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European Kingdoms

Italian Cultures


Early Italy (Iron Age)

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).

The period in which the Villanova and Golasecca cultures dominated much of Early Italy also witnessed the greatest changes in the ethnic make-up of the Italian peninsula. Between the twelfth and eighth centuries BC various West Indo-European proto- Italic groups gradually made their way into Italy from the direction of the Danube.

They bumped up against Greek settlements in the south and the early Etruscans in the centre and west. The basis was laid by this migration for the later Roman republic and subsequent empire, as was the ethnic mix of the modern country, apart from a post-Roman Germanic admixture.

Just as the Etruscans were achieving regional and cultural dominance outside the Greek colony areas, proto-Italic groups were drifting southwards to establish tribal holdings of their own.

Those tribes which formed over the next few centuries included the Brutii, Chones, Dauni, Frentani, Hirpini, Iapyges, Itali, Latins, Lucani, Marsi, Marrucini, Messapii, Morgetes, Oenotri, Opici, Paeligni, Peucetii, Picentes, Sabini, Samnites, Umbri, Veneti, Vestini, and Volsci. On Sicily the Elymi, Sicani, and Siculi were to be found. Sardinia had the Sardi, and Corsica had the Corsi. The Italian Iron Age had begun.

From 241 BC and the end of the First Punic War, the Latin city of Rome was the mainly-undisputed master of Italy. It also became undisputed master of increasingly greater territories outside Italy until it governed the largest empire the world had ever seen up to that point.

Rome dominated Italy for the best part of six hundred years, but the empire's fading and termination led to a series of invasions and relatively short-lived rulers which served to divide the country into a patchwork of states. By then, however, Italy's Iron Age had already given way to its Medieval period.

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.)

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 part of the Golasecca culture in the north, while the Villanova dominates in the centre.

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)

Golasecca 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.

The Opici probably dominated much of Campania to start with, but were pushed out of the eastern parts by the Samnites, dominated themselves by the Etruscans, and then defeated by Rome

c.700 BC

Elements of Villanova culture in Italy may survive for a further two or three hundred years in some areas, as the major centres of Padan Etruria, around Bologna and Modena, are only founded in the sixth century BC. Italy's Iron Age is now in full swing.

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.

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.

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)

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.

The Ligurians have undoubtedly been squeezed farther southwards, towards the Mediterranean coastline, while the Raeti and Lepontii are similarly squeezed to the north, into the Alps themselves.

400 BC

Etruscan society undergoes changes from about the mid-fifth century BC, along with an economic slump. While the cities are recovering from the slump, the political changes become more fully evident in the fourth century.

The city states gradually begin replacing kings or tyrants with republics which are governed by the aristocracy, possibly based on Roman lines. The old system is clearly no longer working and Etruscan domination of Italy is starting to come under severe threat from Rome's increasing power and prominence in local politics.

Etruscan villa near Vetulonia
This Etruscan villa was excavated at the town of Vetluna (near modern Grosseto in Tuscany), and seems to have belonged to a wealthy family at a time of peace with Rome, in the third century BC

c.400 - 391 BC

Following the route set by Bellovesus and the Bituriges around 600 BC, other bodies of Celts have gradually invaded northern Italy, probably due to overpopulation in Gaul and the promise of fertile territory just waiting to be captured.

The first of these is the Cenomani around 400 BC, followed by the Libui and Saluvii. Then the Boii and Lingones cross the Pennine Alps, with the Senones the last to arrive. The Alpine Medulli tribe may also find its home there as part of this migration, amongst Ligurians which soon become Celto-Ligurians.

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.

265 - 264 BC

Etruscan dominance of Italy is effectively ended by the razing to the ground of the city of Velzna by Rome, which is now the greatest political and military power in the peninsula. Over the next two centuries the Italic tribes are gradually granted Roman citizenship, and thereafter are gradually absorbed into Roman Italy, losing their individual identities.

River Liris
The ancient River Liris (now divided into the Liri and the Gari) along its upper length was an early home to the Volsci, and later formed Rome's border with the Samnites

231 - 222 BC

The two most extensive Gallic tribes of northern Italy, the Boii and Insubres, send out the call for assistance against Rome to the tribes living around the Alps and on the Rhône. Rather than each of the tribes sending their own warriors, it appears that individual warriors are effectively hired from the entire Alpine region as mercenaries.

Polybius calls them Gaesatae, describing it as a word which means 'serving for hire'. They come with their own kings, Concolitanus and Aneroetes, who have probably been elected from their number in the Celtic fashion.

The war begins in earnest in 225 BC, but although the Gauls are initially successful, decimating and routing a Roman army with superior tactics, they are undone by a fresh Roman army. Buoyed by its victory, Rome attempts to clear the entire valley of the Padus, but over three campaigning seasons they instead manage to pacify and subjugate the Celts.

By 222 BC, the final tribe to stand against them, the Insubres, are left with no option but to surrender, their unnamed chief making a complete submission to Rome. This act effectively ends the Gallic War in northern Italy, as Rome now dominates all of the tribes there.

Celtic warriors
While most of the Gauls of the third century BC fought fully clothed, their Gaesatae mercenaries tended to fight with nothing more than their weapons, and not even the trousers shown here

91 - 88 BC

The Etruscans, Frentani, Hirpini, Iapyges, Lucani, Marrucini, Marsi, Paeligni, Picentes, Samnites, and Vestini fight the Social War (Italian War, or Marsic War) against Rome.

The war is the result of increasing inequality in Roman land ownership, and the spark for conflict is delivered by the assassination of the reforming Marcus Livius Drusus, whose efforts would have led to citizenship for all of Rome's allies. The tribes are successful, which also gains citizenship for the Adriatic Veneti and the neighbouring Tarvisii.

27 BC - AD 395

The office of dictator is offered to Caesar Augustus (Octavian), who wisely declines it. He opts instead for the power of a tribune and consular imperium without holding any office other than that of Pontifex Maximus and Princeps Senatus - a politic arrangement which leaves him as functional dictator without having to hold the controversial title or office itself.

FeatureThe Roman empire is born, and it survives in various forms until AD 395, at which point it is formally partitioned into Eastern and Western sections. An official register of all the offices, other than municipal, which exist in the Roman empire at this time is compiled in the Notitia Dignitatum (see feature link).

Caesar Augustus
During his long 'reign' as Rome's first citizen, Augustus brought peace to the city and oversaw its transition from failing republic to vigorous and expanding empire

By the time the empire is fading out of existence, starved of supplies and resources by external events which are largely out of its control, the medieval period has already begun. Medieval Italy will not operate as a unified single state for the next millennium and-a-half.

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