The introduction of Indo-European languages (Latin, Osco-Umbrian, Venetic, and Messapian) into what is now "Italy" dates back to the late Neolithic age. The great cultural units of historical Italy—Etruscan, Latin, Sabellian, and Iapygian in Apulia; Venetic in Venetia—were formed in the 9th and 8th centuries BC.  During the 7th century BC, the non-Indo-European ETRUSCANS became the dominant people of central Italy today known as Tuscany.  In a simultaneous development, Greeks began settling around Italy's South Western shorelines and on Sicily.  The Greeks made their mark as savvy traders especially with their export of metals.  The adoption of writing, an increasing trend of improved social structures and the urbanization became the foundation of a rapidly developing social and economic transformation in southern and coastal Etruria. Etruscan power, though never unified, was extended through migration, colonization, and conquest. Etruscans founded cities in the Po Valley and in Campania and subjugated various Latin communities, Rome among them. The Etruscan cities were loosely united in a religious league of 12 but were politically independent with independent artistic traditions. The economy was based on agriculture, maritime trade and piracy.

Etruscan dominance ended in the 5th century with their expulsion from Latium and the loss of the sea to Greeks, of Campania to the Sabelli, and of the Po Valley to the Gauls. From the 4th through the 1st centuries, Roman conquest, colonization, and co-optation caused Etruscan civilization to decline and finally end. The Etruscans influenced Roman institutions in various ways, and in spite of the fact that many of their gods were different from those of Rome, they had a reputation at Rome for religious expertise. They were also renowned for luxury, because women were relatively free by the standards of classical Greece.

The LATINS lived on the western (Tyrrhenian) coastal plain—Latium—that stretches from the Tiber in the north to Monte Circeo 65 miles to the south. Northern Latium is enclosed on the east by the foothills of the Apennines; further south, the Lepini Mountains mark the eastern boundary. Traditionally there were 50 small Latin communities which were united by common Latin cults and by the common Latin rights of intermarriage, contractual dealing, and intermigration. By the 7th century, contacts with Etruscans and Greeks had influenced the Latins to organize themselves into about a dozen communities resembling Greek poleis. Although still tied to each other by intercommunal rights and common cults, these Latin “city-states” became increasingly independent and competitive. By the late 6th century several of them had formed a political league centered around Aricia, at the time when Etruscan Rome was pursuing an aggressive policy. Roman preeminence in Latium ended abruptly with the expulsion of Etruscan kings in the late 6th century. Soon after this the Latin League was formed, and a military alliance was made with Rome to defend the homeland against invading Aequi and Volsci. A century of war left Latium free of invaders, but Rome was again poised to dominate the other Latins. This was achieved by a Roman victory in the Latin War, 337–334 (343–338).

In the historical period the Apennines were inhabited by Sabellian peoples who spoke a variety of Osco-Umbrian languages and who periodically raided and sometimes conquered the fertile plains around them. In historical times the Sabines had moved into Latium where they are said to have exerted a formative influence on early Rome. The territories of the Umbrians extended from the highlands east of the Arno and Tiber to the Adriatic coast between Rimini and Ancona. Another Osco-Umbrian-speaking people from the central Apennines were the Aequi, who invaded Latium c. 500 BC. The central Apennines were also home to the Umbrian-speaking Marsi. Further east, Oscan speakers—the Paeligni, Vestini, and Marrucini—held sway; to the southeast, along the Adriatic coast, the Oscan-speaking Frentani dominated. Inhabiting the south-central Apennines were the SAMNITES, who spoke an Oscan language and by the 4th century were united in a loose but formidable confederation. During the late 5th and early 4th centuries, Oscan-speaking peoples moved into Campania, Lucania, and Bruttium, where they came to be known as Campani, Lucani, and Bruttii, respectively.

GREEK COLONIZATION  had a major influence on all the peoples of Italy and Sicily. The first Greek colony was established at Cumae in 750, and Greeks continued founding colonies in Campania, Apulia, and eastern Sicily later known as the Magna Graecia for the following two centuries.

Created: November 2003
Updated: 08/27/05

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