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  • hbanziger

E - 179 : The Legacy of Magna Graecia

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Was planning to write today a blog about food in Calabria and Apulia and how Greek, Norman and Spanish culture influenced the local cuisine. Did not get very far though as I got lost in a story I kind of knew about but had mostly forgotten - people in a few villages in Southern Italy still speak Greek.

There is a great debate amongst scholars as to whether these people are direct descendants from Magna Graecia, or Greek officials from the time when Byzantium governed the area or refugees fleeing from the Ottomans when they conquered Greece in the 15th century. I am not an expert on this dispute – all three explanation seem plausible and maybe a combination of all of them is true.

Today roughly 15’000 to 20’000 people still speak Grico, a dialect close but not identical to modern Greek. It is spoken mostly by elder people in isolated villages in Calabria and Apulia and is today classified as a severely endangered language. Until last century Grico survived more or less well in these isolated villages where it was spoken at home whilst Italian was the language to conduct business in the public sphere. Whilst the Italian State formally recognizes minority languages and pledges to support them, reality looks different.

During the Risorgimento in the 19th century, when Italy came from many independent states, the Tuscan dialect was elevated to the national language. At that time, creating one nation with one language was the absolute priority. Not only Grico but also the other Italian dialects had to fight for their survival. During Mussolini’s time, it was not much different. The fascist dictator wanted to create a homogeneous, powerful state to recreate the Roman Empire and did not bother too much for other cultures – even if they were ancient. With the end of World War II, things started to change and the Italian government became more tolerant – at least on paper. The Italian constitution now protects minorities. But money was never really allocated to the task and the Grico villages remained isolated as they were in the past.

The real threat for Grico arrived during the 1960ies. New roads provided the isolated villages with access to the coastal plains, there were plenty of jobs in tourism in the Italian speaking regions which attracted the younger Grico people and national Television reached even the remotest corner of the peninsula. Cheap entertainment became available everywhere – albeit only in Italian. Today, it is difficult to find a person below the age of 30 living in the hills of Calabria or the remote villages of Apulia.

If anybody wants to read more about this small community which represents the roots of our Hellenistic civilization, go to the website below:

it is very touching and you will hear some Greek spoken which we may not hear any more in 20 years’ time. Luckily, the EU cares about regions. There are some late minute efforts to revitalize the dying language and maybe it can be successful. In Switzerland, there is also a small minority of people speaking Romansh which is spoken by just 45’000 Swiss citizens mostly in the Canton of Grison. But a concerted effort kept the language alive – albeit its future is never secure given the tiny base of native speakers.

Whether we will have the time to visit one of these villages has to be seen. They are far away from the coastline. We will decide once we are in there. The next blog goes back to food – today’s was a little distraction but an interesting story I did not want to skip.

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