1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Magna Graecia

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MAGNA GRAECIA (ἡ μεγάλη Ἑλλάς), the name given (first, apparently, in the 6th century B.C.) to the group of Greek cities along the coast of the “toe” of South Italy (or more strictly those only from Tarentum to Locri, along the east coast), while the people were called Italiotes (Ἰταλιῶται). The interior, which the Greeks never subdued, continued to be in the hands of the Bruttii, the native mountaineers, from whom the district was named in Roman times (Βρεττία also in Greek writers). The Greek colonies were established first as trading stations, which grew into independent cities. At an early time a trade in copper was carried on between Greece and Temesa (Homer, Od. i. 181).[1] The trade for a long time was chiefly in the hands of the Euboeans; and Cyme (Cumae) in Campania was founded in the 8th century B.C., when the Euboean Cyme was still a great city. After this the energy of Chalcis went onward to Sicily, and the states of the Corinthian Gulf carried out the colonization of Italy, Rhegium having been founded, it is true, by Chalcis, but after Messana (Zancle), and at the request of the inhabitants of the latter. Sybaris (721) and Crotona (703) were Achaean settlements; Locri Epizephyrii (about 710) was settled by Ozolian Locrians, so that, had it not been for the Dorian colony of Tarentum, the southern coast of Italy would have been entirely occupied by a group of Achaean cities. Tarentum (whether or no founded by pre-Dorian Greeks—its founders bore the unexplained name of Partheniae) became a Laconian colony at some unknown date, whence a legend grew up connecting the Partheniae with Sparta, and 707 B.C. was assigned as its traditional date. Tarentum is remarkable as the only foreign settlement made by the Spartans. It was industrial, depending largely on the purple and pottery trade. Ionian Greeks fleeing from foreign invasion founded Siris about 650 B.C., and, much later, Elea (540).

The Italian colonies were planted among friendly, almost kindred, races, and grew much more rapidly than the Sicilian Greek states, which had to contend against the power of Carthage. After the Achaean cities had combined to destroy the Ionic Siris, and had founded Metapontum as a counterpoise to the Dorian Tarentum, there seems to have been little strife among the Italiotes. An amphictyonic league, meeting in common rites at the temple of Hera on the Lacinian promontory, fostered a feeling of unity among them. The Pythagorean and Eleatic systems of philosophy had their chief seat in Magna Graecia. Other departments of literature do not seem to have been so much cultivated among them. The poet Ibycus, though a native of Rhegium, led a very wandering life. They sent competitors to the Olympic games (among them the famous Milo of Croton); and the physicians of Croton early in the 6th century (especially in the person of Democedes) were reputed the best in Greece; but politically they appear to have generally kept themselves separate. One ship of Croton, however, fought at Salamis, though it is not recorded that Greece asked the Italiotes for help when it sent ambassadors to Gelon of Syracuse. Mutual discord first sapped the prosperity of Magna Graecia. In 510 Croton, having defeated the Sybarites in a great battle, totally destroyed their city. Croton maintained alone the leading position which had belonged jointly to the Achaean cities (Diod. xiv. 103); but from that time Magna Graecia steadily declined. In the war between Athens and Syracuse Magna Graecia took comparatively little part; Locri was strongly anti-Athenian, but Rhegium, though it was the headquarters of the Athenians in 427, remained neutral in 415. Foreign enemies pressed heavily on it. The Lucanians and Bruttians on the north captured one town after another. Dionysius of Syracuse attacked them from the south; and after he defeated the Crotoniate league and destroyed Caulonia (389 B.C.), Tarentum remained the only powerful city. Henceforth the history of Magna Graecia is only a record of the vicissitudes of Tarentum (q.v.). Repeated expeditions from Sparta and Epirus tried in vain to prop up the decaying Greek states against the Lucanians and Bruttians; and when in 282 the Romans appeared in the Tarentine Gulf the end was close at hand. The aid which Pyrrhus brought did little good to the Tarentines, and his final departure in 274 left them defenceless. During these constant wars the Greek cities had been steadily decaying; and in the second Punic war, when most of them seized the opportunity of revolting from Rome, their very existence was in some cases annihilated. Malaria increased in strength as the population diminished. We are told by Cicero (De am. 4), Magna Graecia nunc quidem deleta est. Many of the cities completely disappeared, and hardly any of them were of great importance under the Roman empire; some, like Tarentum, maintained their existence into modern times, and in these only (except at Locri) have archaeological investigations of any importance been carried on; so that there still remains a considerable field for investigation.  (T. As.) 

  1. This passage should perhaps be referred to the 8th century B.C. It is the first mention of an Italian place in a literary record.