During my last visit to Italy I was on a mission: to track down the ancient Greeks. Why? Because, during earlier trips to Apulia, and Calabria I discovered villages, where a form of Greek was still spoken. In Apulia some 15,000 people still speak the ancient Greek dialect. In Bovesia – Calabria – five thousand residents have preserved their language and culture for over two thousand years. When a Greek president visited some of these settlements, he was welcomed by people that speak a dialect, Griko that is based on ancient Greek.

These people are the last remnants of Magna Graecia, an area of Southern Italy and Sicily that was colonised by the ancient Greeks. I don’t know about you, but I find all this amazing so I set out to find where these ancient peoples lived. The Romans usually represent the ancient past in Italy. I’d done all that: Rome, Pompeii, Herculaneum. Now I was looking for the Greeks.

Looking back at the history of Magna Grecia

First I did some research. This is what I found out: The Greek expansion into South Italy and Sicily began in the eighth century BC. Greek colonists founded a number of city states on both coasts of the peninsular from the Bay of Naples and the Gulf of Taranto southwards and all round the narrow coastal plain of Sicily. In their hey-day these city- states, founded by farmers, traders and craftsmen, represented the nouveaux riche of the Greek world. Their temples were bigger, their houses more ornate and their aristocracy lived a life of pampered luxury. There was a law in Sybaris (hence sybaritic), which prohibited the crowing of roosters within the city limits because the nobility valued their sleep so highly. The rich plaited gold into their hair and wore cloaks of the finest Milesian wool. Their banquets were legendary and the culinary arts encouraged. Chefs were in great demand as were all manner of exotic entertainers.

Ancient Greek Temple in Segesta
Ancient Greek Temple in Segesta - Sicily

Trade between the Italian colonies and their founding cities in mainland Greece, prospered and artists, entertainers and the famous Corinthian prostitutes were tempted perhaps by the ‘Hollywood’ like life style to settle in the thriving communities. It wasn’t all high living and decadence, though. Magna Graecia became the centre for two philosophical groups: Parmenides founded a ‘school’ at Elea and Pythagorus another at Crotone.

When choosing a site, the colonists looked first for a defensible position perhaps on a peninsular or an off-shore island with a steep acropolis. They also required cultivable land. Once established the colonists built a citadel, temples, altars and the agora. They became independent communities but maintained commercial links with the mainland city-states and kept up the traditions, religious rites, language and political structures of the motherland.

Why did they leave the motherland in the first place? Trade was one incentive. Overpopulation and land hunger were others but the Spartans, who founded Tartenum for instance, sent their illegitimate men to Italy because they were deemed troublemakers.

Greek heritage in Sicily

Having found out a little about Magna Graecia then, I flew to Palermo, picked up my hire car and began my quest. I had only one week so I selected my sites carefully. My first trip, an hour’s drive along the auto-route west (follow signs for Trapani) was to Segesta. The ancient Greek city of Segesta was built on a rocky mountainside. A reconstructed Doric temple and above it a theatre with splendid views over Castellammare del Golfo gave me my first glimpse of the elusive past.

Parco Archeologico della Neapolis
The Greek Theatre in Syracuse

My next pilgrimage took me across a rugged mountainous landscape – Etna gently steaming in the distance - to Syracuse (Siracusa) on the east coast of Sicily. I avoided the industrial northern town (sign-posted on the auto-strada) and made first for the Parco Archeologico Della Neapolis where I found a Greek theatre set in gardens of oleander, bougainvillaea and frangipani and a huge cavern quarried from limestone (with an extraordinary echo). Here 6,000 Greeks were imprisoned during the war between Athens and Syracuse. Then I followed the signs to Ortygia, an island attached to the mainland on its northern edge, which during the seventh to fourth centuries BC was the heart of this powerful city-state. Here I found the remains of the Temple of Apollo: tall columns rising among a mixture of modern and renaissance buildings at a busy city junction. After wandering round the edge of the temple I struck right into a labyrinth of narrow medieval streets and came at last to the Duomo. Plain to see within the structure and fabric of the great cathedral, were the columns of the Sanctuary of Athene. Surely this must be one of the most potent rewards of travel in Italy: the chance to witness the meeting of Byzantine with Roman, Greek with Renaissance, the fusion of history.

Greek heritage in Calabria

Then I crossed over to the mainland of Italy by ferry (they depart every 20 minutes) from Messina (£12 return with car) arriving about 30 minutes later at the small port of Villa S.Giovanni. From there I took the auto strada to Reggio Calabria (Rhegium) but since the ancient city I sought, lies beneath the modern, I headed for the museum. The Museo Nazionale di Reggio Calabria houses a remarkable assortment of relics from Magna Graecia. The most impressive exhibits in this collection are two large (about 8 foot) bronze statues of naked warriors straight out of myth. Divers at Riace Marina on the Ionian sea found them in 1972. Dated to the fifth century BC, they have been magnificently restored.

Bronzes of Riace
Bronzes of Riace - Museo Nazionale di Reggio Calabria

Travelling east round the toe of Italy on the last day of my Odyssey, I was heading now for Locri, founded by colonists from Locris in central Greece in 673 BC. Archaeologists have excavated temples from the fifth century here. I made a detour on the way though to Pentidattio, a spectacular ruined village perched below five tall fingers of sandstone rock in the Aspromonte Mountains. They say the Greeks were here first, but the ruins date from the sixteenth century when a feud led to the massacre of one noble family by another. The fact that I was in an earth-quake zone was clear. The entire landscape looked as though the Earthshaker (the God Poseidon) had taken it up in his huge fist and then scattered the pieces. To be honest, Locri was a bit of a let down after that. Wandering among olive trees I came across the remains of a few graceful columns, the walls of the sanctuary of Persephone, part of the temple of Zeus and a theatre.

Back in Reggio, my week up, I had to admit to myself that although I tracked down some of the sites, I had barely scratched the surface. I didn’t visit any sites on the west coast of the peninsular. In Sicily, I hadn’t been to Selinunte nor the Greek theatre at Taormina or the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. All that will have to wait until another year and I cannot wait to be back.