History of Calabria
Calabrian history is one of many players and many tales.
What is today known as Calabria is a land has been conquered, reconquered, and conquered again by various rulers only to be devastated by natural disasters such as earthquakes along the way.
Despite the harshness of Mother Nature, though, the struggle of Calabria to succeed and flourish was most hindered by regimes who felt that Calabria was here for the taking and could be abused once conquered; writer Norman Douglas wrote of Calabria:
Ages of oppression and misrule have passed over their heads; sun and rain, with all their caprice, have been kinder friends to them than their earthly masters.
~ Norman Douglas,
In addition to destructive elements and harsh rulers, Calabria also experienced a feudal system that kept much of the population poor, mass emigrations that stripped the land of most of its workforce, and severe neglect from the governments supposed to serve her.
Through it all, however, Calabria has survived. Finally receiving some richly deserved recognition, Calabria is now becoming an increasingly important player in the export market for its incomparable olives, olive oil, figs, meats, and cheeses, and is the fastest growing region for tourism in Italy.
Today’s Calabresi look toward the future with the same courage, resiliency, kindness, and generosity that has been in their blood for thousands of years-and the story of Calabrian history marches on.
700,000 B.C. – 1500 B.C.
Traces of a type of Homo Erectus along the coast of Calabria suggest inhabitation as early as 700,000 years B.C.
The Ice Age wiped out all humans from the area, but they returned during the mid-Paleolithic Age and during the Stone Age left behind the 12,000 year old “Bos Primigenius,” a figure of a bull perched on a cliff, in the Grotto of Romito in the present town of Papasidero (CS).
During the Neolithic Revolution, Calabria’s inhabitants changed from hunter to farmer and began settling villages around 3500 B.C.
800 B.C. – 400 B.C.
Outsiders’ fascination with this area began between 800 and 700 B.C. when Greeks established colonies at Sybaris, Rhegion (now Reggio di Calabria), Kroton (now Crotone), and Locri, calling the area Magna Grecia, or “Great Greece.”
Here, the Achaean and Chalcidian Greeks took over lands already settled by natives, toting their civilization, community planning, politics, and written laws, not to mention the glorious grapes, olives, and figs that cover Calabria today.
One of those grapes, the gaglioppo, became the base of what is still Calabria’s most famous wine, Cirò, from the town of the same name. The wine was originally made in Krimisa, a Greek colony, and offered to the gods by victors of the early Olympic Games.
During the times of Magna Grecia, the philosopher Pythagorus (you may remember the term “Pythagorean Theorem” from geometry class) was active in the area now known as Calabria. In Kroton, he established the first philosophic-scientific school.
Also in Kroton, in the 6th century B.C., Alcmeone dissected the eye, ear, brain, and spinal marrow, making a claim that Kroton was actually the site of the first medical school in the world.
Meanwhile in Sybaris, its residents were busy inventing la dolce vita. The Sybarites are said to have lived lives of great luxury and decadence, angering its hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone, Olympics-dominating neighbors, the Krotonians. Indeed, the word “sybarite” derives from the ancient Sybarites (and their lifestyles) in Calabria.
Taking their rivalry to the extreme, in 510 B.C., the Krotonians destroyed Sybaris, diverting the waters of the Crati River temporarily to wash over the former city. In 444 B.C., Greeks rebuilt on the site of Sybaris and called the new settlement Thurii. About 250 years later, after Romans were firmly in control of the peninsula, Thurii would be destroyed and Copia built on top of it.
For many years this thrice built location baffled archaeologists unable to locate the site of ancient Sybaris. Finally in the 1960s with the aid of new technology, they were able to decipher that the three cities had been built one on top of the other over the centuries, solving one of Calabria’s ancient mysteries.
During the time of Magna Grecia, Calabria was called many different names-Bruttium, Saturnia, Ausonia, Enotria, Tirrenia, Esperia. But its most notable name was Italia (its residents called “Italians”); later the name extended north as more and more of the peninsula came under the control of the Romans and became the name of the entire land mass.
The name “Calabria” wouldn’t come until the reign of the Byzantines.
Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire:
400 B.C. – 400 A.D.
Around 380 B.C., the Romans began eyeing southern Italy to become part of its holdings. For much of the time between 380 B.C. and 295 B.C., Rome waged war on most of the native tribes throughout the Italian peninsula, culminating in the Battle of Sentinum, which solidified the Roman empire.
