Ancient History & Civilisation


Latium was for long years inimical to man. The coastal plain, a late creation in geological time, was subject to flooding, while the Ciminian and Alban Hills displayed volcanic activity as late as 1000 BC; more than fifty craters can be found within twenty-five miles of Rome. When finally the volcanoes had died down and had covered the area with an ash rich in phosphates and potash, cultivation of the soil still remained impracticable until the jungle growth had formed a surface soil containing nitrogenous matter. This was soon provided by the forests which spread rapidly over the hills and gave Latium a different appearance and climate from today, when the wheat is harvested in June and the Roman Campagna is bare and parched in the summer months; then harvest-time was in July. As late as the third century BC Theophrastus wrote that Latium was well-watered: the plain bore laurel, myrtle and beech trees, the hills fir and pine, while oaks flourished on the Circeian promontory. This difference of moisture in ancient and modern times is probably due to the later deforestation of the hills behind Latium, rather than to a supposed rainy age in classical times. Thus a rich soil, provided by volcanic ash and vegetation, and a moist subsoil, provided by the forest reservoirs, rendered Latium habitable, and men settled south of the Tiber on that semicircle of hills, the dominating positions of which were later controlled by the towns of Tibur, Praeneste and Aricia.42

Man did not appear in Latium until relatively late, and then in small and scattered settlements. Traces of Palaeolithic occupation are rare: they include some remains of Neanderthal man near Rome, and a cave near Tivoli used for several millennia by Upper Palaeolithic people. Continuing volcanic activity may have made Latium unattractive during the Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages: traces of ‘Apennine’ material are only sporadic although they do reveal a settlement on the site of Rome itself (p. 39). However, despite a few traces of evidence at Lavinium and near Ardea, any continuing links with the Iron Age are as yet slender: the population explosion in the early Iron Age suggests new settlers from outside. This new culture, now known as ‘Latial’ rather than ‘southern Villanovan’, spread to Rome, the Alban Hills and southwards to Terracina. As we have seen (pp. 14–15) it closely resembled the Villanovan culture of Etruria, though cinerary urns shaped like the huts of the inhabitants were used (as in southern Etruria, in contrast with the biconical urns of northern Etruria). This new people imposed itself on any ‘Apennine’ stratum that survived, but it was soon reinforced by representatives of the inhuming Fossa culture from the south (p. 16). This new mixture marks the beginning of the Iron Age in Latium, which some archaeologists place as early as 1000 BC, others as late as 800; perhaps 900 may be nearer the mark. It lasted for a considerable time, but it began to change when the Etruscans expanded southwards.43

Cemeteries of these Latin villages have been found in Rome (these are discussed in the next chapter) and on the western and southern slopes of the isolated Alban Hills which rise up from the plain some thirteen miles south of Rome and whose extinct craters formed the lakes of Albano and Nemi. Other Latins settled at Ardea, Antium, Satricum and other centres, large and small. Although Rome was traditionally founded as a colony of Alba Longa, archaeological evidence does not support the primacy of Alba. An important site, discovered in 1972, lay at Castel di Decima, some ten miles south of Rome, which is almost certainly ancient Politorium which the Roman king Ancus Marcius is said to have conquered. Of the 115 Fossa tombs excavated, the earliest is c. 740–20, most belong to the first half of the seventh century, and none is later than c. 600; this accords well with the traditional capture by Ancus. Many of the tombs are rich; four contained chariots, and in one of these (c. 700) a richly adorned woman was buried. Another recent identification is Ficana on Monte Cugno between Rome and Ostia, whose tombs suggest a settlement similar to that at Decima; here there is also some Bronze Age material. Other sites where excavation is throwing new light on Latin settlements are at La Rustica (= Caenina?) north-east of Rome, and at Osteria dell’Osa to the east of Rome, not very far from Gabii, where the remains in the cemetery (the majority inhumations) run from the ninth to the seventh centuries.44 Thus our knowledge of early Latium is rapidly expanding, and Latial culture is now divided into three groups, Boschetto, Alba and Campagna, in accordance with local variations – though these need not be detailed here since resemblances far exceed minor differences.

The lack of material wealth and of harbours meant that the early Latins did not advance quite so quickly as the Northern Villanovans, but they began to enter into the wider life of Italy from about 700 BC. At first perhaps given to war and plunder and for long remaining semi-nomadic herdsmen, they gradually became essentially agriculturalists, growing wheat, millet and, later, barley; the vine was probably not cultivated until the Etruscan period, and the olive was a later arrival, but the fig was grown in early times. Pigs, sheep and oxen and perhaps goats were raised; the horse came later. Timber was a valuable source of wealth. The population soon grew large, as shown by the smallness of individual land-holdings (2 iugera or 1⅓ acres) and also by the extensive drainage works, tunnels and dams which were constructed partly for irrigation, but mainly to prevent the rainwater sweeping the precious soil down the hillsides: volcanic rock is easily dried up and washed away. Some of the larger works like those below Velitrae, or theemissariumof the Alban Lake, may be inspired by somewhat later Etruscan example, but they testify to the value set on preserving the fertile soil. While they were busy clearing the forests and cultivating the ground, many of the Latins settled in villages, congregating on hills to find protection against man and beast and to escape the unhealthiness of the plain. Here they lived, as Varro says, ‘in huts and cabins and knew not the meaning of a wall or gate’. The appearance of their huts is shown by their cinerary urns, while the process by which separate settlements coalesced into one large village is illustrated by the growth of early Rome (pp. 40–1). Each village (vicus), which may have been strengthened by a wooden palisade, had a pagus, the extended area in which its inhabitants carried on their pastoral or agricultural work, but sometimes various vici might hold a pagus in common and thus become linked in cantons. The vici were probably organized on the basis of clans (gentes), but the strongest social unit was thefamilia or household in which thepater-familias or eldest living male held almost absolute control. Surviving lists of Latin populi suggest some forty or fifty early villages, while the Prisci Latini (‘Original Latins’) are given as thirty.45

