Before Rome: The Ancient Italic Peoples

  1. The Roman Empire
  2. The Italic Peoples
    1. The Etruscans and Celts
    2. The Umbrians, Veneti and Samnites
    3. The Greeks, Messapians and Apulians
    4. The Sardinians

Everybody has heard of the might of the Roman Empire. At its height it encompassed most of Western Europe, much of Central Europe and all of Southern Europe, the Mediterranean and even extended into the Near East and North Africa. But the Romans themselves, or Latins, as they were known prior to the city of Rome, started out as just one of many indigenous ethnic groups of the Italian Peninsula. Many, but not all of them, are today considered to be part of a language family termed ‘Italic’, itself a part of the greater Indo-European language family.

This article gives an overview of these ancient Italic peoples, which not only existed next to the early Romans, but competed with them for supremacy over early Italy. It is important to note here that not all of the ethnic groups described in this article can be identified as Italic. Some of them, such as the Etruscans are not even Indo-European. They have been included, however, to give a complete account of the ancient inhabitants of Italy on the one hand and on the other, because some of them influenced the Roman Empire and/or Europe in different ways. The aforementioned Etruscans, for example gave the Romans the word for ‘Person’, who then passed it on to us. Taking this into consideration one begins to wonder what would have happened if Rome had not established itself as the dominant force and one of the others had taken its place. Would they have created an Empire themselves or would Europe have been left untouched by the might of the Italic peoples? We will never know for sure, but they have left their mark in other ways still visible today.

The Roman Empire

On the 21st of April the year 753 BC the foundation for the greatest empire on European soil had been laid. Unfortunately we’re not entirely sure in which year exactly the city was actually founded, for there are many different statements of ancient Greek and Roman historians. But at least the Romans were pretty certain it was on the 21st of April, as this also happened to be the day of an important religious festival.

Despite the fact that the Romans didn’t know when it really all started they’ve come a long way from simple farmers in the Italian region of Latium to become the dominant superpower of it’s time.

Map Latium
Latium.

Obviously, there had been a few hiccups on the way, like the sacking of Rome by the Gauls around 390 BC, the Punic Wars against Carthage under the infamous Hannibal, or the invasion of the Germanic Cimbri and Teutones. But against all odds, Rome did not only survive and overcome these crises, but emerged even stronger than before, continuing to conquer the known world until it reached it’s greatest extend under emperor Trajan in the year 117 AD.

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent.
The Roman Empire at its greatest extend. By Tataryn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19625326

But Rome did not only conquer: It transformed the regions it acquired by warfare in a profound way, implementing its bureaucratic machinery in every province. As a result, education, economy and culture blossomed everywhere the Romans went. And this has left its mark in our modern world in a very obvious way: Language. Pretty much every European language and many languages in the Middle East and northern Africa have borrowed words from Latin. In some cases it was not just borrowing of words that occurred, but the language of the Romans itself was adopted by the conquered tribes, giving rise to the Romance languages of today, i.e Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian, to name the most widely spoken ones.

In the case of some of these languages, like French, most people are well aware of the fact that before Caesars Gallic Wars, France was (and still continued to be) inhabited by the Celtic Gauls, speaking a Celtic language. Over time, however, the Gauls adopted Latin and it became the dominant language of the region, albeit with a Celtic accent. Similar scenarios took place in the other Romance speaking countries and regions. What most people are unaware of, however, is, that Italy itself wasn’t Latin speaking in the first place, and, in some cases, not even Italic or Indo-European, as we shall see in the next chapter.

The Italic Peoples

The ancient Italic peoples.
The Italic Peoples before the Roman Expansion. By Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3336779

The Etruscans and Celts

Most ethnic groups inhabiting the Italian Peninsula prior to the expansion of Rome had very little influence, if any at all, on Europe outside of Italy, but they did influence the different dialects and phenotypes observed in modern Italy. Probably the most important and powerful people before the rise of Rome and the Latins were the Etruscans, who themselves had a huge impact on Roman society and culture, leaving their name to Italy’s region of Tuscany. After the Etruscans were subjugated by the Latins, Celtic influence from the Alpine and Gaulish tribes of the Ligures, Lepontii and Insubres grew stronger in the power vacuum in northern Italy. This led to a gradual ‘Celtization’ of the Italian natives in this region, notably the Raeti, who got pushed further to the north into the Alps and southern Germany and started speaking a Celtic language, rather than their native tongue, which might have been related to Etruscan, although this is still debated. The Celtic influence on the north is also shown by the Latin name for Italy’s northernmost province: Gallia Cisalpina – Gaul, this side of the Alps.

The Umbrians, Veneti and Samnites

Like Tuscany, the region of Umbria derives it’s name from the Osco-Umbrians, and the city of Venice from the ancient Veneti. One tribe of the Osco-Umbrian peoples, the Samnites resisted the Romans for several decades before eventually being subjugated. The ancient Veneti, on the other hand, are something of a mystery to modern ethnolinguistics – it is unknown, whether the Venetian language should be classified as Italic, Celtic, or perhaps even non-Indo-European. An interesting theory proposes that Ventian may be the ‘missing link’ between Italic and Celtic and strengthens the hypothesis of a shared ‘Italo-Celtic’ ancestor to both language subgroups.

The Greeks, Messapians and Apulians

Interestingly, towards southern Italy we actually do not encounter another Italic people, but Greeks, who had established colonies there in the 8th Century BC, hence why the Romans called the Region Magna Graecia. To the east we find the Messapians and Apulians, which seem to have come from the other side of the Adriatic, a region then known as Illyria. The Illyrians themselves are another people shrouded in mystery, although they seem to have been Indo-European. Some propose that Albanian is the last and only descendant of this particular subgrouping.

The Sardinians

Finally, although they did not inhabit the Appennine Peninsula, the Sardinians deserve an honourable mention. Genetically, Europeans are a mixture of indigenous hunter-gatherers, ancient farmers from Anatolia, and Indo-Europeans from the steppe. The Sardinians, however, are missing the first and last component almost entirely, and it can thus be assumed that they either replaced the indigenous foragers on the island, or are, in fact, the true natives. The Indo-European peoples seemingly never made it there either, and thus the Sardinians as a people are more ancient than most of Europe’s modern inhabitants.

Despite their differences all these peoples will be incorporated into the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic, and eventually, the Roman Empire and largely latinized/romanized. But even today there are audible and visible differences in the appearance and dialects of the Italians, remnants of these tribal groups that settled Italy thousands of years ago. They never left, they just became part of other people groups, contributing to Italy as we know it today.


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