From a chronological point of view, Magna Grecia is quite an ephemeral concept. Strictly speaking, it should apply to the period of the so-called Empire of Sybaris and Empire of Croton, between 530 and the mid 5th century BC, when various cities of the Greek West fell under the rule of the Pythagorean Party. Only in this period was the antithesis between Greeks and Barbarians overcome, and a real cultural fusion achieved between the various Italic peoples and the Greek cities in southern Italy. Compared with non-productive farming in mainland Greece, the Italic colonies were renowned for the wealth of their produce and self-indulgent lifestyle, marked by greater enjoyment of worldly pleasure.
The Map of Magna Graecia at the End of the 5th Century B.C.
At the end of the 5th century BC, the geographic concept of Magna Grecia referring to the southernmost regions of the peninsula would overlap with that of Italy. Interestingly, the name Italia/Italìa/Vitalìa, which originally applied to the shores of the Strait of Messina and was linked to the myth of Heracles, began to refer to a much wider area. Returning from his Iberian feat with the oxen of Geryon, Heracles had stopped in Rhegion, newly founded by Jocastaeus, son of Aeolus. However, since a calf had swum across the Strait, followed by the rest of the herd, he had to chase them in Sicily. After a journey that took him across the entire island, Heracles, back to the Strait, asked the inhabitants of Zancle – modern-day Messina – how Siculans, who inhabited today’s southern Calabria and eastern Sicily, would call a calf. The answer was vitulus, which iswhy the hero named the coast of Reggio Calabria Vitalìa, namely the‘Land of the Calf’. This myth is not only documented by literary sources, but also by drachmas minted in Reggio featuring a calf. This also shows that at the time Italy was confined within the borders of the polis. According to an alternative myth, the name Italia derives from King Italo, who ruled over the Siculans, a population living in Aspromonte. The city of Rome is said to have been named after Rome, his daughter.
Since the 4th Century BC
Whatever its origin, at the beginning of the 4th century B.C., the name Italia came to encompass the entire territory of the Achaean League, which changed its name to Italiote League, reaching down to the isthmus between Lamezia and Scilla. Following the great conquests of Dionysius the Elder, tyrant of Syracuse, the name of Italy would also be referred to the regions of Campania and present-day Abruzzo. It was Rome, however, with its conquest of the southern regions, that extended the name as far as the river Rubicon. When the Italic peoples rebelled against Rome in the early 1st century B.C., their emblem was Heracles’ calf. In order to reaffirm the legitimacy of the Roman conquest, Augustus had a calf featured on many coins. Augustus himself decided that all the land south of the Alps should be part of Italy.
Back to Magna Grecia, we would like to conclude by recalling the reason why Plato, already in his forties, decided to visit the Greek West: the philosopher, a lover of the Italiot way of life, was interested in visiting the craters of the Etna and the other volcanoes in Sicily. For this very reason, Plato could be defined as the first ‘modern tourist’ in history.