top of page

Origin of the Name ‘Italy’

Where does the name ‘Italia’ come from and how did Italy get populated over time?

The origin of the name “Italia” or “Italy” has been the subject of many studies by linguistics experts as well as historians, who have reconstructed the most likely evolution of the region, today known as Italy, as well as its diverse people. As an Italian (I was born in Milan), I can attest that there are many different ethnic groups within Italy, who’s physical and cultural characteristics and personalities, are a clear indication of their vastly different origins. The following is an assembly of findings from etymological studies and articles.

In remote times, going back to the Bronze Age, and dated between the 18th and 17th centuries B.C., there was the great maritime migration of the Arcadians from the Aegean towards Southern Italy.  Guided by their mythical king Oenotro, these people were called Oenotrians.

From their expansion and mingling and integration with the local populations, derived the Ausonians (Ausones), the Chones, the Morgetes, the Itali, and the Siculians.  It is believed that the Latins most likely also descended from the Oenotrians, but were pushed a bit further North. There is evidence that between the 16th and the 15th centuries B.C., several populations speaking diverse Indo-European idioms had already migrated to Italy.  These populations represented the result of the overlapping and in many ways a blending of a first wave of Indo-Europeans in Italy, with an existing non-Indo-European sub-layer like the very ancient Iberian-Caucasians, who survived the presence of the Roman era, both in Eastern Sardenia as well as Eastern Sicily, originally referred to as the Sicanians.

The Pelasgi (pre-Hellenic peoples inhabiting Greece and islands and coasts of the Aegean Sea) were perhaps the first inhabitants of the Palatine, the hill on which Rome would later rise. It is believed that the very ancient town called “Square Rome” is attributed to them. The ancient God Janus after which the Roman hill Janiculum was named, came from Thessaly. Although tradition attributes him Indo-European origins, some historians say he has Pelasgic origins, with his name coming from Inuus Pelasgic.  Therefore the Central-Southern part of Italy outlines a scenario very similar to that verified previously in Greece, where the Pelasgi, an antique Mediterranean population who populated Thessalia, the Peloponnesian, the Caria, and quite probably, Crete and Cyprus, in addition to the many other small islands of the Aegean, overlapped or fused with their upon arrival with the Indo-European Greeks.

The Arcady, originally from Peloponnesia, speaking an ancient Greek language, and therefore Indo-European, are the perfect example of this fusion between Indo-European people and pre-Indo-European populations, given that Peloponnesia was the region in which the Pelasgic presence lasted the longest.

The Itali lived in the southern part of present-day Calabria, located within the “toe” of the boot called Italy. Their name came from the word Vitulus, meaning veal or calf, since the area was rich with bovine. Another theory is that the Itali took the name symbolically since it identified them with their land. But in the times of the Magna Grecia, following the Greek colonization of the majority of their territory, the coastal regions were renamed Italoi, the Greek word for Vitulus.

And so the name “Italoi” was inherited by the Romans upon conquering this territory which extended all the way down to the southernmost tip of the peninsula.  For some time, the land had been conquered by second-wave Indo-European migrants, such as a type of Sabellians called Bruttii.

From this, the name “Italy” was extended by the Romans first to cover Southern Italy and later to include the entire peninsula.  Many tales about contacts between the Aegean world and the Italic world make references to more recent migrations than the first Arcadian immigration, between the 13th and 12th centuries B.C. around the period of the Trojan war, in 1180 B.C.  During that period, the late Bronze Age, almost half of the Italic peninsula was made up of migrants from various places within the Aegean-Anatolic region.  This region consisted partly of people speaking Indo-European idioms, like Arcadians of Evandro, who's presence on the Roman hills of the Palatine dated back 60 years before the Trojan war.  like Ulysses’ Achei and ENEA's Trojans, immediately after the Trojan war.  (In Greco-Roman mythology, Aeneas was a Trojan hero, the son of the Trojan prince Anchises.)

The other half was made up of Mediterranean populations, very similar to the Pelasgi, who however, were unable to speaking proper Indo-European languages. The identified themselves mostly as maritime populations, such as Sardens or Shardana, (i.e. Sardanioi, which means the Sardinians), and the Tyrosine (i.e. the Tyrrhenians), who perhaps originally came from Lydia in Asia Minor or from the Aegean island of Lemno, where the Etruscans or Tusci came from originally.


Enciclopedia/Italia/Treccani;; Fabrizio Bianco (c) 2002, Inside Lazio; Ancient Italian Regions, “a brief introduction to the origins of the name ‘Italy’

bottom of page