Murals against the Mafia realised by students in Catania, Sicily. Click for credits

While in Russia I had a few dinners with two Frenchmen from Northern France who lived and worked in Moscow.

Claude, whose job contract was about to end, told us: “I’ve been offered a job in Toulouse. Alain, do you picture me in Toulouse, with all that mafioso mentality?”

Toulouse. Click for credits and to enlarge

Toulouse is in the deep French South. We passed to other topics in our conversation and dinner flowed pleasantly. Alain had brought a few bottles of Bordeaux from France. Good wine is awfully expensive in Russia. Of course Claude didn’t refer to ‘mafioso’ in the sense of ‘belonging to the mob’.


‘Mafia’ is in fact used both in a broad and a narrow sense.

According to the Dizionario Treccani ‘mafioso’ is:

1) either a criminal belonging to a mafia-like organization;

2) or one who “to the rule of law [including the laws of market, I guess] tends to replace the power of his/her own interests or of a small group and indefinitely defends his/her friends to the detriment of others.”

Now I am well aware that cliques & personal networks exist everywhere. In Russia and China they have respectively blat and guanxi relations and obligations. In Russia I heard of professionals like doctors or dentists that preferred to build a network of ‘useful contacts’ instead of being paid by each of their clients.

Cliques are terribly pervasive in the Mediterranean. In every Western country good contacts count to get things done, to find jobs etc. But here especially they represent a serious obstacle to modernization, by systematically promoting mediocrity over merit, by polluting the political arena – votes exchanged for favours, collaboration among politicians even from opposite sides by the exchange of favours etc.

Sheets commemorating Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two Italian magistrates killed by the Mafia. White sheets are a symbol of protest against the silence that protects the Mafia

Some areas of the Italian South are permeated by a mafioso mentality which often connects economical political and criminal activities into a choking whole and which from those areas radiates to the rest of the country.

Giuseppe Mazzini‘s prophecy [Mazzini is one of Italy’s founding patriots,] that “Italy will be that which the Mezzogiorno will be”, proved true, at least in some respects.


I wonder how many researchers have connected ancient Roman behaviours with the mafiosi behaviours (of any kind) that we find in Mediterranean coastal areas and in Italy. In the Mezzogiorno I see something reminiscent of the ancient Roman system of social relations [our next post tries to throw some light on this matter.]

But let’s first review how a mafia network in the narrow sense is built.

One common mistake – we had written – is that of considering the mafiosi as simple gunmen to defeat. Don Vito Cascio Ferro had no guns. He was one of the first godfathers who operated both in Sicily and in the United States. His force lay in his cynicism and intelligence and in the network he was able to create thanks to well ingrained traditions. He distributed favori, favours, to everybody, but something was asked in return.

This passage from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is even clearer:

“Don Vito Corleone was a man to whom everybody came for help, and never were they disappointed. He made no empty promise (…) Only one thing was required. That you, you yourself, proclaim your friendship. And then, no matter how poor or powerless the supplicant, Don Corleone would take that man’s troubles to his heart (…) His reward? Friendship, the respectful title of “Don” (…), some humble gift – a gallon of homemade wine etc.
It was understood, it was mere good manners, to proclaim that you were in his debt and that he had the right to call upon you at any time to redeem your debt by some small service.”

So this exchange of favours seems an important element of the culture underlying the mafia. Ingrained in traditions that are centuries old it creates a network based on reciprocal dependence.

We’ll tentatively see how all this can somehow be connected to ancient Rome.

[to be continued]

Related posts:

The Mafia and the Italian Mind (1)
A Cultural Battle
The Mafia and the Italian Mind. Was Julius Caesar a Godfather? (3)

Is The Human Mind Like a Museum?
“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Traces of Paganism in Italians

31 thoughts on “The Mafia and the Italian Mind (2)

  1. “We’ll tentatively see how all this can somehow be connected to ancient Rome….”

    All this would seem to descend directly from the Mos maiorum of ancient Rome, specifically from the patronus-cliens relationships between patricians and plebeians.


