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© Jeff Matthews     entry April 2013  
Desultory Notes on Calabria
—of Natural Beauty and Disaster, Obscure Archaeology and Curious Jewish History

I say "desultory" only because I'm not really sure what "desultory" means. If it means disconnected, random, aimless, then I think I'm your man. Calabria lends itself to desultoriness. There is just too much stuff. The Italian region of Calabria is the "toe" of the Italian boot. The political sub-units—the provinces—are Cosenza, Crotone, Catanzaro, Vibo Valentia, and Reggio Calabria; those are also the names of the capital cities in each respective province. The entire region of Calabria covers 15,080 km2 (5,822 sq mi). (On the map, right, a straight diagonal from lower left to upper right is about 240 km/150 miles.) The population of Calabria is just under 2 million, down slightly from 10 years ago. The population density of the region is about 130 inhabitants/ (350/sq.mile), well below the national average. Of the some 400 villages, towns and cities in Calabria, the largest is Reggio (di) Calabria (the "di" is commonly omitted); it is at the extreme lower left (map) just south of the straits of Messina, across the waters from Sicily. The city of Reggio Calabria has a population of 186,000 (or about the same number of people who live on my street in Naples!). The new autostrada from Naples to Reggio Calabria is 500 km long/300 miles); if you leave right after breakfast in either direction, you can be in the other place for a late lunch. Not bad, considering that it took Giuseppe Garibaldi and his army one month to cover the same route in the summer of 1860.

If you have a month, however, you should take it. Coming down from the north into Calabria, you enter into a land of intensely lovely, rugged mountains. Unlike central and northern Italy, it can still be lonely and mysterious. Even foreboding. These are not the neat, well-tended fields of Umbria and Tuscany. You pass small hill-towns that were once feudal estates, where serfs walked miles down to their hard-scrabble plots of land in the morning and miles back in the evening, century after century, in a grueling and unforgiving struggle just to stay alive. In classical times, Calabria was home to the Sybarites and the Pythagoreans and, much more recently, has known infamous brigands (or Robin Hoods, depending on who is telling the story) as well as famous philosophers such as Tommaso Campanella and saints such as St. Francis of Paola. Times, of course, have changed, but Calabria is still the land of the vicious man-made violence of the 'ndrangheta, the Calabrian version of what is generally known abroad as the "Mafia" (a term that technically applies only to Sicily). Yet, Calabria also boasts one of the newest universities in the nation, the University of Calabria, located near the town of Cosenza; it is a truly modern campus where 35,000 students follow degree programs in Engineering, Psychology, Law, Economy, and Letters. Calabria, like much of Italy, has also had its share of natural violence in the form of earthquakes. Two particular nasty ones come to mind: the truly cataclysmic quake of 1789 and the 1908 quake which greatly damaged both the town of Reggio Calabria on the mainland and the town of Messina on the island of Sicily.

There are three mountains ranges in Calabria: the Pollino (which really extends down from the province of Basilicata to the north, then La Sila in the middle, and finally Aspromonte in the province of Reggio Calabria, itself. All three have their own typical flora and fauna, and all three have national parks dedicated to preserving the magnificent territory. Much of the area is heavily wooded and sparsely populated, but the parks boast several "entry points" placed at strategic locations around their perimeters. You can go in, wander around and easily get lost—especially at night; it's a great learning experience! Just think— "...when the wind is in the trees, and the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon stormy seas..."—that howl you hear? The one you hope against hope is the gentle lowing of a soprano cow behind that tree? No, there are still wolves in the mountains of Calabria. The name "Aspromonte" is also well-known to Italian school children because of a bizarre episode in recent Italian history. Recent, here, means August, 1862. Italy's great national hero, Garibaldi, two years after his march up the peninsula to unify Italy, decided to finish the job and march from the same spot, this time all the way to Rome, the last papal enclave holding out against unification, and take it for Italy. At Aspromonte Garibaldi ran into the regular (now united) Italian army, who no longer wanted his help. He was wounded, captured and sent packing into exile on his private island of Caprera off of Sardinia. (He came back, of course. See this item.)

