by Jeff Matthews
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.
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.
brief introduction, here then is a cast of some of the peoples who made
Etruscans. Having mentioned “Indo-European” it
is noteworthy that this truly great ancient culture was not Indo-European.
(written in an alphabet borrowed from the Greeks) has never been deciphered.
At one time, scholars thought they might have arrived in Italy
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
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.
Greeks. Between 800 and 500 BC the peoples of the Aegean peninsula
and archipelago colonized portions of Sicily and the southern
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
alternate etymology for the word "Italy" suggests that it derives
"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
the first use of "Italy" to denote a political unit was "The Italian
Confederation, a short-lived union of central Italian peoples that
against Rome in 95 b.c.]
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
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
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
the West and Veneti to the east, but even with northern peoples from
beyond the Alps.
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
The Greeks wrote of them, and the early Venetians seem to have been
traders much like their descendants, trading glass, amber and
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.
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
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
flourished and late Messapian pottery is often adorned with figures
from Greek mythology.
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.
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.