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Map of Italy 800-400 BC

by Peter Kessler & Edward Dawson, 29 December 2012

The population of Iron Age Italy had a mixture of origins, and a good deal of the migration into the peninsula is obscure and can only be guessed at.

In very broad and general terms, migration seems to have been via two main routes. The seaward route was across the Adriatic Sea from the Balkans, with people entering south-eastern Italy. The landward route was via the northern Balkans (through modern Croatia and Slovenia) into north-eastern Italy, and then down along the coastlines on either side of the Apennines.

By about 800 BC in Italy, there were three main groups of peoples: the Iapyges, the Italics, and the Etruscans.

Italo-Illyrian pottery
Italo-Illyrian pottery was at its height between about 800-350 BC, albeit with significant Greek influences, and the vessels shown here date to the third quarter of that period, the Subgeometric II of 550-450 BC

As far as is known, the Iapyges and their subsequent splinter groups were Illyrian tribes that migrated into south-eastern Italy from the Balkans in the eleventh or tenth centuries BC. The Italics migrated in later, probably in the tenth and ninth centuries, although the details are disputed and some groups of Italics were already there when the Illyrians arrived, suggesting either several waves of Italic migration, or two separate groups of Italics. The latter seems entirely possible, with perhaps several hundred years dividing the two waves of arrivals. Their most likely route was from the northern Balkans into north-eastern Italy.

Unlike the other peoples in Italy, the Etruscans were not Indo-Europeans. They appear to have had an origin at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, perhaps as the pre-Mycenaean natives of Greece, the Pelasgians, although any investigation of Etruscan origins is highly speculative.

The Iapyges later fragmented into various tribal groups in the south-east of Italy. The main Italic group broke up into the Opici and Umbri, but these also fragmented as time went on, with the former giving rise to a large number of central Italian tribes. It was the Etruscans, apparently the last to arrive, who were the first to create a dominant culture outside of the Greek and Phoenician areas of influence. Whatever tribal structure the Etruscans might have possessed, it had already developed into a city state culture by the time history was able to record it.

The arrival of the Illyrians created a knock-on effect that pushed the southern Italics farther to the south-west, while the creation of Greek colonies from the late eighth century BC onwards pushed those same tribes inland and farther west and south. Tribes such as the Oenotri and Chones forced others such as the Itali and Siculi to migrate southwards, into Calabria and onto the island of Sicily.

This tribal situation, with some tribes resettling, and others sub-dividing, is how Italy emerges into the historical record, when the early Romans started recording what they found as they ventured outwards from central Italy to eventually dominate the entire peninsula. In time, all the other tribes and cultures were submerged beneath Latin culture and political dominance.

Ethnic backgrounds

Iron Age Italy was a confused mess of different ethnic origins, which makes the hard classification into 'Italic' tribes one that is probably not entirely accurate. For example, the Oenetri might simply be Veneti who sailed down the Adriatic to the boot of Italy. Why would the Latins be Italic and the Veneti not, when the language differences between Latins and Italics such as the Umbri are probably as great as the difference between Umbri and Veneti language? In fact, Latin would probably seem to be more different from Umbrian than Venetic. Umbrian and Venetic seem to have both been P-Italic rather than Q-Italic types, but the solid consolidation of any tribe into one ethnic grouping or another is impossible given the available evidence.


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Map of Italy 800-400 BC



Main Sources

Haynes, Sybille - Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History, Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles 2000

Grant, Michael - The Etruscans, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1980

Italic Languages Map



Images and text copyright P L Kessler & Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.