Archaic Italy : The Picenes
by: M. Moravius Horatius Piscinus
The territory of the Picenes was roughly that of the present day province of Marche. Within their territory are found sites of mixed cultures. Inland from Rimini, a cemetery at Verucchio showed an intermingling of Villanovans and Picenes. There was also the wholly Villanovan urnfield at Fermo within the Picene region. Further south towards Abruzzia is found a mixture of Osco-Picenes, and elsewhere is Umbro-Picenes sites. Across the Adriatic, too, there was close contact between Picenes and Illyrians, both in their material cultures and in their languages. Across the northern Adriatic the Picenes engaged in both trade and piracy, sailing in low, long boats having a very tall, serpentine bowsprit and a water-level ram, propelled by a square sail on a single mast. A depiction of such Picene vessels is found on a sixth century funerary stela.
Found in Picene cemeteries are Villanovan bronzes, trapezoidal plates with duck heads in the upper corners that are a Halstatt motif from across the Alps, and bronze fibulae of a type from the Balkans, yet found nowhere else in Italy. Then too there is found an abundance of Baltic amber and some African ivory. The wealth of the Picenes can be seen in the grave of a woman from Novilara, now in the Pigorini Museum, Rome. Atop her head was placed a bronze diadem, along with two fibulae at her temples to suggest that a head-cloth was held in place. From either ear hung three amber discs, each 2 inches across. A great number of small glass and bone beads formed an elaborate necklace, held in place over her breasts by two bone spacer plates with circle decorations. On her right sleeve were diamond-shaped bone pendants hanging from bronze rings. On her left sleeve were amber trapezoidal pendants and two seashells. A bronze bracelet graced her left wrist, as did a bronze ring on the middle finger of her left hand. Over her left hip dangled a bronze pendant from her belt, with chains hanging down below her knee. Another smaller bronze pendant was held by a large bronze fibula on her sleeve at her left elbow. Large iron rings were around her ankles, and bronze rings on her toes. With her were found ten terracotta vessels of different forms from various parts of Italy, a decorated spindle whorl and three bobbins, six large iron rings, a bronze and bone pendant, two small horse-shaped ornaments, and a variety of fibulae together with bows of bronze, amber, and ivory. The fibulae found in Picene gravesites are a mixture of a violin-bow type from the Bronze Age, and a boat-shaped type from a later period, however, without the arc fibulae found elsewhere that denotes the interphase between the final Bronze Age and early Iron Age.
Within Ancona there was found a settlement site with stratified deposits. This site provided coarse kitchen wares, minor tools, spears and swords, along with domestic animal bones; deposits not found in Picene graves. The main value of the site was that its earliest strata demonstrated the continuity between the Bronze Age Apennine culture with that of the Iron Age Picene and Villanova. Picene pottery is the dark impasto ware that came into fashion during the Neolithic. A common form of Picene pottery is a globular bowl with a bridge handle arching above the rim. Atop the arching bridge is a semicircular flange, flat on the bottom, its rounded top decorated with incised lines forming a cross. One such bowl was found in the woman’s gravesite from Novilara. Variations had other decorative devices attached to the bridge handle - an upturned crescent, a form resembling deer antlers, and a form resembling opened scissors. All of these Picene pottery forms are found within the earlier Apennine culture. Also found at Ancona was a bone awl handle decorated with circular designs found on Apennine wares. A common means of decorating pottery was to impress rope into the soft clay before firing, the Picenes doing so in the same manner as the Villanovans.
The artifacts found in Picene sites, arriving from diverse and distant regions, the affinity between the Picene and the trans-Adriatic Illyrians, and the depictions of their ships, all attest to the Picene being primarily a seafaring people. Yet they do not seem to have ventured far down the Adriatic coast in either Italy or Illyria, preferring instead to remain in the north Adriatic where they could prey upon the amber trade. Several Picene sites show that they lived in communities with mixed cultures, yet their distinguishing feature was that they were very conservative, retaining Bronze Age forms and motifs in both their pottery and fibulae. Contact with other peoples, even adoption of iron making did not alter the Picene from being essentially a Bronze Age culture until the arrival of the Romans into their region. Roughly around 100 BCE the Picene language had died out. Prior to the enfranchisement of the Picene in 89 BCE, following the Social War, there was a noteworthy orator from Picene who Cicero mentions having published his Latin orations (Brutus 169). Part of the war trophies taken by the Romans in the fall of Asculum included several books, presumably in Latin and Greek. The Picene elite, and the literate, to be sure, had already adopted Roman culture before Rome extended its political control over the region. But Romanization extended further down into Picene society, as we hear of comedies performed in the chief town of Asculum given in Latin to mixed audiences of Romans and Picene before the Social War (Diod. Sic. 37.12).
D. Trump, Central and Southern Italy Before Rome, 1965.