The original title of this entry was "Ancient Peoples of Italy," which did not really reflect the narrower focus of the entry, mostly ancient peoples in the southern part of the peninsula (although in this entry I do mention some others). I have made a few other changes from the original entry, as well.
With that brief introduction, here then is a
cast of some of the peoples who made southern Italy
(with a few others thrown in from up north!):
•The Etruscans. Having mentioned
“Indo-European” it is noteworthy that this truly great
ancient culture was not Indo-European. Their language
(written in an alphabet borrowed from the Greeks) has
never been deciphered. At one time, scholars thought
they might have arrived in Italy long enough ago to be
called “indigenous —perhaps descendants of the
stone-age cave painters of 20,000 years ago. Recent
thought, however, places them much later. They may
have arrived in the 9th century BC from Lydia, the
area of the mainland opposite the Greek island of
Samos. In any event, they built the first true towns
in Italy. The Etruscans were a loose federation
centered in what is now Tuscany. At one time, the
Etruscans ruled the Romans; that ended in 509 BC when
the Romans overthrew the Etruscan King, Tarquin, and
declared itself a Republic. The Etruscans made their
last bid for historical permanence a few years later
at the battle of Cuma against the Greeks. They lost.
Then, in 396 BC the Etruscan city of Veil fell
to a Roman siege and the Etruscans were assimilated.
Their influence extended far enough south into what is
now the Campania region of Italy to be included in
•The Greeks. Between 800 and 500 BC the peoples of the Aegean peninsula and archipelago colonized portions of Sicily and the southern Italian peninsula. Those settlements made up “Magna Grecia”—Greater Greece. There arose in Italy centers of Hellenic culture, marketplaces for the ideas of Archimedes, Pythagoras and Plato, ideas that so influenced later Roman conquerors that today most Europeans regard themselves as inheritors of a wondrous hybrid culture called 'Greco-Roman'.
In 750 BC Greeks founded the first colony of Magna Grecia, Pithecusae, on the island of Ischia. There followed Cuma and Paestum on the nearby mainland and Syracuse in Sicily, which became one of the great cities in the ancient Greek world. Naples, itself, was founded as 'Parthenope' in the 6th century BC. It was rebuilt somewhat inland a few years later and called New City, Neapolis—Naples. Magna Grecia suffered from fragmentation and was not a single entity. The settlements of Greater Greece were independent and spent much of their time fighting each other. They never managed to unite against their true enemies: Carthage and Rome.
By the 4th century BC. Sicily had become so
powerful that its ruler, Dionysus, tried to establish
a single Empire of Magna Grecia. He couldn't, however,
fend off the increasingly belligerent Romans, who took
Taranto in 272 BC, putting an end to Magna Grecia. (To
read a separate article on Greek Naples, click here.)
•Other peoples lived along the Tiber river; among these were, of course, the Latini. There is confusing historical overlap of Latini and Romans. Traditionally, Rome is said to have been founded in 753 by descendants of Aeneas, a refugee from the Trojan War. Well before Virgil’s treatment of this legend, the Romans regarded Aeneas as the founder of their race, the one who succeeded Latinus, king of the local tribe, and whose descendant, Romulus, founded Rome. Archaeology places Latini culture as early as 1100 BC. True imperial expansion of Rome starts in 295 BC when the Romans, at the Battle of Sentium (near modern Ancona), put an end to the competition in Italy by defeating a combined force of Samnites and Etruscans.
•Along the Tiber, too, were the Sabines.
Various accounts of The Abduction of the Sabine
Women show just how dangerous it was to live
next-door to Romulus & Sons. The proximity of the
Sabines to Rome has made it difficult to identify
their ruins with certainty, although there are some
from as early as the 9th century BC. The Sabines were
related to the Samnites to the south, and they adopted
writing from the Etruscans.
•Other neighbors of the Romans in central
Italy were the Volscians and the Equians.
Most knowledge of them comes from later Roman
historians complaining about these piddling little
peoples getting in the way of real empire! They were
Indo-European and spoke languages closely related to
•The Samnites were an important
sister tribe of the Latins. Their capital was modern
Benevento in the rugged terrain east of Naples.
At the time of the first contacts between Roman and
Samnite (around 350 BC), Samnium was larger than any
other contemporary state in Italy. For almost two
centuries, the Romans and Samnites fought for control
of South/Central Italy. As warriors, the Samnites were
ferocious, and some say they were the ones who gave
the Romans the idea for those gruesome gladiator
fights to the death. In the year 321 BC Samnium
defeated the Romans at the Battle of the Caudine Forks
near Benevento. It was one of the most devastating
defeats in Roman military history. The Romans,
however, rearmed and prevailed. In 82 BC the history
of the Samnites as a distinct people came to an end
when Sulla defeated them at one last battle and
slaughtered the thousands of Samnite prisoners. The
remaining inhabitants of Samnium were dispersed.