The Romans continued to expand and conquer while taking time to begin building the first of their famous roads in 312 B.C. The Punic Wars between 264 and 146 B.C. ended with the destruction of Carthage, bringing Hannibal to Calabria for hiding during the Second Punic War.
In 203 B.C., after a failed quest to defeat the Romans, it is said that from outside of Kroton, Hannibal retreated to Carthage and left a bloody mess behind him. Some historians believe that Hannibal ordered 4000 native mercenaries who didn’t want to go to North Africa with him slaughtered in the Temple of Hera Lacinia as they sought refuge; others believe he killed only army horses that wouldn’t fit on the ships home.
Now only one column remains of the once-magnificent Temple of Hera Lacinia, creating the name “Capo Colonna” for this location.
Rome then lived in relative complacency until it was challenged by the Western Goths, namely Alaric the Visigoth. After splitting into eastern (based in Constantinople/Istanbul) and western (based in Rome) in 395 A.D., the western half of the Roman Empire was defeated by Alaric in 410 A.D., which led to its eventual fall in 476 A.D.
After he conquered Rome, Alaric contracted malaria and died in Cosenza; legend has it that he, along with a treasure of Roman riches, were buried in the bed of the Busento River.
Byzantines, Saracens, & Normans
500 A.D. – 1190 A.D.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Italian peninsula was invaded and ruled by the Ostrogoths (eastern Goths) and later by Germanic Lombards in the north.
In the south, however, by the 6th century B.C., a new group of Greeks had come into power-the Byzantines.
The Byzantines thrived in Calabria and towns such as Stilo and Rossano achieved great wealth and status; still today, these two villages still retain much of their Byzantine heritage seen best in their churches–Stilo’s La Cattolica and Rossano’s San Marco Evangelista.
The Byzantines are credited with giving Calabria her name from the term “kalos-bruo” meaning “fertile earth.”
Around 800 A.D., Saracens began invading the shores of Calabria, attempting to wrest control of the area from the Byzantines. This group of Arabs had already been successful in Sicily and knew that Calabria was another key spot.
The people of Calabria retreated into the mountains for safety. Although the Arabs never really got a stronghold on the whole of Calabria, they did control some villages while enhancing trade relations with the eastern world.
It is during this time and thanks to the invading Arabs that many staples of today’s Calabrian cuisine came into fashion: citrus fruits and eggplants for example. Exotic spices such as cloves and nutmeg were also introduced.
While the Byzantines and Saracens fought, along came Norman Robert Guiscard in the middle of the 11th century conquering all.
Around 1130, Pope Innocent II gave Guiscard’s nephew, Roger II, the Kingdom of Sicily and all of the Norman-controlled areas of southern Italy-Campania (including Naples), Abruzzo, Molise, Puglia, Basilicata, and Calabria.
Southern Italy had never been united as one, and so the Normans installed the feudal system of land ownership to establish order-wealthy Norman overlords owned the land while using Calabrian peasants for all the work. This system lasted well into Italy’s unification in the late 1800s and even beyond in the most remote areas.
Many Calabrian villages were founded during Norman rule, including Badolato, in 1080.
Swabian, Aragonese & Spanish Rule
1190 A.D. – 1700 A.D.
Frederick II of Swabia came into power in 1194 and is credited with creating one of the most civilized nations in the world that was also a great melting pot of cultures, philosophy, and customs-the so-called “Kingdom of the Sun.”
Southern Italians, however, were not pleased with the heavy taxation and military burdens that now encumbered them and the start of an internal rage with the powers-that-be began, or at least was expanded.
Upon Frederick II’s death in 1250, a struggle for power ensued with Charles d’Anjou, creator of the Angevin dynasty, emerging as an iron-fisted leader in 1266 with a grant of the crown from Pope Clement IV.
Although Charles lost Sicily in 1282, he retained control of the other southern Italian holdings (including Calabria), which came to be known as the “Kingdom of Naples.”
The Angevin dynasty ruled the Kingdom of Naples until 1442, when it fell to Alfonso V of Aragon, who became ruler of the now-named “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.”
When the Angevin claim passed to the French crown, the Italian Wars began in 1495. The treaties of Blois gave Naples and Sicily to Spain, and so began one of the most harsh, brutal periods of Calabrian history.
The area suffered greatly under Spanish rule with heavy taxation, underutilized farming land because of feuding landowners, famines, and disease. While the north of Italy was experiencing the great Italian Renaissance, Calabria was sheltered in the fields.
