Cover Image

A Critical History of Early Rome

From Prehistory to the First Punic War

Gary Forsythe (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 417 pages
ISBN: 9780520249912
August 2006
$33.95, £24.95
Other Formats Available:
During the period from Rome's Stone Age beginnings on the Tiber River to its conquest of the Italian peninsula in 264 B.C., the Romans in large measure developed the social, political, and military structure that would be the foundation of their spectacular imperial success. In this comprehensive and clearly written account, Gary Forsythe draws extensively from historical, archaeological, linguistic, epigraphic, religious, and legal evidence as he traces Rome's early development within a multicultural environment of Latins, Sabines, Etruscans, Greeks, and Phoenicians. His study charts the development of the classical republican institutions that would eventually enable Rome to create its vast empire, and provides fascinating discussions of topics including Roman prehistory, religion, and language.

In addition to its value as an authoritative synthesis of current research, A Critical History of Early Rome offers a revisionist interpretation of Rome's early history through its innovative use of ancient sources. The history of this period is notoriously difficult to uncover because there are no extant written records, and because the later historiography that affords the only narrative accounts of Rome's early days is shaped by the issues, conflicts, and ways of thinking of its own time. This book provides a groundbreaking examination of those surviving ancient sources in light of their underlying biases, thereby reconstructing early Roman history upon a more solid evidentiary foundation.
List of Maps and Figures

1. Italy in Prehistory
2. Archaic Italy c. 800–500 B.C.
3. The Ancient Sources for Early Roman History
4. Rome During the Regal Period
5. Archaic Roman Religion
6. The Beginning of the Roman Republic
7. Rome of the Twelve Tables
8. Evolution and Growth of the Roman State 444–367 B.C.
9. Rome’s Rise to Dominance, 366–300 B.C.
10. Rome’s Conquest and Unification of Italy, 299–264 B.C.

Appendix: Early Roman Chronology
Works Cited
Gary Forsythe is Assistant Professor of History at Texas Tech University.
"A remarkable book,in which Forsythe uses his thorough knowledge of the ancient evidence to reconstruct a coherent and eminently plausible picture which in turn illuminates early Roman society more immediately than any other category of evidence is able to do. Forsythe displays his impressive ability to demonstrate to what extent and why the tradition that dominates the extant historical narratives is not credible."—Kurt Raaflaub, author of The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece

"An excellent synthetic treatment of early Roman history found in both modern literary and archaeological materials."—Richard Mitchell, author of Patricians and Plebeians
Chapter One

Italy in Prehistory

The Land and its Linguistic Diversity

The past two hundred years of human history have witnessed continuous and rapid technological change and progress on an unparalleled scale. Yet despite the highly advanced nature of present-day technology, geographical and climatic factors still exercise a profound influence upon the regional economies and cultures of human populations worldwide. The presence or absence of mountains, desert, rich farmland, water, forests, petroleum, coal, and other mineral resources continue to shape modern societies and nations in many fundamental ways. It therefore should come as no surprise that an inverse relationship has long existed between human technology and geographical determinism: the less control people have over their physical surroundings, the greater is the impact that their physical environment has upon their existence and way of life. Consequently, much of human prehistory and history has been a struggle to develop a material culture that mitigates the effects of climate, environment, and geography. The prehistory of Italy was no exception to this general rule.

The Italian peninsula, measuring 116,372 square miles (roughly the size of Nevada), exhibits great diversity of mountains, plain, and hill country, which frequently exist together in the same locale (see map 1). Situated in the middle of the Mediterranean, Italy consists of two distinct areas determined by the Alpine and Apennine mountain ranges. One of these two regions, the Po Valley of northern Italy, is roughly triangular in shape. It is bounded on the north by the Alps, on the south by the Apennines, and by the Adriatic Sea to the east. Since during the fifth and fourth centuries b.c. Celtic tribes (termed Gauls by the Romans) from continental Europe crossed the Alps and took up residence throughout the Po Valley, the ancient Romans called this region Cisalpine Gaul, meaning "Gaul on this side of the Alps." This plain is good for agriculture and is bisected by the Po River, the largest river of Italy, which flows west to east for 418 miles, receives the runoff from both mountain ranges in numerous streams, and empties into the Adriatic. Since the land nearest the Po was often marshy, the earliest human inhabitants of northern Italy tended to settle in areas away from the river. Settlement of the mountain slopes and plain promoted the exchange of commodities peculiar to each environment. The arc of the Alps separates northern Italy from continental Europe. Yet despite their height, they never constituted an insuperable barrier to early man, but several passes were routinely used for travel to and from southern France to the west and the central Danube to the east. Although the Po Valley was the last area of Italy to succumb to Roman arms, its geographical ties to continental Europe played an important role in the prehistory and early history of Italy by its reception of new cultural influences and peoples beyond the Alps and transmission of new ideas across the Apennines.

The other major area of Italy is the peninsula south of the Po Valley. This region is geographically very complex and diverse. The Apennine Mountains form a compact range along the southern side of the Po Valley, but after they turn southeastward to run the length of the peninsula, they diverge into parallel ranges separated from one another by deep gorges. This terrain was well suited for pastoralism. Herders kept their cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats down in the valleys to avoid the rigors of winter, but drove them into the uplands to enjoy the cooler pastures of summer. This pattern of seasonal pastoralism is termed transhumance. It originated at some time during Italy's prehistoric period and continued to be practiced until modern times. In addition, mountain ridges and valleys formed important paths which facilitated the movement of people, goods, and ideas.

