Iωνῐ́ᾱ and Ιόνιο

Michael Zwingli

Senior Member
English (U.S.A. - New England)
I first encountered the ancient term Ἰωνῐ́ᾱ as a youth, when reading a history of mathematics (Thales, that great man...early mathematician and breaker of μῦθος and superstition as a way of explaining the universe, lived and worked there in the city of Μῑ́λητος). Ἰωνῐ́ᾱ, of course, was a region on the coast of Asia Minor, south of Smyrna/Izmir, apparently named after a tribe of people descended from one Ἴων (much as the Yehudi, the "Jews", are a tribe descended from one Yehuda). A few years ago, however, I read a novel by an Englishman called "Corelli's Mandolin", which was set in the "Ionian Island" of Κεφαλλονιά. Since said Κεφαλλονιά was said to be one of the "Ionian Islands", I initially assumed that it is somewhere near the Island of Samos/ Σάμος there near the coast of Asia Minor. The plot of the story, however, soon made me realize that such was not the case. I "Googled" Kefalonia, and soon found that, ludicrously enough, the modern "Ionian Islands" lie in the "Ionian Sea", which is off the West coast of the Greek peninsula. I myself, rather, would have thought the "Ionian Sea" to be a region of the Aegean adjacent to ancient Ionia/ Ἰωνῐ́ᾱ. To my mind, this situation would be like Americans deciding to call the Florida Keys "the Islands of Michigan"...a wrongheaded conflation of geographic references. So, my question is: why is the Ιόνιο Πέλαγος so-called? Is the term Ιόνιο derived from an entirely different root than was the ancient term Ἰωνῐ́ᾱ? What is the derivation of Ιόνιο in Ιόνιο Πέλαγος? Is that term as old...as "early" as the term Ἰωνῐ́ᾱ ? Which is the earlier term? If, as I suspect (admittedly without good cause), Ἰωνῐ́ᾱ is the older term, then why apply the term Ιόνιο to the more western Sea? I realise the apparent difference in the stems of the two words, between omega on the one hand and omicron on the other, but does that make a significant difference (to me, the only difference is the length of the "o")? In English, using the Latin script, it yet appears an absurdity regardless, with two distinct regions appearing to have the same name, like the US having two "California"s: one on the west coast and one on the east. If someone can disabuse me of my notions of absurdity with respect to this, I shall be quite appreciative.

Please note: this is a serious linguistic question, so please do not close it to replies. Since it deals with Greek onomastics, I though it better posted here than in the "Etymology, etc." forum, where it would probably languish. Thanks much.
Last edited:
  • Michael Zwingli

    Senior Member
    English (U.S.A. - New England)
    This Wikipedia article might be of interest to you:
    Ionian Sea - Wikipedia.

    Apparently, there is no universally established reply to your question.
    Thanks, bearded. I did, of course, read the Wikipedia article (always the first stop for an expectedly quick research). Liddell and Scott also suggest the myth of ἰώ as the source, as apparently did Aeschylus. I remain unconvinced, though, for one simple linguistic reason: the presence of the nasal within the name of the sea, Ῑ̓όνῐος, cannot be easily explained if ἰώ is the stem. Suffixation with -ῐος would not require a nasal infix following a terminal omega in the stem (e.g. ἡρώϊος, Τρώϊος), or indeed following a terminal omicron (e.g. τοῖος). Neither can the nasal be explained as the use of ἰώ in the accusative, as an accusative would not be used in derivation. Rather, if we are to consider ἰώ to be the stem, we must expect the sea to be called ἰώϊος, no? In fact, I cannot find an adjective in -ῐος with a nasal infix preceding the adjectival suffix; all such nasals are part of the stem.

    I have done some research. Pausanias (in Ἑλλάδος Περιήγησις Vll, 1.7), tells us that when the Dorians invaded the Peloponnese they expelled the Achaeans from the Argolid and Lacedaemonia. The displaced Achaeans moved into Aigialeia (thereafter known as Achaea), in turn expelling the Ionians from Aigialeia. The Ionians moved to Attica and mingled with the local population of Attica, and many later emigrated to the coast of Asia Minor founding the historical region of Ionia. By the eighth century BCE, this was the established situation.

    I find more convincing than the connection with the myth of ἰώ as an onomastic source (the Ancient Greeks liked to work their myths into whatever they could), the suggestion that the islands of the Ιόνιο Πέλαγος were populated by Ἴωνες (that is, by Ionians...members of the Ionian Tribe of Hellenes, who almost certainly got their tribal epithet fron an eponymous ancestor named Ἴων), maybe from Ἰωνῐ́ᾱ on Asia Minor who, as settler-colonists from said Ἰωνῐ́ᾱ sailed west around the Peloponnese to find the islands there relatively uninhabited, or otherwise, (which is perhaps more likely), as refugees from either Aigialeia or from Attica itself moving westward over land. This amounts to mere speculation on my part, though.
    Last edited:


    Senior Member
    It ought to be pointed out that the original form of Ιωνία was ΙαFονία (cf. Hebrew Yavan = Greece), and that it did not exclusively refer to Ionia in Asia Minor, since Solon called Athens γαῖα πρεσβυτάτη Ιαονίας. It was therefore not that similar to the Ιόνιον Πέλαγος.
    One might also wonder about the similarity between Όλυμπος and Ολυμπία, whose derivatives ('Olympian' and 'Olympic' in English) are often confused.
    In any case, relatively few Greek place-names have clear Greek etymologies; think of Athens, Thebes, Corinth... It is only natural that many should have pre-Hellenic ('Pelasgian') origins, and we know precious little about the pre-Greek languages spoken in the area.