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European Kingdoms

Ancient Italian Peninsula


Oenotri (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 Oenotri (or Oenotrii, Oenotrians, or even Enotrians) were a group of Italics who, during the Iron Age, were located on the 'arch' of the Italian boot, in the modern region of Basilicata. They were neighboured to the north-east by the Iapyges, to the east by the Greek colony of Metapontum, to the south by the Chones, to the west by the Brutii, and to the north by the Lucani and perhaps the Hirpini clan of Samnites. The Oscan-Umbrian group of which the Oenotri were possibly part are largely accepted as being Indo-Europeans (perhaps proto-Celts) who migrated into the peninsula from the north. The Oenotri are also linked to the Illyrian Iapyges, suggesting, perhaps, a degree of intermixing. Ancient belief was that they had migrated into Italy under the command of a legendary son of Lycaon. This migration legend is also given to the Apulian tribes to the east, raising the possibility that the Oenotri were a branch of the Iapyges.

Their language is 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 language of the (possibly related) Siculi influenced the Greeks on Sicily, and from there fed back into Greece itself and then into Latin. 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 Oenotri 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 would likely link them to the Dorians, or instead make them cousins of the Illyrian tribes in south-eastern Italy, principally the Iapyges. The Chones, Itali, Morgetes and perhaps even the Siculi are claimed as sub-divisions of the Oenotri.

The Oenotri name is roughly translated as the 'vine cultivators'. The Greek alphabet had no letter for 'w', so Greek writers substituted an 'o' for the sound. Therefore in the modern Late Latin-based system, Oenotri is more properly spelled Wenotri. As mentioned, Classical and modern writers both translate the first element of the name as 'wine' ('oenos' in Greek). But notice the sequence W - E - N - T, which is found frequently in Celtic names such as the Veneti (with the 'v' pronounced as a 'w'). Was the original word really 'wenot', or was it 'wenet'? The latter means 'white' in Common Gaulish. It is cognate to the English words 'white' and 'winter'. It might mean 'the winter people', or it might mean 'the blonds' (white hair). Perhaps the Oenotri name did mean wine, but perhaps it did not.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, Vol 3, Issue 1, James Cowles Prichard, from An Historical Geography of Europe, Norman J G Pounds (Abridged Version), and 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.)


Son of Lycaon. Eponymous legendary founder of the tribe.

According to Greek legend, Oenotrus is a son of an Illyrian (Arcadian) king named Lycaon, who is himself the son of Pelasgos, ancestor of the Pelasgoi. He, along with three other sons, Iapyx, Daunius, and Peucetius, lead their people across the Adriatic Sea and into south-eastern Italy, where they settle, mixing in with the native pre-Italic population. The Iapyges fragment into at least three sub-groups: the Dauni, Messapii, and Peucetii (along with the Oenotri, who are not always mentioned in conjunction with the Illyrian tribes). The Oenotri themselves travel farther west, settling around the border of the modern regions of Basilicata and Calabria.

Map of the Etruscans
Monte Arioso
Perhaps the heartland of Oenotri territory even at the point of their greatest expansion during the ninth century BC, Monte Arioso is verdant, productive land, while above is a map pinpointing their location in Iron Age Italy (click or tap on map to view full sized)

In his work, Politics, Aristotle names a king of Oenetria called Italus. 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. Italus is claimed as the successor to Oenotrus, King Morges of the Morgetes succeeds Italus, and Siculus of the Siculi is the successor to Morges, which seems to illustrate the belief that the Itali, Morgetes, Oenotri, and Siculi have a shared heritage.

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.

9th 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 Etruscans flourish, taking over a large number of Umbrian settlements along their eastern border. In the south the Oenotri appear to do the same, according to Dionysius, probably during the course of the tenth and ninth centuries, pushing the Umbri out of their southernmost settlements. This suggests that the early Oenotri inhabit a much larger territory than during the main part of the Iron Age, perhaps with the Samnites still minimised to the north-west and only beginning their own expansion.

c.700 BC

Shortly after the start of the Golasecca I B period the Oenotri are pushed out of their settlement at Metabon on the Gulf of Taranto by Greek settlers who found the colony of Metapontum on the site. The Oenotri are forced to move inland, probably infringing on the territory of the Lucani, and Oenetri and Greeks subsequently carry out tit-for-tat raids. Located in very fertile territory, the colony grows steadily and is closely allied with the other nearby colonies of Croton and Sybaris. The identity of its founders is open to much speculation, but it is clear that they are Achaeans rather than Ionians (mainland Greeks as opposed to those of the islands).

5th century BC

The Oenotri come under pressure from the Samnites to their north, and are gradually squeezed out of existence or subjugated from this point forwards. This would support the theory that the Samnites are still a small group in the ninth century, when the Oenotri abut the Umbri, but that they have since expanded and are now squeezing the Oenotri into the south.

c.420 BC

Antiochus of Syracuse completes his History of Sicily and Colonising of Italy around this time. The works exist today only in fragments but they are highly regarded by the ancient world thanks to the accuracy of their information. Antiochus writes that the entirety of later Calabria had originally been known as Oenotria after this tribe which had settled there early in its history.

325 - 304 BC

Rome fights the Second Samnite War in 325 BC, by which time the Oenotri and Chones would appear to be subjects of the Samnites (showing a complete decline of the early Oenotri dominance in southern Italy). During this period the Marsi ally themselves to the Romans, while the Iapyges, Dauni, Messapii, and Peucetii side with the Samnites. When the Samnites are 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.

The beautiful countryside of Calabria, and all of its native peoples, were subjugated by Rome at the end of the Second Samnite War, despite often heroic resistance against the steamrolling conquerors

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.

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. The Chones and Oenotri are seemingly not mentioned during this war, suggesting that they have already been submerged within Roman Italy by this time.

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