What is the Etymology of Italia (Italy)?

Temple of Hercules Victor in the Forum Boarium in Rome
Monopteros round temple of Hercules Victor in the Forum Boarium in Rome. CC Flickr User Northfielder

Question: What is the Etymology of Italia (Italy)?

What Is the Etymology of Italia? Did Hercules Found Italy?

I received an email including the following:

"Something seldom mentioned when discussing ancient Rome is that Romans never referred to themselves as Italian any more than one mentions the Italian Empire. Italia and Roma have distinct meanings often seen from different poles. It is believed that the word Italia comes from an older word -- Vitulis -- which may mean 'sons of the bull god' or 'the bull king.' This was first limited to the southern part of the peninsula.

I am taking the email as an explicit request that I include an article addressing the question "what is the etymology of Italia (Italy)?" I hadn't done so because there is no definitive answer.

Answer: Here are some of the theories on the etymology of Italia (Italy):

  1. Italia (Italy) may come from a Greek word for calf:
    " But Hellanicus of Lesbos says that when Hercules was driving the cattle of Geryon to Argos a calf escaped from the herd, while he was by now travelling through Italy, and in its flight traversed the whole coast and, swimming over the strait of sea in between, reached Sicily. Hercules constantly enquired of the inhabitants wherever he came as he pursued the calf if anyone had seen it anywhere, and when the people there, who knew little of the Greek tongue, called the calf uitulus (as it is still called) in their native language when indicating the animal, he named the whole country that the calf had crossed Vitulia, after the animal.""A Yoke Connecting Baskets: "Odes" 3.14, Hercules, and Italian Unity," by Llewelyn Morgan; The Classical Quarterly (May, 2005), pp. 190-203.
  2. Italia (Italy) may come from an Oscan word or be connected with a word related to cattle or a proper name (Italus):
    " Italy from L. Italia, perhaps from a Gk. alteration of Oscan Viteliu "Italy," but originally only the southwestern point of the peninsula, traditionally from Vitali, name of a tribe that settled in Calabria, whose name is perhaps somehow connected with L. vitulus "calf," or perhaps the country name is directly from vitulus as "land of cattle," or it might be from an Illyrian word, or an ancient or legendary ruler Italus."Online Etymology
  3. Italia (Italy) may come from an Umbrian word for calf:
    " [T]he symbol of the Italics in revolt at the time of the Social War (91-89 bc) is well known: the bull crushes the Roman she-wolf on the coins of the insurgents with the legend víteliú. There is a complex network of implicit references here (Briquel 1996): first the etymology, distorted but current, which made out of Italy "land of the calves" (Italia/Ouphitouliôa < calf/vitlu Umbr.); then the reference to the civilizing epic of Hercules, who brings back the oxen of Geryon through the peninsula; finally the allusion to the legendary Samnite origins."A Companion to Roman Religion. Edited by Jörg Rüpke (2007)
  4. Italia (Italy) may come from an Etruscan word for a bull:
    " [Heracles] went through Tyrrhenia [Greek name for Etruria]. One bull broke away (aporregnusi) from Rhegium, and quickly fell into the sea and swam to Sicily. Having crossed the neighboring land-called Italy from this (for the Tyrrheni called a bull an italos)-it came to the field of Eryx, who ruled the Elymi.""Systematic Genealogies in Apollodorus' Bibliotheca and the Exclusion of Rome from Greek Myth," by K. F. B. Fletcher; Classical Antiquity (2008) 59-91.
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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "What is the Etymology of Italia (Italy)?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/etymology-of-italia-120620. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). What is the Etymology of Italia (Italy)? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/etymology-of-italia-120620 Gill, N.S. "What is the Etymology of Italia (Italy)?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/etymology-of-italia-120620 (accessed June 5, 2023).