To help bring more perspective, Greek was the dominant language and ethnic element all throughout what we know today as Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia, and Eastern Sicily until the 14th Century. Since then, the spread of Italo-Romance languages, along with geographical isolation from other Greek-speaking regions in Italy, caused the language to evolve on its own in Calabria. This resulted in a separate and unique variety of Greek that is different from what is spoken today in Puglia.
When I traveled to Calabria, I was honored to connect with the Squillaci family. Based out of Bova Marina, this Greko family has fought hard to keep their language and identity alive within their family and community. I spent most of my time with Olimpia Squillaci and her father, Tito Squillaci, who have been active over the years educating locals and outsiders about their language and roots. With pride, they enlightened me on the history and current status of their people and language. We had the opportunity to visit several homes and families that are still clinging to their dying language and culture.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The struggle for the survival of Hellenism after antiquity is typically associated with Ottoman occupation in the Eastern Mediterranean, not the Italian peninsula. Few history books I read growing up ever mentioned any type of Greek history or presence in Italy after the glorious era of Magna Graecia. But to dig a little deeper means that we must look at what happened to this ethno-linguistic group after antiquity.
There are many theories or schools of thought regarding the origin of the Greko community in Calabria. Are they descendants of the Ancient Greeks who colonized Southern Italy? Are they remnants of the Byzantine presence in Southern Italy? Did their ancestors come in the 15th-16th Centuries from the Greek communities in the Aegean fleeing Ottoman invasion? The best answers to all of those questions are yes, yes, and yes. This means that history has shown a continuous Greek presence in Calabria since antiquity. Even though different empires, governments, and invasions occurred in the region, the Greek language and identity seemed to have never ceased. Once the glorious days of Magna Graecia were over, there is evidence that shows that Greek continued to be spoken in Southern Italy during the Roman Empire. Once the Roman Empire split into East (Byzantine) and West, Calabria saw Byzantine rule begin in the 5th Century. This lasted well into the 11th Century and reinforced the Greek language and identity in the region as well as an affinity to Eastern Christianity.
Today, there is more evidence of a Byzantine legacy rather than an Ancient Greek or Modern Greek footprint.
“The last contact we had with Greek culture that we know of was from the Byzantine Empire. Our region mostly shares the same history as Eastern Sicily and not Puglia,” said Olimpia.
What’s even more fascinating is that Calabria was apparently a Byzantine monastic hub of sorts. “There were over 1,500 Byzantine monasteries in Calabria and people today still remember and adore those saints,” explained Tito. Even though Byzantine rule ended in Calabria in the 11th Century, the Greek language continued to be spoken while gradually declining in the region with the spread of Latin and a process of Catholicization. The modern-day commune of Bova may give some insight into the history of the language in the region. In subsequent centuries after Byzantine rule, Bova became the heart of Greek culture in Calabria as well as the seat of the Greek church in the region. It is important to note that the liturgical language of the region was Greek until 1572 when Bova was the last in the region to transition to Latin.
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