Monday, July 9, 2012

21st century Italy and the remanence of its indigenous heritage

“I am from Sicily, in other words from Magna Graecia and there still exists a lot of Greece in Sicily…I am of the same Hellenic heritage, even if from another place. Yes, don’t be surprised. My family name is Pirangellos. The Pirandello is the phonetic alteration of it, Pirangello-Pirandello…” 

Luigi Pirandello to Kostas Ouranis --“Nea Estia” No. 191, December 1934, Kostas Ouranis Foundation, Athens, Greece
The Risorgimento, known to English Speakers as the Italian Unification, was a movement, which some argue was simply a Tuscan colonization of the Apennine Peninsula, resulting in the creation of the modern nation-state of Italy. However, what many fail to realize is that the Risorgimento also represents the final fall of the Frankokratia in the Hellenic World. For those that do not know what the Frankokratia was, it is a term used to refer to a period in Greek history after the Fourth Crusade (1204). When, Western European nobles occupied the Greek-Speaking Eastern Roman Empire, and established various Crusader states in its place. This was in part brought about with the signing of the Partitio terrarium imperii Romaniae [1] treaty after the sack of Constantinople.

Now I know what you must be asking yourself, just how could Southern Italy, or Magna Graecia as it was once called, be seen as a part of the Frankokratia? Well it is relatively easy. Many of these Western nobles were the same people that conquered Magna Graecia from the Eastern Roman Empire, and, therefore, in away Magna Graecia was also a part of the Frankokratia. In actuality, it was in Magna Graecia that the Frankokratia first began, and it was the last place in the Hellenic World to be freed from it. Now, rather than find itself under the Tourkokratia like the rest of the Hellenic World, Magna Graecia would eventually be integrated into the modern nation-state of Italy. This blessing of not being a part of the Ottoman Empire eventually led to a further detachment of this portion of the Hellenic ethnos from its ethnic kin inside the Tourkokratia.  As a result, those living in Magna Graecia did not suffer the same collective experiences of Islamic enslavement as the rest of the Hellenic ethnos, experiences that were an essential part of the 19th century National revival of the Greek national identity.

Magna Graecia’s integration into the Italian state, however, was not some welcomed event by the natives of the region. In fact, a long guerrilla war against the Northern Colonialist armies was waged throughout the South and in Sicily, which resulted in martial law for several years and in some cases brutal repression. In the end, the newly United “Italian” Kingdom would find Magna Graecia or the Mezzogiorno mostly de-Hellenized and in extreme poverty [2]. Despite attempts to stamp out the native Hellenic identity of the region, some pockets of Hellenic culture and language remained, due mostly to the continuous ‘traffic’ between the Mezzogiorno and the Aegean. All in all years of foreign misrule left the area with little industry, terrible roads, and a largely illiterate population.

At first, the Kingdom would open schools, upgraded hospitals, and organize various other types of public works projects. However, it would soon become apparent that the government heavily favored the northern regions. Heavy taxation and new economic measures imposed on the Mezzogiorno made life, in many cases, impossible. This combined with competition from the industrialized North led to the partial economy collapse of the Mezzogiorno and a mass wave of emigration, which was initially encouraged by the Italian government. It is due to this large exodus from the region that diaspora communities like those in the United States even exist. About 80% of those who immigrated to the United States from the Apennine Peninsula came from the Mezzogiorno, especially from Sicily, Campania, Abruzzo, and Calabria.

The remanence of the region’s Hellenic heritage

The remanence of Southern Italy’s Hellenic past is all around, from ancient Greek ruins to the triskelion and head of Medusa on the Sicilian flag. The best example of this heritage is the region’s own Modern Greek dialect, referred to by Greeks as Katoitaliotika or in English simply Southern Italian. Often called Griko, its origins are divided into two competing hypotheses. The first and most common claims the language’s roots go back to the 8th century BC, and thus, it represents the last living remnant of the native Hellenic elements of Magna Graecia. The second views the dialect as a Doric-influenced descendant of Byzantine Greek. Today’s remaining Greek-speaking communities survive in the regions of Calabria and Puglia, and have been recognized by the Italian parliament as an ethnic and linguistic minority, under the title “Minoranze linguistiche Grike dell’Etnia Griko-Calabrese e Salentina” (the Linguistic minority of the Griko-Calabrian and Salentinian ethnicity).

