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Ancient Peoples of Italy
by Jeff Matthews

The future of the Italian peninsula was shaped by the different peoples who inhabited it between the years 800 and 200 BC. These include the Etruscans, Greeks and the many Italian tribes such as the Latins, Campanians, Samnites, Sabines, etc. Such tribes had spread out much earlier into Europe from the east and southeast both as invaders and, more gradually, as farmers, giving up  hunting and gathering for the more efficient process of tilling the soil. In the process they developed towns, government and written language. This slow diffusion started before 6,000 BC.

By 1000 BC most of the peoples in Italy were “Indo-European,” a term that  declares common origin (at least 10,000 years ago) of people as different as Swedes and Iranians or Punjabis and Spaniards. Work in both linguistics and molecular genetics supports this idea of common Indo-European origin. In Italy this meant that the speakers of Latin (hence “Lazio,” the area around Rome) spoke a language like Oscan, the language of their neighbors the Sabines,  Samnites and Campanians (Naples is in “Campania”). Though no modern descendant of Oscan exists, it was to Latin as, say, modern Italian is to Spanish. An additional sister language of Latin was Umbrian, spoken by inhabitants of central Italy.

With that brief introduction, here then is a cast of some of the peoples who made Italy.

The Etruscans. Having mentioned “Indo-European” it is noteworthy that this truly great ancient culture was not Indo-European. Their language (written in an alphabet borrowed from the Greeks) has never been deciphered. At one time, scholars thought they might have arrived in Italy long enough ago to be called “indigenous” — perhaps descendants of the stone-age cave painters of 20,000 years ago. Recent thought, however, places them much later. They may have arrived in the 9th century BC from Lydia, the area of the mainland opposite the Greek island of Samos. In any event, they built the first true towns in Italy. The Etruscans were a loose federation centered in what is now Tuscany. At one time, the Etruscans ruled the Romans; that ended in 509 BC when the Romans overthrew the Etruscan King, Tarquin, and declared itself a Republic. The Etruscans made their last bid for historical permanence a few years later at the battle of Cuma against the Greeks. They lost. Then, in 396 BC the  Etruscan city of Veil fell to a Roman siege and the Etruscans were assimilated.

The Greeks. Between 800 and 500 BC the peoples of the Aegean peninsula and archipelago colonized portions of Sicily and the southern Italian peninsula. Those settlements made up “Magna Grecia” — Greater Greece. There arose in Italy centers of Hellenic culture, marketplaces for the ideas of Archimedes, Pythagoras and Plato, ideas that so influenced later Roman conquerors that today most Europeans regard themselves as inheritors of a wondrous hybrid culture called 'Greco-Roman'.

In 750 BC Greeks founded the first colony of Magna Grecia, Pithecusae, on the island of Ischia. There followed Cuma on the nearby mainland and Syracuse in Sicily, which became one of the great cities in the ancient Greek world. Naples, itself, was founded as 'Parthenope' in the 6th century BC. It was rebuilt somewhat inland a few years later and called New City, Neapolis — Naples. Magna Grecia suffered from fragmentation and was not a single entity. The settlements of Greater Greece were independent and spent much of their time fighting each other. They never managed to unite against their true enemies: Carthage and Rome.

By the 4th century BC. Sicily had become so powerful that its ruler, Dionysus, tried to establish a single Empire of Magna Grecia. He couldn't, however, fend off the increasingly belligerent Romans, who took Taranto in 272 BC, putting an end to Magna Grecia.  

Other peoples lived along the Tiber river; among these were, of course, the Latini. There is confusing historical overlap of Latini and Romans. Traditionally, Rome is said to have been founded in 753 by descendants of Aeneas, a refugee from the Trojan War. Well before Vergil’s treatment of this legend, the Romans regarded Aeneas as the founder of their race, the one who succeeded Latinus, king of the local tribe, and whose descendant, Romulus, founded Rome. Archaeology places Latini culture as early as 1100 BC. True imperial expansion of Rome starts in 295 BC when the Romans, at the Battle of Sentium (near modern Ancona), put an end to the competition in Italy by defeating a combined force of Samnites and Etruscans.

•Along the Tiber, too, were the Sabines. Various accounts of The Abduction of the Sabine Women show just how dangerous it was to live next-door to Romulus & Sons. The proximity of the Sabines to Rome has made it difficult to identify their ruins with certainty, although there are some from as early as the 9th century BC. The Sabines were related to the Samnites to the south, and they adopted writing from the Etruscans.

•Other neighbors of the Romans in central Italy were the Volscians and the Equians. Most knowledge of them comes from later Roman historians complaining about these piddling little peoples getting in the way of real empire! They were Indo-European and spoke languages closely related to Latin.

