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Italy's Lost Greece by Giovanna Ceserani

Italy’s Lost Greece: Magna Graecia and the Making of Modern Archaeology by Giovanna Ceserani (suggested essential pre-reading: T.J. Dunbabin’s The Western Greeks: The History of Sicily and South Italy from the Foundation of the Greek Colonies to 480 BC)

Ceserani has authored a very complex book that explores two complex issues: the author addresses, in great detail, the origins of the establishment and development of archeology as it pertains to southern Italy. She, at the same time, attempts to explain the state of denial that often is characterized by complex issues related to Italian identity. In the process of confronting these issues, the author attempts to explain and interpret the ever-changing historical scene in which Italian scholars attempted to both deny and accommodate changing thoughts related to classical Greek colonial influences that emanated from the south of Italy in classical times.
The book authored by Ceserani is important for another reason, as it raises the issue of cultural wars that exist in nearly all societies of the modern world. Especially, ever since the Second World War, but even earlier, western societies are in a state of denial on many issues that have, by tradition, been “marginalized” within their various societies. This denial is being expressed in the phenomenon also known as “political correctness”, as it appears in many forms, including the more primitive form associated with the word “taboo”.
The most common form of “marginalization” is in the general, but informal agreement among scholars and influential persons to ignore what might seem offensive to some groups because it threatens the status quo of accepted understanding within the culture. In Italy, “marginalization” has for years (centuries) been associated with the role that the southern Greek colonial cities actually have played in the shaping of Roman culture from its inception.
For example, Italian Fascism (a form of extreme nationalism) glorified the Romans to such an extent that they denied any notion that Italian culture might be the product of “foreign influences”. This denial, especially as related to those influences derived from the Greek colonial cities of southern Italy, still exists today.
Consequently, even today, the “marginalization” of Greek cultural influences, in all of its forms, has come to define all aspects of modern intellectual life in Italy. Giovanna, on the other hand, has had the courage in this work to take on the issue of “marginalization” as it relates to Italian culture, and the role of the ancient Greeks as important contributors to Roman cultural development.
The overall thesis of this book is to describe and trace the foundations of the science of modern archeology to the study of Magna Graecia, which over time, has led to the formal development of this professional discipline of archaeology. “The story of Italy’s ancient Greece—its displacement and loss as well as its various recoveries – reveal contradictions that lie at the core of three distinct yet interrelated phenomena: the Humanist investment in the ancient past, the evolution of modern Hellenism, and the making of modern classical archaeology” (Ceserani, 2012, p. 2). In this work, the author traced the roots of the disciple to field work done in South Italy beginning as early as the sixteenth century CE. This work then continued to trace intellectual developments from the nineteenth century up to contemporary times. The topic of interest was the excavations of the Greek colonial cities of Italy and some of their still existing monumental remains. In the twentieth century, this research involved nationalists of the Fascist Regime in Italy.
The author’s focus reveals the efforts of Winckelmann and Gerhard as important figures, often forgotten, whose works led the way to the formation of modern archaeology. Moreover, the author emphasizes the role that the Greek colonial cities played in the development of the political, cultural, and intellectual history of Italy, which definitely would have been reflected in Roman history.

According to the author, scholars, both Italian and others, have “marginalized” the influence of southern Italy and its colonial Greek cities. The problem that was created by this “marginalization” of south Italy began as early as the Roman times when these Greek cities were conquered by Rome and were, more or less, ignored in regard to their cultural contributions to Italy and Rome.
Scholarship related to Roman history continued to discount or ignore, any influences that flowed to Rome during its formative years. Today there is a growing trend to reconnect, or rediscover, the role played by the south in bringing Greek cultural traits to Rome. In addition to recognizing Roman cultural developments coming from Magna Graecia, there remains resistance, even in the face of new evidence. (“…the marginalization of Magna Graecia in the modern scholarly landscape of the ancient Greek world has proven to be a lasting phenomenon, reflected even in the readiness of foreign critics to read the Venetian extravaganza as an event that was strictly Italian”).

The author structures this book around five chapters that were developed to build a case for the cultural influences, and the evidence that has been established for the Greek cultural contributions to Italian culture. In other words, the author’s work stands as a fortress that flies in the face of nationalistic rejection of the reality of Italian (Roman) history. Her case is compelling to the point that even those with the greatest case of denial (marginalization and/or political correctness) should be forced to do some serious reconsiderations about the forces that began in the ancient world and continue to exist in the modern world. The detailed strengths of the contributions of the Greek colonial cities are not well spelled out in this work; therefore, it is highly recommended that the reader take the time to read the 1968 volume by T.J. Dunbabin in parallel to reading this work, as Dunbabin has traced the history and the cultural constructs of the Greeks, once they established their enclaves in Sicily and southern Italy (content only touched on by Ceserani).
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