Although the Renaissance didn’t make the journey south, the Spanish Inquisition did. In 1560, the village of Guardia Piemontese (CS) was the site of a massacre of Protestants who had fled from the Alps, known as Waldensians. The event is commemorated in the Piazza della Strage (Square of the Slaughter) and by the name of the 14th century Porta del Sangue (Gate of Blood), through which the blood of rebels reportedly flowed to the valley below.
Philosopher Tommaso Campanella of Stilo (RC) also led a famous uprising against Spanish treatment, but was captured and imprisoned.
Austrians, Bourbons, French, & Bourbons Again
1700 A.D. – 1860 A.D.
In the early 1700s, the Austrian Hapsburgs came into control, but their rule was short-lived as in 1735, they ceded the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to the Bourbons.
In 1759, Ferninand IV of Naples became king and ruled with heavy military occupation and repression-controlling political uprisings by killing many of the Calabrian dissenters.
At the end of the 18th century, the French invaded Italy and in 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte became President of the Italian Republic. A few years later, he declared himself king and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies independent with his brother Joseph as its king.
When Joseph left to assume the Spanish throne in 1808, Napoleon gave the Kingdom of Naples to his brother-in-law Joachim Murat. Murat instituted the French Civil Code and went to work on public infrastructure-reforms that were undone when the Bourbons returned with the help of the British in 1815.
Murat was out, and when he tried to reclaim his throne, he was captured in Pizzo (VV), held prisoner in the grand castle, and shot in the courtyard.
During the rule of the Bourbons, Calabrians became increasingly disgruntled and staged several insurrections, which were met with responses of executions or life imprisonment. They began to band together to form secret societies with laws enforced by brigands and bandits-the loose precursor to organized crime.
As some groups became more organized, though, they joined a larger movement that called for “Italy, one free, independent republican nation,” espoused by Giuseppe Mazzini and Nicholas Giuseppe Garibaldi-who would forever change the history of Italy.
Risorgimento, Emigration, & World Wars
1860 A.D. -Present
In 1860, in a movement called “Il Risorgimento,” or the revival, Garibaldi and his band of “Red Shirts” conquered Sicily and then the rest of southern Italy with the goal of unifying Italy under the Sardinian House of Savoy.
In 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed under King Vittorio Emanuele II and the first elections of Italy’s parliament took place in Turin, its first capital. The capital was moved to Florence in 1865 and then to Rome in 1870.
Vittorio Emanuele II died in 1878 and Umberto I rose to the throne. Meanwhile, life for southern Italians remained much the same as it always had-lots of hard work and little to show for it. The feudal system was still largely practiced in the south, making it difficult for farmers to have their own land.
Leaving their homeland and starting somewhere else seemed to be the only choice for many southern Italians. Around 1892, a mass emigration from Italy began.
By 1924, five million Italians had left the country reducing its population by a third-about 80% of these emigrants were from the Mezzogiorno, the southern provinces. They went to the United States, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, and elsewhere in Europe.
In 1900, Umberto I was assassinated and Vittorio Emanuele II became king. Fifteen years later, Italy entered World War I on the side of the Allies, but the unsettled post-war atmosphere helped the rise of the fascism. Benito Mussolini was elected to Parliament in 1921 and then was appointed Prime Minister of Italy by Vittorio Emanuele II in 1925. Three years later, the fascist leader called “Il Duce” dissolved Parliament and created a dictatorship with him at the helm.
During the time of fascism, the poor continued to struggle, and Mussolini’s alignment with Hitler and Germany and the country’s entry into World War II against France and Great Britain in 1940 didn’t help matters. A series of rebellions by the people ensued and Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943. Mussolini was captured and killed in 1945.
In a historic vote in 1946, Italians voted to abolish the monarchy, exile the royal family of Savoy because of its support for fascism, and establish a republic. With the adoption of a constitution in 1948, Italy became the parliamentary republic that it is today.
The economic conditions of the south continued to lag behind those of its northern counterpart, and so another wave of Italians left in search of work elsewhere. In the 1960s, the entire Italian economy improved, including in the south primarily with help from funds of the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno.
Although Calabria still struggles for economic and social respect, there is a peculiar feeling that this unique region is coming into her own these days with dramatic increases in exports and in tourism.
With a combination of courage, determination, the ever-present love for the family, the Calabresi have withstood thousands of years of oppression, struggle, and hardship-and they show no signs of stopping now.