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September 4, 2012
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Ancient Italy (c. 600 - c. 300 BC) by Undevicesimus Ancient Italy (c. 600 - c. 300 BC) by Undevicesimus

Ancient Italy (c. 600 – c. 300 BC)

Much like in Greece, the transition towards an urbanised culture with knowledge of writing systems also came to pass on the Italian peninsula during the first half of the first millennium BC. However, it happened later by comparison and initially remained confined to certain regions. Italy had become home to several Indo-European peoples whom had settled there throughout the late second millennium BC and had supplanted or intermixed with the native Neolithic peoples. Thus the so-called Italic peoples had become chief among the ethnicities of Italy.

The Italic peoples were divided into multiple groups of which the most significant were as follows: the Latins in the area around Latium on the shores of Central Italy south of the Tiber, the Osco-Umbrians in the Apennines in Central Italy and the Samnites in the mountainous lands of Southern Italy. Rivalling the Italic peoples were the pre-Indo-European Etruscan people in Etruria, the modern-day region of Tuscany. It is assumed that they had migrated there from the Aegean region, possibly also from Asia Minor, in the twelfth or eleventh century BC.

Subsequent centuries saw a steady continuation of migrations: Italic groups crossed over to Sicily, the Carthaginians established footholds on Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, Celtic peoples began infiltrating certain areas of Northern Italy and from 750 BC onward, the Greeks began colonising eastern Sicily, southern Gaul and much of southern Italy. The migrations going on in and around Italy fit into the pattern of the greater east-west movements of people, domesticated animals and agriculture which had been set in motion during the Neolithic Age in the Mediterranean region. The Italian peninsula made major progress as a result: the Etruscans are credited with introducing iron equipment and the Greeks spread the new alphabetical writing system. The transition towards an urbanised, literate culture in Italy thus happened first and foremost within the Etruscan domains and the Greek colonies. It is worth noting that the Greeks generally served as tutors, the Etruscans as their eager students.

Around 700 BC, the Etruscans adopted the Greek alphabet, with some variations of their own. The Etruscan language itself remains largely unknown due to the low number of surviving texts and its completely isolated status. However, it is certain that the Etruscan language is not an Indo-European language, proving all the more how the Etruscans were one of the pre-Indo-European peoples of the Mediterranean region.

The guiding principle of Etruscan society was a clear class distinction. The Etruscans were essentially an aristocratic elite governing a largely subdued Italic population by means of de facto serfdom. The situation may have differed from city to city, but detailed knowledge of the Etruscan political life is quite scarce. As a rule, the Etruscan cities were led by kings until around the fifth century BC. The cities maintained close ties with each other, particularly on religious matters (cf. communal religious sanctuaries), but every city acted as an independent political entity. In this way, the Etruscan world remarkably resembled the world of the city-states of Greece.

The Etruscans left many funerary artefacts, particularly weapons and pottery, and from the sixth century BC onwards they constructed magnificent subterranean burial chambers where the ashes of the Etruscan elite were given a final resting place. The notions of death and afterlife played a major role in the Etruscan religion, as did the notions of foreseeing the future and the will of the gods and interpreting relevant omens. Yet as in many other Etruscan things, Greek influence was significant and in religion too, the Etruscans ended up borrowing liberally from their Greek tutors.

Perhaps most prominently, the Greeks taught the Etruscans their considerable knowledge of warfare, causing them to adopt the typical heavily-armed Greek phalanx formation in the sixth century BC. This allowed the Etruscans to whitewash many of the Italic peoples, whom were militarily far behind. Etruscan forces subdued Italic cities, founded new colonies and conquered much of the Po Valley in northern Italy, as well as the fertile plains of Campania in the south. Their rapid expansion inevitably provoked a reaction from the Greeks, as well as the Latin people of Central Italy. Further west, the Carthaginians expanded their power throughout the sixth century BC, advancing into Africa, building colonies on Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and even establishing a foothold in southern Spain. Carthage cooperated with the Etruscans against the Greeks, effectively ending Greek colonisation in the west, with the notable exception of the Greek colonies on the shores of southern Gaul. Carthaginians and Greeks would henceforth be almost continuously at odds on Sicily.

Many Italic peoples meanwhile engaged in basic farming activities and reasonably extensive animal husbandry, particularly sheep and goats. Chief among those people herding animals were the Samnites and related tribes in southern Italy. However, taking care of large herds of livestock required a lot of land, which led to a Samnite drive for northward expansion. Thus the people of central Italy had to face two fronts, the Etruscans to the north and the Samnites to the south. Moreover, the Etruscan influence over Latium had become truly prominent throughout the sixth century BC, causing many cities and people to fear Latium would be completely incorporated into the Etruscan realm. One of the cities no longer willing to tolerate the Etruscan domination was named Roma – its people, the Romans

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