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European Kingdoms

Italian Cultures


Early Italy (Iron Age)

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa and the Near East are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see feature link, right).

FeatureFormed by a relatively narrow peninsula which emerges into the Mediterranean from Southern Europe, modern Italy's territory is characterised by a rugged central spine of mountains, the Apennines, which are bordered either side by fertile plains and valleys (for more on the naming of the Apennines, see the feature link). Italy's Early Cultures experienced considerable change between the twelfth to eighth centuries BC when West Indo-European proto-Italic tribes gradually made their way into the peninsula, bumping up against Greek settlements and early Etruscans.

The basis of the Roman republic and subsequent empire were laid by this migration. However, it took time for Roman domination to emerge, and that was far from guaranteed. The city itself did not even exist when Iron Age Italy replaced the Bronze Age. Various archaeological cultures can be catalogued for this period, each one of them linkable to broadly-known historical (or sometimes semi-historical) events, and people or ethnic groups which certainly were historical.

Italian countryside

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), 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: Polybius, Histories.)

Golasecca Culture (Late Bronze Age / Iron Age) (Italy)
c.1100 / 800 - 300 BC

Located across the northern Italian sub-Alpine plain, the Golasecca culture is the archaeological expression of pre-Roman cultural superiority in the region. It was here that the Euganei, Raeti, and Ligurian identity of the early Roman empire period was actually forged, while the second phase of the culture reveals the Celtic domination of the region. To the north, across the Alps, this culture bordered the Hallstatt, while to the east was the Atestine culture of the Adriatic Veneti.

In full, the culture encompassed western Lombardy, eastern Piedmont, the Ticino Valley, and Misox, everything between the Alpine watershed to the River Po. Many hundreds of sites have been found to add detail to this culture, which emerged out of the preceding Canegrate culture and was influenced by the Urnfield culture. The earliest phases were Late Bronze Age from about 1100 BC: the Protogolasecca I and II or Ascona phases, and then the Protogolasecca III or Ca' Morta-Malpensa phase. Cultural aspects were largely uniform across the entire region.

During the Italian Iron Age's Golasecca I to II phases (and more sub-phases from about 800 BC onwards), a gradual differentiation emerged in the seventh century BC between a western area (arguably linked to Ligurians), an eastern area (arguably linked to Etruscans), and an Alpine area (arguably linked to the Raeti and Euganei). The Golasecca II phase coincided with the earliest advent of Celtic arrivals in the region, after they had broken through the barrier which was the western Alps. Golasecca III witnessed the powerful rise of Celtic domination and the increasing marginalisation of the native inhabitants between about 500-350 BC.

It was the final great push of Celtic ingress into northern Italy during the later fourth century BC which finally ended the culture. The Ligurians were pinned back to the south by Celtic domination of the north Italian plain, the Etruscans were generally expelled or subjugated, and the Raeti and Lepontii were pinned to the north, the Alpine foothills. In fact later written evidence shows the Raeti tribes were to be found throughout the Alps and into the northern foothills, having become uncivilised (according to Livy) due to the nature of their country.

Italian countryside

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Trish Wilson, from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), 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), from Les peuples préromains du Sud-Est de la Gaule: Étude de géographie historique, Guy Barruol (De Boccard, 1999), and from External Links: The framework of the Golasecca culture, Stefania Casini & Marta Rapi (Una), and Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, William Smith (1854, Perseus Digital Library), and L'Arbre Celtique (The Celtic Tree, in French), and Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz or Dictionnaire Historique de la Suisse or Dizionario Storico dell Svizzera (in German, French, and Italian respectively).)

c.800 BC

With the beginning of the Italian Iron Age, signs of territorial variation begin to emerge, although the gradual differentiation between a western area, an eastern area, and an Alpine area will only acquire more consistency in the seventh century BC. This is the Golasecca I A period.

Map of the Etruscans
This map shows not only the greatest extent of Etruscan influence in Italy, during the seventh to fifth centuries BC, but also Gaulish intrusion to the north, which compressed Etruscan borders there (click or tap on map to view on a separate page)

That territory is organised around a number of settlements or clusters which includes those of the Castelletto Ticino-Sesto Calende-Golasecca (abbreviated as SC-G-CT), those in the surroundings of Como (the earliest Golasecca settlement) along the south-western slopes of Monte Croce, and those of the plain of Ascona, also known as Lepontic territory.

c.725 BC

The Golasecca I B period begins. The people of the type site for this culture - the city of Golasecca which is located at the exit of the Ticino from Lake Maggiore - act as profit-making middle men between the Etruscans to the south and the Hallstatt culture in the north which supplies the valuable salt trade.

600 - 500 BC

Mediolanum (modern Milan) is an Etruscan city at this time, the Golasecca I C period. The Lepontii to their immediate north now begin writing tombstone inscriptions using the Etruscan alphabet, one of several alphabets in the Alpine region, all of which are Etruscan-derived. There is the possibility, given related inscriptions in Golasecca, that the ancestors of the Lepontii are the main drivers of this culture.

Map of Alpine and Ligurian tribes, c.200-15 BC
The origins of the Euganei, Ligurians, Raeti, Veneti, and Vindelici are confused and unclear, but in the last half of the first millennium BC they were gradually being Celticised or were combining multiple influences to create hybrid tribes (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The earliest stages of the Celtic breakthrough across the western Alps creates the conditions for subsequent Celtic domination of the plain. The existing Golasecca-infused population is gradually marginalised and compressed, forming the Ligurians, Celto-Ligurians, Euganei, Raeti, Euganei-Raeti, Liguro-Raeti, Lepontii, and Celto-Veneti groups which will be familiar to the later Romans.

474 BC

It seems that the Celtic arrival in northern Italy has not been entirely welcomed. Etruscan opposition, however, is roundly defeated. The results leaves the Celtic tribes in full control of the north Italian plain, ending the native Italian Golasecca I and beginning the Golasecca II period.

343 - 341 BC

The end of the Golasecca comes when Rome achieves domination. This could be said to occur at the conclusion of the First Samnite War in this period. The Samnites have continued to expand into former Etruscan Campania, forcing Greek city states along the coast to request Rome's aid.

Camillus Rescuing Rome from Brennus
Dictator Marcus Furius Camillus may have been instrumental in persuading Brennus and his Gauls to leave Rome following its sacking in 389 BC, as painted around 1716-1720

The war ends with Rome distracted by the Latin War against its other Italic allies, but the expanding city is ultimately victorious on all fronts. The Samnites agree to a restoration of the Roman-Samnite alliance, little realising that they will eventually be gobbled up by Rome's increasing superiority. Italy's Iron Age very much becomes Rome's Iron Age.

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