For much of their southeasterly course the Apennines are much closer to the eastern coast of Italy and often run right down to the Adriatic. As a result, the northern and central areas of western Italy open up into a complex tangle of plain and hill country, which form the three major areas of Etruria, Latium, and Campania, all possessing a rich volcanic soil, enjoying a moderate annual rainfall, and destined to play the most important roles in the history of ancient Italy. Etruria, enclosed by the Arno and Tiber Rivers, the Tyrrhenian Sea, and the Apennine Mountains, was blessed with rich metal deposits, primarily iron and copper; and because Phoenicians and Greeks from the more highly civilized eastern Mediterranean came in search of these ores, Etruria became the homeland of the first high civilization of Italy. Campania possessed the richest agricultural land of Italy and was later famous for its bountiful crops and wine. In early historical times, the northern Campanian coast was settled by Greek colonists, who thus constituted the first Greek neighbors to the Romans. Latium, bordering Etruria along the lower Tiber and separated from Campania by mountains, although initially lagging behind Etruria in economic and cultural development, was the homeland of the Latins and of Rome itself, which eventually emerged as the ruling power of all Italy. Since the Apennines swing away from the Adriatic coast in southern Italy, turn toward the Tyrrhenian Sea, and terminate in the foot and toe of Bruttium, the southeastern coast of the peninsula comprises the large plain of Apulia, which was receptive to influences from across the Adriatic.

Although Italy has a coastline of approximately two thousand miles, and no place south of the Po Valley is more than seventy miles from the sea, it has very few large navigable rivers, and the native peoples did not take to the sea to a significant degree until early historical times when they adopted the superior maritime technology and seafaring skills of the Greeks and Phoenicians. Many of the rivulets that flowed down from the mountains or hill country into the sea were little more than winter torrents that usually dried up during the summer, when their beds could be used as roads for pedestrian travel, wheeled transport, or the driving of livestock. Nevertheless, the country was by no means isolated. In particular, the people along the eastern coast from the Neolithic period onwards were in communication with the inhabitants of the opposite shore of the Adriatic. Thus, although surrounded by the Mediterranean on three sides and bounded on the north by the Alps, prehistoric Italy at different times and in varying degrees received new ideas and peoples from all quarters.

Since language has always been a principal factor in defining a people's cultural and ethnic identity, a region's linguistic history can be useful in understanding major cultural patterns. Even more than in Greece, Italy's complex geography fostered the growth of cultural and linguistic diversity, which is perhaps best illustrated by a map showing the distribution of languages in pre-Roman times (see map 2). Before Rome embarked upon its conquest of the peninsula, the land was inhabited by peoples speaking several different languages that were unintelligible to one another. It is therefore a great testimony to the political skills of the ancient Romans that they succeeded in forging unity out of such diversity. The modern study of the pre-Roman languages of ancient Italy is a very complex and difficult subject, involving many unanswered questions due to the fact that many local languages are now known only from a relatively small body of inscribed texts. Nevertheless, scholars of historical linguistics have been able to arrive at many firm conclusions about the overall character of these languages and their historical links to one another.1

Before Latin began to drive the other languages of ancient Italy into extinction during the first century b.c., a substantial portion of the country's inhabitants spoke one of four languages: Venetic, Latin, Umbrian, and Oscan, which because of shared similarities of vocabulary and grammar have been grouped together by modern scholars into the Italic family of Indo-European. Venetic was spoken by the people of the eastern Po Valley. As the result of the migration of Celtic tribes into northern Italy during the fifth and fourth centuries b.c., the inhabitants of the western and central districts of the Po Valley were Celtic in speech, although Ligurian, Lepontic, and Raetic, which are not well understood due to the paucity of surviving evidence, continued to be spoken by peoples dwelling in and along the Alps. The inhabitants of Latium, including the Romans, spoke Latin. The various peoples dwelling in the Apennine Mountains of peninsular Italy spoke one of several languages belonging to the Sabellian subgroup within Italic. These dialects included the speech of the Umbrians, Sabines, Marsi, Marrucini, Vestini, Paeligni, Frentani, Aequi, Volsci, and Samnites. Umbrian, known almost entirely from seven inscribed bronze tablets from Iguvium outlining public religious rites of the community, was the language of the people dwelling in the Apennines in an area south of the Po and bordering on Etruria. The other major Sabellian dialect was Oscan, which was the speech of the Samnites, the non-Greek inhabitants of Campania, and the people of Lucania and Bruttium. The people living in the southeastern portion of the peninsula spoke an Indo-European language called Messapic, which was not Italic but might have been related to the speech of the Illyrians, who dwelled on the Balkan coast of the Adriatic. Most enigmatic of all is the language of the Etruscans. Not only is it non-Indo-European, but there is no other known language to which it can be clearly related. Exactly how this linguistic diversity arose in Italy in prehistoric and protohistorical times is still largely shrouded in mystery, but the phenomenon alone is solid proof of the complexities of cultural evolution and formation during Italy's prehistory.2

