Ancient Calabria

Calabria (Ancient): An ancient name for the SE peninsula of the southern Italian mainland. In its broadest sense, it extended from Tarentum to the Promontorium Iapygium. It formed part of ancient Apulia. Its name derives from that of the Calabri, a Messapic-speaking people who occupied the area around what is now Brindisi [BR]. Some research done on the etymology of that name suggests it derived ultimately from a pre-Indo-European root word kalabra (or galabra) meaning “rock.” Prior to the 11th century, the name of Calabria was attached, not to the toe of the Italian peninsula, but to a southern section of the heel. In ancient times, that region which is today known as Calabria went by several other names. Many modern sources refer to it as Bruttium, although that designation is disputed is generally considered an incorrect corruption of Bruttii. The peoples of ancient Calabria were distinct in many ways from the other inhabitants of southern Italy. Unlike the Oscan-speaking Italic Samnites, Lucanians, and Bruttians, the tribes of Calabria were Messapic-speakers, with close ties to the Illyrian peoples on the opposite side of the Adriatic Sea. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (rAD 284-305), the provinces of the empire were redrawn and the heel and toe of Italy were united into a single province named Calabria, governed by an official known as a Corrector. The name was retained by the Byzantines for that area of the southern Italian peninsula they continued to govern. By the latter part of the 7th century, when the “heel” area of the Italian peninsula was captured by the Lombards, the Byzantine-held western “toe” retained the name of Calabria. Thus the name was permanently transferred from the eastern to the western peninsula and remains so to the present-day. As the Middle Ages continued, Byzantine power in Italy continued to erode. When the Exarchy of Ravenna was lost, control over Calabria was shifted to the Duchy of Sicily. During the 8th century, the governor of Calabria held the rank of rhaiktor, while in the 9th century the position became that of a doux. When, during the 9th and 10th centuries, Sicily was being conquered by the Saracens, Calabria became a separate Byzantine theme. It is uncertain precisely when this took place but it is known that Calabria’s first strategos was Eustathios who came on the scene in 917. There is also a 10th century seal bearing the name of Pothos, who held the titles tourmarches of Calabria and strategos of Sicily. Byzantine Calabria found itself in an increasingly precarious situation. Threats in other parts of the empire had prevented the Byzantines from having enough troops to successfully defend Sicily from the encroaching Saracens. Now Calabria found itself threatened on the south by those same Saracens, while to the north, the power of the Lombards was an increasing problem. As with Sicily, the Byzantine Empire had stationed too few troops to effectively defend Calabria’s Greek population. Saracen raiders struck with sudden and savage attacks upon the coastal settlements and even roamed deep into the interior lands without meeting opposition. Using this Saracen threat as an excuse to seize Calabria for himself. the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II advanced into the region in AD 982, with his Imperial army, supplemented by allied troops drawn from the Lombard states. The results of this invasion were disastrous as Otto’s army was destroyed by the Saracens. The Byzantines, who still legally held the region, could do no more than watch as the two foreign powers fought with one another over Calabria. Eventually, Byzantine power was reduced to a handful of coastal strongholds, while the Calabrian countryside became a lawless no-man’s-land. In 1060, Robert Guiscard, the redoubtable Norman leader, finally brought peace and stability back to Calabria by conquering it for himself. Although Calabria soon became part of the new Norman kingdom of Sicily, it took centuries before the Greek culture of its population was replaced by a Latin-Italian one. The ultimate fall of Sicily to the Saracens caused thousands of Greeks from that island to relocated in Calabria. Greek religion, Greek customs, and the Greek language were so engrained in the Calabrians that they continued long after the departure of the Byzantines. In a few modern villages, a survival of the ancient Greek language, a dialect called Griko, is remains in use.