Amazingly, this aging linguistic minority is not the only evidence of the region’s Hellenic heritage. Proof can still be found in the mere genetic makeup of the region’s indigenous population. How is this possible you may ask? Well, by identifying and studying haplogroups, which are groupings of similar haplotypes that share a common ancestor due to having the same single nucleotide polymorphism mutation. There are three different ways to test for genetic ancestry. The first is the study of Y-Chromosomes (Y-DNA), which is passed along the patrilineal line (father to son). The next is the study of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is passed along the matrilineal line (mother to offspring). The last is the study of autosomal (auDNA), which studies entire ancestry.

To get a better understanding of the genetic make-up of the region, let us briefly take a look at its Y-DNA and auDNA. Now many myths have been circulated over the years concerning the supposed roots of Southern Italians, specifically Sicilians. These types of myths are perpetrated by Northern Europeans obsessed with racist ideologies that wrongly believe in the bastardization of the Mediterranean and its indigenous people. If one takes the time to look at the region’s Y-DNA they understand that although Arab-Berber colonization did take occur in places like Sicily, it did not, however, lead to a significant alteration of the original ethnic composition of the island [3]. Also, neither did the region’s years under the Frankokratia, as neither the Lombards nor the Normans left any significant genetic impact [4] in Southern Italy. As we focus on Sicily for a moment. What is compelling is the fact that genetic tests have shown that approximately 37% of Sicilians are, in fact, direct descendants of the original Greek settlers of Magna Graecia [5] [6], and roughly 60% of haplotypes found on the island are also found across Southern Italy and Greece respectively [7]. This leads to a safe assumption that Sicilians and Greeks share a common genetic heritage.

Now if, we step back for a moment and take a look at the region’s auDNA we can clearly see that the Greek genetic legacy in Southern Italy is still detectible. As Greeks’ closest genetic neighbors are Italians [8].  It is thanks to the findings of genetic studies, such as those sited above and countless others that we are able to conclude that Southern Italians are little more than Latin-speaking Greeks, with a minor non-Greek admixture [9].

An Italo-Greek on Southern Italy and its Hellenic Dialect

In order to understand Southern Italy and its Hellenic heritage more, I decided to take the time to speaking with 23 year old Giuseppe Delfino from Reggio di Calabria. A city, which he told me, was once a stronghold of Greek Language and culture in Italy.  What made Giuseppe such a fascinating person to talk with about Southern Italy is the fact that he identifies himself as an Italo-Greek, since he holds Italian citizenship, but feels ethnically Greek. Something, which he states, has been proven by the genetic research that was conducted by Dr. Luigi Cavalli-Sforza which showed that the province of Reggio di Calabria has a strong affinity with Greece.

As Giuseppe states in more detail, “my family is Sicilian- and Italian-Speaking, however, Greek was spoken throughout Southern Calabria until the XV century, when it started to decline in favor of Reggio’s variant of Sicilian (Romance Language). I exactly come from a village called Catona, near Reggio, where the Greek language died out in XVII century, so I can consider myself as a Greek. A great number of Reggio’s surnames are of Greek origin; for example, my great-mother’s name is Angela IANNO’, but there are also surnames such as Romeo, Attina (from “kteni”), Monorchio (“monos orchis”) and others”. As our illuminating conversation continued I could not help, but ask Giuseppe about his thoughts on the Katoitaliotika language.

