I’ve always identified strongly with my Italian heritage. That’s where my last name comes from so it is literally part of my identity.
Growing up, I believed I was 25% Italian. I knew my dad’s dad’s parents came to the United States from Italy. Therefore, my grandpa was 100% Italian, my dad 50%, and I was 25%. My brothers also identified with the Italian side of our family. My youngest brother got an Italian flag as his first tattoo. Then, several years ago, my eldest brother had his DNA tested and received a scandalous revelation: he was only 2% Italian. I received similar results not long after.
Beyond our name, there is little within my family I could point to as being Italian. We have no traditions, customs, or sayings that originate from Italian culture as far as I am aware. None of us speak Italian. Perhaps the constant encouragement to eat at family gatherings is the one vestigial trait surviving into each generation.
Despite the evidence against us, I was not giving up my claim to Italian heritage. My great-grandparents literally came to America from Italy. So recently, I have been investigating. Following what I know and a few breadcrumbs on the genealogy resources online, I have been able to learn more about my great-grandparents, and at least the names and birth dates of my great-great-grandparents – all of whom were definitely from Italy, more specifically Milan.
Unfortunately, my online search has run into a wall. I’m hoping to travel there next year to continue researching. Given the DNA results, it’s possible the family only goes back another generation or two, and before that lived somewhere else, like France. Whatever it is, I can only speculate until I am in touch with someone there.
In the meantime, I want to get a sense of what life would have been like for my family in Milan. And maybe, by extension, get an idea of who they were.
Podcasts are my first go-to when I want to know more about something. My search led me straight into the history of the entire Roman Empire. I came across the History of Rome podcast and felt I couldn’t start on episode 155 – the one with Milan in the title. So I started at the beginning with Romulus and Remus.
Every episode of the podcast includes references to suffering and death: wars, conquered villages, disease, slavery, conscriptions, religious persecution, deranged emperors – the volume is just astounding. Not to mention all the atrocities that have come about in the centuries since. The fact that my ancestors made it through all that and I am alive today is a miracle. And A LOT of people had to survive in order for me to get there. Given how vast the empire was, it’s likely that ancestors from all sides of my family lived under Roman rule at some point. Counting back 10 generations, a person has over 1,000 ancestors. That’s only about 250 years – a tiny sliver of human history and not even getting close to the Roman empire.
The takeaway for me is that I, and every person alive today, am from a long line of survivors.