Learn about the region's history and must-see sites
Southern Italy: from Magna Graecia to Italian Unification
When you ask people about Italy, more often than not one of the first places they mention is the capital city, Rome, or the submerged streets of Venice, or the sights of Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance. But there is more to Italy than its northern region. Head further south from Rome and the crowds will begin to thin and life will start to move at a slower pace. In a 2005 article, Paris Review editor Nathaniel Rich said ‘to many tourists these southern regions seem adrift in a perpetual nap’.
Here in the heel of Italy (the lower part of the country’s’boot’), you will see more Greek than Roman ruins, and regions more attached to agriculture than industry. Residents will also more likely speak neither English nor Italian (a Romance language which developed in central Italy), but their own local dialect.
Southern Italy is generally composed of the following regions:
(*The Italian National Institute of Statistics groups Sicily and Sardinia together as a separate statistical region called ‘Insular Italy’, while the rest are called ‘South Italy’. Sardinia is closer to central Italy in terms of geography but is often included when Southern Italy is discussed.)
This article will offer a brief overview of Southern Italy’s history from ancient times to its 19th century unification with the north and look at the must-see historic sites in the region. You may also click through to read this article focused on the early history of Sicily.
Magna Graecia in Southern Italy
Southern Italy has seen human settlements since prehistoric times. In the 7th century BC, the region became an important centre of Greek civilisation with the Hellenic colonisation of the region’s coastal areas. Attracted by the region’s fertile lands and perfect geographical position for trade, the Greeks founded several colonies collectively known as Magna Graecia (Megale Hellas, or ‘Great Greece’).
Cumae, founded around the 7th century BC, was the earliest Greek colony on the Italian mainland. Settlers from Cumae founded new cities such as Neapolis (modern-day Naples). Another important Greek colony in Southern Italy was Siracusa (Syracuse, Sicily), the birthplace of Archimedes, and which equalled Athens in size in the 5th century BC.
Other Greek colonies of note were Thurii, where the Greek historian Herodotus retired; Elea, home of the Eleatics, followers of a school of philosophy that pre-dated Socrates; Tarentum, founded by the Spartans; and Croton, where philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras founded an ethico-political community, and where 6th century BC athlete Milo was born.
Visitors to Sicily could still see the Greeks’ strong mark on the island, with Agrigento’s Valle dei Templi, Segesta’s Greek temple and ancient theatre and the Greek ruins in Syracuse.
The Roman Empire
Magna Graecia was only an ’empire’ in the loosest sense: it did not have a recognised central power. The colonies simply shared a language and a common culture. This lack of unity became the Greeks’ downfall as it came face to face with other centralised powers, particularly the Roman Empire, which grew from a small agricultural community in Rome.
In the 3rd century BC, the island of Sicily became the first Roman province, shortly before the whole of southern Italy fell under Roman control. The Romans did not hesitate to exploit the island’s resources. Sicily, for example, was subjected to the Roman tithe – one-tenth of its grains and other produce were to be shipped directly to Rome every year.
However, despite centuries of control, the Romans did little to Latinize Southern Italy. Long admirers of Greek culture, the Romans allowed their territories south of the peninsula to retain their Greek language and customs.
The Roman Empire Falls, Foreign Powers Enter
The Roman Empire fell in 476 under pressure from the Goths, and Germanic warrior Odoacer took over Southern Italy. He was killed and replaced by the Ostrogoths, who were in turn replaced by the surviving eastern arm of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople.
Over the next centuries, Byzantine power would be challenged by foreign powers, including the Lombards (a Germanic tribe) and the Arabs, and Italy would be plunged into a chaotic era as the peninsula splintered into several independent kingdoms and feuding city-states.
To the west of Italy, Charlemagne of the Franks, a Germanic people, was crowned “Emperor of the Romans” in 800 AD by Pope Leo III, becoming the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. During his rule, his territories covered Western and Central Europe, including parts of Italy.
Southern Italy was kept out of Frankish hands but soon fell under the Arabs. The Islamic caliphate took over Southern Italy in the 9th century and established the Emirate of Sicily with Palermo as its capital, converting churches into mosques and imposing Arabic as a language. The Arabs would rule this southern island for more than 200 years.
