A History of Calabria, The Original Land of the Italians

During our first trip to Calabria, Chris and I stayed at the Casa Cielo Scalea B&B in Scalea. This fabulous B&B is owned and operated by Clive and Kathryn Bayton.

Clive and Kathryn
Clive and Kathryn on the lungomare in Reggio Calabria

Along with being a gourmet cook, accomplished artist, and photographer, Clive is a historian of the region and has gleaned much knowledge of the origins of Calabria. He has graciously provided us with his account of the history of Calabria:

A Brief Ancient History of the Original Land of the Italians

Before the recorded civilisation of the mainland of North and West Europe, the Greeks had established an empire of culture and learning around the coastlines and islands of the Mediterranean Sea.
From their established bases in Sicily they gradually moved to the mainland into what is known today as Calabria, the first tribe they encountered were the Itali and they named the land ‘Italia’. So it is always with a smirk while defending my adopted people that I proudly tell the modern day inhabitants of places such as Milan, Rome and Venice who tend to look down their noses a little at the poor people of the south, that no matter how they view the Calabrese, they are the original Italians.

While the hills on which Rome would one day be built were frequented by no more than wildlife, sheep and the occasional shepherd, Calabria already had great towns built by the Greeks. As the Greeks established themselves, cities such as Sybaris (founded 720BC) were built. So rich was this city that the inhabitants’ opulent lifestyle would put the word ‘sybaritic’ into the English language to describe a person of luxurious living and outrageous pleasure seeking.

Many famous Greeks walked or established themselves in this land, Pythagoras set up home and a school here, while ancient Olympic heroes such as Philippus of Croton were born here, their taste for the local wine ‘Ciro’ which is still made here today was so great that it was sent back to Greece as a reward for other victorious Olympic athletes.

While Calabria and Greece were living in relative peace with class, civilisation and culture, a new force was growing in the north apparently with its origins in two human baby boys suckled by a she wolf (c.753BC)! Guess those shepherds didn’t do their job that well, but all the same Rome grew.

The first republic was established in 509BC and thus started the road to an Empire. But before the republic could conquer the rest of the known world, first it had to conquer or unite the tribes of Italy. Calabria was then as is now, almost an island from the rest of the Italian peninsula with sea on three sides and a range of mountains blocking easy passage from or to the North. It is said of those days that some of the fiercest opposition to Rome was here, as the different tribes battled for their lands, the Greeks on the other hand made an organized withdrawal…. and as we know, Rome eventually became the master.

Throughout Rome’s history as an empire it has had its fair share of enemies on its homelands. When first trying to establish itself around the Mediterranean,  Carthage of North Africa was ahead of the game with Sicily, parts of Spain and other lands already under its laws.

We have all heard of Hannibal (Born 247BC) the Carthaginian and his epic journey over the Alps with his army and war elephants but few know that he kept Rome in fear for eight years by stationing himself and his army in Italy. His base was in Calabria close enough to Sicily for passage to Africa if his country should recall him, and on Rome’s doorstep keeping them busy at home and their ideas off of a march on Carthage.

So strong were Hannibal and his army that even the politicians of his homelands feared that if he returned he may take power and so they decided to keep him in Calabria. It was only when Rome was knocking on the city gates that he was recalled, but with Rome already having a firm foothold on the continent it was all too late. Carthage and its empire were torn down to its very roots and Europe started to be taken into Roman occupation.

A thought for the modern world is that these were two great nations of equal strength struggling for power, the victor would one day influence the known world with its rules, laws and religion. That victor was Rome which many years later would convert to Christianity and spread its beliefs to all. The vanquished, or the lands in which they once lived turned to Islam, one wonders what the prominent religion of the world would have been today if Hannibal had been victorious.

And so it came to pass that the Roman Empire became rich, powerful and looking at the facts, a little stupid. Slaves from all its conquered territories were shipped to Italy to entertain and do all the work. So many slaves were brought in that they outnumbered Roman citizens and so the story of Spartacus (born c. 109BC) and the slave uprising can now be told (which is not necessary as we have all seen the movie when all the captured slaves after the final battle claim to be Kirk Douglas!)

But again one of the Empire’s enemies and general pain in the butt travelled to Calabria with his army and settled in what is now the area around the city of Reggio Calabria. When Rome finally caught up with him they built a huge containing defensive wall around him from coast to coast, and with the sea to his back Spartacus and his troops were surrounded. A great battle took place and miraculously the slave army broke free and headed north and out of Calabria. However, weakened and in disarray, once the Roman army again caught up with them in which is now the region of Campania, the revolt was finally quashed.

The final enemy of Rome to visit us here in Calabria was Alaric the king of the Visigoths (born 370AD). Alaric and his armies were the first to sack the city of Rome. By this time the empire had been split into two, the western empire with Rome its capital, and the eastern empire ruled from Constantinople, so I suppose we can say he only defeated one half of the Romans, but he did give the city a bashing and emptied it of all its gold and treasures.

With this little bundle well wrapped up, instead of heading north towards home he came South and camped outside what is now the city of Cosenza in Calabria. Here he died of a fever and was buried with all the treasures he had taken from Rome. It has never been found as the slaves that buried him were all put to the sword in order to keep the location secret. It is out there somewhere, but before you all buy a metal detector and jump in a car or jump on a plane, you should be told of the method of the burial. It took place at a point where two rivers met, both were diverted while the grave was dug and the burial could take place, and when done the rivers were again put on their natural course, so unless you can walk on water…forget it!

So there it is a little bit of Italian history that many know of but few associate with Calabria … Calabria the birthplace of Italian civilisation, the very first Italy that hardly gets a mention in modern travel guides.

Today Italy’s tourist trade is enticed over by the images of wonderful places like Venice, Pisa, Florence and Rome. Its history is shown through museums and historical sites such as the ruined cities of ancient Rome and Pompeii, while the very roots of its existence are ignored, yet still await discovery under the fields of my adopted homeland … can someone lend me a shovel?”

Clive J. Bayton

Be sure to visit Casa Cielo Scalea B&B’s Facebook page!

Casa Cielo
Casa Cielo