Today, there is a Samnite museum in Benevento and an
impressive archaeological site, Pietrabbondante, in
the mountains of the province of Isernia. (To read a
separate item on the Samnites, click
•The Lucanians (see
Siculians (Sikeloi) inhabited eastern Sicily,
having migrated there from Campania. Remains from 1000
BC have been found that show the influence of the
earlier great Mycenaean culture of Crete. The Greeks
later wrote that they had received land from the
Siculian King, Hyblon, to build a city. The island was
also inhabited by two other groups: the Sicanians
(Sikanoi) in the center (also from mainland Italy) and
the Elymians (Elymoi) in the west with their important city of Segesta.
All three were in place when the Greeks started to
spread out into Magna Graecia. Of these three, the
Elymoi are the most interesting because it is not all
clear where they came from. Like all other groups in
Italy, they adopted the Greek alphabet, but nothing
has been deciphered. The situation is similar to that
of the Etruscans (above). One possible conclusion is
that they were not Indo-Eoropean and, like the
Etruscans, came from Anatolia. All of these pre-Greek
peoples of Sicily were Hellenized quickly and
then the Greek city-states of Sicily were eventually
assimilated by Rome. (The small scale bar at the lower
left in 100 km/60 mi long.)
•The Enotrians inhabited the Ionian
and Tyrrhenian coasts. The Greeks, upon their arrival
in Italy, regarded the Enotrians almost mythically,
holding them to be descended from the ancient pastoral
people of Arcadia. Tradition spoke of the first great
Enotrian King, Italos, who organized their culture in
the middle of the second millennium BC.
(Somehow, the name “Italos” stuck!) By the sixth
century BC the Enotrians had merged with the history
of Magna Grecia. Another
etymology for the word "Italy" suggests that it
derives from Viteliu an Oscan word for
"calf," that animal being the totem of a
central-Italian tribe in the first millennium b.c. It
is a fact that the first use of "Italy" to denote a
political unit was for "The Italic Confederation",
a short-lived union of central Italic peoples that
united against Rome in the Social War of 91 b.c.
•The Opicians lived in ancient
Campania, the region in which Naples is located. The
Greeks, themselves, wrote of having founded Cuma “in
Opicia”. Pre-Greek Opician items have, in fact, been
found at Cuma. The Opicians were a farming people and
had early contact with the Etruscans.
•The area of central Italy on the
Adriatic known today as Le Marche was home to the Picenians.
Evidence along the coast indicates that they
were navigators and part of a series of “trading
posts” connecting the early peoples of the Adriatic to
the Mycenaean culture to the south. In the 8th century
BC, the Etruscans started encroaching on these
peoples; somewhat later the Greeks did the same from
the south. Picenian tombs have been found with
warriors dressed in full battle armor, not a common
burial ritual among early peoples of Italy.
•The Ligurians were the
eponym of the modern Italian region, Liguria, a narrow
northwestern coastal strip with Genoa as capital. Most
sources say that the ancient Ligurians occupied a much
larger area, stretching into modern France and east
into the Po river basin and into the Alps to the
northeast. There are remains from as early as 1300 BC,
but there is no unanimity of opinion as to origins of
the people. Some claims put them at the beginning of
the Indo-European invasions before 2000 BC and some
say they are indigenous in the area even before those
invasions. The Ligurians dealt not only with the
Etruscans to the West and Veneti to the east, but even
with northern peoples from beyond the Alps.
Also see this link.
•The area around Venice
was thriving well before the founding of the famous
city (a “recent” event —the 5th century AD!). As early
as 1000 BC a people lived there whom we call Veneti.
The Greeks wrote of them, and the early Venetians seem
to have been traders much like their descendants,
trading glass, amber and ceramic items along the
Adriatic coast. They traded with the Etruscans to the
west and adopted the alphabet from them. They also
traded north of the Alps, where they acquired horses.
•Today’s Puglia was home to various
groups known collectively as Iapigi. Prominent
were the Messapians, originally from Illyria,
across the Adriatic (modern Albania). They controlled
a strategic part of the southern Adriatic, a fact
evident to the Greeks who tried to settle there
at mid-millennium. The Greeks who founded Taranto
wrote of intense conflict with the Messapians. In
spite of wars between them, trade also flourished and
late Messapian pottery is often adorned with figures
from Greek mythology.
•The Umbrians, too, have given their
name to a region of modern Italy. They traded with the
Etruscans and were highly regarded as warriors. They
fought and lost alongside of the Etruscans against the
Greeks at the famous battle of Cuma in the 6th century
BC, a defeat that marked the end of Etruscan power in
•The Nuraghi culture on the island of
Sardinia. (See separate item.)
•The Ausoni. (See entry on ancient Cales.)
There, that’s some of them. My treatment of Indo-European diffusion was hasty, given the brief space for this entry. Also, I did not deal with the important, but brief, incursions into Italy by Carthage and by the Celts. Lastly, remember that there were countless small tribes, Indo-European and non, historic and pre-, who simply came and went unnoticed. There’s a bit of cave-painter in a lot of us.