The Normans, member of the Vikings who settled in northern France, started entering Southern Italy, first as mercenaries serving the warring Lombards and Byzantines, and later as independent conquerors hoping to build their own empires.
Pope Nicholas II, at odds with the Holy Roman Empire, recognised the Normans as allies and with their help waged war against a rival Pope (Benedict X) to ascend the papacy. In 1059, he named Robert de Hauteville (also known as ‘Robert Guiscard’, guiscard being the Old French word for ‘cunning’) Duke of Apulia and Calabria, and ‘future lord of Sicily’. Guiscard, in return, swore an oath of fealty as a vassal of Rome.
Guiscard and his younger brother, Roger Bosso, fought with the Arabs in the siege of Palermo, a decisive battle which led to the Normans taking full control of Southern Italy by the 11th century.
Robert Guiscard granted his brother Roger (later Roger I) a part of Sicily and the title of Count in 1071. By 1091, the whole of Sicily was his, along with Malta. These territories were merged with Robert’s duchy, giving birth to the Kingdom of Sicily which dominated Southern Italy. Roger II, Roger I’s son, was crowned by the Pope as King of Sicily on Christmas Day, 1130.
The Norman line would not last long. It ended with Roger II’s daughter, Constance, who married Henry VI (“Heinrich” of the German Hohenstaufens) and gave birth to Frederick II.
Through Frederick II, the crown passed to the Hohenstaufen dynasty. The crusades helped the new Holy Roman Emperor expand his kingdom from Southern Italy to Germany and even Jerusalem.
Frederick II’s death extinguished the Hohenstaufen line, and in 1266, Charles of Anjou, brother of French King Louis IV, took control of the kingdom, moving the capital from Palermo to Naples.
Charles’s oppressive rule provoked a revolt known as the Sicilian Vespers, the name derived from a riot that took place in Palermo at the “hour of vespers”, or sunset evening prayer, on Easter Monday, 1282. The revolt resulted in Sicily separating from the mainland, ruled by the Spanish House of Aragon, who took part in the rebellion to take the territory from the French.
Now the kingdom was split into ‘two Sicilies’: one ruled by the House of Aragon, and the rest of the kingdom (called the ‘Kingdom of Naples’ by modern historians to distinguish it from the Spanish-ruled “Kingdom of Sicily”) ruled by the House of Anjou. In the years of struggle between Sicily and Naples, barons gained more power, and feudalism became the prevailing system in the two kingdoms.
In 1442, Naples fell under the Sicilian ruler, Alfonso V of Aragon. In 1443, he assumed the title ‘King of the Two Sicilies’, which was inherited by his descendants.
After several wars, which saw Italy fall under the French and the Austrians, a 19th century movement called the Risorgimento (‘Resurgence’) called for Italian unification and independence from foreign powers. In 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was born.
Victor Emmanuel II was crowned as its first monarch, and completed unification when he took Rome from the French and named the city as the kingdom’s capital in 1871, after moving the centre from Turin (1861) and Florence (1865).
In 1946, Italy became a republic after a referendum, forcing Victor Emmanuel’s son Umberto to abdicate the throne.
To quote Nick Squires writing for The Telegraph, unified Italy remains ‘a work in progress’. The Northern and Southern Italian divide persists, with a political party, Lega (formerly the Northern League), running on a platform of separating the north from the country. Southern Italy is seen as lagging behind economically, and its young population are moving north to find better opportunities – in a smaller scale mirroring the massive immigration in the 1890s of impoverished Southern Italians to the United States.
But hope still blooms in Southern Italy: the small town of Matera in Basilicata, for example, went from being one of the poorest places in Italy, to the European Capital of Culture for 2019 (along with Plovdiv in Bulgaria).
Travelling to Southern Italy
Travellers seeking a more laid-back pace (and a thinner holiday crowd) fly to Southern Italy to bask in its sunshine, try its diverse cuisine, and view its historic sites.
Let’s look at some of the hidden gems you can visit in Southern Italy.
The city of Matera in Basilicata is famous for its sassi or cave dwellings, a network of human settlements carved into limestone, first inhabited during the Paleolithic era. Later dwellings consisted of homes, shops, churches, and monasteries built into the natural caves of the Murgia Plateau. Matera’s old town is split into two sections, the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso, separated by Matera’s Romanesque cathedral. The Sassi of Matera are included in the World Heritage List.
