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Iron Age Italy 800-400 BC

by Peter Kessler & Edward Dawson, 29 December 2012. Updated 11 January 2019

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 into Italy seems to have taken place via two main routes. The seaward route was across the Adriatic Sea from the Balkans, with these people - the Iapyges and their subsequent splinter groups - 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. The latter arrivals were Indo-Europeans who had reached the northern Balkans from the Pontic steppe (on the northern coast of the Black Sea). These became the Italic group and they are described in more detail via the proto-Italics link, right. Some Italics may also have entered eastern Italy's northern coastline via boats.

By about 800 BC there were three main groups of peoples in Italy, the first two of which were the immigrant Iapyges and Italics, while the third group were 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 later sub-groups were Illyrian tribes which migrated into south-eastern Italy from the Balkans in the eleventh or tenth centuries BC. The Italics arrived later, probably in the tenth and ninth centuries BC, 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 (along with the related Latins). The latter seems entirely possible, with perhaps several hundred years dividing the two waves of arrivals. Their most likely route was the aforementioned one from the northern Balkans into north-eastern Italy.

Unlike the other peoples in Iron Age Italy, the Etruscans were not Indo-Europeans. They appear to have had an origin at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. This may have been as the pre-Mycenaean natives of Greece, the Pelasgians, or they could have been Anatolians. In both cases such groups would have been pushed out by the arrival of Indo-Europeans, 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. In all likelihood, their possible eastern Mediterranean origins may have given them a temporary cultural advantage over their Indo-European neighbours.

The arrival of the Illyrians created a knock-on effect which 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.

Map of Italy 800-400 BC
This map shows the greatest extent of Etruscan influence in Italy, during the seventh to fifth centuries BC, including the Campania region to the south (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Greek rare and beautiful pieces

A heavy Greek presence along Italy's southern coastline meant a certain amount of cultural influence being absorbed by the neighbouring Italic tribes

Ethnic backgrounds

Iron Age Italy was a confused mess of different ethnic origins, which makes the hard classification into 'Italic' tribes one which is probably not entirely accurate.

For example, the Oenetri may instead 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 the Umbri and Veneti language?

In fact, Latin would probably seem to be more different from Umbrian than Venetic. Both of these - Umbrian and Venetic - seem to have been P-Italic rather than Q-Italic language types, but the solid consolidation of any tribe into one ethnic grouping or another is impossible given the available evidence.


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

Online Sources

Polybius - Histories, Perseus Digital Library, Greek and Roman Materials



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