History Files

Please help the History Files

Contributed: 84

Target: 400

Totals slider

The History Files still needs your help. As a non-profit site, it is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and this year your help is needed more than ever. Please make a donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your help really is appreciated.

European Kingdoms

Ancient Italian Peninsula


Itali / Vitali (Italics)

The so-called West Indo-European tribes arrived at the eastern edge of central Europe around 2500 BC. Their northern group became the proto-Celts of the Urnfield culture while the southern group seemingly migrated westwards and southwards, reaching Illyria and northern Italy. Already divided further into semi-isolated tribes, they became more civilised in habits and technologies due to contact with southern Greeks and Etruscans. In the eleventh to eighth centuries BC, some of those groups in Illyria crossed by sea into the Italian peninsula and settled along the south-eastern coast. Those in the north Italian piedmont gradually migrated southwards to occupy much of the rest of eastern and central Italy. These tribes all formed part of a general group called Italics.

The Itali were a group of Italics who, during much of the Iron Age, were located in the 'toe' of Italy, in the section to the south-west of the Greek colony of Hipponium. They were neighboured by the Morgetes to the north-east and the Siculi of Sicily to the west, albeit with several Greek colonies of Magna Graecia between them. The Itali people provided the source of the very name of the country, thanks to Greek writers attaching their name to the entire region around them. This was subsequently adopted by the Romans, thanks to whom its use became universal. The origins of the Italics are uncertain, but the Oscan-Umbrian group of which the Itali were part are largely accepted as being Indo-Europeans (perhaps proto-Celts) who migrated into the peninsula from the north in the eleventh to eighth centuries BC. Their early history is unknown, but they are distinguished by ancient writers as being a sub-division of the Oenotri, along with the Chones and Morgetes.

Their language is also largely unknown, but it may have been related to the Oscan-Umbrian group of Indo-European languages (P-Italic), which were widely spoken in Iron Age Italy before the rise to dominance of Latin (Latin itself was a slightly more distantly related language, coming from the Indo-European Latino-Faliscan group, or Q-Italic). The similar language of the Siculi influenced the Greeks on Sicily, and from there fed back into Greece itself and then into Latin. Further similarities suggest that Siculi and Latin were related languages, since the former contained both words and grammatical forms which belonged to Latin but which were not common to either it or Greek.

The Itali left no inscriptions or other materials which would allow scholars to classify their language group. Ancient writers persisted in ascribing them with a Grecian origin, which was mixed fairly equally with the native barbarians amongst whom they settled when they arrived in Italy. The possible Grecian origin may link them to the Dorians, and also make them cousins of the Illyrian tribes in south-eastern Italy, principally the Iapyges.

Examination of the true meaning of the tribe's name seems to be fraught with pitfalls, as many people and sources seem to have differing theories. Perhaps the most straightforward is that tribe's name probably came from an alteration of an Oscan source word. It means '[land of] young bulls', the root being the same as in 'vetus' (rather than the 'vita' shown below), meaning 'of the last year, a year ago; yearling', and later on it also came to mean 'old' in Latin. The bull was the totem of the Sabellic tribes (see the myth of Cominius Castronius for some details of this).