Modern Archaeology and Prehistory

History and prehistory differ in that the former involves studying a past society with the benefit of written accounts, whereas in the latter no written records exist to aid the investigator. A prehistoric people of the past can be studied only by analyzing the surviving material remains of their culture, and these physical remains are recovered by archaeological excavations of inhabited sites or graves. Although modern archaeology has become extremely sophisticated and can call upon many scientific analytical methods, this has not always been the case. Consequently, since the beginning of the modern study of Italian prehistory during the mid-nineteenth century, manifold valuable archaeological data have been lost as the result of unscientific methods of excavation. In addition, two very important ideas should always be kept in mind when archaeological data are being discussed. The first one is that archaeological finds are quite often totally fortuitous, resulting from bulldozing for a new highway or digging the foundations of a new office building, and they therefore may not be representative of an entire society. Sometimes graves of a past people are discovered but not their place of residence. In other instances the foundations of their huts and hearths are unearthed but not their cemetery. Thus an excavated site may offer information about only certain aspects of the people's lives. Indeed, archaeological data for much of Italian prehistory are quite often confined to items that were buried with the dead, and the range of such items is usually of limited variety, being the product of prevailing funerary customs and religious beliefs.3

Secondly, archaeology can only recover physical manifestations of a culture that have happened to survive in the particular soil or water conditions of a site, and what has perished may be as important in understanding a culture as what has survived. In addition, the surviving physical remains of a culture can often tell us about a people's diet, the floor plan of their dwellings, their funerary practices, and what kind of stone, ceramic, or metal utensils were in daily use, but many other aspects of their culture, such as their language, social organization, political structure, or religious beliefs, are more often than not archaeologically invisible. It should therefore be realized that while modern archaeology can often succeed in reconstructing many aspects of a past society's material culture, there are many other important questions that excavations cannot answer. In order to assess prehistoric data judiciously, we must be well aware of what archaeology can and cannot do. These observations apply not only to the study of the earliest inhabitants of Italy treated in this chapter but also to the beginnings of Etruscan and Latin culture and Roman history described in chapters 2 and 4.

Archaeologists have traditionally divided European prehistory into periods of time that take their names from the technology used in making tools. Thus, Italy's prehistory consists of the Paleolithic (Old Stone) Age, Neolithic (New Stone) Age, Copper Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. These periods are often subdivided into early, middle, and late or numbered phases, as has seemed best to prehistorians for the purpose of charting the changes in material culture. Moreover, since the material remains of prehistoric peoples within the same time period exhibit major differences from region to region, archaeologists employ other terms, often taken from the names of excavated sites such as Remedello or Villanova, in order to distinguish one prehistoric culture from another. These differences can include such things as how people disposed of the dead (inhumation or cremation), or how they shaped and decorated their pottery or jewelry. In addition, changes in burial customs or pottery styles can provide important evidence for the exchange of ideas from one region to another. Unfortunately, archaeology cannot usually determine whether such exchanges were brought about through trade networks or by people migrating from one area to another and bringing their characteristic material culture with them. It should also be realized that two population groups who lived next to one another could have shared the same material culture while they spoke different languages and regarded one another as ethnically distinct. Consequently, the material remains of prehistoric peoples uncovered by archaeology can usually provide only a partial picture of past cultures.

Prehistoric Italy

During the past two million years, the world's climate has undergone major warming and cooling trends as reflected in the advance and retreat of glaciers. Prolonged cold climatic conditions have fostered the growth of enormous ice sheets, whose movements have left their marks on the earth's surface. For example, the lake beds of Maggiore, Como, and Garda below the Alps in northern Italy were carved out by glacial action. Furthermore, glaciers are composed of such massive amounts of water that their expansion and contraction have drastically affected sea levels worldwide. Thus, at the height of the Wurm glaciation periods (i.e. four intervals occurring during the past 125,000 years) the level in the Adriatic dropped so far that dry land at times extended as far south as Ancona. Conversely, in interglaciation periods the sea level rose as glaciers melted, and parts of what are now the Tyrrhenian coast and the eastern Po Valley were submerged beneath the sea. Plant and animal life throughout Europe and Asia fluctuated in accordance with these geological and climatic changes, and Paleolithic hominids (Homo erectus, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens sapiens) adjusted to regional conditions by hunting animals and gathering edible plants, by using fire, caves, and animal skins to shelter themselves from the rigors of cold weather, and by fashioning various utensils and tools out of wood, animal bone or horn, and stone.4 Under such conditions human existence was extremely hard and precarious and differed little from that of the animals upon whom early people depended for food, clothing, and tools. The landscape was very thinly populated by small bands of our hominid ancestors, who were often obliged to change their abode frequently in their pursuit of deer, bison, mammoth, and other animal populations. Those dwelling near major bodies of water also supplemented their diet with aquatic and marine life. Human survival depended upon close cooperation within the group. As in hunting and gathering societies in different parts of the world studied by modern anthropologists, the adult males were probably responsible for hunting big game and making tools, while the women stayed close to the home site, watching the children, gathering edible plants, berries, and nuts, and performing other tasks.

This general pattern of life prevailed across Europe and Asia during much of the Paleolithic Age (c. 400,000-10,000 b.c.); and although the remains of hominid culture during the Old Stone Age are rather scanty in Italy, the same must also have applied to its prehistoric hominid inhabitants. The country's mountains furnished numerous caves suitable for human habitation, and the Lessini Mountains north of Verona in the Po Valley contained large flint deposits which were constantly worked by prehistoric miners for making tools.

