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The Greek Language in Italy

Olden forms of Greek are still spoken in some villages in the circled areas.

map of Greek-speaking areasOne of the most fascinating things about southern Italy, linguistically, is that there are still villages in Calabria where olden dialects of Greek are spoken. This, you might say, is almost to be expected. After all, the influence of ancient Greece in southern Italy is evident. The area was part of ancient Magna Grecia. It makes sense, then, that there might be a linguistic heritage left over, even over such a long period of time—although if you think about it, there are absolutely no places left in Italy where they still speak any other pre–Roman language, not Oscan, the language of the Samnites, or even the language of the once mighty Etruscans. In any case, the first temptation, indeed, is to explain relics of the Greek language here by saying that they are left over from the days when Greek sailors settled and built in Sicily, at Cuma and Neapolis. 

The problem is not quite that simple. There are a number of theories that try to account for the origins of the Greek currently spoken in the south of the Italian peninsula, a language that is Greek, yes, but not easily or directly traceable to the language of ancient Greece. Here are some of the theories, which divide into Early Arrival (EA) and Late Arrival (LA), the latter having a number of variations: 

(1) EA. They are, indeed, descendants of the settlers of Magna Grecia. Supporters of this theory explain the differences between ancient Greek and the Calabrian dialects by pointing out the enormous Latin influence of the Roman Empire for so many centuries. Also, languages change anyway, even with no outside influence. Isolation discourages change, true, but even if the Greeks of yore had crawled into caves in Calabria and closed the rocks behind them for two thousand years, their language would still have changed somewhat over that period. 

(2) LA-i. In the last century, an Italian scholar, Morosi, based on his examination of the dialects spoken in Calabria, concluded that these people originally got here between the year 900 A.D. and the end of the 1100s. It has, however, not been possible to settle the dispute between EA and LA solely by examining the dialects, themselves. Other evidence must be considered. In Byzantine writings, for example, there are two references made to settlements in Italy during this period. The first is to the reconstruction and settling of the city of Gallipoli during the reign of Basil I at the end of the 9th century, and the second is a statement that Basil settled in Longobardia 3,000 former slaves from the Peloponnesius. 

(3) LA-ii. The presence of Greek speakers in Italy might be due to the influence of the mighty Byzantine Empire under Justinian. From the middle of the 7th to the middle of the 8th century, of the 13 Popes in Rome, eleven of them were Greeks. Justinian made it a point to fill the position with Greek speakers because he felt they would better carry out the policies of Constantinople on the Italian peninsula. Also, there was a vast combination of Greek administrative officials, ecclesiastics, eastern merchants, and pilgrims from Greece and Syria, all of whom contributed to what some historians  have termed an "oriental elite" in Rome. 

Thus, the line goes, Rome, itself, was very Byzantine Greek by the 7th century. But, the counterargument goes, Latin and Roman tradition was still strong, and just how pervasive could the influence of a so-called 'oriental elite' have been in the outlying areas of the southern part of the peninsula? One would not expect Byzantine clerics and bureaucrats to move into the southern mountains and start families.  It is possible, however, that when the Lombards—the last Germanic tribe to sweep down over the peninsula—displaced the Byzantines, Greek–speaking refugees from central Italy fled south to settle in Calabria. 

(4) LA-iii. It all has nothing to do with ancient or Byzantine Greeks. They are here because there was an influx of a considerable number of Greek-speaking elements from the East as a result of Arab conquests in the 7th and 8th centuries. The key word here is 'considerable'. Who knows? Although these invasions of the eastern provinces of the Byzantine empire probably pushed some Greek speakers west, there is no documentation of a mass migration, so this is somewhat of a speculation on what might have been possible. 

A variation on this is that when the city Alexandria capitulated to the Arabs in 642, a considerable part of the Greek population left. Some of them may have reached the west. There are two pieces of evidence for this:

The frescoes in Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome consist of five layers; the iconography in the second one is not only Greek, but specifically of the Alexandrian school. Thus, the logic runs, it could only have been painted by Alexandrian priests. 

Also, there are Greek liturgical manuscripts extant in Italy; iconography and manuscripts are evidence of Greek influence from a specific period. (They are not, however, evidence of the mass migration which must have been necessary in order to produce entire Greek speaking enclaves on the Italian peninsula.) 

It is also true that during the Arab conquest of Syria and Palestine that many Greeks abandoned their homes. It is not clear, however, where they went. However, thousands of displaced Greeks who were living in North Africa at the time of the Arab conquest, might have had no recourse but to flee across the sea to Sicily and the southern Italian mainland. 

(5) Late Arrival-iv (This one looks like a winner in the opinion of your humble scribe):  Bulgars, Avars and Slavs invaded the Balkan peninsula before, during and after the reign of Justinian (i.e., for virtually the entire 6th century). This produced a series of fearful convulsions, any number of which would have been enough to send thousands fleeing across the seas. This is confirmed by the Chronicle of Monemvasia, a document written at the end of the tenth century, and which draws on an earlier source, written shortly after the events occurred. It has been called an 'unimpeachable source' of description of the Avar and Slav penetration of Greece and the subsequent dispersion of the Greeks  around the year 600. To wit:

…In another invasion they (the Avars) subjugated all of Thessaly and Greece… they made also an incursion into Peloponesus, conquered it by war, driving out the noble and Hellenic nations. Those among the Greeks who succeeded in escaping… dispersed themselves here and there. The city of Patras emigrated to the territory of Rhegium in Calabria … some sailed to the island of Sicily and they are still there in a place called Demena, call themselves Demenitae instead of Lacedaemonitae and preserve their own Laconia dialect. *

This is evidence of an immigration to Sicily and southern Italy toward the end of the sixth century, not from the eastern provinces of the Byzantine  Empire, but from Greece itself. As the Slavs occupied virtually all the western part of the Peloponnesus, the population who managed to flee could find no nearer haven than Sicily or Italy.

[I have drawn much of the above  information from,"On the Question of Hellenization of Sicily and Southern Italy during the Middle Age"' by Peter Charanis, in The American Historical Review, No. 52, 1946. * The cited material of the next-to-last paragraph is from that source. For more on the Greek community in Naples, click here.  For an entry on the diffusion of Magna Grecia, click here.]

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