The fact that all these small settlements shared a common language must have helped to develop a sense of unity. This was also fostered by common religious practices and led on to some common action in other fields. The Latins, who used to gather for a spring festival at the very ancient shrine of Jupiter Latiaris on Monte Cavo, the summit of the Alban Hills, formed a League which was probably fairly extensive; but although the leadership passed from Alba to Rome, the League probably remained of chiefly religious significance and did not provide a framework through which Rome could exercise political hegemony in Latium. Other gropings after unity are found in the common cults of Venus at Lavinium and of Diana near Tusculum, at shrines common to all the Latins at Ardea and Lavinium, and more especially the cult of Diana at Aricia at the source of Aqua Ferentina. While some historians try to explain some of these leagues as the various stages in the growth of one single Latin League, more probably several co-existed. Of these the Arician federation attained considerable importance in the sixth century. The primitive state of these early cults is illustrated by the worship of Diana at Nemi, where the golden bough grew; amid the forests lurked the rex nemorensis, ‘the priest who slew the slayer, and shall himself be slain.’ But it is the political potentialities of these federations that are important in the history of Italy.46

With the coming of the Etruscans Latium entered upon a new phase (c. 650), but although it was subjected to Etruscan cultural influences it remained essentially Latin, since the Latin language survived almost untouched. The Etruscans encouraged agriculture, large drainage works, industry and commerce, and they promoted synoecisms. Thus Latium was swept into a wider world. Further, Greek ideas were reaching it from the south, and it is not always easy to determine whether any particular gift, above all that of the alphabet, came direct from the south or was mediated through the Etruscans. Nor can we establish the extent of direct Etruscan political influence, except at Rome which was governed by Etruscan kings during the sixth century (pp. 48ff.). But though evidence for direct rule is lacking in other Latin cities, the general promotion of city life by the Etruscans need not be questioned. Latin Praeneste, which may have formed a key point in the Etruscan advance southwards since it commands the route to the Liris valley, was clearly subjected to Etruscan influences. Its two famous tombs, the Bernardini and Barberini, contain princely gold and bronze objects which resemble those of a similar Etruscan tomb at Caere of c. 650, yet a gold fibula which may have come from one of them bears an inscription written in Latin (‘Manios made me for Numasios’). Until very recently these tombs were often regarded as the resting-places of Etruscan nobles, but since the richness of the tombs of other Latin cities such as Decima has now been revealed, the finds at Praeneste may reflect a wider social-economic background existing throughout Latium rather than providing evidence for the direct intrusion of Etruscan princes. At the same time the genuineness of the Latin inscription on the fibula has been seriously questioned. The names of some Latin cities, as Tusculum, Velitrae, and Tarracina, seem to link them with the Etruscans, but how far Etruscan political domination extended is uncertain. However, the earliest treaty between Rome and Carthage of c. 509 BC (p. 144) suggests that the Etruscan rulers of Rome may have exercised some control over Ardea, Antium, Circeii, Tarracina and perhaps Lavinium.47

A striking witness to Latium’s wider contacts is provided by the emergence of a new architectural form, the temple. At Rome, Satricum, Velitrae, Lavinium and other towns temples arose, whose gaily coloured terracotta decorations closely resemble those in Etruria and also many in Campania. Latium was becoming part of a common culture, based on Etruscan and Greek ideas. Many of the latter came via the Etruscans, but a recent discovery has emphasized the direct channel with the Greek cities of the south. A series of thirteen massive archaic stone altars was found at Lavinium (Pratica di Mare) about sixteen miles south of Rome. One altar had a bronze tablet inscribed in archaic Latin with a dedication to Castor and Pollux. This strengthens the likelihood that the cult of the Dioscuri reached Latium from the south rather than from Etruria.48 In addition to the altars Lavinium has recently produced another startling find (unpublished at the time of writing). Some fifty terracotta statues and other objects belonging to a sanctuary have been discovered. They appear to have been buried (for safety?) perhaps in the second century BC. The earliest date to the sixth century, but the majority to the fifth and fourth. The chief piece is a slightly larger than life-size statue of Minerva in battle. When this find has been properly assessed it will throw much light on the importance of early Lavinium and on the attraction of Latium to artists from Greek southern Italy. Etruscan influence lies behind the development of larger settlements: by 500 BC the original fifty or so communities had been reduced by a process of absorption to some ten or twelve, of which the largest, such as Praeneste, Tibur and Tusculum, dealt for a considerable time with Rome on equal terms. Thus Etruscan influence on Latium in the seventh and sixth centuries left permanent marks, but it was sporadic and did not undermine the basic nature of the native culture. The future of Latium lay not with Etruria but with one of its own cities, Rome.

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