The glaciers of the last ice age gradually melted around 12,000-5,000 b.c., and ushered in higher sea levels and milder climatic conditions throughout the Mediterranean. In the Near East, in the area often termed the Fertile Crescent, the end of this period also witnessed one of the most important developments of human history: the so-called agricultural revolution, perhaps more accurately termed the agricultural transformation (Redman 1978, 2 and 88 ff.), during which people began to support themselves by systematic agriculture. Since despite this major transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture the earliest farming peoples continued to fashion their tools from stone, the term Neolithic or New Stone Age is used to distinguish this period of human culture from that which had gone before. Moreover, since people could quite often grow more crops than they consumed, the existence of an agricultural surplus led to significant population growth, the division and specialization of labor, and incipient trade between communities and regions as surplus commodities of one sort were exchanged for others. The concatenation of these factors brought into being the first towns of the Near East; and in the course of time human settlement along the great river valleys of the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates resulted in the rise of the two early civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, as complex political and social structures developed out of the need for people to cooperate in constructing and maintaining irrigation works that exploited the agricultural potential of these river basins.

The idea and practice of agriculture gradually spread westward from the Fertile Crescent and Anatolia in the eastern Mediterranean through the Balkan peninsula and thence to Italy, perhaps arriving around 5000 b.c. Exactly how this process of diffusion occurred is still unknown, but one route by which agriculture was introduced into Italy is suggested by archaeological finds in Apulia. In 1943, aerial reconnaissance of northern Apulia by the British Royal Air Force, designed to collect information about military air fields and railway traffic, disclosed peculiar dark crop circles. Following the conclusion of World War II, these were investigated and found to be associated with ditches surrounding Neolithic sites (Stevenson 1947; Bradford 1950; and Bradford 1957, 85-110). Agriculture therefore could have been introduced into Apulia by enterprising farmers from the opposite Balkan coast in search of new land to cultivate. From this region, agriculture may have gradually spread into other areas of Italy as the farming population grew and brought more land under cultivation, or as indigenous hunters and gatherers learned the art of agriculture from farming settlements. From aerial photography, traces of over two thousand Neolithic sites have been detected in an area of 1,650 square miles in the Tavoliere plain around Foggia. This indicates that Apulia during the fifth and fourth millennia b.c. supported a substantial farming population organized into many small villages. The latest of three successive settlements at Passo di Corvo is the largest Neolithic site discovered thus far not only in Italy but in all of Europe, measuring 500 by 800 yards.

These same early farming settlements of Apulia have yielded tools made from obsidian (a black volcanic glass) originating from the Lipari Islands north of Sicily, thus demonstrating the existence of a trade network during Neolithic times. Their bones show that the raising of domesticated animals such as cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats also accompanied the cultivation of crops in Neolithic Italy; and unlike Paleolithic hunters and gatherers, Neolithic peoples augmented their material culture with handmade pottery, whose varying shapes and decorative styles are used by archaeologists to date sites and to trace the spread of new ideas. Vessels for making cheese have been found at many sites; and stone arrowheads of various shapes, perhaps used for both hunting and warfare, are first found in strata datable to the later fourth millennium b.c. Spindle whorls and loom weights, testifying to the widespread custom of spinning thread and weaving it into cloth, first appear at sites in the Po Valley also dating to the late fourth millennium. This technology probably entered northern Italy across the Alps from central Europe, and it spread southward down the peninsula. Consequently, by the close of the fourth millennium b.c. the human population in Italy had increased substantially from what it had been before the advent of agriculture, and human culture had been enriched by several major innovations.

Since over time the prehistoric cultures of Europe and the Mediterranean area exhibited increasing sophistication in metallurgy, archaeologists have traditionally divided the period between the Neolithic Age and the dawn of history into three large intervals whose names reflect the most advanced metallurgical knowledge of the period: Copper Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Of these three metals, copper is the simplest to smelt from ore and to fashion into objects, and it was therefore the first metal to be mined and worked by prehistoric cultures, but it is also the softest of the three metals, even softer than flint. Consequently, even after prehistoric peoples learned how to refine copper from its ore, stone continued to be used as well. In Italy, the knowledge of mining and working copper first appeared in the Po Valley. Archaeologists have excavated several Copper Age sites dating to the third millennium b.c. located north and south of the Po River in the central region of the plain, and the human remains of their cemeteries display an admixture of both long-headed and round-headed people. Since the latter physiological trait has rarely been encountered at Neolithic sites, the presence of this genetically determined attribute strongly suggests that a new round-headed people entered northern Italy at the beginning of the Copper Age. It can be further surmised that these immigrants crossed the Alps from central Europe, whence they brought with them the copper-working technology that had gradually spread up the Danube River during the fourth millennium b.c. Copper was used primarily for making axes and knives, which were often buried with the dead. The stylistic motifs present in the material artifacts of the Italian Copper Age have been interpreted by modern archaeologists as evidence that during the third millennium b.c. Italy was affected by the contemporary cultures of southern France, central Europe, and even the Aegean. These influences doubtless reflect complex interactions associated with copper prospecting, mining, and refining, and with the distribution of manufactured objects.

