Italy: what’s in a name?
In 2021, Italy marks its 160th Anniversary as a unified independent country. On the 17th of March 1861 Victor Emanuel II was crowned King of Italy. But why “Italy”? Like any such research, much is lost to myth and hear-say, but we know that it was Emperor Augustus who formally gave the land we know as Italy its name in 42AD, and some time later, in 292AD, Emperor Diocletian made it an actual administrative union (also including the islands), and the name stuck for a couple of thousand years and counting.
But how did Italia get to Rome? The first references we have is the Greeks referring to the Calabria region as Italia. However, we also know that around the same time the name Viteliú (meaning young cattle – in modern Italian the word used for veal is vitello) was being used in an ancient Southern Italian language called Oscan, to refer to the whole southern part of the peninsula. Viteliú was also used in Umbria in it’s pre-roman times. So, Italia seems to be derived from an ancient word for lamb or cattle. But there are other theories…
Italus (or Italos) for example, was the mythological first King the Oenotrians (an ancient tribe that migrated from Greece into Southern Italy), direct descendent from Odysseus. Aristotle tells us that it was Italus (I would imagine he owned a lot of cattle, hence the name), who settled the Oenotrians into an agricultural society.
A third interpretation is that the name comes from the word witaloi – “son of the bull.” Perhaps the bull was a totem that was venerated or symbolised various southern tribes. During the Social War in the first century BC, when Rome effectively annexed all the tribes of Italy, a common iconography of the various tribes was the roman wolf being dismembered by a bull.
A last interpretation comes from the Greek myths involving Heracles, who after killing the monster Geryon (for his tenth labour), brought his cattle back to Greece. While passing through Italy, he lost a bull, and calling out for it, he decided to use the local language, hence calling for vitulus, so he named the land Outalía.
The name Italy remained in use after the Roman Empire fell, and was used by successive invading tribes. Italy’s first national poet, Dante, defined its borders from the Alps to its southern tip, including Sicily. But only in 1861 was it unified again, and an Italian people defined as such.