It's hard to avoid mountains in Calabria, but if you are allergic to mountains, wolves, brigands and picturesque hill towns there is another way. You can also drive the coast road from the north. It is about 275 km (170 miles) from Sapri on the Gulf of Policastro, still in the Campania region, along water's edge down to the town of Reggio Calabria. The coast is totally different from the interior and has a charm all its own. You'll pass through small fishing villages and harbors, some of them well known for various reasons, including Pizzo, where king Murat, Napoleon's brother-in-law was taken prisoner and executed. You'll see a great number of so-called Saracen Towers perched on the hills above the sea, set in place to watch for Arab and Ottoman invaders over the centuries. If you want to go inland a bit, you can see the results of the great urban rebuilding projects of the 1780s and 90s in the wake of the 1783 earthquake, entire villages built from scratch with orderly, straight streets and earthquake-resistant architecture. This includes the town of Filadelfia(!), indeed named for the City of Brotherly Love in the United States. You may also pass through, especially in the province of Cosenza, some Arbëresh towns—that is, of Albanian origin! (Fascinating tale about that. Click here!) Eventually, you'll be down at the friendly little town of Scylla, the abode of the famous monster in Greek mythology who, in cahoots with Charybdis, a cross between another monster and a sentient maelstom on the Sicilian side, controlled the straits of Messina, and woe unto you if you wound up between "between Scylla and Charybdis," as they say...(if they still say that, but they probably don't. And thus is our classical heritage reduced to puny expressions such as "between a rock and a hard place." Sigh. I guess I'm old.)

Back to the mountains. The Aspromonte massif, itself, forms the southernmost tip of the Italian peninsula. It has sea on all sides except the north. The highest point is Montalto at about 2000 meters (6500 feet) in the center of the "toe," just a few miles inland from the town of Reggio Calabria. As such, it's a stone's throw down to the east coast and the Ionian Sea with towns such as Locris (Locri) and other sites of Magna Grecia in Italy in the first millennium BC. Now we are into the "obscure archaeology" mentioned in the title of this entry—obscure because history and the shifting geology of coastlines have not been as kind to the ancient Greek settlements along the Ionian coast as they have been to better-known colonies farther north, such as Paestum, Herculaneum, Velia, etc., or the Greek sites on Sicily. Locri was founded around 680 BC as Epizephyrian Locris, meaning Locris (for the original town in Greece) "under the west wind." (Note "zephyr" in the name, from Zephyrus, the gentle Greek god of the west wind and bringer of the soft breeze of spring and early summer). The original Locrians were an ancient tribe that were among those who wandered down from the Balkans into not-yet-Greece beginning around 2000 BC. The Greek (and then Roman) town of Locri in Calabria was abandoned in the fifth century AD and finally destroyed by the Saracens in 915. The survivors fled inland about 10 km to found the town of Gerace on the slopes of the Aspromonte. A new town called Gerace Marina was built on the coast in the 19th century and that name was changed to Locri in 1934. Thus, Locri, at least in name, has come full circle, though not exactly in the same place as the original.

In 1972 just a few miles up the coast from Locri off the Riace beach, a scuba diver discovered two statues that are now a solid part of Italy's great wealth of classical treasures. They were submerged about 300 meters off-shore in shallow water; after years of restoration, these "Riace Bronzes" (photo, right) may be seen in the town of Reggio Calabria. (A very recent archaeology journal [April 2013] laments that "In spite of being a major tourist draw, the so-called Riace Bronzes are still being housed in temporary quarters, three years after they were moved for museum renovations [of the National Archaeological Museum]"; thus, the statues are currently in Palazzo Campanella, seat of the Regional Council, in the town of Reggio Calabria.) The statues are slightly larger than life-sized and depict two Greek nude, bearded warriors. They are estimated to have been sculpted around 450 BC, but the rest is mysterious. There are many competing theories as to the origin. One of the few certainties is that these are not Roman copies of Greek originals. They are originals and, as such, are two of fewer than a dozen such large Greek bronzes in existence. They may have been crafted in Greece and transported to the Ionian coast of Italy, where somehow they wound up in the water. They may have been gone down in a shipwreck, or they may been on solid land and been overtaken by the sea in some fashion. They may also have been of local manufacture by the Italo-Locrians, themselves. Underwater searches along the local coast have failed to turn up other similar items, but that doesn' t mean there are none out there. That's Calabria for you.