The Ice Man

In September of 1991 a German couple, while hiking through the Alps bordering western Austria and northern Italy southwest of Innsbruck, inadvertently came upon what might be considered the single most remarkable archaeological find of European prehistory: the frozen body of a man who had died some 5000 years ago. Summer melting of the Similaun Glacier had exposed the man's head and shoulders. At first he was thought to be another hiker who had met with a fatal accident, but the artifacts accompanying the corpse soon dispelled this presupposition. Before scientists arrived on the scene to extricate the dead man, some damage was inflicted upon the body's left hip by a jackhammer, and certain objects were removed by curiosity seekers. Nevertheless, a nearly intact corpse of a prehistoric man with all his gear was recovered, and has become the focus of intense scientific analysis.5

Carbon 14 dating indicates that this man lived around 3500-3000 b.c., which makes him approximately as old as the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Moreover, unlike the mummies from ancient Egypt who had their internal organs removed when embalmed, the body of the Ice Man is almost fully preserved, and scientists have begun to study his internal anatomy in detail. He stood about five feet two inches tall and weighed about 110 pounds. Although his age at time of death was initially estimated at twenty-five to forty years, subsequent analysis of bone and blood vessels has shown him to have been forty to fifty years old and beginning to suffer from degenerative arthritis. He had brownish black hair, wore a beard, and would easily blend into the local Alpine population today if put in contemporary dress. The hair on his head is only three and a half inches long, demonstrating that the people of his culture regularly cut their hair. His body also bears several marks: a cross behind the left knee, stripes on the right ankle, and three sets of short vertical parallel lines to the left of his spine on his lower back. At first these marks were thought to be tattoos, but further examination revealed them to be cauterized cuts, possibly intended to counter the pain of arthritis.

But perhaps the most informative aspects of this discovery pertain to his clothing and other artifacts. Unlike the grave goods uncovered from prehistoric burials, which were placed with the dead according to the prevailing funerary customs and religious beliefs, the Ice Man was not formally buried but died with all his regular gear about him, and its remarkable state of preservation offers unique insights into the living conditions and technology of his culture. He wore leather boots bound around his legs with thongs and stuffed with straw for insulation against the cold. He was clad in a fur-lined coat composed of deer, chamois, and ibex skin stitched together, and over this he wore a cape of woven grass similar to those worn by local Tyrolean shepherds as late as the early twentieth century. A disk-shaped stone may have been worn around his neck as an amulet. He had with him a bow, fourteen arrow shafts, and what is now the world's oldest known quiver, made of deerskin. The arrows are fitted with feathers at an angle so as to impart spin for greater stability and accuracy. His bow measures six feet in length and is made of yew, the best wood available in Europe for bow making, the same as that used to make the famous English long bow. His bow, however, had not yet been notched and fitted with a string, suggesting that the Ice Man had only recently obtained the wood from a tree. He also had a bone needle, a small flint knife fitted with a handle of ash wood, a copper axe, and a small tool of deer antler that was probably used for sharpening flint blades and arrowheads. The flint knife was carried in a delicately woven grass sheath. Pieces of charcoal contained in a grass packet were used for making a fire. Two mushrooms (Piptoporus betulinus) bound on a cord are conjectured to have constituted the Ice Man's medicine for fighting off stomachache and pain resulting from arthritis. The discovery of parasitic worms in the lower part of the large intestine suggests that the Ice Man suffered from the former ailment. His equipment was carried in a backpack made of wood and bark.

A sloe berry found at the site has been interpreted as a remnant of the Ice Man's food; and since sloe berries are in season at the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, its presence seems to fix the time of year when the Ice Man died. The body and all the artifacts were located in a natural depression, which accounts for the fact that they were not destroyed by glacial action but were covered in ice and snow until the present day. The site is at an altitude of 10,530 feet, about 3000 feet above the tree line of that time. It has therefore been conjectured that the Ice Man was engaged in traveling across the mountains when the onset of a sudden snow storm forced him to seek refuge in the hollow where he froze to death and his corpse and equipment were preserved. He could have belonged to one of several local Copper Age cultures that flourished then on both sides of the Alps, and the discovery offers striking testimony to the existence of human traffic across these mountains in prehistoric times. The shape and style of his copper axe closely resemble those of the so-called Remedello Culture of northern Italy, known from a series of 124 graves and dating to the third millennium. The Ice Man also had with him a collection of unshaped pieces of flint of high quality, which might have come from flint deposits in northern Italy.

The Bronze and Iron Ages

The Bronze Age of Italy, roughly coinciding with the second millennium b.c., exhibits not only more advanced metallurgical technology but also more widespread use of metal and continuous contacts with the Bronze-Age peoples of central Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.6 Bronze is a metal alloy formed by adding a small amount of tin to copper. The result is a harder metal, which melts at a somewhat lower temperature, is more fluid than molten copper, and is therefore superior for casting into molds. The major problem, however, is the relative scarcity of tin deposits (Maddin, Wheeler, and Muhly 1977). Although small tin deposits might have been located and mined out in various areas in ancient times, one major source of tin that was probably exploited during the Bronze Age was Cornwall in southwestern England. After being mined and cast into ingots, the tin could have been transported along the major rivers and land portages from northern to central Europe and the Mediterranean. This would have brought into being a complex interlocking network of commercial contacts; and given the considerable demand for tin among the Bronze-Age civilizations of the Aegean and Near East, the growth and prosperity of Mycenaean civilization c. 1600-1200 b.c. may have been in part the result of Mycenaean involvement in the central Mediterranean segment of this tin trade. This surmise can be further supported by the parallel trade in amber, which has been found in the Mycenaean shaft graves and probably reached Greece from the Baltic by a sequence of overland and Adriatic travel (Harding and Hughes-Brock 1974).