The Samnites were an important sister tribe of the Latins. Their capital was modern Benevento in the rugged terrain east of Naples. At the time of the first contacts between Roman and Samnite (around 350 BC), Samnium was larger than any other contemporary state in Italy. For almost two centuries, the Romans and Samnites fought for control of South/Central Italy. As warriors, the Samnites were ferocious, and some say they were the ones who gave the Romans the idea for those gruesome gladiator fights to the death. In the year 321 BC Samnium defeated the Romans at the Battle of the Caudine Forks near Benevento. It was one of the most devastating defeats in Roman military history. The Romans, however, rearmed and prevailed. In 82 BC the history of the Samnites as a distinct people came to an end when Sulla defeated them at one last battle and slaughtered the thousands of Samnite prisoners. The remaining inhabitants of Samnium were dispersed. Today, there is a Samnite museum in Benevento and an impressive archaeological site, Pietrabbondante, in the mountains of the province of Isernia. (To read a separate entry on the Samnites, click here.)

The Siculians inhabited Sicily, migrating there from Campania. Remains from 1000 BC have been found that show the influence of the earlier great Mycenaean culture of Crete. The Greeks later wrote that they had received land from the Siculian King, Hyblon, to build a city. The ancient peoples of Sicily were  assimilated into Magna Grecia.

The Enotrians inhabited the Ionian and Tyrrhenian coasts. The Greeks, upon their arrival in Italy, regarded the Enotrians almost mythically, holding them to be descended from the ancient pastoral people of Arcadia. Tradition spoke of the first great Enotrian King, Italos, who organized their culture in the  middle of the second millennium BC. (Somehow, the name “Italos” stuck!)* By the sixth century BC the Enotrians had merged with the history of Magna Grecia. 

*[An alternate etymology for the word "Italy" suggests that it derives from "Viteliu" an Oscan word for "calf," that animal being the totem of a central-Italian tribe in the first millennium b.c. It is a fact that the first use of "Italy" to denote a political unit was "The Italian Confederation, a short-lived union of central Italian peoples that united against Rome in 95 b.c.]

The Opicians lived in ancient Campania, the region in which Naples is located. The Greeks, themselves, wrote of having founded Cuma “in Opicia”. Pre-Greek Opician items have, in fact, been found at Cuma. The Opicians were a farming people and had early contact with the Etruscans.

The area of central Italy on the Adriatic known today as Le Marche was home to the Picenians. Evidence along the coast  indicates that they were  navigators and part of a series of “trading posts” connecting the early peoples of the Adriatic to the Mycenaean culture to the south. In the 8th century BC, the Etruscans  started encroaching on these peoples; somewhat later the Greeks did the same from the south. Picenian tombs have been found with warriors dressed in full battle armor, not a common burial ritual among early peoples of Italy.

The Po river runs through the  plain of north-central Italy. This area was home to the Ligurians. There are remains from as early as 1300 BC. The Ligurians dealt not only with the Etruscans to the West and Veneti to the east, but even with northern peoples from beyond the Alps.

The area around Venice was thriving well before the founding of the famous city (a “recent” event — the 5th century AD!). As early as 1000 BC a people lived there whom we call Veneti. The Greeks wrote of them, and the early Venetians seem to have been traders much like their descendants, trading glass, amber and ceramic items along the Adriatic coast. They traded with the Etruscans to the west and adopted the alphabet from them. They also traded north of the Alps, where they acquired horses.

Today’s Puglia was home to various groups known collectively as Iapigi. Prominent were the Messapians, originally from Illyria, across the Adriatic (modern Albania). They controlled a strategic part of the southern Adriatic, a fact evident to the Greeks who tried to settle there at mid-millennium. The Greeks who founded Taranto wrote of intense conflict with the Messapians. In spite of wars between them, trade also flourished and late Messapian pottery is often adorned with figures from Greek mythology.

The Umbrians, too, have given their name to a region of modern Italy. They traded with the Etruscans and were highly regarded as warriors. They  fought and lost alongside of the Etruscans against the Greeks at the famous battle of Cuma in the 6th century BC, a defeat that marked the end of Etruscan power in Italy.

There, that’s some of them. I realize that my treatment of Indo-European diffusion is a hasty synthesis of competing theories. Also, I did not deal with the important, but brief, incursions into Italy by Carthage and by the Celts. Lastly, remember that there were countless small tribes, Indo-European and non, historic and pre-, who simply came and went unnoticed. There’s a bit of cave-painter in a lot of us.