“I think the Griko language, (which in Italian is used to refer to the Greek language spoken in just Apulia, while in Calabria people use the term Greek-Calabrian or just Grecanic, although the latter is considered an offensive term) MUST be saved, because it is a part of our culture. It comes from Ancient Greek although many people still think that it came from Byzantium, but I disagree because linguistic proof shows it comes from Magna Graecia”, said Giuseppe. He would go on to mention, “The current situation of the Greek-speaking people is terrible, because the language is spoken only by 2,000 old people and the “latinized” people of Reggio have no interest in it, in fact, nobody speaks about it. I discovered my origins thanks to reading. I started studying on my own both Calabrian Greek and Modern Greek in 2005 thanks to books with audio”.

Giuseppe’s overview of the plight of the Greek-speaking population, despite its recognition as a protected ethno-linguistic minority, made me dare to ask him just why there was a lack of interest in the Katoitaliotika language. In which, Giuseppe replied, “Well, I think there is this lack because of the Italian Education system. Italy became a unified state in 1861, after centuries of division. Italian was just a written language until that point (except for the Tuscans), so that Italian government planned to teach Italian to the “dialect”-speaking population. There was no room for other languages, especially during Fascist rule (in Calabria, during that time; there was an expression “mi pari nu grecu”, which in English translates to “you look like a Greek”, meaning “you are a stupid”). The 1948 Italian Constitution recognized the protection of linguistic minorities (via art. 6), but this didn’t change the situation, because the goal of the Italian state is unification (during the “Risorgimento”, Massimo d’Azeglio said, “L’Italia e fatta, Restano da fare gli italiani”, which means “We have made Italy, now we must make Italians”), and; therefore, this law is seldom applied. There are structures who translate official local documents, but in schools minority languages are not taught”.

This led me to wonder just what response would locals have if an organization say in the United States began lobbying for their Linguistic Rights. To which he replied, “I think just the Greek-speaking minority would be pleased. I founded an Italo-Greek bilingual group on Facebook called, “Salviamo la lingua Greca di Calabria” (Greek: "Ας σώσουμε τα Ελληνικά της Καλαβρίας", English: "Let's save the Greek language of Calabria")”. This naturally sparked my curiosity towards what his position, as an Italo-Greek, was on the many different separatist parties in Southern Italy and what relationship, if any, they had with the Greek-speaking population and Hellenic heritage of the region.

Giuseppe’s response was quite informative, “The political parties, which want autonomy, have no relationship with the Greek-speaking population, because these parties want to restore the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. This Kingdom, although it had many different modifications (and for centuries was divided into the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily), was created by the Normans, who defeated the Byzantines in Southern Italy, and was one of the causes of the end of Hellenism in Southern Italy. The modern political parties want to recognize the cultural importance of the local minority cultures, but they have no ties with Hellenism”.

This all led me to my last question for Giuseppe. If, there were one message you could say to Greeks about Southern Italy and its Greek Speaking people what would it be? Also if, there were one thing you could say to Southern Italians about these issues what would that be? His answer was, “I would say to Greeks to help us. As for Southern Italians, I would tell (only the inhabitants of Calabria from Catanzaro to Reggio, Salento and Eastern Sicily “Val Demone”, don’t let this language die, because it’s an important element of our culture. However, I would like to launch this message to not only Greeks and former Greek-speaking Southern Italians, but to all who aim to keep alive linguistic minorities or cultures in general”.


In the end, Giuseppe’s words should resonate in the hearts and minds of all Greeks and Southern Italians. Southern Italy’s indigenous Hellenic culture must not be allowed to fade away into the history books. It must be preserved, not just for future generations of Italiotes and Siciliotes (the Hellenic peoples of Magna Graecia), but for all mankind. For humanity to lose any portion of its rich cultural history is a crime. So I leave you, the reader, with one straightforward question. What can you do, if anything, to help prevent this forgotten part of Greek and Southern Italian heritage and identity from disappearing?

[1] Alexander Kazhdan, ed. (1991). Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford University Press
[2] Smith, Dennis Mack (1997). Modern Italy; a Political History. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
[8]Pontikos, Dienekes. Greek autosomal DNA


Giuseppe Delfino, email interview, May 29, 2012