The distribution of Mycenaean pottery of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries b.c. revealed thus far can serve as a rough indicator of the degree to which the more highly developed civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean during the late Bronze Age interacted with the prehistoric cultures of the central Mediterranean (Taylour 1958, Vagnetti 1970 and 1982, and Harding 1984, 244-61). The most plentiful finds of late Mycenaean pottery have been made at a number of sites on the Ionian and Adriatic coasts of Italy and in eastern Sicily (especially at Thapsus, a trading post situated on a promontory not far to the north of the Great Harbor of Syracuse), whereas the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy has so far yielded only small amounts of Mycenaean potsherds (e.g., the small island of Vivera in the Bay of Naples). This situation, however, is likely to change as more Bronze-Age sites in the latter area are carefully excavated. Some remains of Mycenaean pottery have been found at Luni sul Mignone, a site located about twenty miles upstream from the coast along the Mignone, which flows south of Tarquinii into the Tyrrhenian Sea. At this site Swedish archaeologists uncovered three building-like structures dating to the late Bronze Age, one of which measured 13 feet wide and 138 feet long. All three structures were dug down into the tufa rock surface to a varying depth of four to six feet, and the walls above ground consisted of irregularly shaped stones piled one on top of the other and not bound together by any kind of mortar (Potter 1979, 37-41 and Drews 1981, 146-47). Since Luni sul Mignone is situated on the northern edge of the Tolfa-Allumiere Mountains of southern coastal Etruria, a region rich in copper, it is possible that these curious structures and the presence of Mycenaean pottery testify to the exploitation of mineral deposits and commercial interaction with the eastern Mediterranean during the late Bronze Age.

Scoglio del Tonno, a headland in the harbor of Tarentum, the finest anchorage in Italy, seems to have served as a convenient port of call for eastern merchants and prospectors on their voyages in western waters. Similarly, the presence of Mycenaean pottery in the Lipari Islands may indicate that ships put in there before sailing on to Sardinia, whose southwestern coast has also yielded the remains of Mycenaean pottery. This island's rich deposits of copper are thought to have been exploited to supplement the metal resources of the eastern Mediterranean. In fact, the so-called Nuragic Culture of Sardinia, characterized by large stone defensive towers and chamber tombs of stone masonry whose architecture was far in advance of the contemporary cultures of Bronze-Age Italy, probably arose in response to these eastern contacts and commercial interaction. Indeed, during the late Bronze Age native Sardinians were apparently hired as mercenaries in the armies of Libya, Egypt, and other states of Syria and Palestine (Trump 1980, 202).

As had been the case during the preceding Copper Age, the Bronze-Age sites of the Po Valley, especially during the second half of the second millennium, were heavily influenced by the Transalpine culture of central Europe. Throughout much of the Po Valley, cremation replaced inhumation as the standard way of disposing of the dead, and this practice clearly entered northern Italy from the Urnfield Culture of the Danube. This innovation has been the subject of much speculation. Was this major transition brought about by the exchange of ideas mediated through trade, or by the influx of new people, or by both these means? Besides funerary customs, the pottery and metalwork in the Po Valley of the late bronze age also exhibit new features similar to the those in the cultures of central Europe. Sites along the Apennine edge of the Po Valley, which were first investigated by L. Pigorini at the end of the nineteenth century, have been collectively termed the Terramara Culture, taking its name from a local Italian word meaning "black earth," which refers to the fertile mounds of dark soil produced by prolonged human habitation. Like the lakeside settlements farther north, Terramara structures were erected upon wooden platforms in order to avoid the hazards of flooding in the river plain.

Perhaps the single most intriguing site of the late and final Bronze Age in Italy (c. thirteenth to eleventh centuries b.c.) is that of Frattesina located in the eastern part of the Po Valley. By prehistoric standards it was quite large, 700 by 190 yards, an area of 27.5 acres, and its remains show that it was an industrial community that refined metal, fashioned deer antler into tools, and produced colored glass beads, making it the earliest known site in Italy to manufacture glass. Ivory, amber, and fragments of ostrich eggs have been uncovered there as well, testifying to external commercial contacts. Frattesina can therefore be viewed as a prehistoric forerunner of Spina and Hatria, two important commercial sites located near the mouth of the Po, to be discussed in the next chapter. The progressive and innovative character of Bronze-Age northern Italy is further demonstrated by the fact that during the thirteenth century b.c. the spring safety pin was invented, probably in the area between Lake Garda and the Austrian Alps. Termed a "fibula" by modern archaeologists from its Latin name, the pin was henceforth used throughout antiquity to fasten at the shoulder or chest a garment wrapped about the body. Fibulae are therefore often found in graves, and the changing decorative style of their catch-plates provides archaeologists with valuable information for dating and concerning possible artistic influence.

During the second millennium b.c., bronze gradually drove out flint as the primary material used for making tools, utensils, and weapons. Metalworking and the exchange of manufactured metal objects are clearly evident from numerous bronze hoards found at various sites throughout the peninsula, sometimes revealing unworked ingots and at other times stashes of knives or axes, the latter possibly the unclaimed buried caches of traveling merchants. Buried assemblages of bronze objects discovered near or in lakes or rivers, however, are generally interpreted as representing collections of religious votive offerings to a local deity. Excavations of sites located at the edges of the lakes of the Po Valley have also yielded many wooden artifacts preserved for more than 3000 years under water, including dugout canoes and Europe's earliest known plow and spoked wheel. The earliest Italian finds of horse bones come from these same prehistoric lakeside villages of the third millennium.

