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Why Was Italy Called Great Greece (Magna Graecia)?

The ancient Greek temple of Poseidon (Neptune) in Paestum, Italy. ancient Greeks called the city Poseidonia
Ancient Greek temple of Poseidon in Paestum, Italy. The city was founded as Poseidonia by the Greeks of Magna Greacia (Great Greece).

To the ancient Greeks, their land was not just confined to Greece and the nearby islands as we know it today. Aside from Asia Minor, which had many Greek cities, a large portion of Italy was also their land. The ancient Romans referred to the southern part of Italy as Magna Graecia, literary meaning “Great Greece”. Even today, southern Italy has an enormous Greek population. How did this whole section of Italy become the second home of the Greeks? Legend and history both have a lot to say about this.

What was Great Greece or Magna Graecia?

Magna Graecia was a term that the ancient Romans used to refer to southern Italy. It literally means ‘Great Greece’. All around the ‘foot’ of Italy were dozens of Greek cities. There were also Greek cities all over Sicily, which were closely connected to those within Italy itself.

Some Greeks considered ‘Magna Graecia’ (or rather, their Greek-language equivalent, ‘Megálē Hellás’) to refer to more than just the territories within Italy and Sicily. Some ancient writers felt that it should apply to all the countless Greek colonies outside of Greece, including the innumerable Greek islands. However, the term ‘Magna Graecia’ is mostly used for just Italy and Sicily.

Map of ancient Greek cities of southern Italy, also known as Magna Graecia or Great Greece
Map of Greek cities of Magna Graecia (Great Greece). Credit: Public domain

Greek King Evander of Rome

Magna Graecia may have started further north. According to legend, an early king of part of Italy was Evander. He was from Arcadia in Greece. The respected Greek historian of the first century BCE named Dionysius of Halicarnassus explained that Evander grew up in Pallantium, Greece. He then moved to Italy when he was an adult and founded a new city named Pallantium on the site that would later become Rome.

The contemporary historians Diodorus and Ateius Philologus, as well as the slightly later historian Strabo, also mention this legend. According to the legend, Evander founded this Greek city about half a century before the Trojan War. There is some archaeological evidence to support the existence of this Greek city.

Although Rome is not in the southern part of Italy, the founding of this city would undoubtedly have increased contacts between the Greeks and Italy. This may have contributed to the reason why later Greeks journeyed to that country and founded the settlements in the south, forming Magna Graecia.

The Return from Troy

Aside from the Iliad and the Odyssey, another hugely popular part of the ancient legend of the Trojan War was the story of the Greeks returning to their homes. According to legend, the gods were severely angry with the Greeks for their conduct during the war. For this reason, they punished the Greek army.

The vast majority of Greek combatants were prevented from returning to their homes. Instead, they were scattered to other lands. Many of them died, but some of them survived and founded new settlements in the places they were scattered to. This led very directly to the formation of Magna Graecia.

One example is the city of Metapontum in southern Italy. Supposedly, part of Nestor’s contingent during the Trojan War founded this city. Another legend relates how the city of Naples in Italy was founded after the body of a siren washed ashore, having been rejected by Odysseus.

A figure named Sagaris, the son of Ajax the Lesser, supposedly founded the city of Sybaris in southern Italy. Various other cities making up Magna Graecia (Great Greece) in southern Italy supposedly had their origin in this era, according to legend.

Odysseus returning to Penelope
Terracotta plaque depicting Odysseus returning to Penelope, fifth century BCE. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain

Chronological Issues

The Trojan War was dated by the ancient Greeks to c. 1200 BCE, about the end of the Bronze Age. This would mean that the formation of Magna Graecia supposedly started at about that time. However, there is little to no evidence for extensive Mycenaean Greek settlements in Italy.

In contrast, archaeology reveals that the Greeks first started settling in Italy in the eighth century BCE. The earliest Greek city on mainland Italy was Cumae. The Greeks settled there in the mid-eighth century BCE. Also, there is a trace of a possible Greek colony in Rome from the same era.

The city of Sybaris goes back only to c. 720 BCE. The city of Naples goes back to about the same time. Metapontum was founded in c. 700 BCE. Obviously, none of these match the traditional dates for their founders, discussed above. For this reason, the vast majority of scholars view the legendary founding of Magna Graecia as completely anachronistic and unreliable.

On the other hand, some scholars seek to bring forward the date of the Trojan War. By extension, this would bring forward the dates of these figures who allegedly founded cities in Italy, harmonizing the legend with the archaeology.

The development of Magna Graecia (Great Greece)

Over the next few decades, the Greeks continued to establish more colonies in Italy. Virtually all of them were further south than Cumae. One of the most famous and important Greek cities in Magna Graecia was Crotone. A man named Myscellus travelled from Greece to southern Italy and founded Crotone after Heracles allegedly appeared to him in a dream.

However, both archaeology and written records show that the settlement of southern Italy increased significantly after c. 700 BCE. Between c. 700 and c. 500 BCE, a vast number of Greek settlements appeared all over southern Italy and Sicily.

Traditionally, scholars have held that the Greeks left their homeland and travelled to Italy due to pressure within Greece itself. Supposedly, a lack of resources led many people to try to find a new home. Some scholars also say that famine in Greece forced people to move away. However, more recently, some scholars have argued that it was, in large part, simply due to a desire to expand and create more economic opportunities.

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