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Magna Graecia, Greeks in Naples & The Greek Orthodox Church

These three items appeared separately in the original version of the Around Naples Encyclopedia on the dates indicated. They have been consolidated onto a single page here. Other entries on the Greek history of Naples and southern Italy are linked from within these items.

entry Nov. 2002
revised Aug. 2010
Magna Graecia 

map of
                      magna graeciaShortly after the year 800 b.c.—and lasting for about three-hundred years—the peoples of the Aegean peninsula and archipelago, collectively "Hellenes" —"Greeks"—but individually Chalcidians, Euboeans, Messenians, Achaeans, Spartans, Ionians and Peloponnesians, spread to the west and colonized portions of Sicily and the southern Italian peninsula. Those settlements made up what was known as Magna Graecia—Greater Greece—and within its borders there arose great centers of Hellenic culture. In what would one day be "Italy," towns such as Cuma, Naples, Elea, Paestum, Siracuse, Taranto, Metaponte and Croton became marketplaces for the science and philosophy of Archimedes, Pythagoras and Plato, ideas which survived the demise of Magna Graecia, itself, and so influenced its Latin conquerors that today most Europeans and descendants of Europeans regard themselves as inheritors of a wondrous hybrid culture called "Greco-Roman".

This enthralling spread of Magna Graecia has been told and retold in poetry and literature as one of the great cultural events in human history, and rightly so. Interestingly, it comes at the end of what some historians call the "Greek Dark Ages," by which they mean the period between the end of the Mycenaean civilization, conventionally set at c. 1200 BC and the rise of Archaic Greece (c. 700 BC), the beginning of the "historic Greece" that we know. The term "Dark Ages" is probably more of a statement of how little we know about that period than an actual description of the period itself. In spite of Robert Graves' statement in The Greek Myths [168.7] that "...Between 1100 and 1050 B.C., the Dorian invasion overwhelmed Mycenaean culture in the Peloponnese and the Dark Ages intervened," it is not at all clear whether a "Dorian invasion" ever really took place except in the minds of classical scholars looking for a concept to explain the fallow period before the rise of Archaic Greece. (*See note below this paragraph.) Later Greek historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides make no reference to such a dark past; indeed, it was the beginning of the culture-changing Iron Age, so something must have been going on. In terms of how societies changed in that period, we can say, however, that when the Mycenaeans left the stage, Aegean cultures had been marked for many centuries by "palatial" government and administration—that is, large structures (palaces) at the center of the state, such as the large palace at Knossos on Crete or at Mycenae, itself. Five-hundred years later, the beginnings of the dynamic, urban and literate (!) polis had arrived—the independent city-state. They then developed into the classical Greek city-states where very diverse manifestations of government, culture and science could spread and grow.

(*Note on the Dorian Invasion: The four most famous proto-Hellenic nations were the Ionians, the Aeolians, the Achaeans, and the Dorians. These four tribes or peoples were historically in place on the islands of the Aegean by about 1500 BC. In Greek mythology, the peoples are named for Ion, Aeolus, Achaeus, and Dorus, respectively, all descended from Hellen [sic] (from which we have the word "Hellenic," another word for "Greek"), son of Deucalion, who was the "Greek Noah," in that he built an ark for himself and his wife Pyrrha in order to survive the Great Food loosed by Zeus. The theory of a "Dorian invasion" posits that the Dorians spread from their home island or islands and "invaded" the Mycenaean mainland such as to cause the collapse of that civilization.)

Temple to Poseidon at Paestum               

Driven by the need for trade and the desire to set up relations with the Etruscans of the central and northern Italian peninsula, Euboeans founded the first colony of Magna Grecia, Pithecusae, on what is now called the island of "Ischia" in c. 750 b.c. Shortly thereafter, they moved to the mainland and founded Cuma. They were followed by the Chalcidians at Zancle (modern "Messina") on Sicily; then, also on Sicily, the Corinthians founded Siracuse, which would develop into one of the great cities in the ancient Greek world. Back on the mainland, along the bottom of the boot, the Aecheans founded Metapontum, Croton and Sybaris (which, itself, later sent more settlers out to found other Greeks sites to the north, such as Poseidonia/Paestum); and the Spartans settled at Tarantum. Paestum was founded in about 600 BC. Within a century of the first colony at Ischia, the Greeks had established themselves as a powerful trading bloc in southern Italy and were already being jealously watched by the Carthaginians and Phoenicians. Naples, itself—somewhat late in the scheme of Magna Graecia—was founded as "Parthenope" in the 6th century b.c. It was a second-generation colony, in that it was settled by the Euboeans of Cuma just to the north, people who by now no doubt thought of themselves simply as "Cuman". They rebuilt somewhat inland a few years later and called it New City, Neapolis—Naples. (See also: Old City, New City.) The last important Greek colony to be founded in Italy was Acgragas (modern Agrigento) in 580 b.c.