While the material culture of the Po Valley developed in response to influences from central Europe and the Aegean, peninsular Italy during the late Bronze Age lagged somewhat behind for the most part. Inhumation continued to be the funerary practice of this region. Although agriculture doubtless remained the mainstay of human subsistence, other evidence (the occupation of mountainous sites not conducive to farming, the remains of cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats, and ceramic vessels used for boiling milk and making cheese) indicates that pastoralism was also very widespread. This suggests that transhumance was already a well-established pattern of human existence. In fact, since the material culture of central and southern Italy was relatively uniform at this time, it has been conjectured that this so-called Apennine Culture of c. 1600-1100 b.c. owed its uniformity in part to the migratory pattern characteristic of ancient Italian stockbreeding.

During the first quarter of the twelfth century b.c. the Bronze-Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean came to an abrupt end. The royal palaces of Pylos, Tiryns, and Mycenae in mainland Greece were destroyed by violence, and the Hittite kingdom that had ruled over Asia Minor was likewise swept away. The causes and reasons for this major catastrophe have long been debated without much scholarly consensus (see Drews 1993, 33-96). Apart from the archaeological evidence indicating the violent destruction of many sites, the only ancient accounts relating to this phenomenon come from Egypt. The most important one is a text inscribed on the temple of Medinet Habu at Thebes, which accompanies carved scenes portraying the pharaoh's military victory over a coalition of peoples who had attempted to enter the Nile Delta by land and sea. The text reads in part:

Year 8 under the majesty of Ramses III ({nbsp}= 1179 b.c.). The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti, Kode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya on being cut off at one time. A camp was set up in one place in Amor ({nbsp}= Syria). They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Philistines, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen, and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: "Our plans will succeed!" . . . Those who reached my frontier, their seed is not; their heart and their soul are finished forever and ever. Those who came forward together on the sea, the full flame was in front of them at the river mouths, while a stockade of lances surrounded them on the shore. They were dragged in, enclosed, and prostrated on the beach, killed and made into heaps from tail to head. Their ships and their goods were as if fallen into the water. I have made the lands turn back from even mentioning Egypt; for when they pronounce my name in their land, then they are burned up. . . . (Pritchard 1969, 262-3)

The carved Egyptian scenes of these so-called peoples of the sea show them not only in boats but also on land with wagons, women, and children, suggesting that this abortive invasion of Egypt involved some kind of migration. Much scholarly effort has been vainly expended in trying to identify the groups mentioned in this text. Suffice it to say that whatever was responsible for the collapse of the Mycenaean and Hittite civilizations, the end of the second and the beginning of the first millennia b.c. witnessed major changes in the cultural, linguistic, and political geography of the eastern Mediterranean. Archaeology reveals that in mainland Greece the destruction of the Mycenaean palace-centered states and economies was followed by a drastic decline in the material culture and the abandonment of many sites. In fact, historians have traditionally labeled the period c. 1100-800 b.c. the Greek dark age, characterized by village societies headed by local chieftains, from which the city-state eventually arose. The unsettled conditions of the late second millennium b.c. might have extended as far west as eastern Sicily. Coastal sites exposed to sea raids were abandoned, and the inhabitants occupied defensible positions of the interior, such as Pantalica near Syracuse (Holloway 1981, 107-14). It is also noteworthy that at the close of the Bronze Age the major site in the Lipari Islands met with violent destruction and was reoccupied by people from the Apennine Culture of Italy.

The most important technological advance which came in the wake of the collapse of the Bronze-Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean was ironworking. Iron ore is much more plentiful than copper and tin and even has a lower melting point, but the methods necessary to extract iron from ore and to work it into a much stronger metal are far more complex than bronzeworking. Simple smelting produces only an unusable iron bloom, which has to be further refined by repeated hammering and controlled heating. The Hittites had already mastered this technology during the late Bronze Age, and with the collapse of the Hittite kingdom in the twelfth century this knowledge was dispersed among other people, thus spawning the beginning of the Iron Age. Iron metallurgy did not reach Italy until the ninth century b.c., and even then it was two or more centuries before iron displaced bronze as the most commonly used metal. Thus, archaeologists date the beginning of the Iron Age in Italy to c. 900 b.c.; and although the Italian Bronze Age is generally assigned to the period c. 1800-1100 b.c. and is subdivided into early, middle, and late phases, the 200-year interval between the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age has been labeled the Final Bronze Age.

