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Some Ancient Peoples of Southern Italy
A prehistoric dolmen in southern Italy.
See this link.
The future of the southern 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 process started before 6,000 BC.
By 1000 BC early Italic peoples were in place on the peninsula; these are the peoples who would become the Latini, Sabines, Oscans, etc. etc. They were in place as a result of the Indo-European population diffusion, Indo-European being a term that declares common origin (3,000-4,000 years ago) of peoples as different as Swedes and Iranians or Punjabis and Spaniards. These pre-Italic Indo-Europeans can plausibly be figured to have started trickling onto the peninsula around 2500-2000 BC. There were, obviously, already some non-Indo-European inhabitants of Italy, just as there were elsewhere in Europe. (The caves in Matera have been lived in for 10,000 years, for example. There was also earlier prehistoric presence. See Homo Aeserniensis.) The most significant non-Indo-Europeans in early Italy were the Etruscans, but they were late-comers. (See below.) The extent to which Indo-Europeans mixed with or displaced (or even left alone) the earlier peoples they came in contact with on the peninsula is not clear. We can simply say that by the early part of the first millennium BC work in both linguistics and molecular genetics supports the idea of common Indo-European origin for a significant part of the population of 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.
that brief introduction, here then is a cast of
some of the peoples who made southern Italy (with
a few others thrown in from up north!):
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. Their influence extended far enough
south into what is now the Campania region of
Italy to be included in this summary.
•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 and Paestum 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. (To read a separate article on Greek Naples, click here.)
•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 Virgil’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.
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 item on the Samnites, click here.)
•The Lucanians (see this link)
•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.
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 for "The Italic Confederation", a short-lived union of central
Italic peoples that united against Rome in the
Social War of 91 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.
Ligurians were thre eponym of the
modern Italian region, Liguria, a narrow
northwestern coastal strip with Genoa as capital.
Most sources say that the ancient Ligurians
occupied a much larger area, stretching into
modern France and east into the Po river basin and
into the Alps to the northeast. There are remains
from as early as 1300 BC, but there is no
unanimity of opinion as to origins of the people.
Some claims put them at the beginning of the
Indo-European invasions before 2000 BC and some
say they are indigenous in the area even before
those invasions. The Ligurians dealt not only with
the Etruscans to the West and Veneti to the east,
but even with northern peoples from beyond the
Also see this link.
•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.
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.
•The Nuraghi culture on the island of Sardinia. (See separate item.)
Ausoni. (See entry on ancient Cales.)
There, that’s some of them. My treatment of Indo-European diffusion was hasty, necessary given the brief space for this entry. 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.