Windows On Italy - The Early Italic Tribes
With the Iron Age Italy and her population practically enter the historical period, even if some while after the more advanced Eastern Mediterranean and Near East civilizations from where arrived particular influences. At the beginning of the first millennium BC the following native tribes could be distinguished on Italian territory: the Ligures, on the coast that bears their name, in the northern Apennine valleys, part of the pre-alpine valleys and the western Po Valley; the Sicani, in the interior of Sicily; and the Itali, in present-day Calabria (from whom comes the name 'Italy', which was to be extended to all the territory of the peninsula). Besides the already mentioned Terramare tribe, on the southern edge of the Po Valley, and the Villanovans, probably from Eastern Europe and settled throughout Central Italy, there were also the Umbrians to the east of the upper basin of the Tiber. The Veneti, who occupied the territory that still bears their name, originally came from Illyria as did the Messapii and Iapyges, who settled in present-day Puglia (Apulia).
Many other populations of Central-Southern Italy were created by the mixing of local and foreign elements dating back to the previous millennium. As in the case of the Sabines and Latini who settled in Lazio together with Falisci, Aequi, Volsci, Hernici and Ausones. The interior of Abruzzo was dominated by the Vestini, Paeligni and Marsi, while the central Adriatic coast was populated by Picentes, Marrucini and Frentani. The Apennine area of Molise and Basilicata was peopled by the Samnites and Lucanians. In Calabria and Sicily there were also the Bruttii and Siculi.
The Phoenician colonisation of the coasts of the Western Mediterranean were limited in Italy to Sardinia and western Sicily and preceded that of the Greeks. It was followed by Punic settlements (Trapani, Palermo, Cagliari) linked to the ancient Phoenician colony of Carthage.
Greek and Etruscan Colonization
During the 8C BC the Greeks arrived in Italy. They came from Euboea, Argolis, Locris, Crete and the Aegean islands, settling on the southern coasts (from Campania to Apulia) and eastern and southern Sicily. They founded many prosperous colonies whose economy was generally based on agriculture and commerce. Often they allied together against common enemies but they were also divided by disagreement and rivalry. The term 'Magna Grecia' describes a population and civilization rather than a political reality. Among the first to settle on the Italian coasts were the Achaeans (of Dorian origins) who founded towns like Taranto, Metaponto, Posidonia (Paestum), and Sibari. They were followed by Locrians and then Chalcidians from Euboea who founded Naxos (Taormina), Zancle (Messina) and, after the occupation of Pitecusa (Ischia), Cuma in Campania. The Corinthians founded Siracusa, still in the 8C BC, and the Megarians Megara Hyblaea on the Gulf of Augusta. Finally, the Phocaeans founded Elea (Velia) in Campania.
While in Northern Italy, during the first half of the first millennium BC, there began the increasing penetration of the Gauls (of Celtic origins) from beyond the Alps, who would gradually occupy the entire Po Valley, on the Tyrrhenian slopes of Central Italy the Etruscans began to take form (circa 8C BC). The latter had an advanced civilization whose origins are still not clear. Whether they migrated from the East (as many aspects of their civilization suggest) by land or sea, or developed on the peninsula itself as direct heirs of the Villanovans, it is clear that the Etruscans formed the most important Italic cultural and political ethnic group before the advent of Roman power.
Already during the Copper Age the area of the Alban Hills, just to the south of the mouth of the Tiber, was inhabited by an Italic agricultural and pastoral tribe called Latini. And it was due to them, in all probability, that Rome was founded towards the middle of the 8C BC on one of the numerous hills (the Palatine) in the marshy depressions surrounding the river. The town and territory occupied by the Latini expanded gradually during the royal period (753-510 BC, under the seven kings of Rome: Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Tarquin Priscus, Servius Tullius and Tarquin the Proud). In this period the juridical and social organization of the new nation evolved, revealing clear influence from the nearby Etruscan civilization.
Territorially, at the end of the 6C BC, Roman Lazio extended over some 2000 sq km. It covered the lower Aniene Valley as far as its junction with the Tiber and from there to the sea, besides including the major part of the Alban Hills and the coast from the mouth of the Tiber to the promontory of Anzio. Alongside stock rearing and agriculture the economy of the Latin monarchy was based on commerce, favoured by Rome's geographic position between Campania (Magna Grecia) and Etruria as well as by the proximity of the mouth of the Tiber, which was a harbour of growing importance also because of the presence of productive salt pans.