In the 1950’s the caves housed the city’s poorest, until the government moved them out of the virtually uninhabitable dwellings and did major renovations in the area. Now travellers can stay in cave B&B’s and eat in cave restaurants offering exceptional views of this ancient settlement.
Off the coast of Sicily are the seven UNESCO-protected Aeolian Islands: Vulcano, Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Filicudi and Alicudi. Born from a volcanic eruption, the islands are very popular among tourists during the summer for their beaches and clear, blue water. The islands also produce a naturally sweet wine called Malvasia delle Lipari, named after the largest Aeolian island. The island of Vulcano, aptly named, still has an active volcano, as does Stromboli.
Sitting 23 kilometres southeast of Naples is the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, destroyed, along with nearby Greco-Roman communities Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata, by the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The eruption was described in vivid detail by Pliny the Younger in his two letters to Roman historian Tacitus.
…tall broad flames blazed from several places on Vesuvius and glared out through the darkness of the night. My uncle soothed the fears of his companions by saying that they were nothing more than fires left by the terrified peasants, or empty abandoned houses that were blazing. He went to bed and apparently fell asleep, for his loud, heavy breathing was heard by those passing his door. But, eventually, the courtyard outside began to fill with so much ash and pumice that, if he had stayed in his room, he would never have been able to get out. He was awakened and joined Pomponianus and his servants who had sat up all night. They wondered whether to stay indoors or go out into the open, because the buildings were now swaying back and forth and shaking with more violent tremors. (Source)
Now protected as World Heritage Sites, the three settlements provide a glimpse of life in Italy in ancient times, and of the horror of natural disasters that can extinguish human lives in an instant.
In addition to a visit to the city’s historic centre and museums, a visit to Naples will not be complete without trying the world-famous Neapolitan pizza. The now-ubiquitous Italian dish was invented, according to popular tradition, by Neapolitan chefs for Queen Margherita’s visit in 1889. Pizza Margherita is dough topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella di bufala, and basil.
Pizza-making is serious business in Naples: its production is regulated by the nonprofit Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, and in 2017 the art of making this pizza made it to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Palermo (Latin: Panormus) was an important city throughout Italian history and is a worthy visit for those who want to see a place shaped by the empires of the world. Originally founded by Phoenician traders in the 8th century BC, Palermo became a Carthaginian settlement, a Roman city, and an Ostrogoth territory. In 831, it was conquered by the Arabs and became prosperous as a centre of trade, until the Normans came and brought the city to even greater heights as capital of the Kingdom of Sicily. The Cattedrale di Palermo (Palermo Cathedral) is an excellent example of Sicily’s unique Arab-Norman architectural style, created from various aesthetic alterations throughout the centuries of foreign dominion. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with eight other structures dating from the era of the Norman kingdom of Sicily (1130-1194).
Agrigento in Sicily is home to a vast Greek archaeological site called the Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples), encompassing the ruins of the city of Akragas, Agrigento’s original name, which was founded as a Greek colony in the 6th century BC.
The Valley of Temples includes the Temple of Concordia, one of the best-preserved ancient Greek temples still standing. It survived almost entirely intact since its construction in 430 BC. Modern Agrigento overlooks the valley on top of a hill, but even the modern city still has shadows of its Greek past. The 13th century Church of Santa Maria dei Greci (“St. Mary of the Greeks”), for example, stands on the site of an ancient Greek temple.
Bari, Apulia on the Adriatic coast shares a long history with the rest of the Southern Italian cities, but is also home to a thriving urban centre with trendy stores and hip restaurants. Mazelike Old Bari (Bari Vecchia) is the historic heart of the city. The narrow streets lead to the Basilica of Saint Nicholas. The remains of Saint Nicholas, Bari’s patron saint, is kept in the church crypt.
Outside the city, you will find many picturesque spots on the coast, such as the seaside town of Polignano a Mare.
To learn more about the history of Southern Italy, consider signing up for Odyssey Traveller’s tour, Ancient History of Southern Italy & Sicily. On this educational tour, especially designed for the active senior traveller, you will be guided by an Odyssey Program Leader in a small group through Southern Italy’s famous landmarks. Click through the link and sign up!