Ancient history of 'Regium' / 'Rhegion'

N. Zappala observed that the Greeks used myths to justify their (often) bloody military conquests, by saying that, during the period of their colonization, they found the Italic territory uninhabited.

Despite what the Greeks said, when they arrived in Italy they did not find uninhabited lands, but indigenous peoples who were routed and subdued, as was the case with the Samnites of "Regium."

However, the fact is that historically Rhegium has always been considered a "Greek city" and its earler Italic origins have been forgotten. According to tradition "Rhegion" was a rich, prosperous and powerful city, dedicated to the production of wine, timber and fishing:

"Reggio worked as a modern transhipment, a place where small boats were able to transact business of varying importance, taking advantage of the presence of commercial vessels with great storage space. Duties, tolls and taxes were generally paid with some overcharge by a "melting pot" of Phoenician, Carthaginian, Etruscan, Greek and Oriental sailors and traders "[7].

In addition, the mooring of ships was optimized by the presence of two headlands and Reggio was located in an impregnable position. In fact ancient Rhegion was located on the right bank of the "Apsias" river, known in the Italian language as "Calcopinace", and in a strategic position: in an "άκρωτήριον" [high place], as Thucydides says, that would ensure control of the Strait, an obligatory route in the great trade routes of the Mediterranean sea.

According to Greek tradition, Reggio was founded by the Greeks from Chalcis, and around this event we have the extraordinary confirmation of the great Greek historian Thucydides [460-397 BC], who wrote:

"ἕως άφίκοντο ἐςπήγιον τῆς Iταλίας άκρωτήριον" [the Chalcis of Euboea] came to Reggio, the high place of Italy] (Thucydides, "The Peloponnesian War", VI, XLIV).

Reggio was founded during the Messenian Wars (against Sparta) in the Peloponnese, between the 7th and 6th centuries BC. Because of these wars, some refugees from Messenia, joined by colonists from Chalcis in Euboea, arrived at Magna Graecia, where they founded Zancle [= Messina] and Rhegion.

The Messenians had always played a very important political and military role in the former Rhegion that they kept until the 5th century BC, at the time of the tyranny of Anassilaos [500-476 BC], who created a strong kingdom between Zancle and Rhegion.

Later Rhegion suffered a long siege and was destroyed by Dionysus [432-367 BC], the tyrant of Syracuse. Around the second half of the third century BC, Reggio was conquered by the Romans. In the 89 BC, the city became a "municipium" [Free City], taking the name of "Rhegium Iulium."

After the death of Julius Caesar, many colonies were called "Juliae", and among them there was Reggio Calabria, called "Rhegium Iulium" while its inhabitants were called "Regini Iulienses" [8].

Reggio Clabria after the Romans

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Reggio was subjected to the domination of different people. The city was attacked by Totila [died 552 AD] during the Greek-Gothic War (535-553 AD). According to tradition, Totila attacked Reggio, but the city defended itself vigorously.

Christianity appeared in Reggio Calabria in the first century AD, when it became the seat of the Episcopal Church of Greek Orthodox rite. Despite the spread of the Roman Catholicism initiated by Pope Gregory VII [1028-1085], the city continued its Greek tradition at least until the 17th century, and, secondly, the presence of numerous Basilian monks of Greek Orthodox rite shows that the Greek tradition had deep roots in the territory of Reggio.

In the 10th century, Reggio was also subject to rule by the Arabs, and in the second half of the 11th century by the Normans of Robert Guiscard (1025-1085).

Reggio Calabria in the Middle Ages

During the War of the Vespers (13th century) Reggio sided with the Aragonese. In more recent times Reggio was at the centre of important events that affected mainly the Mediterranean.

In particular, in the late 16th century Reggio was attacked by Ariadeno Barbarossa [1466-1546] (Khayr al-Din), certainly the most famous corsair of the 16th century in the Mediterranean. In fact, Barbarossa attacked the port of Reggio, seized many ships and took many prisoners. For these reasons Charles V (1500-1558) decided to strengthen the fortifications of the city.

From the 16th to the 18th century Reggio belonged continuously to the Kingdom of Naples until the Napoleonic age, when the so-called "Calabria Ultra" was divided into two provinces, with capitals Catanzaro and Reggio Calabria. After the brief return of the Bourbons during the Restoration and the wars of the Risorgimento, Reggio became part of the Kingdom of Italy (1861).

Etymology of the name Reggio

As we saw above, the Greeks sometimes used myths to justify their conquests, saying that they had found territories  uninhabited.