The passage from monarchy to republic (510-509 BC) was not only a simple institutional change. It also involved a profound juridical and social transformation, as with the emancipation of the plebs who succeeded in gaining access to the highest offices of State, previously a monopoly of the patrician oligarchy. The complex events of the social struggles with the latter class produced the promulgation of written laws for the first time. These Laws of the Twelve Tables, carved in bronze (450 BC), were soon followed by others.
While developing its own institutions and social structure, the Roman State found itself involved in a series of conflicts with the neighbouring populations. Rome so succeeded in strengthening her position that at the end of the 3C BC rivalled the other four great military Mediterranean powers: Carthage, Egypt, Syria and Macedonia.
After having survived the danger of new Gallic invasions, which in 390 BC had crossed the Po Valley and the Apennines to sack Rome itself after having defeated armies first at Chiusi and then on the banks of the Allia (387 BC), Rome completed the conquest of Lazio. It did this by conquering the towns of the Volsci (Anzio) to the south and those of the Etruscans (Tarquinia, Faleri and Caere) to the north of the Tiber; Veio had already been acquired after a ten-year siege at the beginning of the century (396 BC) by Furius Camillus.
In mid-4C BC, following its gradual expansion, Rome necessarily came up against the Samnites who had descended from the heart of the central-southern Apennines towards the fertile lands of Campania, where they rapidly conquered the flourishing towns of Capua (438 BC) and Cuma (421 BC). The rich town of Paestum had already been occupied by the Lucanians. Rome wisely entered an alliance with the Samnites (354 BC) against the pressure of the nearby populations. Conflict with the Samnites for Campanian dominance was however inevitable and lasted for over half a century (343-290 BC). It had three distinct phases with alternating fortunes, such as the crushing Roman defeat at Caudine Forks (321 BC), until Rome won the definitive victory at Sentinum (295 BC) against a coalition that also included Etruscans and Senones, a Gallic tribe.
With her predominance in Central Italy consolidated, Rome prepared to extend it over the rest of the peninsula during a ten-year conflict with Taranto (282-272 BC), who was allied with the king of Epirus, Pyrrhus. While they enjoyed a modest victory at Ausculum (279BC), they were heavily defeated at Beneventum (275 BC). Rome thus achieved total supremacy of the Italian peninsula and set up a complicated system of alliances between the territory of Rome, towns and colonies enjoying full or partial Roman citizenship (`civitates sine suffragio') and the others who, while being independent, recognized Roman sovereignty in the context of a confederation extending over some 130 000 sq km and equipped with well over half a million soldiers Romans and allies).
The economy of the whole Italic federation, whose territory now extended from Tuscany (through Pisa-Pistoia-Fiesole-Rimini, but excluding the upper course of the Arno) to southern-most Calabria, was strengthened by the construction of the first important inland road, the Via Appia, running from Rome to Capua and Benevento (312-268 BC), as well as the development of the fleet and marine transport. At the same time the monetary system was expanded with the minting of bronze (300 BC) and silver (269 BC) coins.
Rome and Carthage
For more than two centuries, since when in 509 BC the new Roman Republic had made a friendship treaty with Carthage, relations between the two states had remained good. Indeed, in 306 BC they were reinforced with the reciprocal recognition of a Roman sphere of influence over Italy and a Carthaginian one over Sicily. On the island, in fact, the last tyrant of Syracuse, Agatocles, was defeated at Ecnomus in 310 by the Carthaginians who had been opposed by the Syracusians for almost a century.
With their expansionist policy, the young and powerful Rome certainly could not be content with only the Italian peninsula. The conquest of Magna Grecia had to be completed with that of Sicily, even if it meant breaking with Carthage. The opportunity came with the revolt of the Mamertine mercenaries, who had seized Messina and asked Rome for help against the Carthaginian garrison (265 BC). The struggle between Rome and Carthage was to continue until the end of the century (264-201 BC) ending in two separate conflicts: Sicily was the scene of the first (264-241 BC) until it became a Roman province; and slightly later (238-227 BC) Sardinia and Corsica met the same fate. In this way the Tyrrhenian became the first entirely Roman sea (`Mare nostrum').