The Ionian coast of Reggio Calabria has a subsequent history in which the Greeks play an important part. There are areas where archaic forms of Greek are still spoken, and there are many reminders of the Greek Orthodox faith in the architecture of churches, inscriptions found in them, and even in the persistence of Greek Orthodox religious rites still practiced in some place. [Other related items are here and here.)

On to curious Jewish history. First of all, Jewish presence in Italy is documented back to the time of Maccabee consuls in Rome (see this link); that is, before the time of Christ. Later Jewish influx into Italy occurred as part of the diaspora, the forced expulsion of Jews from Judea by the Roman Empire in 70 AD. But is there Jewish presence in Calabria even before any of that? Well, there is a legend that you want to be true just because it's so fascinating. A few blocks in from the beach of the town of Reggio Calabria and running parallel to the water's edge is a good-sized avenue named via Aschenez (pronounced with a hard 'k', thus Askenez) so similar to the word Ashkenazi that you don't have to think twice about it. Ashkenazic Jews represent an important, distinct subculture of Judaism (another, for example, are Sephardic Jews). Generally, speaking, Ashkenazic Jews are those of France, Germany, Eastern Europe, and, by later emigration, North America. Italian Jewry, on the other hand, has had a least a substantial number of Sephardic Jews (inhabitants of Spain after the diaspora). Yet, here in Reggio Calabria, there is a via Ashkenez. It helps to look at the Biblical etymology: the tenth chapter of the Book of Genesis contains the so-called Table of Nations. It starts:

Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and of their sons born after the flood. The sons of Japheth: Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras. And the sons of Gomer: Ashkenaz, and Riphath, and Togarmah...
There is an intriguing similarity between the name Japheth and the Greek Titan Iapetus, the father of Prometheus, who molded the first humans out of clay. It is not the only such similarity between Biblical names and those of Greek mythology; comparisons serve to lend at least plausibility, if not credence, to some legends. Also, the 1st-century Romano-Jewish historian, Flavius, says this: "Aschenaz gave birth to the Aschenazi, whom the Greeks now call Reggini..."[i.e. inhabitants of Reggio Calabria]. So, the town of Reggio Calabria not only has the street, but the residents still recall the legend that their town was, indeed, founded by Ashkenaz, the great-grandson of Noah.

(note: There is an extended comment on this below this entry.*)

    Gerace photo: L. Papallo          
Finally, I am indebted to Laura Papallo for inspiring me to write some of this down, as meandering as it is. Her father's family is from Martone, a small hill-town near Gerace. She writes, "I am interested in the fact that Gerace has a long time connection to the Byzantine Church...The Cathedral in Gerace has inscriptions in Greek and they say that when John Paul visited, he allowed it to remain a two-rite and two-language church...Gerace is uphill from the Locri archaeological site and the first time I looked up and was told that they carted all the marble up those hills to build Gerace, it took my breath away. It looked to me like an Acropolis of sorts on the distant hill. They have a great poem posted there about the twins - i Gemelli - another name for the Bronzes."

The poem in Italian that Laura mentions is by Franco Loschiavo. This English version is my own translation and, with all due apologies to the author, I did my best.

To Gerace

They oft take wing o'er the Locride
these myths and legends of ancient Hellas.
Gerace, up there for a thousand years,
part of the peak itself.
In the evening she rises in majesty
to reflect the reds of a golden dusk,
Perhaps she adorns herself for the ball
with all the lamps ablaze.
Now she is called to relive the age
of bygone glory and splendor.
A gem hanging midst heaven and earth
is now resplendent anew,
this celestial garden
gives thanks to the magic
that has happened below
when in the magical light of the twins,
Gerace--paradise of Europe--suddenly reappeared.

Laura kindly included a picture (above) of Gerace, this "acropolis of sorts on the distant hill". It certainly looks like one. That's Calabria for you.

* note:
Lengthy Footnote/a Flight of Fancy on Ashkenaz

This started out to be a footnote to the section, above, but sometimes I can't stop.