During this period the practice of cremation spread south of the Po Valley and is attested at numerous sites throughout the peninsula. Since this cultural tradition developed into the Villanovan Culture which prevailed in Etruria and much of the Po Valley c. 900-700 b.c., modern archaeologists have devised the term "Proto-Villanovan" to describe the cremating cultures of the Italian Final Bronze Age. As might be expected, the spread of cremation throughout the peninsula has been the subject of much speculation and has been variously explained:7 (a) cultural interaction between the Terramara Culture of the north and the Apennine Culture of the south to produce a composite culture of the Final Bronze Age; (b) the extension of Terramara cremating people and their culture to the south beyond the Po Valley; or (c) the migration or invasion of new people from the Danubian Urnfield Culture. The fact that some of the earliest urnfield sites of peninsular Italy are located on the coast (e.g. Pianello in Romagna and Timmari in Apulia) is interpreted by some archaeologists as an indication that cremating people had come into Italy by sea, and that their migration was part of the larger upheaval which affected the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age (so Hencken 1968, 78-90). On the other hand, the same data can be explained in terms of indigenous coastal settlements adopting new cultural traits as the result of commercial interaction with foreigners. In any case, by the end of the Final Bronze Age inhumation had reemerged as the dominant funerary custom of southern Italy, but cremation continued to be an integral aspect of the Villanovan Culture of northern and much of central Italy. Was the widespread practice of cremation during the Final Bronze Age a passing fad, so to speak, adopted and then abandoned by the indigenous peoples of the peninsula, or was it introduced by new peoples who were eventually absorbed into the inhuming tradition of the south? This puzzle may serve as an instructive illustration of the limitations of modern archaeology in examining prehistoric peoples solely from the surviving remains of their material culture.

Ancient Languages and Modern Archaeology

With the advent of the early Iron Age in Italy in the ninth century b.c., regional differences begin to manifest themselves in the archaeological record, probably reflecting in some degree the linguistic and ethnic diversity which later characterized pre-Roman Italy in historical times. For example, to take funerary customs, for which archaeological data are the most plentiful, inhumation predominated in the region east and south of an imaginary line drawn between Rimini and Rome, whereas cremation was the most prevalent burial custom west and north of this line. The inhabitants of the latter area placed the ashes in a biconical urn, covered it with an inverted bowl or helmet, and deposited the vessel in a pit grave (see fig. 1). This culture, which was common throughout Etruria and much of the Po Valley, takes its name from Villanova, a hamlet near Bologna in southeastern Cisalpine Gaul, which was the first site of this type excavated by Count Gozzadini during the1850s. By the middle of the eighth century b.c. the Villanovan Culture of Etruria was evolving into what soon became the Etruscan civilization, while the Villanovan Culture of the eastern Po Valley developed into what archaeologists call the Este Culture. Linguistically, the former was characterized by a non-Indo-European language whose origin and connection with other known languages are still enigmatic. The tongue of the Este Culture, Venetic, belongs to the Italic family of Indo-European languages.. This development may illustrate once again the limitations of archaeological data, for if, as seems likely, the Etruscan and Venetic languages were already established in their respective areas at the beginning of the Iron Age, these two populations, though linguistically distinct, for a time shared a common material culture.

Similarly, of the four major Italic languages (Venetic, Latin, Umbrian, and Oscan) the first two, though separated by considerable geographical distance, are linguistically more closely related to one another than they are to Umbrian, while Oscan and Umbrian are themselves clearly kindred and are even grouped together by historical linguists into a larger Sabellian class of Italic. A likely explanation for this circumstance is suggested by the geographical distribution of these dialects during historical times: namely, that at some time during prehistory people speaking what later became the Venetic-Latin branch of Italic split into two separate groups; and furthermore, this separation might have been caused by the interposition of a population speaking what later evolved into the Sabellian dialects. If so, we would have another instance in which major linguistic and possibly ethnic differences were brought about by movements of people in prehistoric Italy, and these movements have thus far not been clearly detectable in the archaeological record. A third such case is provided by some of the inhabitants along the eastern coast of Italy, for although the preservation in historical times of tribal names such as Iapyges in Apulia and Iapusci in Umbria, related to Illyrian Iapudes, strongly suggests migration across the Adriatic, archaeology cannot offer clear proof concerning when Illyrians might have established themselves in Italy. In conclusion, the current state of our archaeological knowledge of prehistoric Italy and of the country's pre-Roman linguistic history testifies to the extraordinarily complex cultural processes operating before the dawn of history and to our inability to fathom them except in the broadest of terms.



1.  For general surveys see Whatmough 1937; L. Palmer 1954, 3-49; Devoto 1978, 1-72; Salmon 1982, 1-39; Penney in CAH IV. 1988, 720-38; Wallace 1998; and Baldi 1999, 118-95. See n.1 of chapter 5 for references to major collections of texts.

2.  For the overall problem of correlating archaeological finds and the emergence of various languages see Renfrew 1987 and Mallory in Blench and Spriggs 1997, 93-121, which treat this matter in reference to the Indo-European family of languages. See Drews 1988b for this question in reference to the prehistory of Greek. See Dench 1995, 186 ff. for this issue in reference to the early inhabitants of the central Apennines.

3.  For the problem of correlating funerary remains with society as a whole during historical times of classical antiquity see Morris 1992, 1-30.

4.  For general but detailed treatments of the prehistoric peoples and cultures of Italy, see Trump 1966; Barfield 1971; Potter 1979, 30-51; Holloway 1981; and MacKendrick 1983, 1-27. For the prehistory of the Mediterranean as a whole, see Trump 1980.

5.  On this topic see Roberts 1993 and Spindler 1994. As this book was written and revised, new findings concerning the Ice Man have continued to be announced. For the current state of knowledge consult the Ice Man's official website:

6.  In addition to the works cited above in n.4, good treatments of the Bronze and Iron Ages of Italian prehistory are to be found in Hencken 1968, 27-96 and the essay by Peroni (containing further bibliography) in Ridgway and Ridgway 1979, 7-30.

7.  For a general survey of this question, with further modern bibliography, see Fugazzola Delpino in Ridgway and Ridgway 1979, 31-48.

Join UC Press

Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more