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European Kingdoms

Italic Tribes


Proto-Italics / Italic Tribes (West Indo-Europeans)
c.2600 - 1800 BC
Incorporating Italic Bell Beaker Culture (Bronze Age)

The story of Italic-speakers and proto-Italics is one which links back to the earliest appearance of Indo-Europeans in Europe. In very basic terms, Europe of the late third millennium BC provided a home for a group of recently-arrived Indo-European people who spoke what was essentially the same language.

FeatureThis was a centum branch (a West Indo-European-speaking branch) which later divided into the Italic, Celtic, Adriatic Venetic, Liburnian, and Illyrian language groups. Possibly the Vistula Venedi too. A date for the split is conjectural, but 3100-2600 BC seems likely (see the 'Indo-Europeans' entry and the feature link for a more detailed discussion).

As time passed these groups began to drift apart, each group speaking the language a little differently. Along what was probably the southern and western edge of these tribes, each group began to expand farther south and west. One group settled in what is now north-eastern Italy in the region of Venice (the Adriatic Veneti). But these migrants formed the origin of the proto-Italics - not just the ancestors of tribes which later entered Italy itself but all of these initial arrivals in Central Europe.

IndexIt was these West Indo-Europeans who, upon their arrival along the Danube and in Central Europe, picked up the influence of the originally-Iberian Bell Beaker horizon (see the index link, right, for a full list of early human cultures). They did so enthusiastically, turning it into a true Bell Beaker culture, and many of them continued their migration westwards into France while others of their number remained in northern Italy and around the Alps and southern Germany, also practitioners of Bell Beaker culture.

The remainers were eventually joined by later migratory groups of Indo-Europeans who settled to their north to become the Q-Celtic-speaking proto-Celts. The earlier Italic settlers were themselves Q-Italic speakers, and it was they who formed the basis of all later Italic Tribes. The very closely-related proto-Illyrians of the northern Balkans may have been little different to start with - if at all.

But even those Italics which entered the Italian peninsula then divided into two main groups. One of those included the Latins and Faliscans who largely retained their Q-Italic language (perhaps because they became surrounded by Etruscans who probably prevented any outside influences from reaching them). The bulk of the rest developed into P-Italic speakers.

An exact date for that further migration into the Italian peninsula is not known precisely, but is estimated to fall between the twelfth to eighth centuries BC. It may have been sparked - as were many other migrations - by the shift to a drier climate at the end of the thirteenth century BC which caused such chaos in the Hittite empire.

Proto-Italic tribes gradually made their way into Italy and Illyria, where in both case they often bumped up against Greek settlements in the south and, in the former case, the early Etruscans in the centre and west. The Latins were soon dominated by Etruscans, from whom they learned to read, write, and organise their society in a civilised fashion - an education which eventually lead to Rome's dominance.

The Romans recorded the existence of their tribal relatives in Italy, so snippets of those languages were also recorded. These included Adriatic Venetic, probably the Liburnian and Illyrian language groups, and likely the Vindelician and Ligurian also. Rather than merely being tribes which dominated Italy, the proto-Italic-speaking peoples should be regarded as the very first wave of Indo-Europeans to enter central and Western Europe from the steppe to become widespread across much of Europe.

Genetic testing confirms that these R1b people were associated with the Bell Beaker physical culture, especially in Britain, and perhaps less so in Iberia. In fact, the first wave of Bell Beaker folk appear to have been ninety per cent R1b, indicating that they either drove away, killed, or simply sidelined the men of the Neolithic Y-DNA type I (I1, I2) peoples who had long inhabited Central Europe.

Later, many of the Italic-speaking peoples towards northern Italy and in Central Europe appear to have become dominated and assimilated by their West Indo-European relatives, the Celtic-speakers, but the Romans later returned the favour by conquering all of their Celtic relatives except those in Ireland and the northern third of Britain.

Italic-speaking tribes in Italy included the Brutii, Chones, Dauni, Frentani, Hirpini, Iapyges, Itali, Latins, Lucani, Marsi, Marrucini, Messapii, Morgetes, Oenotri, Opici, Paeligni, Peucetii, Picentes, Sabini, Samnites, Umbri, Veneti (albeit with possible Illyrian connections which may themselves have been proto-Italic to start with), Vestini, and Volsci.

On Sicily the Elymi, Sicani, and Siculi were also to be found. On Sardinia there were the Sardi, and on Corsica there were the Corsi. Bell Beaker culture in northern Italy may have descended into the subsequent Terramare culture.

Italian countryside

(Information by Edward Dawson and Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, Vol 3, Issue 1, James Cowles Prichard, from The Roman History: From Romulus and the Foundation of Rome to the Reign of the Emperor Tiberius, Velleius Paterculus, J C Yardley, & Anthony A Barrett, from An Historical Geography of Europe, Norman J G Pounds (Abridged Version), and from External Link: The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe (Nature).)

2500 BC

It would seem to be around this time that a process begins in which the so-called West Indo-European tribes, most of whom speak dialects which are intelligible to each other and quite probably to South-West Indo-Europeans too, start a long process of fracturing and dividing.

There is also an unrelated group which is not as closely related to these two which follows a path along the northern reaches of Europe, eventually to become the Germanic-speaking people.

Central Asia Indo-European map 3000 BC
By around 3000 BC the Indo-Europeans had begun their mass migration away from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, with the bulk of them heading westwards towards the heartland of Europe (click or tap on map to view full sized)

West Indo-European speakers appear to form a divide into two groupings due to location and contacts. One of these can be linked to the Bell Beaker culture which continues to migrate further west. Of the remainder, the northern group becomes isolated from direct contact with the Mediterranean civilisations and these people become the proto-Celts of the Urnfield culture.

c.1300 - 800 BC

The southern group of West Indo-Europeans and South-West Indo-Europeans appear to be prompted to migrate westwards and southwards, into the Italian piedmont and western Balkans respectively, and through Illyria and northern Italy.

The international system in the Near East has recently been creaking under the strain of increasing waves of peasants and the poor leaving the cities and abandoning crops. Around the end of the thirteenth century BC the entire region is also hit by drought and the loss of surviving crops.

Map of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Greece 1200 BC
Climate-induced drought in the thirteenth century BC created great instability in the entire eastern Mediterranean region, resulting in mass migration in the Balkans, as well as the fall of city states and kingdoms further east (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The same climate-induced hardships also hit the descendants of Indo-European settlers along the Danube and in Romania, descendants who have already expanded into the northern Balkans. They begin to search out food and better circumstances, perhaps also helped on by the growing dominance of the Urnfield culture (in the local form of the Gava culture) to the north.

Due to terrain, they divide further into semi-isolated tribes. They become more civilised in their habits and their forms of technology due to contact with southern Greeks and Etruscans. Those in the Balkans in part cross by sea into the Italian peninsula, and settle mostly along the south-eastern coast (notably as the Iapyges).

Etruscan art
Early Etruscan civilisation was heavily influenced by the Phoenicians and Greeks and, in turn, it influenced early Roman (Latin) culture

Those groups which have filtered down from the north Italian piedmont occupy swathes of central Italy, with two tribes, Latins and Faliscans, crossing over the Apennines to the west coast (probably disrupting the Apennine culture in the process).

Due to their semi-isolation to the west of Italy their language does not undergo the 'qu/kw' to 'p' shift which occurs across most of the West Indo-European dialects. It is the Latins who found the Villanova culture and, eventually, the city of Rome.

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