I'm not a Biblical scholar (although, upon the advice of Prof. Warren Johnson, I did sneak a few glances into Julius Wellhausen's (1844-1918) skull-crunching tome, Prolegomena zur Geschichte IsraelsProlegomena to the History of Israel, but I do know a good legend when I hear one, and the legend that the town of Reggio Calabria was founded by Ashkenaz, Noah's great-grandson is a good one. This is especially true when you consider that the rabbi of Reggio Calabria says that the legend shows "early Jewish presence in our area."
Assuming "sons" to mean descendants or successors or nations, and hoping that into each tale some truth must fall, consider that, even according to the legendary Jewish "begats" in the Table of Nations in the Book of Genesis, Ashkenaz was not a Jew, not even a Semite. (They are not the same thing. Arabs are Semites, too, according to themselves, because they descend from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, the maid of Abraham's wife and not from Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah, his real wife. But both Jews and Arabs descend from Abraham and he descends from Shem, the eponym of the "Semitic" people.) Not even Noah was a Jew. Noah was the father who would repopulate all the peoples of the world after the Great Flood. His three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth would become the Semitic, Hamitic, and Japhetic peoples.
To make the world's longest story slightly shorter, the Japhetic people would be what we now term Indo-European, extending all the way from peoples in northern India to most peoples in Europe. (In older literature on anthropology and linguistics even as late as the middle of the 1800s, "Japhetic" was a synonym for "Indo-European" [IE].) Genesis also says the Japheth had a son, Gomer, who in turn had a son named — here it is — Ashkenaz. Ashkenaz is thus mentioned three times in the Bible—twice in the chronologies of Genesis and 1 Chronicles, respectively, as the son of Gomer, grandson of Japheth and great-grandson of Noah,  and once in Jeremiah: "...blow the horn among the nations, prepare the nations against her, call together against her the kingdoms of Ararat, Minni, and Ashkenaz...". Because of the similarity in sound to the old Hebrew word, Ashkuz, for the ancient kingdom of Scythia, some feel that, indeed, this kingdom of Ashkenaz was Scythia, that area on the Black from which the IE's (or "Japhetic" peoples), are supposed to have spread out.

But "Ashkenaz" today is a reference to the "Ashkenazi Jews", a major, distinct sub-culture of Judaism. How can a branch of Judaism be named for someone who does not descend from Shem, someone who is not a Jew? and then, to boot, winds up as the legendary Jewish founder of a town in southern Italy?

