Archaic Italy : Introduction
by: M. Moravius Horatius Piscinus
Developments from the Bronze Age into the Italian Iron Age

The Italian Archaic period 580-490 BCE, and the post-Archaic or Early Republic period 490-350 BCE refers only to the Tyrrhenian coastal region. Urbanization had already began in Etruria and Latium, and with Greek colonization in southern Italy and Sicily. However a survey of the various peoples of Archaic Italy would necessarily have to begin in the transition from the Late Bronze Age (1200-900 BCE) to the Italian Iron Age (900-580 BCE). Contact between southern Italy and Sicily with the eastern Mediterranean began in the Middle Bronze Age. Some Mycenean pottery dating to around 1500 BCE has been found in Sicily, Taranto and Ischia; some Sicilian artifacts have been found in the Eastern Mediterranean region. In 1230 BCE Egyptian records note a raid into the Western Desert, where Merenptah of the XIX Dynasty won a victory over various "sea people," including Sardinians and Sicilians. Even earlier, companies of Sardinian and Sicilian mercenaries were serving in Egypt. Around 1200 BCE new people came to the southern coasts of Sicily and Italy by way of the sea, just as many of the Bronze Age cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean were beginning to collapse. By the eighth century Greek traders began to arrive, and in the seventh century Messapians came from Illyria into Apulia. Iron forges have been found in the southern region that show the Iron Age had already begun prior to the arrival of the Greeks and Messapians. In Campania, Calabria, and Sicily there was the Fossa Grave culture, while in Apulia there was a distinctly different Iron Age culture. However even after the new arrivals, features in the indigenous material culture still resembled that of the Apennine culture from the Italian Bronze Age.

The Bronze Age in Italy is noteworthy for its uniformity in material culture. Its homogeneity has led to its being referred to as the Apennine Culture. However, this uniformity in material may best be explained through trade and cultural transmission over a long period, and should not therefore be misconstrued as resulting from any ethnic homogeneity, nor that there was a common language throughout the Italian peninsula in this period. The climatic changes of the Camunian IV period began the Late Bronze Age with a very cold period, marked by temperature fluctuations that decreased drought situations. This resulted in changes in the flora, especially below 1800 m, creating more diverse ecological niches to be exploited, allowing for the development of a mixed economy of transhumance and agriculture that prevailed well into the modern period. As a result towards the end of the Bronze Age there is a growth in population with more widespread and larger communities; there is a greater variety of tools indicating diversification in agriculture; and there is a movement from valley floors to defensible hill tops. Petroglyphs from such places as the Val Camonica increasingly show scenes of warfare, and where earlier communities were open, encircled with ditches to hold in livestock, Late bronze Age communities begin to erect stone defensive walls. Trade in a wider range can be noted, not only to the Eastern Mediterranean but to Northern Europe as well. Cultural diversification takes place, with regional variants of the Apennine culture appearing, growing more distinctive until they formed separate cultures.

During the Bronze Age, to the northeast of the Italian peninsula pastoralists begin to appear between 1200-1180 BCE, later moving into the peninsula either across the Alps or the northern Adriatic. Old theories based on linguistics alone suggested the pastoralists were Italics who came in two mass migrations across the Alps; the first by Western Italics like Latins and Sicels, and the second by Eastern Italics such as the Osco-Umbrians. But the archaeological evidence suggests a slower infiltration by small bands of diverse people, intermingling with the native Bronze Age cultures. By the ninth century there are three distinctive Iron Age cultures in the north. The Golasecca culture of Lombardy, Piedmont, and Liguria had an affinity with the Halstatt cultures north of the Alps. The Este culture in northeastern Italy extended further east to Zagreb, and as far north as the Danube, and traded with Halstatt peoples further north. A new Iron Age culture, that of the Gauls, entered in the fourth century. The Este culture was pushed out of the western Po valley at that time, and the Golasecca culture essentially ended.

