On August 16, 1972 archaeologists off the southern Italian fishing village
of Riace swung two muscular bronze men out of the Ionian Sea and eased them
to the deck. The Bronze of Riace immediately caused a worldwide sensation.
Among the most exquisite sculptures of classical antiquity, they are vivid
reminders of the glory of Magna Graecia, the necklace of Greek cities that
arose along the shores of southern Italy in the eighth century B.C., burned
with a cultural brilliance that rivaled Athens itself, and faded while Rome
was still young.
Just 20 kilometers inland, in the wild, wolf-infested Calabrian mountains,
are a few isolated villages where the older inhabitants still speak Greek.
Not modern Greek, nor medieval Byzantine, but a form of ancient Greek – the
language of the Bronzes and their sculptor, the language of Homer. The
songs, customs, and religious traditions of these impoverished farmers are a
priceless cultural inheritance, unique in the world. They call themselves
“Grecanici” and are a living link to more than 2,500 years of uninterrupted
history. A link that, barring a miracle, will soon be broken forever.
This is the Deep South, the extreme tip of the Italian boot, a place known
as Aspromonte, or “Harsh Mountain.” At first glance, the name seems to fit:
Steep, forbidding mountains advance almost to the coast and rise away inland
as far as the eye can see, a parade of sun-scorched peaks and deep gorges of
Like other Grecanico villages, Bova occupies a perfect defensive position.
For very good reason – the Grecanici have been under siege for the last
2,500 years. In the fifth century B.C., warlike Italic tribes forced many
inhabitants of Magna Graecia to abandon their prosperous coastal cities and
take refuge in mountain hill towns. The domination of the Roman Empire
brought a measure of stability, though Magna Graecia lost its freedom as
well as its economic and artistic stature.
When Rome fell a millennium later, southern Calabria came under the control
of the Byzantine Empire. This ensured the continuity of Greek language and
learning, but offered little protection from the wave upon wave of Germanic
warriors, Saracen raiders, Norman knights. Turkish crusaders, and Bourbon
troops that ravaged the area. Other invaders wielded not the sword, but a
chalice and a cross. The Papacy systematically persecuted the Grecanici for
their Greek Orthodox faith, driving them deep into the mountains to worship
in hidden chapels. Bova, the last holdout of Orthodoxy, was forcibly
converted to Roman Catholicism in 1573.
In Bova – or “Vua,” the Grecanico name, which the inhabitants prefer. there
are churches dedicated to saintly Greek Orthodox monks. From the sixth
century on, these black-robed holy men from the East founded churches and
monasteries throughout the area, in which they preserved intellectual
treasures of the Byzantine Empire that had long since disappeared from
Western Europe. The greatest treasure of all was their language, key to the
knowledge of ancient Greece, which catalyzed the Renaissance. When Petrarch
and Boccacio wanted to learn Greek, they hired Calabrian monks as tutors. In
those times, southern Calabria was rich in worldly as well as spiritual
goods, renowned for its silks, honey, minerals, and fertile farmlands.
Now Calabria is the poorest region in Italy, and the Grecanico area is the
most destitute of all Calabria. Though they have withstood countless hostile
invaders, the Grecanici now falter before their most unforgiving enemy: the
modern world. Mass media has steadily eroded the Grecanico language and
culture, which the Italian government – despite Article 6 of the Italian
Constitution that mandates the preservation of ethnic minorities – does
little to protect. Since World War II, most young Grecanici have moved to
Reggio and the North of Italy in search of work, losing touch with their
past. Signs of this slow hemorrhage are visible in Bova.
Tiny, precariously perched villages persist beyond Bova. Their names –
Condofuri, Galliciano, Ghorio – are pure Greek, for this is the heart of
Grecanico territory. Though most residents speak Italian or the Calabrian
dialect, their first language remains Grecanico, a close relation to
A small group of men is always waiting silently in the square. The Grecanici
are solemn and reserved, with a hint of melancholy about them and a
hesitance to make eye contact that at first seems mistrustful.
On the walls of churches are images and icons of saints: San Rocco, San
Pantaleone, and especially San Leo, patron saint of Aspromonte. The saints
of the Grecanici are those of the Greek Orthodox Church, some of whom do not
figure in the Roman Catholic calendar. The Grecanici remain fiercely loyal
to their ancestral protectors, nonetheless. On feast days, they hold
elaborate processions, bearing three-ton reliquaries in silver and gold up
and down the hilly streets. Some of their ceremonies have even older,
pre-Christian origins. On Palm Sunday the Grecanici come to church with
life-sized dolls woven from olive branches, evident holdovers of pagan
fertility cults. During marriage rites, the women of the village process
from the bride’s house to the groom’s, balancing the objects of the
trousseau on their heads; identical scenes appear in “pinakes” friezes of
the fifth century B.C. excavated in Locri.
In the last 30 years alone, five Greek-speaking villages have been
abandoned. Though no one knows exactly how many native speakers remain, they
cannot number much above 2,000.
Despite the precarious condition of the Grecanici, a few determined people
like Father Kosmas from Athos have started to rebuilt the Grecanico culture
and are fighting to preserve it. Filippo Condemi, a successful big-city
psychiatrist born to a poor Grecanico family in Galliciano, has written a
grammar of the language and is working to have it introduced in elementary
schools. Bruno Casile, a farmer from Bova who became a self-taught poet,
continues despite his advanced years to sing the rage and determination of
his forgotten people in their ancient tongue. Carmelo Nucera himself has
devoted his life to the Grecanici, among whom he grew up. He organizes music
festivals, forges ties with Greek sister cities, and campaigns for legal
recognition of the Grecanici as an ethnic minority
Graecanic language of Calabria have a lot of traces of ancient Greek, like
the “-ousi” instead of “-oune” for the 3rd plural person. However it is not
too different from the byzantine Greek, I think it can be considered a
connection between Ancient and Modern Greek. The Griko, Greek of Salento, is
perhaps closer to Modern Greek, even if the pronunciation is quite different
(some scholars indicate a resemblance with the Greek of Cyprus or Crete).
These languages are endargered