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European Kingdoms

Ancient Italian Peninsula


Messapii (Italics / Illyrians)

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 Messapii (or Messapians) were a group of Italics who, during the Iron Age, were located in the central and southern areas of the modern region of Apulia. They were neighboured to the north by the Peucetii, and to the west by the Iapyges. Before Roman domination, much of their territory in the 'heel' of Italy was known as Calabria. Unlike the other Italic tribes in the rest of the peninsula, the Messapii, and their neighbours to the north, the Peucetii, were probably of Illyrian origin. Both were sub-branches of the Iapyges, who were thought to have migrated into the Italian peninsula from the Illyrian coastline. They probably crossed the Adriatic Sea at its narrowest point, from modern Albania, to arrive in south-eastern Italy. This migration appears to have taken place between the eleventh and tenth centuries BC, with the Messapii settling the central southern section of Apulia, between the Greek settlements of Tarentum (Taranto) and Brandusium (Brindisi).

Apulia is a fairly dry but extremely fertile region, with the northern areas being fed by streams that come off Monte Gargano. In this territory the Messapii developed main centres at Brandusium, Hyria (modern Oria or Orra), Rudiae (modern Lecce), and Uzentum (or Uxentum, at the very tip of the 'heel' of Italy, now the town of Ugento). They also had a settlement at Gnapia (alternatively known as Egnatia or Ignatia in Greek), which is located near the modern town of Fasano. According to Dionysus of Halicarnassus, the Messapii and their Iapyges cousins were settlers from Arcadia, while Herodotus gave them a Minoan origin, claiming them to be émigrés following the death of King Minos.

The Illyrian tribes in south-eastern Italy spoke a language belonging to the Messapian group. This was an Indo-European branch that was found in Italy alone, but which may have been related to one of the Illyrian languages. It was spoken only by the Iapyges and their three sub-groups, the Dauni, Messapii, and Peucetii. Approximately three hundred inscriptions survive which can be dated to the period between the sixth and first centuries BC, after which the Illyrian tribes were submerged by Latin culture and language.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from An Historical Geography of Europe, Norman J G Pounds (Abridged Version), 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, and from External Link: The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed).)

11th century BC

The pre-Italic settlement of Gnapia, first founded in the fifteenth century BC during the Bronze Age, is invaded and settled by the Iapyges, as they occupy large tracts of territory in south-eastern Italy.

8th century 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.

The Messapii appear to emerge with an identity of their own out of the Iapyges collective. Their southern town of Gnapia, as well as the entire region of Salento in the Italian 'heel', flourishes between now and the third century, at which time it is subjugated by the Roman republic. The Messapii frequently find themselves in conflict with the Spartan settlers of nearby Tarentum (modern Taranto), following its founding in 706 BC.

Map of the Etruscans
This map shows not only 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 on a separate page)

6th century BC

Although the site of Rudiae (close to modern Lecce) shows signs of settlement from the late ninth or early eighth centuries BC, in the late sixth century BC it is developed to become a much more important settlement. Although it flourishes under the Messapii, once they are defeated by Rome it fades and is no more than a small village by the first century AD, with nearby Lupiae (Lecce) flourishing at its expense. Some scholars doubt this site is even ancient Rudiae at all, locating the settlement on the Calabrian mountains (based on Ovid) or to the north of Brandusium (modern Brindisi) (based on Pliny the Elder).

473 BC

Hoping to follow up on a victory of 500 BC, the Spartan Greeks of Tarentum (modern Taranto) and its ally, Rhegion (modern Reggio Calabria), attempt to take control of one or more of the towns of the Messapii and Peucetii. However, the Italo-Illyrian tribes are able to hold them off and inflict a serious defeat upon them, thanks to the superiority of their tribal cavalry (according to Herodotus). The war against Tarentum continues until 467 BC.

412 BC

During the Second Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the failure of the former city and its allied corps of Messapian archers to take the Corinthian colony of Syracuse and the subsequent loss of thousands of troops almost brings the city and its empire to its knees.

325 - 304 BC

Rome fights the Second Samnite War against the Samnites in 325 BC. During this period the Marsi ally themselves to the Romans, while the Dauni, Iapyges, Lucani, Messapii, and Peucetii side with the Samnites. The city of Canusium is lost in 318 BC when it sides with Rome, while the Peucetii frontier town of Silvium is apparently under Samnite control when it is seized by Rome in 306 or 305 BC. Bitonto appears to be a Roman ally throughout the war. When the Samnites are finally defeated, so are their allies, and all of them are subjugated by Rome. This period proves to be the end for the Golasecca culture within the Italian Iron Age.

277 - 275 BC

Pyrrhus of Epirus conquers Syracuse in 277 BC, and holds it for two years, with support being given by the Messapii. His hard but costly fighting against Rome on the island brings his southern Balkans kingdom a brief sense of importance. It is also his costly victories which inspire the term 'pyrrhic victory', as a victory with such high loses is no real victory at all.

The settlement of Gnapia near the modern town of Fasano in Apulia, southern Italy, became an important border town under the Messapii, with their Peucetii neighbours to the north

267/266 BC

Perhaps spurred on by the recent Messapii support of Epirus, Rome attacks and conquers the Messapii and the former Greek settlement of Brandusium (modern Brindisi). The tribe is rarely mentioned in the historical record after this, and is gradually submerged by Latin culture. By 217 BC, the Messapian town of Hyria (modern Oria or Orra) is minting its own coins, which frequently feature the legendary character of Iapagus, founder of the Iapyges.

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 (in the heart of Peucetii territory), killing 60,000. The Roman survivors are welcomed into nearby Canusium. The final stages of the war in Italy are fought out at Monte Gargano, in the northernmost part of the modern region of Apulia and the heart of Dauni territory. When the Carthaginians withdraw, Rome is able finally to capture and hold the ports of Brundisium (Brindisi, on the eastern coast) and Tarentum (Taranto), both of which border the territory of the Messapii. This establishes full Roman dominion over the south-east of Italy.

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. During the imperial age, the regions of Apulia and Calabria become production houses of grain and oil, and form the main export route for the eastern provinces. Thereafter, the Messapii are gradually absorbed within Roman Italy and lose their individual identity.

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