Archaic Italy : The Messapians and Greeks
by: M. Moravius Horatius Piscinus
The Italian Neolithic began in Apulia, brought across the Adriatic from the Old European core area in the Balkans. Contact by Mycenae with Apulia was very early, Mycenean wares from other parts of southern Italy and Sicily dating to around 1500 BCE. The Greeks first established a colony (apoikia) at Pithecusae on the Isle of Ischia around 770 BCE, and shortly afterwards they were invited by the local populace to establish an emporion across the bay at Cumae. Greeks established settlements in Apulia around 750 BCE, the most important becoming Tarentum. Still later a migration from Illyria is thought to have brought the Messapic language to Apulia in the seventh century. Messapian is an Indo-European language, Illyrian rather than Italian. With all the contact from eastern regions, sustained longer than any other region in Italy, Apulia nonetheless remained the least progressive region of Italy. Dark burnished ware, in typical Apennine forms, are found at Coppa Nevigata well into its Iron Age. At Scoglio del Tonno the same Apennine tradition continued unchanged until that community was abandoned in 706 BCE, its populace absorbed into Greek Taras. At Torre Castelluccia a local ware, derived from Mycenaean examples, developed alongside traditional Apennine pottery. Torre Castelluccia evolved into the Apulian Geometric wheel-turned buff ware, painted with red or purplish brown, later transforming the Apulian Geometric into the Daunian, Pecetian, and Messapian wares, respectively distributed in northern, central, and southern Apulia. From Borgo Nuovo is an eight-century cache of votive deposits exhibiting the transition from the Torre Castelluccia Ware to the seventh century Messapic wares. Yet among the cache is also found Apennine vessels. At Torre Castelluccia itself there continued to be produced the traditional Apennine wares down to the Roman period beginning in the third century.

Apulian gravesites also exhibit a conservatism. Throughout most of Apulia are found specchie, dolmens, menhirs, and other megalithic remains. The specchie are cairns measuring up to thirty feet across and six feet high, containing stone slabs forming an inner dolmenic chamber, and an entrance passage suggesting they were derived from megalithic Gallery Graves. However these contained single burials, rather than the collective burials associated with Gallery Graves. The specchie contained Apennine wares, but also distinctive forms of fibulae that attest to their use during the Iron Age. Another form of cairns piled up to fifty feet in height, also referred to as specchie, do not have gravesites or any associated wares. At least one had an exterior stairway, suggesting they may have been used as watchtowers. While no datable wares are found within these type of specchie, beneath them on the surface where they stood are found shards that show they were not built before the Iron Age.

Archaeological evidence provides no clues as to when the Messapians may have arrived in Apulia. There is no break in local wares, indeed in some areas there is not found a break until the arrival of the Romans. What developments can be found clearly stem from contact with Greeks at Taranto rather than a distinct influx of Messapians from present-day Albania and Montenegro. For example, a sixth century painted Messapic trozzella depicts Greek Hercules (Lecce – Museo "S. Castromediano"). In the grotto of Poesia Piccolo a Roca are found inscriptions dating from the eight to the second centuries, written in Messapic, Greek, and Latin. Messapic texts refer to a divinity called Thator Andirahas, who appears in Latin texts as Tutor Adraius. So there was a local mythology, a deity whose name, at least in Latin, suggests a cultural hero who taught mysteries or perhaps the arts of civilization. He may have been identified with Hercules, as such cultural heroes were in other parts of Italy. Such remains tell only when Messapian began to be written, not when Messapian speaking people may have arrived in Apulia. During the Second Punic War much of Apulia had joined with Hannibal against Rome, and subsequently received harsh treatment from the Romans. At least by 100 BCE if not earlier, Messapian was no longer spoken in the region.

Greek influence at Rome began very early, and may in fact have been a cause for the founding of Rome. That is, merchants sailing up the Tiber to trade at what later became the Forum Boarium acted as a stimulus to the population growth that brought villages of Latins and Sabines, and possibly Etruscans, together to found Rome. Initially these merchants were Phoenicians, but were soon joined by Greeks from Pithecusae. In the same way, trade with the eastern Mediterranean stimulated urbanization in Etruria. The region known as Magna Graecia would be best covered elsewhere, but cannot go unnoticed here in a survey of Archaic Italy. Greek colonization began in the eight century, eventually to spread over much of the coastal region of southern Italy and Sicily. While these settlements became predominantly Greek in culture, their population was a mixture of Greeks with indigenous peoples. Mention was made above of Cumae as being first founded by a pre-Italic Ausonian people, later to adopt a Greek culture before eventually being seized by Oscan Sabellians. Nola is another example of a town first founded in 801 BCE by Ausonian Calcides. Greeks eventually settled there and named the town Hyria. By 400 Hyria had come under Oscan control, renamed as Nuv-la, before Rome seized control of Nola in 314. Between 524-474 Etruscans entered northern Campania, displacing some of the Greek colonies. Later still Oscan expansion overran most of southern Italy. Tarentum was defeated by Oscan Iapygians in 473, while on the Tyrrhenian coast only Velia and Neapolis remained Greek cities until around 400. Rome first entered Magna Graecia in 343 to initiate the First Samnite War. By 211, with Marcellus’ capture of Syracusa, Rome extended its rule over the last independent Greek colony. In spite of Oscan and then Roman political control, the region retained a strong Greek identity. Greek was probably the lingua franca in the region during the Principate, and was the language of certain towns of southern Italy even in the twentieth century.

While the region of Magna Graecia may be characterized as Greek in culture, it was not the same as was found in Mainland Greece. Locally produced pottery from Tarentum replicated Attic ware, but depicted mythological scenes unknown from Classical Greek myth. Distinctive styles of pottery and painting emerged in Magna Graecia that, like the Locrian cultus of Phersephatta mentioned above, were in part originated by the indigenous Italic element in these "Greek" cities. The nature of Magna Graecia being both Greek and Italic should be kept in mind when considering some of the "Greek" influences noted as arriving in Rome. For example, it is often pointed to that Cicero claimed the rites of Ceres performed at her Aventine temple were Greek (pro Balbo 55), and that Pliny pointed to the temple’s decoration by Greek artisans (Hist. Nat. 35.154). However Roman Ceres had a greater affinity with her Oscan counterpart Kerri, than with Greek Demeter. The Greek rites mentioned by Cicero were introduced around 217 BCE and reflect a Sabellian cultus moreso than the Greek. One of the Greek artists Pliny mentions has a name that may refer to an Italic goddess. Much of the Greek influence on Republican Rome came via Campania from the cities of Capua, Cumae, and Rome’s chief port of Puteoli (until Ostia was developed during the imperial period). To consider them Greek cities is to neglect that they were predominantly Oscan in population, and ruled by Oscans when Rome came into contact with them. Direct contact between Rome and Greece had earlier existed and grew ever more strong after 196 BCE. But in the Archaic period Greek influence on Rome arrived predominantly from Etruria at first, and then from Magna Graecia.
© 2001-2018 Societas Via Romana