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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
Why is Italy called Italy?
Where did Italy get its name? The Local delves into the etymology...
Published: 5 November 2021 16:17 CET
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. 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.
READ ALSO:
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”. 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.
Very cool. Viteliu was 'Italia' in the Oscan alphabet? MT @drzarrow: Social War Coinage (ca. 90 BC) w/ #Oscan legends pic.twitter.com/uGgL8QrEVp
— Calder Classics (@CalderClassics) May 28, 2014
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. 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.
The Local Italy
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CULTURE
Phallus of Pompeii: Italian art exhibition reveals ancient sexuality
Raunchy scenes may redden faces at a new exhibition in Pompeii on art and sexuality in the ancient Roman city, where sculptures and paintings of breasts and buttocks abound.
Published: 4 May 2022 09:41 CEST
 Archaeologists excavating the city, which was destroyed by the eruption of nearby Vesuvius in 79 AD, were initially startled to discover erotic images everywhere, from garden statues to ceiling frescos.
Since those first digs in the 18th-century site, racy images have been found in taverns, thermal baths and private homes, from huge erect penises to a statue with both male and female physical attributes.
READ ALSO: Roman chariot unearthed ‘almost intact’ near Pompeii
It became clear that “this is a city where sensuality, eroticism, are ever-present,” Pompeii’s site director Gabriel Zuchtriegel told AFP as he stood in front of statues of bare-chested Centaurs.
The discoveries initially caused “dismay, embarrassment, and curiosity, and were seen by some as a great opportunity to think about the relationship with their bodies and nudity in a very different way”.
Pompeii’s site director Gabriel Zuchtriegel, poses during a new exhibition in Pompeii’s site entitled “Art and sensuality in the houses of Pompeii”. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)
The Neapolitan King Charles VII, who financed the excavations, shut some of the more bawdy finds away in a secret cabinet in Naples, only showing them to those of proven moral standing, Zuchtriegel said.
READ ALSO: Italian archaeologists uncover slave room at Pompeii in ‘rare’ find
That secret cabinet still exists today in the archaeological museum in the southern Italian city.
The exhibition, which runs until January 2023 and brings together some 70 works, begins with the vast erect penis on a statue of the god Priape – a Roman symbol of fertility and prosperity.
This photograph shows a “Statue-fountain of Priapus, symbol of prosperity” during a new exhibition in Pompeii’s site entitled “Art and sensuality in the houses of Pompeii”. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)
Priape and his phallus was traditionally placed in the atrium, the large central hall of Roman houses.
Suitable for children?
Visitors are told this has nothing to do with eroticism, “though the modern imagination gives it this meaning”, says Tiziana Rocco from the Pompeii exhibition office.
The smirking of embarrassed tourists is proof enough of that, despite some wishing it otherwise.
“I think modern American culture is a little bit too prudish, and uncomfortable with the human body,” says Seattle tourist Daniel Berglund.
“It’s nice to see ancient culture that was more open and willing to display and glorify the human body,” the 40-year-old said as he lingered in front of paintings from a “cubiculum”, or Roman bedroom.
Various scenes are shown, including a man and a woman having sex. Further on, a series of oil lamps shine light on images to make pulses race – though the curators have not forgotten that some people will be bringing their children to the exhibition.
“Families and children make up a large part of our public,” says Zuchtriegel, who has put together an illustrated guide for them.
READ ALSO: IN PHOTOS: Pompeii’s treasures go on display at reopened Antiquarium museum
“The theme may seem difficult, but it is omnipresent in Pompeii, so it must be explained to children in one way or another,” he said.
In the guide, a centaur – a creature from Greek mythology that is half man, half horse – searches for a mate.
A visitor walks during a new exhibition in Pompeii’s site entitled “Art and sensuality in the houses of Pompeii. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)
On the way he meets Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image, Dionysus, the god of wine, and Hermaphrodite, the child of Aphrodite and Hermes, who had both male and female sexual organs.
“It’s a playful way to meet the different figures of Greek myths present in Pompeii,” Zuchtriegel said
AFP
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