Currently at the Monroe Community College Rochester NY, there are approximately 150 students enrolled in Italian language courses. NO students (none - zero) are studying the history and culture of southern-Italy or southern-Italian Americans. For the simple reason, there are NO (zero – none) such history or culture courses offered.
Introduction - Hannibal and Mussolini
Ask a random sample of southern-Italian Americans if they know who Hannibal was, and I believe a very large majority will conjure artistic renditions of elephants climbing Alpine mountains. Never mind the fact that the elephants walked through Alpine mountain passes where today’s highways run.
More importantly, the sample population will certainly (“bet the ranch”) not know anything about Hannibal’s devastating affect on southern Italy, and that Hannibal may very well be the reason they are Italian Americans and not Italians.
There are solid factual based historic reasons to conclude that the great migration of southern Italians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was in large part the result of Hannibal’s devastation of southern Italy; devastation that Mussolini, two thousand two hundred years later, was the first to systemically attempt to rectify. The purpose of this note is to outline those facts.
Hannibal’s route in Italy
Map created by Frank Martini U.S. Military Academy
As this map clearly shows, after the Roman army failed to stop Hannibal’s advance in northern Italy, he march straight to and around the South.
In the South, he engaged the Roman army in an 18 year protracted war of attrition; a war so devastating that the South literally never recovered until well into the twentieth century. Both Hannibal and the Roman armies resorted to a scorched earth policy ravaging the southern countryside. The whole of southern Italy was repeatedly plundered year after year; the crops were burned, vineyards and orchards were destroyed, and villages and towns razed to the ground.
The great classical scholar Arnold J. Toynbee summed up southern Italy’s Hannibal experience as follows:
“Between the years 218-201 B.C. Hannibal inflicted devastatingly wounds on southern Italy...The devastated areas in the South became the seat of a social cancer which ate into the vitals of the Roman commonwealth until the whole fabric of Roman economic and political life was destroyed...the country-side was depopulated and a pauper proletariat congregated in the towns...[In short,] the devastation of Italy by Hannibal gave the Roman people a shock from which they NEVER recovered.” (A Study of History vol. ii p. 313-314; emphasis added)
Note: writing in the 1920’s Toynbee means literally NEVER - down to the time of his writing. This is to say: Hannibal gave a shock to southern Italy from which the southern-Italian people NEVER recovered down to the twentieth century. Consider the following:
Two hundred years after Hannibal was ejected from Italy the famous Roman historian Livy commented on the still prevailing devastating change in the South following Hannibal’s rampage.
Two thousand years after Livy’s observations, nineteenth century travelers recorded similar observations. Historian John Dickie summarizes and characterized their writing as follows:
“Travel amidst solitude and barbarism, across landscapes unmarked by human activity: these same images reoccur seemingly endlessly in all kinds of writings on the South in the nineteenth century.” (Darkest Italy p.7; emp.+)
Coming into the twentieth century Toynbee traveling south of Rome in 1911 finds himself in agreement with Livy’s two thousand year old descriptions. Both marveling at the fact this same decimated land was once the source of wealth and manpower for the Roman Empire:
“I marvel, as did Livy, that an innumerable multitude of yeoman-warriors should formerly have subsisted in a region which in his day, as in ours, was a wilderness of barren gray fell and feverish green swamp where the only surviving vestiges of human habitation were the frail straw huts of a few miserable shepherds...this latter-day wilderness has reproduced the pristine state of the forbidding landscape which was once transformed by Latin pioneers into a cultivated and populous countryside...” (Study vol. ii p.17; emp. +)
Similarly, the American civil rights leader and educator Booker T. Washington described what he saw during his train trip from Rome to Naples in 1910. He wrote:
“Leaving Rome by train, I passed through the country from which perhaps the majority of these emigrants had come. I traveled through a long stretch of country where one sees only now and then a lonesome shepherd or a wretched hut with one low room and a cowstall. I also visited some of the little villages which one sees clinging to the barren hilltops, to escape the poisonous mists of the plains below. (The Man Furthest Down p.109; emp.+)
Again, in 1916 scholar Marc F. Vallette described what he saw on his trip south with the same devastation motif of the once rich land:
“Though now nearly destitute of inhabitants, it was once the richest and most populous region in the world and the seat of numerous cities. Its decay dates probably from the third and fourth centuries B.C....Its condition did not improve...and many parts of the plain became the pestilential marshes they are to-day.” (American Catholic Quarterly Review Vol. XLI p. 368; emp.+)
The Great Migration
Clearly, the great migration of approximately 25 million southern-Italians from circa 1880-1920 was associated with the poverty of southern-Italy. And, clearly that poverty originated when the rich and prosperous land - coveted for a thousand years by Greek, Phoenician and Roman colonist - was destroyed by Hannibal.
Interestingly, in 1931, nine years after Mussolini implemented public works programs in the South, Toynbee returned to the same places he found so bleak twenty years before, and found very significant improvement. He wrote:
“When I repeated my pilgrimage in 1931, I found that, in the interval, Man had been busily reasserting his mastery over the whole stretch of country that lies between Rome and the Castelli romani...there was now no point along the course where the wayfarer was out of sight of modern motor-roads, aerodromes, wireless-masts and - more impressive than all these – newly cultivated fields. [The South] was beginning to rise again for the first time since the end of the third century B.C., when, during the War of Hannibal, it began its great decline towards zero point at which it has stood through out [the pass twenty two hundred years].” (Study vol. ii p. 16; emp.+)
“Man”, which implies ‘mankind’ in Toynbee’s epic idiom, was in fact ‘a man’ – and that man was Mussolini. It was the fruits of his public works programs that so impressed Toynbee and that finally after all those centuries reversed the wrath of Hannibal and began restoring the South to its original richness.
But, of course Mussolini brutally paid for his temerity - i.e. attempting to raise the South. When the twentieth century northern communist progeny of the nineteenth century Piedmontese lynched him, they were symbolically communicating that Italian national policy may begrudgingly support social programs for the South; but Capital must remain in Italy. And, “Italy ends at the Garigliano”
Americans of southern-Italian descent do not know about the profound millennia long affect Hannibal had on their homeland and progenitors. They have no idea about the events in their homeland during ancient times that led to the great migration in modern times. The have no idea that they came to reside in the U.S. in part because of Hannibal’s war. Nor, do they know how Mussolini tried to reverse the damage Hannibal did to their homeland.
While Americans of southern-Italian descent have ample opportunity to learn a northern Italian dialect their forefathers never spoke; they have no opportunity to learn the history and culture of their forefathers – a history and culture that begins at the Garigliano.
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