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


Picentes (Sabellians) (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.

FeatureThe Picentes, or Picentini, were a group of Italics who, during the Iron Age, were located along the Adriatic coastline in central Italy. They were neighboured by the Etruscans to the north, the Umbri to the west, and the Vestini, Paeligni, and Marrucini to the south and south-west, while later on populations of Gauls also settled to their north. The Oscan-Umbrian group of which the Picentes were part are largely accepted as being Indo-Europeans (perhaps proto-Celts) who migrated into the peninsula from the north. They settled between the Apennines (see feature link, right) and the eastern coast, and the region became known as Picenum under the Roman empire (Pompey the Great was born here). The northern parts contained a fairly mixed population, with Picentes intermingling with Etruscans and others, including Celts.

Their language used a form of the Italic alphabet that was probably Oscan-Umbrian (P-Italic), which was widely spoken in Iron Age central and southern Italy before the rise to dominance of Latin (Q-Italic). This language has been termed South Picene by scholars, and has been identified as a Sabellic language, a form of Oscan-Umbrian. To the very north of their territory, around Pesaro, four inscriptions have been found in a language that is completely unknown. Termed North Picene, it may represent a form of Italic language which survived only in this isolated pocket, or it may be pre-Indo-European - opinion is divided.

The name of this people was probably Latin in its origin, either a Latinisation of the original Italic name or a replacement. According to Strabo, the Picentes were former Sabini who had migrated northwards, following their ritually-selected animal the woodpecker as they sought out a new homeland. The Latin word for woodpecker, 'picus', meant that the Picentes were 'the people of the woodpecker'. The woodpecker was a genuine part of the Picene religion, so the source of the naming may be genuine. However, another possible meaning of their name is 'those [who are the] hundred [men]', meaning that they were founded by a hundred warriors, using 'pi', the equivalent of the Latin 'qui' (masculine plural nominative, meaning 'those' or 'those who'), plus 'centum', 'one hundred'. This would fit the idea of a division of the Sabini setting out to start their own colony. Another twist on this is the possibility of a small P-Italic military elite taking control of a larger Q-Italic-speaking population, in effect 'the hundred' moving into rule the earlier natives.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, 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 Geography, Ptolemy, from An Historical Geography of Europe, Norman J G Pounds (Abridged Version), and from External Link: Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

c.900s BC

The region of central eastern Italy is first settled, by an Italic people who become known as the Picentes. Strabo claims that they are part of a group known as the Sabellians (along with the Marrucini, Marsi, Sabini, Samnites, and Vestini). They possibly eject mixed settlements of Siculi and Liburni to take the land, pushing the former inhabitants southwards.

Map of the Etruscans
This map shows 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 full sized)

These newcomers bury their dead, wrapping them in the clothes they had worn in life. Warriors, which seem to account for every male grave, suggesting a warlike people, are buried with the accoutrements of their trade, including helmets and swords. The swords are either imported from the Balkans or are brought with the Picentes when they enter Italy, Women are buried with bronze and iron ornaments, and items such as beads and amber which appear to have been traded from the Tyrrhenian coast as early as the ninth 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.

c.650 BC

Four stelae are inscribed around this time, with a total of about sixty words. One is later uncovered by archaeologists at Servici Cemetery in Novilara, a village to the south-west of Pesaro, while the others are acquired out of context by nineteenth century archaeologists and these are assumed to be related. The language is unknown but is assumed to be Italic and is termed North Picene. It can be dated to the period 800-650 BC, but the style of the alphabet pushes it towards the later part of this window. The martial contents of the nearby Iron Age graves suggests a link to the period of warfare between Etruscans, Romans, and Italics of the mid seventh century BC.

299 - 297 BC

Following the end of the Golasecca culture within the Italian Iron Age, Latin colonies are founded in Umbrian territory by Rome in the next half a century, starting in 299 BC with the conquest of the city of Nequinum, which Rome renames Narni.

Rome also concludes a treaty with the Picentes, or what Livy later terms the Picentine people. Two years later the Picentes warn the Roman senate that they have been approached by the Samnites, who are seeking allies in advance of a renewal of hostilities against Rome.

283 BC

The Picentes make another appearance in the historical record, in relation to successful Roman conquests in the far northern reaches of Picene territory. The Ager Gallicus on the north-east coast of Italy has been populated by different ethnic groups for quite some time. These are mainly Picentes and Etruscans, but with a strong admixture of more recently arrived Gauls. Ancona had been built by the Greeks of Sicily, but to the north of this the Gauls dominate. Rome has been winning a series of victories against these Gauls, and in this year it expels the tribe of the Senones from the coastal region. Rome annexes this strip as far south as Ancona, and the area is renamed Gallia Togata.

Novilara Stele
The Novilara Stele, the only one of four which can be attested fully by modern archaeology, remains a mystery, its language still undeciphered

268/267 BC

The Picentes appear to rebel against Roman domination. They are defeated by two consular armies in Gallia Togata and Rome gains the region around Arimnus (Rimini), on the border region between the Picentes and the Etruscans. This former Etruscan city is captured by Publius Sempronius Sophus. He returns to Rome and is given a triumph for his victory over the Picentes. Ancona and Asculum remain independent but the rest of Picene territory is annexed, with two new Roman colonies being planted to help keep it subjugated (Ariminum in 268 BC and Firmum in 264 BC). Large numbers of the Picentes are forcibly moved to the Campania region on the west coast of Italy, where a city is founded on their behalf at Picentia, in the Paestum area.

218 - 202 BC

The Second Punic War is fought against Carthage. Rome is aided by its Etruscan, Frentani, 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.

91 - 89 BC

Unlike the Etruscans, Iapyges, Lucani, Marrucini, Marsi, Paeligni, Samnites, and Vestini, the Picentes side with Rome during the Social War (Italian War, or Marsic War). 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. Rome's allies strive for, and are eventually granted, Roman citizenship despite being defeated in the war. Picenum serves as a base for Roman troops, although Dio records that the Picentes raid Roman territory and put their prisoners to death, suggesting an element of coercion in their alliance with Rome.

91 - 89 BC

Gaius Vidacilius

Picentes leader during the Social War. Committed suicide.

27 BC

Under the Roman empire, The former territory of the Picentes becomes known as Picenum. Rome reunites the southern section below Arimnus (Rimini) with the northern section around Ancona, by which time the Italic language of the people here has been completely replaced by Latin.

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

7 BC - AD 27

The Greek writer Strabo works on his Geographia, completing first and last editions at either end of this timespan. He notes that the Picentes have largely depopulated the city of Picentia to live in the surrounding countryside.


Ptolemy, who writes in Greek in the mid-second century, mentions a people he calls the Picentini who still occupy the region around Salernum (modern Salerno, the capital of Campania) and Surentum (modern Sorrento). This appears to be the last mention of the Picentes, with them merging into the Latin Roman populace of Italy before the end of empire.

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