The Sila National Park protects an ancient mountain complex, generated by orogenesis prior to the one which gave rise to the Apennines. A steep escarpment rises from the surrounding plains to a vast plateau lying at a height of between 1200 and 1500 m. The place name Sila comes from an Oscan word corresponding to the Latin silva. The entire area had been covered since ancient times by immense forests, which were to become its distinguishing feature.
There is not much information regarding the anthropic presence in the prehistoric era. Until recently man’s presence was believed to have been only episodic. The climate and abundant dangerous wildlife probably made these places rather unwelcoming. Recent studies, however, suggest a stable presence of small nuclei living in huts and caves (traces found in the Grotta di Boia in Campana) who made arms with stone or obsidian points and probably cut the trees to use the timber, as shown by the large bronze axes found at Timparello dei Ladri, near Lake Ampollino.
The Sila area continued to lack true settlements even in subsequent periods. The Calabrian populations, the Itali, Enotri and Morgeti, lived in the surrounding plains and occasionally occupied the plateau in order to use the abundant natural resources.
Around the mid 8th century BC, Sybaris and Kroton were founded on the Ionian Sea, a few kilometres from the eastern foothills of the Sila. They were destined to become two towns of the greatest cultural and political importance in Magna Graecia. The surrounding areas were subjected to deforestation and used for agriculture. The colonies rapidly improved their economic conditions and strengthened their trading. For this purpose they used not only sea routes but also internal paths, which mainly followed the river valleys, to reach the Tyrrhenian coast.
In the 4th century BC, the Greek colonies declined and the territory was gradually transformed. During this period, the Bruzi landed in Calabria. These were people from the north who were essentially hunters, shepherds and farmers. They specialised in making pitch from the resin extracted from the pine trees. This was very popular in ancient times for waterproofing barrels or containers, building ships, making moulds for bronze statues or, as Pliny the Elder writes, for use in cosmetics and medicines.
Soon the Bruzi (or Brettii) founded their own towns of Consentia, Pandosia and Petelia, and entered into conflict with the Greek colonies, now called Italioti. They attacked and conquered some of their towns, including Hipponion, today’s Vibo Valentia, and Sybaris. This was the highest point of the civilisation of this people, who looked at the expansion of Rome with hostility. Not by chance in 280 BC, did the Bruzi make an alliance with Pyrrhus against the Romans who, at the end of the conflict in which they were victorious, punished them severely and confiscated the extensive forests to take enormous quantities of timber to construct buildings and ships. History basically repeated itself during the Punic Wars, when the Bruzi sided with Hannibal. When, in 203 BC, the general abandoned Calabria, Rome easily quenched pockets of revolt and inflicted an even more severe punishment: they took away the title of city-state from Consentia, dissolved the Bruzi Confederation and confiscated almost all the land, transforming it into a Roman colony. The final episode in this saga took place in the 1st century BC, when the Brettii attempted to re-acquire greater autonomy by joining the revolt of Spartacus who, for many months, found shelter and sustenance in Sila. Over 10,000 Bruzi died in the final battle in 71 BC. From then onwards, Rome put into action an aggressive policy to exploit the area with intense deforestation of the Sila Mountains.
This area remained wild for a long time afterwards without any major stable settlements. In 1189, the Cistercian monk, Gioacchino da Celico, remembered as Gioacchino da Fiore, founded a monastery called Badia and created the monastic order of San Giovanni in Fiore. Over the years, the Badia received donations and tax relief from various sovereigns who followed one another, fascinated by the authoritative figure of the abbot Gioacchino, whose fame as a scholar spread throughout Europe. The village of San Giovanni in Fiore was built around the monastery from 1500 onwards to become an important cultural town in Calabria, which still preserves an interesting historic centre.
Deforestation continued and became even harsher throughout the territory. Many state-owned forest lands, intended for civic use, were “usurped” by private individuals and transformed into agricultural lands. This phenomenon continued until the 19th century and created a great deal of tension, which ended in yet more insane destruction of the forestry resources. Shepherds, farmers and large landowners systematically burned the woods to obtain areas to cultivate. The development of rural activities determined the settlement of a new stable population and the extension of existing nuclei which became towns, such as Celico, the birthplace of Gioacchino da Fiore, Spezzano della Sila and Taverna, from the Latin taberna which probably referred to a stop on a road which rose from the Ionian coast to the Sile in Roman times.
Between 1860 and 1875, the newly created United State constructed approximately 180 km of roads as a result of concerns over banditry. This contributed to the dynamics of anthropisation and artificialisation of the land, because the exploitation of timber was being carried out on an industrial scale, with large concessions managed by forestry companies from all over Italy. There was a further intense period of deforestation after the Second World War, when the Anglo-American Allies plundered the forests of tall pine trees of the Sila as redress for war damage.
Shortly afterwards in 1956, the second stretch of narrow gauge railway line was inaugurated, which was supposed to link Cosenza and Crotone across the plateau. The railway line, currently closed, was, however, considered one of the major works of railway engineering in Italy. The station of Silvana Mansio at an altitude of 1405 m is the highest in Italy.