Italy and Greece are two countries deeply connected with each other. An Italian travelling or working in Greece will have probably heard the same sentence over and over. “Una faccia, una razza”: μια φατσα μια ρατσα, in Greek. The saying alludes to a significant similarity between Italian and Greek people, both physically and mentality-wise. The expression is widely spread all over Greece, but it is usually completely unknown in Italy.
The origin of the expression is unsure. According to some the fascist army created it during the Italian occupation of Greece, as a way to justify such occupation under the pretence of common roots and history. It rose to popularity thanks to the Italian movie “Mediterraneo”, directed by Gabriele Salvatores and set during such occupation. Since then, Greeks loved to use the sentence to refer to Italians and Italy.
But how deep is actually the connection between the two countries?
The beginning of such a love story lies in their ancient history. We are talking about Magna Graecia, the Greek colonies in Southern Italy. Around the 8th century BC Greeks started settling in the Southern regions of Apulia, Calabria, Sicily, Basilicata and Campania. They left Greece out of the need for new ports and commercial routes or driven away by war. As a result, Hellenic culture spread over these territories, leaving a permanent mark. The Greek cities of Magna Graecia held great power until the 3rd century BC, when the Romans arrived.
The Middle Ages knew a second wave of Greek immigration in Southern Italy from the Byzantine Empire. The Hellenic influence in the South finds its greatest proof even today in the Griko dialect.
The Griko is a Greek dialect that the Greek ethnic communities still speak in the Italian regions of Salento (Apulia) and Calabria. They consider the Griko speakers as the last remnants of the Southern-Italian Greek civilizations. The dialect is mutually intelligible with Standard Modern Greek, meaning that speakers of both languages can easily understand each other. The Italian Republic officially recognizes the Greek ethnicity and linguistic minority, considering it part of its cultural heritage.
In modern times
The relationship between the two countries took quite a less positive turn in modern times. In 1912 Italy occupied the Dodecanese Islands, up until that moment under the control of the Ottoman Empire. In 1919 Italians agreed to cede the islands to Greece, only to give back their word the following year.
When Mussolini rose to power in Italy, many were the attempts of diplomatic agreements between the two nations. Nevertheless, the Italian forces invaded Greece in 1940 as part of their plans of expansion in the Balkans. The Italian army proved to be entirely unprepared for such an invasion and was unable to take over the country by itself. It was only with the German intervention that Greece was finally defeated and divided into different spheres of influences.
The Italians occupied most of the Greek mainland and the Ionian Islands. The greeks tend to portray the Italian occupiers as not as brutal or cruel as the Germans. Even the propaganda from that age depicts the Italians in a pretty less negative way. It was nevertheless a forced occupation, even if relatively mild, and indeed not the best page in the Italian history books.
In 1943 Nazi Germany took over completely the formerly Italian occupied territories.
The Ohi Day (Επέτειος του Όχι)
Until today, one of the most important Greek festivities actually connects to Italy. On 28 October 1940 the Italian dictator Mussolini made an ultimatum to the Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas. The Greeks were to allow the Axis forces to enter Greece, or they would have faced war. The Greek response was a firm όχι: NO. The Greco-Italian war followed. Even today, the Greeks remember this day as a simple of freedom. And, it must be said, with quite some contempt towards the Italian “cousins”, that in the end were unable to defeat them.
A shared heritage
The two countries are indeed connected and intertwined. They share history, language, artistic and cultural heritage, traditions. They both know what it means to carry the memories of a glorious past and to face a more challenging present. One thing is for sure. An Italian and a Greek may not speak the same language and have a different background. They may have different habits and customs. But one gesture or a stare will be enough to recognize and understand each other immediately.