This was first recorded by the Greeks at 'víteliú', who were not able to pronounce 'v' or 'w' (in examples such as Elea-Velia, Veneti-Enetai, etc). This may somehow connect with the Latin 'vitulus', meaning 'calf', although this is not necessarily the case. Another, less likely option is that it came from an Illyrian word, or the legendary ruler, Italus. For the Latins, the letter 'v' was pronounced as a 'w', something that very easily goes silent, so the Vitali easily became the Itali. Perhaps the most likely route for this can be seen in the Middle English of the fourteenth century, which contained the Latin 'vītālis', equivalent to 'vīt', meaning '[a] life' (a derivative of 'vīvere', meaning 'to live', akin to the Greek 'bíesthai', the Sanskrit 'jīvati' '[he] lives', and the English 'quick'), plus 'ālis'. Or perhaps 'vita' plus '-el', meaning 'little life', perhaps the name of a tribal leader. This appears in the Greek 'víteliú', which came from the Italic *vitell-, meaning 'a little bull', but this doesn't seem to be entirely believable by all. The 'little' part is fine, which supplies the '-el' suffix that is still used today in various forms. It is 'vit' meaning 'bull' that makes no sense. Perhaps, since a bull is seen as the inseminator, he brings new life (life in Latin being 'vita'). That's the only possibility that makes sense in terms of a metaphor. Therefore the most reasonable proposal seems to be that Italy is named after the tribe, who in turn were named after a metaphor for a young bull. Although this is a contorted solution, it does eventually match the most straightforward explanation, shown above.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson and Anne S E Wittelsbürger, 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 Paleo-Balkan Languages, V Neroznak, from Ancient Languages of the Balkans, R Katicic. from The Etymological Dictionary of the Russian Language, M Fasmer, from Basic Romance Linguistics, E Bourcier, from Research in Popular Latin and its links with Romance languages, N Korletyanu, from Brief Historical Grammar of the Latin Language, W Lindsey, from The Corpus of Oscan Inscriptions, I Tsvetaev, from An Historical Geography of Europe, Norman J G Pounds (Abridged Version), and from A Historical Grammar of the Latin Language, I Tronsky.)


Legendary king of the Itali or Siculi.

In his work, Politics, Aristotle names a king of Oenetria called Italus, who is the successor to Oenotrus himself. Oenetria at this time is taken to refer to the 'toe' of the Italian 'boot, an area which is known today as Calabria. Aristotle claims that the Oenotri of this region had changed their name to the Itali. It is this name that is used by later Greek settlers to refer to the entire land, but this origin story is probably sheer invention. Thucydides claims that Italus is a king of the Siculi, while after diligent research Dionysius concludes that the Itali and Siculi are one people. King Morges of the Morgetes is claimed as the successor to Italus, and Siculus of the Siculi the successor to Morges, which seems to illustrate the belief that the Itali, Morgetes, Oenotri, and Siculi have a shared heritage.

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)

10th century BC

According to Thucydides, the arrival of the more warlike Oenotri and Opici in northern Calabria triggers the migration of the Elymi, Itali, and Siculi into the 'toe' of Italy and onto Sicily. Antiochus of Syracuse, writing around 420 BC, confirms this.

7th century BC

Greek colonies along the coastal region of the 'toe' of Italy include Hipponium (modern Vibo Valentia) on the Gulf of Terina, Caulonia on the opposite coast, Locri Epizephyrii further down the same stretch of coastline, and Rhegion (modern Reggio Calabria) on the south-western tip, facing Sicily, plus half a dozen more minor colonies. As they begin to interact with the Italic peoples, they start using the name of the Itali as a reference to the entire region.

411 BC

Writing at this time, the reliable Greek historian Thucydides of Alimos (close to Athens), mentions the Siculi. He says that groups of Siculi still occupy the Italian mainland in his time. It is possible, given their close links in the past with the Itali, that this people could be Siculi in all but name.

218 - 202 BC

The Second Punic War is fought against Carthage. Rome is aided by its Etruscan, Picene, and Umbrian forces, but Italy is invaded by Hannibal Barca and a Roman army is massacred at the Battle of Cannae, killing 60,000. Rome's resurgence at the successful conclusion of this war seals the fate of the Calabrian tribes which include the Brutii, Chones, Itali, Morgetes, and Oenotri. All of them fall permanently under Roman domination and the Itali largely disappear from history.

Aspromonte National Park
The modern Aspromonte National Park would have formed the heart of the Itali tribal territory in the 'toe' area of the peninsula, although very little is known about them

91 - 89 BC

The Marsi fight the Social War against Rome in which Rome's allies strive for, and are eventually granted, citizenship. The Frentani, Latins and Umbri are also granted citizenship, although they play a smaller role in the war, with the Umbri joining the rebels late and agreeing terms with Rome early on. Thereafter, the Itali, not mentioned in the war, are gradually absorbed within Roman Italy and lose their individual identity.

Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.