This took place to such an extent that the etymology of Reggio “popularized” by the Greeks is that the city’s name derived from “regnymi” which means “break" or "break off”, referring to the division which took place in prehistory between Calabria and Sicily, after the earthquakes:

“Strabo [60 BC-23 AD], by invoking the authority of Aeschylus [525-456 BC], wrote: ‘The city called ‘Rhegion’, as Aeschylus and others said, was detached from Sicily because of earthquakes” [1].

This etymology is fairly well established among scholars, though, as we shall see, the issue is far from simple. In fact, P. Larizza in 1905, wrote:

“The word ‘Reggio’ reveals its Greek origin. ‘Rhegion’ is derived from ‘regnymi’ by the sudden violent separation of Sicily from the italic continent because of some terrible convulsions of nature” [2].

In reality, things were very different than the Greeks described, and the name "Rhegion", according to many scholars, comes from the Latin and ancient Italic term "Regium" ["urbs regia" = City of the Kings]. When the Greeks arrived in Calabria, the city was wrested from the Italic peoples who had founded it, a fact that has been clearly demonstrated by contemporary studies. D. Erdas wrote:

"Already Strabo (6.I, 6 C 258) provided two different explanations for the name of the city: a derivation from the word "regnymi" derived from Aeschylus (Fragment 63 Mette), and connected to the seismicity in the area, and the other related to the Latin "regius", a name given to the city by the Samnites...

... This may be associated with no particular difficulty to the etymological explanation of Aristotle [384-322 BC], who said that the name was given the city "apò tìnos egkorìou eroon" (by an unknown native hero). It is obvious that there was a deep alternative to the tradition of Aeschylus, which recognized in the etymology of "Rhegion" a non Greek origin, and, in my opinion, an Italic origin, associated by Strabo and Aristotle. to the Samnites, and to a native hero." [3]

E. Barillaro, by addressing once again the problem of the origins, also added some interesting remarks to traditional data:

"Reggio is a name of uncertain etymology since ancient times. According to one version, the name derives from a Greek root "regma-rexis" [= fault line], with the meaning of "town on the strait" [4]. According to another theory, the name derives from a native hero [5]. According to a third hypothesis the name comes from a Latin word "regnum-regius" (in turn from the Greek "basilikon" [=king], with the meaning of "urbs regia" [=King’s City] [...]

In addition, there are those who consider the term "Rhegion-Regium” as a variant of "Retion-Retium" referring to the fact that the city was founded by the 'Brettii’". Finally, E. Barillaro stressed that in ancient times the city was also called "Ausona chora" (Diodorus, V, VII, VIII, 23, 2), that is to say, "Horn of Ausonia," apparently because "it derived from a pre-Greek substrate and its geographical position as avanguardia of the Bruttii" [6].

Overall the italic origins of the name Reggio appear indisputable. We conclude by noting that "Ausona-Ausonia" was the ancient name of Calabria, and then of Italy, that the Greeks called "Ausonia" [from the Greek "Auxo" and Latin "Augeo" = fertile land] ", Enotria "[from 'oinos' = wine] and Esperia [= the land facing west].


1. N. Zappalà, “Itinerario storico del territorio reggino”, in “Itinerario storico del territorio reggino in età antica”, edited by N. Zappalà, 2010, p. 16

2. P. Larizza, “Rhegium Chalcidense (Reggio di Calabria): La storia e la numismatica dai tempi preistorici fino alla cittadinanza romana”, 1905, p. 65

3. D. Erdas, “ 'Dori d'Italia e di Sicilia' e popolazioni locali nelle 'politeiai' aristoteliche della Magna Grecia”, in “Convivenze etniche, scontri e contatti di culture in Sicilia e Magna Grecia”, Tangram, Trento, 2012, p. 98

4. “Rhegion ekaleito apò tinos egchorìou héroon”, apud Hesiod [8th century BC] and Diodor Siculus [1st century BC] IV, 85; Strab. VI, 258

5. Ps. Heracl. [1st century AD] 'De reb. Publ.’, Fragment 25 in FHG, II, 219

6. See E. Barillaro, “Calabria: Guida artistica e archeologica”, Pellegrini, 1972, p. 245

7. See N. Zappalà, “Itinerario storico del territorio reggino”, 2010, p. 16

8. See Conte Bartolomeo Borghesi, “Sulla iscrizione perugina della Porta Marzia”, in “Archivio Storico Italiano”, Firenze, 1850, Vol. I, parte Terza, p. XCIV