Many of the cities of Magna Graecia  that have since drifted into obscurity are as old as Athens, itself, and—if history had been different—might have spawned Golden Ages of their own that we would be reading about in history books today. That was not to be, however, for a number of reasons. One of them was that although the atmosphere in Magna Graecia is said to have been somewhat freer than in Greece, politically it suffered from the same fragmentation as the homeland. The settlements of Greater Greece were independent and autonomous, and, like the city-states of Greece, they spent much of their time fighting each other. Between warring among themselves and fighting to subdue the native populations of Sicily and the southern Italian mainland, it is no wonder that Magna Graecia never managed to present a united front against those who, in historical hindsight, were or would become their true enemies—Carthage and, of course, Rome. 

In the 4th century b.c., with Alexander the Great looking to the east to conquer the civilized world of his day, the Persian Empire, the settlements of Magna Grecia were, more or less, on their own. Siracuse on Sicily had become the most powerful city-state of Magna Graecia by that time. (Cicero later called Siracuse "the greatest and most beautiful of all Greek cities.") In 415 b.c. Siracuse was decisive in the outcome of the Peloppenesian War between Sparta and Athens by defeating the Athenian force that had invaded Sicily. The ruler of Siracuse, Dionysius, then tried to establish a single Empire of Magna Graecia starting in 400 b.c. It was, in a way, quite like Phillip of Macedonia's (Alexander's father) plan to unify Greece, itself. A united southern Italy might have been a forerunner of, or maybe—if we play the 'what-if' game of history—a substitute for the Roman Empire, itself. Alas for Dionysius and his less capable successors, they couldn't fend off the Carthaginians or the increasingly belligerent native tribes of Italy. When one of these tribes, the Romans, took Taranto in 272, b.c. Greek history in Italy was overwhelmed by the onrush of Roman history. Magna Graecia was at an end.

Roman brickwork at Elia, originally
 the Greek city of Hyele

In Naples you are in Magna Graecia. The Archaeological Museum is, appropriately, at what was once the northwest corner of the original wall of the city, 2,500 years ago. A few blocks away you can still find part of that wall, and you can walk the grid of the original streets. They're covered with centuries of other stone and decades of asphalt, but they're down there. Also, on the isle of Megaride, the site of the so-called Castel dell'Ovo, you are on the site of the original city of Parthenope. A little further afield, the ruins of Cuma and Paestum can give you insight into what happens to cities when people don't live in them for a few thousand years. And, as a final note to what is left of Greater Greece in our immediate area, there are the ruins, discovered in this century a bit south of Paestum, of the city of Hyele (then, under the Romans, Elia, now called Velia). It was the home of Parmenides and Zeno and was founded in the 5th century b.c. by refugees from the Persian invasions of eastern Greece of that epoch. Take the autostrada for Reggio Calabria, exit at Battipaglia and head towards Omegliano Scalo. Ask for the "scavi di Velia". In nearby Ascea, there is even a hotel called Magna Grecia! Is nothing sacred?

to Ancient Worlds portal

Nov. 2002
Greeks in Naples 

Greek Orthodox iconConsidering the Greek history of Naples, it isn't surprising that one should find considerable amounts of Greek masonry beneath the city and in the outlying areas. It is, however, the little bits and pieces of "mental masonry"—less tangible fragments of Greekness in the history and customs of Naples—that fascinate the most. One such item, for example, is the simple fact that after the fall of the Roman Empire, under Justinian's brief unification of the eastern and western empires, Greek was again the language of Naples. A thousand years after it first reached these shores, Greek was for a brief time once again the language of official commerce, politics and religion. 

That last item, religion, has perhaps to do with another piece of Greekness still left in the city. The long history of the Greek Orthodox Church in Naples (item #3, below) and southern Italy, in general, has begotten the curious tradition of otherwise typical Roman Catholics calling upon the services of a Greek Orthodox priest to perform ritual blessings of newly built houses and even to ward off the "evil eye". 

I know, personally, of two such cases. A friend of mine moved into a new house and simply called up the priest from the one Greek Orthodox church in Naples to come over and bless the place. Also, a woman I know was a librarian at one of the many university libraries in town. Books were disappearing. Whether that was due to simple mundane larceny or otherworldly book-fairies was irrelevant. She called the same church and got a young priest to come over and bless the library. Interestingly, he was aware of the custom, yet guarded in his willingness to muscle in on Roman Catholic turf. Nevertheless, he did as requested. 

My friend's house is doing fine, but I never found out if the books were returned or, at least, stopped disappearing. That, of course, is not the point. In both cases, my friends simply shrugged off my "But-you're-a-Catholic" challenge. Everyone knows the Greeks have "something special".