The Second Punic War (218-201 BC) began from the Carthaginians besieging Saguntum (219 BC), an Iberian town allied with Rome. Despite Hannibal's legendary crossing of the Pyrenees and Alps into the heart of Italy and his repeated defeats of the Romans (at the rivers Ticino and Trebbia, Lake Trasimeno and Canne), the Romans still managed to definitively defeat the Carthaginians at Zama (202 BC). Gaining this victory under Scipio Africanus.
Forced, during the conflict with the Carthaginias, to fight on different fronts and against different allied enemies, from the Iberian peninsula to the Po Valley and from Illyria (on the op posite shore of the Adriatic) to Macedonia, Rome took the occasion of its many victories over the Celtic (Iberi and Galli) and Hellenic (Greeks and Macedonians) peoples, who were often allied with Carthage, to enlarge her territorial domain and political sphere of influence over a large part of the Mediterranean basin. Of particular importance in this regard was the conquest of Greece, through the three Macedonian Wars (215-146 BC), and the control of Asia Minor (133 BC). While with the destruction of Carthage (146 BC, at the end of the brief Third Punic War), Corinth (146 BC) and Numantia (133 BC) Rome had become the major Mediterranean military power.
Meanwhile, to the traditional Roman economic activities of agriculture and pastoralism, which had declined due to war destruction (with the consequent abandonment of the fields and rural deterioration), there were added military and commercial interests. The latter was a monopoly of the equites (the knightly or propertied class) who, also thanks to contracts for revenue collection and public works, began to form a rich urban middle-class.
The conquest of Greece also had a profound effect on the cultural development of the Roman world. This took the form of Hellenisation, which changed society and customs while handing on the inheritance of Greek civilization to successive centuries. Finally, under the socio-economic heading, came the agricultural crisis. This was to cost the lives of the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus (133-121 BC), tribunes of the plebs, who came up against the conservatism of the oligarchical senate.
However, the agrarian question gradually led to the rebellion of the Italic peoples, who were still excluded from Roman citizenship and therefore the allotment of land to cultivate in the `ager publicus'. In 90 BC a league was formed that, after varying military fortunes, finally achieved its aspirations. In this way too the political unification of Italy became concrete and was not to be interrupted even during the following periof of bitter civil wars: between Gaius Marius and Lucius Sulla (88-82 BC); Caesar and Pompey (49-46 BC); Octavian and Anthony (3630 BC); or even by the fierce struggles provoked by the slave revolts.
The events of the first century BC in Italy are marked by a move from republican liberties to dictatorial regimes and a return to a democratic-type structure (rather similar to present-day presidential republics) with the advent of the principate of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14). At this stage the State was transformed into the Roman Empire, which gradually became a kind of elective monarchy although hereditary transmission was also not a rare occurrence. The Empire was to formally last until beyond mid 5C AD (476 was the year in which the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed) but came to an end for all practical purposes at the death of Emperor Theodosius (AD 395).
During the forty years of his principate, Octavian sought to give his empire a better organized territorial structure, which was necessary for the administrative, judicial and military reforms that were to flow. In this structure Italy formed one of the senatorial provinces in which the Empire was divided; this province was divided in its turn into eleven independent administrative regions, with the exceptions of Sardinia and Corsica that were imperial provinces. Much later, under Diocletian (284-305), these last two, together with the Italian peninsula and the addition of Rhaetia, formed the diocese of Italy, which was united to that of Africa as one of the four prefectures of the Empire. Octavian also took particular care to construct an efficient road network to link the various imperial provinces. These roads are represented in detail on the `Tabula Peutingeriana', which shows the entire imperial road network and probably dates to AD 4C.
Though retaining the Empire's capital (until it was transferred to Constantinople at the beginning of the 4C), the imperial period saw a radical economic and political change. In Italy this was characterized by the gradual loss of its pre-eminence in comparison with the other provinces with which it had to compete. The possibility of importing from many parts of the world all types of products, including foodstuffs, signalled the progressive decline of cultivation by small and medium proprietors and favoured the large cereal and pastoral estates to which flocked as tenants the old peasant class. Also, after the relative prosperity of the Augustan and Antonine periods, there was a profound reduction in cultivation and large-scale crops partially replaced specialized forms, such as grapes and olives. Another aspect was the growth of towns, which became the centres of political and economic life and thus also attracted an increasing population. Industrial production was organized by the State through its `fabricae', while craftsmanship took a corporate form that served to further harden social structures.
Back to the home page