Further south was an indigenous Iron Age culture, that of the Villanovans. Named after the village of Villanova near Bologna where it was first identified in 1853, they extended from the Po River valley in Emilia-Romagna, through Tuscany, and into Latium, then in isolated pockets around Fermo on the Adriatic and south of Salerno in Campania. The Villanovans, like the Este and Golasecca, practiced cremation for some members of their societies, although not for all. They deposited the ashes of their dead into biconical urns sealed with either a bowl or helmet. The urns were then placed into deep shafts (pozzo) and covered with stone slabs. A variant found in Latium had the ashes placed into an urn representing a hut, which was then placed into a larger urn along with other items such as bowls and vases, before burial. This southern Villanovan is now called the Latial culture, but the full complex of its distinctive form of cremation is found only at Rome. There is considerable continuity in the material culture, showing that the Protovillanovans of the Late Bronze Age arose from earlier indigenous cultures, and that the Villanovans then arose from the transitional Protovillanovans. There is no break in the material culture to suggest that the Villanovans resulted from a foreign migration. From the Villanovans arose both the Etruscans and Latins, two distinctly different language groups. In spite of many changes to Etruscan culture, their base material culture remained essentially Villanovan. Further south Villanovan material ends at Rome roughly at the time the Republic is established, but remained in southern Latium until the incursion of the Volsci. The Villanovans of Campania south of Salerno merge with other Iron Age cultures and then come under the influence of the Greeks beginning in the eight century. There is then a reintroduction of Villanovan material from Etruria into an area north of Salerno in the latter sixth century.

Between the Villanovans and the cultures of the south were diverse Iron Age cultures practicing inhumation, collectively known as Adriatic cultures. The Picenes of the Marches and an Illyrian people were in close contact and may in fact have been a trans-Adriatic culture, just as the Neolithic cultures of Apulia were an extension from the Balkans. By the time we begin to hear of the other inhumation cultures of the Apennines, from Greek and then from Latin sources, they can be identified with various Osco-Umbrian tribes. The sources refer to the Opici (Obsci, Osci) occupying a large portion of southern Italy prior to the arrival of the Samnites. Other sources refer to the Ausones as a people living in Latium prior to the arrival of the Latins. The Ausones may have been the Opici, and if they can be identified with the Aurunci mentioned by Livy, then by the fourth century they were limited to the border region between the Liris and Volturnus Rivers. While the Opici gave their name to the Oscan speaking tribes it really is not certain if they or the Ausones were an Italic speaking people or a pre-Italic people. Further south was the Oenotri or Chones, mentioned by Strabo. In addition the Italic Sicels once occupied a portion of southern Italy, but by the time the Greeks contact them the Sicels are limited to Sicily. Expansion of the Oscan-speaking people from the central Apennines beginning in the fifth century then displaced the Greeks and Etruscans over most of southern Italy.

The Material Cultures of the Italian Archaic Period

While Rome and Etruria progressed from the Iron Age culture of the Villanovans during the Archaic and Early Republic periods, other regions of Italy remained peopled by Iron Age cultures. Some may even be thought of as Bronze Age cultures, although using iron implements. Our knowledge of these other cultures comes from Latin and Greek sources, and then from archaeological evidence.

Venetians: In northeastern Italy the Este culture flourished from the ninth to third centuries. Their main cremation cemeteries in Italy are found at Padua, Vicenza, Oppeano, Veronese, and Este. By the time of the arrival of the Romans in the area, the Este culture can be identified with the Italic Venetic-speaking people. Whether the Venetii migrated to the region or arose from a mixture of different people in the area, they continued to serve as transmitters between western Asia and northern Europe. The identifying material culture of the Este was their embossed bronze artifacts, especially situlae (buckets) that have been suggested to be wine buckets, and thus indicates the spread of viticulture. The Este were perhaps the most advanced bronze workers of the period, their sheet metal techniques, lathing, and embossing techniques adopted and copied by the Etruscans to the south and by other cultures as far north as the British Isles. By the sixth century designs on the situlae have motifs related to Proto-Corinthian motifs such as lions, zonal ornament in the manner of Attic painted wares of the same era, with two main panels representing the Arts of War and Peace, and features that might be taken as Phoenician. Within their region, although beyond present day Italy, are found Halstatt salt production sites. Venetian trade brought eastern Mediterranean motifs to the far north, and northern raw materials such as amber to the east. Advances into the Po valley by Etruscans, and then by Gauls in the fourth century, pushed the Venetii further northeast, where they remained into the third century. The Romans established a colony at Aquileia in 181 BCE, then built the Via Annia from Bononia in 153, and the Via Postunia from Genoa in 148 to Aquileia. The region quickly Romanized, adopting Latin as the primary language. Inscriptions made in the Venetic language end in the late second century..