      1. At the risk of sounding like an egomaniac I think I can solve this search for the mafia origins. My mother is Arbereshe-Sicilian, our families are from Piana degli Albanesi and Contessa Entellina. Both are Arbereshe towns in between Palermo and Corleone (also Arbereshe). If you look at some of the other original mafia towns like Calabria you will see they are Arbereshe too. Many of the traditions of the mafia seems to have originated with ancient Albanian tribal customs. If you look up “Albanian blood fueds” they continue today and are much worse than in Sicily. In Piana, apparently the mayor (also the Don) offended Mussolini when he visited the town, by whispering to him that “he didn’t need to bring security..that he was under the protection of his ‘people’. This ticked Mussolini off so much he started a war against the mafia. The mafia really grew powerful right after the unification. They protected the wealthy land owners from the uprising contadinas, therefore they are no friend of the common people. At that time, every city had it’s own family in control, but when migration to U.S occurred, all of the sudden you have many families fighting for control over one city..hence the “five families” in the Godfather. I practice traditional Sicilian medicine as passed down through my mothers can go to my blog or find me on Cultura..have a blessed day! reading through your blog now! love it thanks!


        1. Dear Cristala Mussato-Allen,

          thank you for your contribution and for being here.

          First of all my best compliments for your blog. It is very interesting and on the same path as mine, so I’m thinking of adding it to my blogroll.

          As for the growth of Mafia in Sicily I was aware of these Albanian influences and also of Arabic influences (no need to tell you that Sicily was under Arabic rule for 400 years; but I know that these Albanesi belong to the Italo-Albanian Church of Eastern Rite and are mostly pre-Islamic).

          Given though the theme of this blog – a quirky research on Romanness – I tried to research into the ‘Roman influence’ over the Mafia phenomenon. The result I summarized in the *3rd installment* on the Mafia, not here, and at the time of my study I was surprised by the amount of scholars’ papers on the topic.

          That the Mafia always protected the land owners, not the peasants, is clear. Your Arbereshe-Sicilian heritage is extremely interesting although not much known. Some friends in my twenties were Albanians from Italian Molise. They taught me a lot.


  2. Andreas was quicker than me so he wrote what I wanted to write about the Roman connexion.
    The Anglo Saxon world has “the Old Boys” networks that operate much like the “mafia” mentality.


  3. Mmmmhhh… Seems to me you are a ‘Don’… among bloggers of course. Or aren’t you the kind that exchanges words… for friendship? Saludos, Don Man of Rome.

    pd. good to be able to read you… whenever I can.


    1. A ‘Don’ … among bloggers … or exchanging words for friendship?? Let us not exaggerate, and yes, I like all sort of intellectual exchanges, dear Woman de Mexico.



  4. I know where you are going, but it is not an exclusive concept from Southern Italy. I’ve seen these alliances in all populations who fear for their sustenance, who turn to their Don, be he/she a religious leader or a political one. Look at Afganistan right now!


    1. Rosaria, I agree, in fact in my text I had written “In Russia and China they have respectively blat and guanxi relations and obligations.” Didn’t want to diminish Southern Italians. Just trying to understand what is specific from here.


  5. @Rosaria

    Rosaria, I wanted to add that the Mezzogiorno is like a reservoir of ancient behaviours because areas of it didn’t modernize themselves as the rest of the country. And in fact not by chance the South is a protagonist in my blog on our roots.

    You now belong to another planet, but here, as Italians, we nonetheless have the duty to denounce those behaviours that are not apt to face today’s challenges (competition etc.) and so forth.

    If you look at the murals (at the head of my post) painted by students from a Catania school, it bears the words:

    “The fight against the Mafia must first of all be ‘a cultural movement’.”

    In fact it is a culture, a mentality, that we have to change because it is choking Mezzogiorno’s further development, damaging the country and the Italian reputation. These Sicilian students have well understood that the battle is cultural and it is not won by just arresting the mafiosi.