 July 2003
The Greek Orthodox Church

Greek Orthodox church in NaplesIn 330 a.d. a Christian convert built a Christian city to replace the old and pagan Rome. His—Constantine the Great's—faith would soon be proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire. The bad news would be that he had inadvertently made it possible for that Empire to be divided in two, sundering its church right along with it. 

There were organizational problems among early Christians. Should the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus, Antioch and Constantinople all have equal authority? Or should Rome dominate, based on its imperial political status and the special history of the Roman church —that is, its founding by the apostle Peter? This squabble was joined by divisive theological ones: debates on the nature of God, Christ and  the Trinity. 

When the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, the Western church bided its time with organizational matters. The lack of imperial authority actually led to a strengthening of the Roman church, since it took over a number of civic functions it might never have had to, if there had remained in place a true imperial bureaucracy in the West. 

On the other hand, Constantinople viewed itself as the natural continuation of Empire. The emperor was "High Priest and King," God's emissary on earth and the head of the Church. He could not owe allegiance to anyone else, much less a bishop of the Western church. In the years between 500 and 800,  Constantinople became by default a Greek State: the Byzantine Empire. Latin ceased to be the official language of government and was replaced by Greek, accentuating the religious differences and accelerating the separation of the Greek and Roman Churches.

The reestablishment of a Western Empire by Charlemagne in 800 meant that there were two strong competing Christian empires. In the two centuries that followed, while having to relinquish Asia Minor and the Middle East to the surge of Islam, the East remained powerful, spreading to carry Orthodox (meaning "Right Faith") Christianity to Russia. The Western Empire carried its faith to the north and to the British Isles. In spite of seven ecumenical conferences held over the centuries to resolve theological differences, the two churches finally excommunicated each other in 1054. This was called the Great Schism and effectively destroyed the integrity of the Christian Church. 

At present the Orthodox Eastern Church has approximately 150 million followers, and is the second largest Christian denomination in the world. It is composed of 15 self-governing churches worldwide, such as, among others, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Cyprus Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. 

Greeks and Naples have always had a special relationship. First, of course, the city was founded by the Greeks. But even later, when Naples and Greece, itself, were part of the Roman Empire, Greek remained a widely spoken language in Naples. When the West fell to the Goths, Naples fell with it, but was quickly retaken by the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine power surged and ebbed in Southern Italy in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries, but Greek influence in Naples remained strong. Even after Charlemagne refounded the Western Empire, southern Italy was not part of it. In spite of the growing hostility between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, there were Eastern Churches and monasteries all over the south, Naples included. After the Schism, Orthodox rites were still commonly held in and around Naples, and there was even a Greek monastery in use here until the Counter-Reformation in the 17th century. Visitors to the Naples Cathedral will still find a double baptistery inside, one for Roman Catholic rites and the other for Greek rites. Also, for reasons obscured by time, a benediction by a Greek Orthodox priest is considered particularly auspicious by otherwise quite Roman Catholic Neapolitans. It is, according to popular custom, one of the ways in which the so-called malocchio, the 'evil eye,' can be warded off. 

The Greek Orthodox Church in Naples is named the Church of Saints Peter and Paul and is on Via S. Tommaso Aquino in the downtown area. It was founded as the "Confraternity of Greeks Resident in the City of Naples" almost immediately after the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century by Greek refugees from that event.

In 1518, a Byzantine prince, Tommaso Assanios Paleologos, paid for the construction of the chapel. The text of the Greek rites was defined in 1760 by a decree of the Bourbon Kingdom of Two Sicilies. The status of the church, as defined by the Bourbons, was accepted by the new Italian State after the unification of Italy in the 19th century. 

The members of the confraternity vote by secret ballot on how to distribute income from offerings and the few properties that the Church owns in Naples. Monies are used for philanthropic and educational purposes, as well as to pay those who work for the church. Such income has helped to create an elementary school for Greek children as well as children of mixed marriages. There is also an auditorium for social gatherings. 

The church, itself, is small and intensely spiritual. The silver icons have an overpowering presence and are close enough to touch —indeed, they are meant to be touched. Personally, I first noticed the music. Byzantine chants  are related at some point in a higher dimension to their Gregorian cousins in the Western church, but a thousand words detailing untempered minor scales, mysterious quarter-tones and the Eastern passion for the ornamental quiver in the voice would do as little justice to the music of Byzantium as my other words have done to the religion. You will have to go hear and see for yourselves.

[Also see this related item on Eastern Orthodox Christmas in Naples]

(See also this article by David Taylor: Greek Naples.)
(See also this entry on the Cilento region where there is a history of Greek monasteries.)

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