Ligurians: The Ligurians were a non-Italic people extending from the upper Po valley, along the southern coast of France and into Spain. Very early in the region’s history there was a transition from the Neolithic trading region of obsidian from Lipari to the Eoneolithic trading region of obsidian arriving from Mt Arci in Sardinia. The region remained oriented to the north and northwest even after the arrival of the Romans. As already noted this region was occupied by the Golasecca culture that had an affinity with the Halstatt cultures further north. In the region are found statue-menhirs, some dating back as far as the Copper Age, while others at Filetto clearly date to the Iron Age. Represented are male figures, their faces, arms, and legs depicted, together with northern antenna swords, square spade-shaped axes, and lances that date them to the Iron Age. The statue-menhirs are not associated with any funerary or other deposits, and thus it is not clear for what they were intended. The Ligurians were an inhumation culture, except during the Golasecca period when cremation was practiced for at least a warrior class. The statue-menhirs may be memorials to heroes whose remains were buried elsewhere. In the region as well are found carved stelae with designs similar to those found in Villanovan and Etruscan Bologna, and these are associated with burials. Also in the region are the petroglyphs of Val Camonica dating back to the Neolithic and extending into the Iron Age, and the world’s largest stone circle on the Franco-Italian border at Piccolo San Bernardo. This latter site of forty-six stones, arranged into a large circle of 72 m in diameter, may have been referred to by Petronius. "In the Alps near the sky, where the rocks are getting lower and let you cross them, there is a holy place where altars of Hercules rise. Winter covers it with a persistent snow and it raises its white head to the stars." The arrival of the Gauls in the fourth century brought an end to the Golasecca culture, but Ligurians remained in a very narrow territory along the coast between the Apennines and the Gulf of Genoa when the Romans arrived.

Villanovans: The most important Iron Age material culture of Italy is that of the Villanovans. Villanovan material has been associated with four, possibly five, different peoples distinguished by language or dialect - the Italic Latins and Faliscians, and the non-Italic Etruscans, Novilara, and in Campania another people possibly representing a Southern Etruscan branch. By the beginning of the Archaic period each of these cultures had become distinctly separate. However in their base material culture they were all Villanovan and are thus placed together here. The indigenous non-Italic Etruscans arose from a Villanova culture in Tuscany. However the presence of Villanova material does not necessarily indicate the presence of Etruscans elsewhere. At Rome early deposits of Villanova artifacts have been associated with an "Etruscan period" for which there is no real evidence. Villanovan material is found throughout Latium, and where at Rome it disappeared about the time that the Republic was formed, it continued in southern Latium without any association of an Etruscan population. It is more proper to consider the Latins as an Italic people who also arose from a Villanova culture, than to regard the Latins as having ever been under Etruscan dominance. The Faliscans, too, arose from a Villanova culture. At one time the Faliscans were thought to be a separate Italic population, closely related to the Latins. More recent discoveries from southern Latium indicate that Faliscan is a dialect of Latin rather than a separate language. Their proximity to the Etruscans, like that of Rome, has caused an assumption that the Faliscans may have been ruled by Etruscans, but there is no evidence to support such an assumption. There is also a Villanovan area around Fermo in the Picene region that is associated with a different non-Italic people, the Novilara. Then there is a region in Campania where Protovillanova and Villanova cultures are found, prior to the historical arrival of Etruscans to the region in the sixth century. Villanova refers only to a material culture and not to any particular ethnic or linguistic group.