    So to me the Mafia(s) arose not only because those people needed sustenance as you say. It was something more complex and ancient. One of the reason why it became so powerful.

    Some parts of the ancient heritage we have to refuse and fight against (not all that is ancient is good.) And, trying to better understand it may be a step, however small, towards a solution.

    This is how I see it in any case 🙂


  6. Very interesting, I’m looking forward to read the third part.
    I haven’t come across books or papers focused on a potential connection between ancient Roman behaviour and the mafioso mentality.


    1. Thanks Lola. Such books and texts exist, and I am reading them only now (which will make my third chapter harder to write.)

      I first wanted to say what is my personal reflection and experience about the matter before reading what others have researched about it.


  7. The Mafia in Sicily is, I may be wrong, a survival of the clan mentality and seems to have originated way way back as a kind of Robin Hood fraternity.
    Outside Italy it has become a highly criminal gang, very well organized and powerful. Now it has some rivals: the Hells Angels and the Street Gangs.
    The Street Gangs originated in South America and in the Caribbeans and are the most violent of all the criminals we have.
    All of these, over here, are countercultural and no romanticism is associated to them contrary to what you call the Mezzogiorno.


    1. Paul, there can be some Robin Hood elements in the origin of the Mafia, but I disagree in case you mean that only outside Italy it has become a criminal thing, which I don’t think it is your thought in any case.
      What do you mean by ‘countercultural’?


      1. The Canadian and Québec mentalities are not gang prone. We are more individualistic although Québecers will round the wagons when they feel attacked or slighted but it does not last.
        Unfortunately when we think of Mafia, Bloods or Crips, they are of foreign origins, Italians, Latinos or Haitians/Jamaicans. Just read the news bulletins from our country and you will see.


        1. Unfortunately when we think of Mafia, Bloods or Crips, they are of foreign origins, Italians, Latinos or Haitians/Jamaicans.

          I know Paul, I know. French (there excluding Mediterranean French,) Anglo-Saxons and let me add Central and especially Northern Italians seem less mafiosi. This mentality (I am referring especially to patronage and clientage) I believe we find in almost all ‘not yet modernized’ cultures (don’t have a better term now.) In Sudan for example, or China.

          As for the Latin cultures – especially those linked to Italy, Spain and Portugal – I always suspected that some explanations can be found via the study of the social relations of ancient republican Rome (where all access to power, land and wealth was controlled by a small number of powerful clans or gentes), even more now that I am reading a few specialised studies on the topic.

          I was excited that some scholars of Ancient Rome reach the point of trying to better interpret passages by Livy, Plautus or Cicero by analysing the social networks of Latin America or of Mediterranean villages.

          Brazil is interesting because the native cultures were not very developed hence some archaic Portuguese traits are preserved, less mixed with extraneous elements. Surveys of clientage and the relationship between great landowners and farm labourers in 19th century Brazil are for example deemed to shed light on Livy’s use of clientes. Also amigos (friends) in Brazilian, and amici in Latin, seem to be used in exactly the same way, different from our modern way.


          1. I had never quite looked at Rome in such a light.

            Paulus, did you forget that the capital mission of Man of Roma is to expand ‘verbum Romae’ ? 🙂

            I guess the same can be said of ancient Athens

            I guess so too.


  8. Understanding why this mentality exists, how it begins, why it is so effective and destructive would probably go a long way towards understanding the problems that we face with respect to clergy sex scandals and corporate corruption any place in the world.


      1. The actual problem is a different set, I think, but the cover ups, additional secondary scandals, and official denials are mafia-like.


  9. Yeah but they, Southern Mafiosi’s, are perfect characters to make great, compelling movies.

    Other than that, my cousin (who is Calabrese) was in from Paris last week. We talked about the “mob” and its influence not just in Italy but across the world. He seemed quite cynical in asserting ‘Ndreghetta’s’ power in Northern Italy and Europe.

    In other words, they run the show he believes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s