Ashkenaz is also a Hebrew term for "Germany" and was the designation of the first area of settlement of Jews in NW Europe, initially on the banks of the Rhine. It is difficult to determine when the term Ashkenaz first acquired that meaning, that is, when the term Ashkenaz started to mean "Germany" in Hebrew and Ashkenazim to mean "German Jews," but scholarship converges roughly on the centuries between 600 and 1000 AD. Before that, it is unclear what the word meant. (Some sources read into the word the stems for Saxon and Scandinavia.) The root Hebrew etymology of "Ashkenaz" is apparently "scattered fire". (Jerome, writing in 400 AD, breaks it down into the Hebrew word esh meaning fire, a comparative particle ke, and the verb naza, meaning to sprinkle or scatter. He renders it in Latin as ignis sic asperus—Thus is fire scattered.) Also, as noted above, there is at least one reference to the name in Antiquities of the Jews by the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, who wrote (in about 90 AD) "...And so many were the countries that had the children of Japheth for their inhabitants. Of the three sons of Gomer, Aschanax founded the Aschanaxians, who are now called by the Greeks Rheginians."
It would be nice to know where Josephus got that. Maybe from a Greek historian? Josephus certainly had access to documents that no longer exist. Might the Greeks have been responsible in some way for the legend? If you like words that sound alike and are possibly related, such as Ashkenaz and Ashkuz, try Ashkenaz and Ascanius, a legendary king of Alba Longa (not far from Rome) and said to have been the son of the Trojan hero, Aeneas. Unless we get Rosetta Stone or Dead Sea Scrolls lucky, however, and find some hidden cache left from the library at Alexandria, all this is fanciful. (But I never claimed otherwise!) Speaking of fanciful, you might also wonder if the "scattered fire" has anything to do with the Greek legend of Prometheus (said to be the son of the titan Iapetus/Japheth) punished for having stolen fire from the gods and given it to mankind. His punishment entailed being chained to Kazbek mountain in the Caucasus, the root of our word 'Caucasian'.
Note, in any event, that Josephus didn't say that Ashkenaz founded the city, simply that he was the progenitor of people that founded the city. Could Indo-Europeans have wandered into Italy by 1500 BC and done that? Certainly. The entire Italian peninsula is full of Indo-Europeans from the north as well as from the east (Greece).
According to much Biblical scholarship, the Jewish Bible was compiled in the course of the five or six centuries before Christ, with commentaries on it being written well into the Christian era. It was late in this time frame that Hebrew scholars started referring to Jews in Northern Europe as Ashkenazi. That couldn't have happened until after the arrival of Jews in "Germany" and that couldn't have happened until after the diaspora started resettling Middle Eastern Jews in Europe, that is, after 70 AD. (Detour. When I say "Compiling the Jewish Bible" I am dodging the debate over oral transmission vs written transmission. In a way it is similar to the debates on Homer. See this item.)
So who is the Reggio Calabria legend really referring to as the founder of the city? It's probably a fusion of different events spread over a couple of thousand years. Archaeology says that some early sites of Magna Grecia in that area were preceded by native Italic sites, including one at Reggio Calabria in around 1500 BC.  That is plausible both in terms of a general IE expansion from the north (the so-called "Italic" peoples) as well as from the east, from Greece, itself. It corresponds to the arrival of merchants, coming from the Aegean Sea in the Middle Bronze Age (1700-1300 B.C.), of which there is ample archaeological evidence. It is also at about the same time as the great eruption of Santorini that destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete, sending refugees to the Greek mainland where they became Mycenaean Greeks, those who would then fight the Trojan War in 1200 BC. It is likely that other refugees went west and wound up in Italy. (Indeed, besides Alba Longa, mentioned above, other "Trojan" sites in Italy include Benevento, founded, they say, by Diomedes, after the Trojan War.) Besides the language similarities mentioned above (Japheth/Iapetus, not to mention Jupiter in Latin and Pra-Japati in Sanskrit), others are equally interesting; these include a son of Japheth named Javan, plausibly the source of "Ionian," the sea that washes the shores of southern Italy. Thus, both the northerners and the Greeks were Japhetic (Indo-European) and they both helped in populating southern Italy.

So, the date of 1500 is plausible. The legend of Ashkenaz and "early Jewish presence" was possibly tacked on later, when Hebrew scholars in the Middle Ages were referring to the synagogue and center of Jewish learning in the 4th-century AD in Reggio Calabria as well as to similar centers in Germany. It was originally a geographical description; the founders were from such and such a place, in any event, from the peoples who spread from Japheth's grandson, Ashkenaz. By our Middle Ages, however, the transfer of meaning was complete; Ashkenaz meant "northern Jew" and you have a legend, a fusion of elements spread over many centuries.

The idea that Ashkenaz was "Jewish" is curious, though. It can't mean "Jewish" in the sense of Semite. Maybe it's a very general use of the word, roughly meaning "a Biblical ancestor". Maybe that's what Josephus meant. Maybe that's what the legend means.

If you want your favorite legend filtered through the tough jaws of rigorous academic scholarship, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to someone else.
^to place in main text

-Conan, Robert. (2010) The Indo-German Identification. Camden House, New York.
-Culley, Robert C. Culley. (1986) Oral Tradition and Biblical Studies, Oral Tradition Journal, 1/1, 30-65. Center for Studies in Oral Tradition. Columbia, Missouri.
-Jerome (400 AD) Liber interpretationis nominum Hebraicorum (Book of Interpretation of Hebrew names).
-Jones, Alfred (1997) Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names. Kregel Publications. Grand Rapids, Michigan.
-Josephus (Titus Flavius Josephus) Antiquities of the Jews , written c. 94 AD. English translation by William Whiston, 1737.
-Leeming, David. (2003) From Olympus to Camelot: The World of European Mythology. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
-Murray, Hugh. (1834) An Encyclopedia of Geography. Longman, etc. London.
-Parson, James. (1767) Remains of Japhet, Being Historical Enquiries into the Affinity and Origins of The European Languages. Dublin.
-Wellhausen, Julius. (German ed. 1883) Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. New York: Meridian Books.

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