There is little separating the Protovillanovans of the Bronze Age, the Villanovans of the Iron Age, and then the Etruscans in the Archaic period. The same occurs in Campania where a Villanova culture arises from an earlier Protovillanovan culture, without any apparent foreign intrusion. What does change is a greater concentration of agricultural villages into larger villages that also supported mining of local ores, then into urban centers, and a greater diversification in tools, along with the introduction of iron together with bronze tools, and increasingly trade goods arriving from the Eastern Mediterranean. The stimulus of these transitions was the exploitation of local ores, initially tin and copper to produce bronze, then of iron ores, and the trade to distant regions that this exploitation afforded. While bronze became less important for tools and weapons, its use in adornments with fibulae and pendants and for other luxuries like cistae greatly increased. Hoards of bronze throughout central Italy in the Archaic period greatly exceed those of the Bronze Age. Large hoards seem to be located at foundries where they were to be reworked, many of the pieces chopped so they could be easily melted. The other place where large deposits of bronze artifacts are found is in cemeteries. Funerary offerings were most often of a ritual nature –incense burners, offering stands, elaborate rhytons for pouring libations, along with cups, bowls, jars, fibulae, spindle whorls for women, and occasionally iron weapons and bronze helmets with some men, but not for the great majority of men. In association with funerary deposits are also found foreign luxury goods, Greek, Egyptian, and Phoenician, as well as locally produced copies of such items, and other luxury goods from other parts of Italy. More telling than the changes seen in tools, weapons, luxury goods and other specialty items, however, is the continuity in the every day wares like pottery. Also the forms of spear and lance heads made with iron are no different than those found during the Bronze Age. There is far greater continuity than change in Tuscany, from the late Bronze Age to the Etruscans of the Archaic period, and there is no break in the material culture that would suggest a foreign intrusion. Mythology and speculation of an eastern origin of the Etruscans is not supported by any archaeological evidence. Likewise with the Villanovans from whom the Etruscans arose. It was once assumed that the Villanovans represented an Iron Age mass migration into Italy from the northeast. However there is nothing outside Italy like the Villanovans, and within Italy the Bronze Age culture designated as Protovillanovan only points to an indigenous origin. The identifiable traits of the Villanovan - cremation, pozzeto urnfields, stones markers, pottery urns with bowl or helmet lids, motifs of meanders, double-sling, swastikas and the Camunian Rose, grooved and dimpled decoration, arc fibulae, the production methods, forms, and decoration of pottery – can all be seen in the earlier Bronze Age cultures. The earliest Etruscan material and the earliest Greek material are so close in time that they must be considered contemporary, arising from similar conditions, and representing parallel origins rather than a sequential relationship.

The Villanova culture seems to have begun in the Po River Valley around Bologna. An isolated area of Villanova gravesites on the Adriatic coast around Fermo may indicate that trade from these earlier centers traveled down the Po to the Adriatic. However contact with other people, notably the Phoenicians, began on the Tyrrhenian coast and it is in Etruria that urbanization began. The Etruscans are said to have expanded to the Bologna area, but rather than consider this as a colonization by a more advanced civilization, it may be more proper to view this as an advance of internal developments among the Villanovan communities. The same can be said of the Villanovans further south in Latium. Urbanization began later in Latium and developed in Villanova communities in a similar fashion as in Etruria. However there is nothing that shows a political domination of Latium by Etruscans. Even at Rome where some have assumed an Etruscan period with the city ruled by Etruscan kings, the evidence suggests internal developments of the indigenous Villanovans rather than foreign expansion by Etruscans. Etruscans were certainly within the Roman population, but not as a ruling minority. The so-called Etruscan kings of Rome, Servilius and the Tarquini, are notable for emigrating from Etruscan cities precisely because they were not Etruscans. The argument of a period of Etruscan dominance over Rome and Latium was based on an erroneous assumption concerning developments further south in Campania, unsupported by archaeological evidence and contrary to all textual sources.

A different situation occurred in Campania. An area of Protovillanovan and Villanovan deposits is located around Salerno and to the southeast. Once again there is the suggestion of a local Villanovan culture arising from an indigenous people. But the Villanovan deposits in that area then ended. At Picentia (Pontecagnano) cemetaries attest to local developments from the ninth to the middle of the sixth centuries. Another area of later Villanovan deposits is then found in an area around Salerno and to the northeast. This later Villanovan area is associated with the arrival of Etruscans, for which there is some textual evidence. The area was first inhabited by a Fosse Grave people (see the Siculi below) and urban development began after the arrival of the Greeks in the latter part of the eight century. Trade between the Greeks and Etruria began shortly afterward, with some Etruscan artifacts found in the area dating to around 650 BCE. Shortly before 550 BCE there is an influx of Etruscan material, beginning in the coastal area and then moving inland.


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