caused by the eruption of Mount Etna, the town and castle on the hill were abandoned and the town moved definitively onto the plain below.  On the hill, below the castle, the Gothic church of the Saint Crucifix built in 1484 still stands amongst traces of the town.
 Above the front doorway of the church the carved remains of the Cruillas' coat of arms can still be seen.

The castle site stands 720' above sea level and is attributed to the Byzantines on the grounds that the Greek temple was not fortified.  The first castle would appear to be the cursus shaped walls protecting the highest point of the hill, now known as the castrum.  This is somewhat similar to the towerless castrum at Sperlinga.  The Calatabiano castrum consists of 2 D shaped towers to NE and SW.  The SW tower would appear to have been the keep.  This has a square interior, but a rounded exterior to the N&W.  The north wall is nearly 20' thick, the west one 15', the south one 10' and the interior east one only 2'.  The north wall is also projecting from the enceinte, unlike the NE tower which is truly D shaped internally and externally.  The walls of the NE tower are also much more uniform and thinner.  The SW keep also covers the wrecked entrance to the castrum.  Ground floor loops exist overlooking the bailey to the SE as well as a slant.  This is still visible on the west side to the castle entrance and was used by the defenders to hurl stones down on their enemies.  There is also a water cistern, probably fed from the castrum roof.  The whole structure is built of sandstone and Roman tile with odd bits of lavastone thrown in as snecker stones.

SE of the castrum, some 40' below, is the castle bailey running EW along the igneous ridge.  The walls of this, with its Romanesque doorways, would appear to be Byzantine and therefore prior to 900.  Like the castrum this is built of lavastone with sandstone dressings.  However the bailey, especially towards the ship's prow at the east end, has many Roman tile levelling courses.  As such this would appear Byzantine, if not older.  Within is the hall of Cruillas together with the original, probably seventeenth century cobblestone paths.  The Cruillas room was once a rectangular tower, before conversion into a dance hall.  The original white roof arch is made of Syracuse limestone and still sports the Cruyllas arms, 9 crosses, on the keystone.  Within the room are fossilised arches on different, older floor levels - at least one of these is Romanesque.  Next to the Cruillas hall are two chambers once used as bedrooms.  There is also a small chapel, attributed to the Cruillas, but surely much older as the restoration of the apse brought to light a beautiful Byzantine painting representing Christ the Creator, surrounded by four angels.

The outer defences to the south cover the approach up from the town and consist of a curtain and an open backed rectangular tower.  Some of the walls were built only in 1677, the year of the last battle fought in the war of Messina.  Then a French force attacked Calatabiano from the valley side, but 150 defending Spanish soldiers forced them to retire.

Why not join me here and at other Sicilian castles?  Information on this and other tours can be found at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2019 Paul Martin Remfry