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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Why is Italy called Italy?

Where did Italy get its name? The Local delves into the etymology...

Map of Italy and the Adriatic, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian seas in 1911.
Map of Italy and the Adriatic, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian seas in 1911. Source: WikiCommons.

Readers who know their history will be aware that modern day Italy only came into being in the 19th century with the country’s gradual unification (known in Italy as the Risorgimento) between 1848 and 1871, thanks to a series of successful military campaigns led by General Giuseppe Garibaldi.

But the name Italia – referring to different parts of the peninsula at different points in history – has been in use for several thousand years.

In his text ‘On Italy’ the Greek historian Antiochus of Syracuse, writing in around 420 BC, reportedly identified Italia as the southern part of modern day Calabria – the toe of Italy’s boot.

Italy according to the ancient Greeks, corresponding to modern Calabria, scanned from a 19th century book.

Italy according to the ancient Greeks, corresponding to modern Calabria, scanned from a 19th century book. Source: WikiCommons.

Most of Antiochus’ works are lost to us today, but the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing several hundred years later in the early first century AD, quotes parts of them in his text ‘Roman Antiquities‘.

Here Antiochus recounts the legend that sixteen generations before the Trojan war, the region we now know as Calabria was inhabited by the Enotri or the Oenotrians. The Enotri had a king named Italus, and subsequently changed their name to the Itali.

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The town of Catanzaro in Calabria today has a road sign proudly announcing itself as the birthplace of the name Italia.

Over the following centuries, the area known as Italia gradually expanded to include all of the south and central-northern part of the peninsula; the northern cisalpine region under Julius Caesar in the 40’s BC; the northeastern region of Istria (home to modern day Trieste) under Caesar Augustus in 7 AD; and finally Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica under the Emperor Diocletian in 292 AD.

Expansion of the territory called "Italy".

Expansion of the territory called “Italy”. Source: Wikicommons.

Multiple alternative theories persist, however, as to the origins of the name Italia.

The most popular is that it’s the Latin formulation of the Oscan word Víteliú, meaning ‘land of the young cattle’. The word was translated as Italói in ancient Greek and Italia in Latin.

READ ALSO: Four civilizations in Italy that pre-date the Roman Empire

Oscan was spoken by a number of tribes, including the Samnites, the Aurunci, and the Sidicini. It had become a dead language by about 100 AD, but in the first century BC these tribes, in competition with the Romans, were minting coins with Víteliú stamped on them.

Another idea is that Italia comes from the Greek Aethalia or Aithalìa, meaning “land of thick smoke”, in reference to its numerous volcanoes. 

Finally, Dionysius of Halicarnassus himself, in the same text in which he mentions Antiochus’ account of Italus, offers an alternative origin story.

READ ALSO: 8 things you probably didn’t know about the Romans

Dionysius cites another 5th century BC historian, Hellanicus of Lesbos, who brings Hercules into the mix. According to Hellanicus, for Hercules’s tenth labour he was ordered to raid the cattle of the monster Geryon and bring them to King Eurystheus.

As Hercules was driving the herd back to Greece on his return from his successful mission, one of the calves swam away and escaped to Sicily. Hercules wandered all over the land asking its inhabitants – who spoke little Greek – if they had seen the animal, and in responding, they used their word for calf, vitilus.  

Hercules gave the name Vitulia – land of the calf – to the land he had wandered in search of the creature.

Hercules and the Cretan Bull, early 17th century bronze sculpture.

Hercules and the Cretan Bull, early 17th century bronze sculpture. Source: WikiCommons.

Dionysius notes that he considers that Antiochus’ explanation ‘perhaps is more probable’ than Hellanicus’, but concludes the important thing is that either way, Italy got its name ‘in Hercules’ time, or a little earlier’, and it stuck.

And that concludes our range of possible explanations as to how the country got its name.

Why is Italy called Italy? Like Dionysius two thousand years ago, it looks like it’s up to you to pick your favourite theory.

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ITALY EXPLAINED

The 7 signs that August has arrived in Italy

While summer holidays are important everywhere, Italy takes the tradition of le vacanze estive particularly seriously. Here's what to expect now that August has arrived.

The 7 signs that August has arrived in Italy

1. Cities are largely deserted

If you’re in a city or town, prepare for it to feel strangely empty away from the obvious tourist destinations.

In Rome, car journeys that once involved a half-hour battle through wild traffic become surprisingly quick and stress-free. And where are the crowds at your usual after-work drinks spot in Milan? Even the smallest towns will be noticeably quieter than usual.

READ ALSO: Ferragosto: Why the long August holidays are untouchable for Italians

This is because all sensible Italian residents have packed up and gone to the beach or the mountains for a month. Next year, you’ll know to do the same.

2. But beaches are packed

Italy was a nation of staycationers even before the pandemic, and in August it’s tutti al mare: everyone flees to the beach, or maybe the mountains, at the same time.

Expect resorts to be packed and hotels, Airbnbs and campsites to be fully booked, especially as international tourists return after two years of travel restrictions.

3. Shops have cheery ‘closed for holidays’ signs

Shop workers and owners take time off like everyone else and it’s very common for small independent businesses like bakeries, pharmacies and florists to close for up to a month.

Some will tell you when they expect to reopen, others just put a sign in the window saying ‘chiuso per ferie’ – closed for holidays.

4. The summer sales are (still) on

Those shops that do remain open – mainly large chain stores and supermarkets –  offer discounts throughout August to those dedicated shoppers who aren’t at the beach. Italy only allows two retail sales a year, and one of those runs through July and August.

5. Everyone you email is out of the office

Need to contact anyone urgently at work this month? If they’re in Italy, then too bad.

Office workers are also usually on holiday, and a great many offices close altogether for three or four weeks.

Forget about out-of-office email replies suggesting an alternative contact or that the person will be checking their email sporadically – they will be on the beach and whatever you want can wait until they are back.

This applies to banks and to any kind of government bureaucracy, and you may also have trouble getting medical appointments at this time of year.

There’s only one place to be in Italy in August, as far as many Italians are concerned. Photo by Giovanni ISOLINO / AFP

6. There are ‘red alert’ heat warnings in place

This summer has been an unusually hot one and Italy has already experienced several extreme heatwaves. But as we get into August temperatures will no doubt be high across the board, meaning the country’s health authorities put heat warnings in place on the hottest days and strongly advise people to stay out of the sun during the hottest hours of the afternoon.

7. Every major road has a traffic warning

Italy’s state police make good use of the red pen when putting together the official traffic forecast for August. All weekends feature ‘red dot’ traffic warnings as people head off on holiday, or return home.

The final weekend of August, when people head home in time for il rientro (the return to school and work in September) is also best avoided.

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