Ancient History & Civilisation


The main Early Iron Age population of Italy has been named Villanovan, after a typical site discovered in 1853 at Villanova near Bologna, and it had reached its peak by the mid-eighth century BC. However, both the process and the dating of the merging of the Bronze into the Villanovan period remain obscure in detail, and archaeologists bridge this interval of some four hundred years in different ways: some would date the beginning of the Iron Age back to 1000, others place the transition about 900, while others again bring it down to about 800 by postulating Sub-Apennine and Proto-Villanovan periods to fill the gap. One main factor is the date of the appearance in Italy of the Urnfields which as we have seen spread widely north of the Alps from the mid-thirteenth century onwards, while some similar influences may have reached Italy from Illyria across the Adriatic.10 At any rate there was a gradual increase in the uniformity of culture in Italy which began to spread from the mid-twelfth century, as we have seen (p. 10). Its early manifestations occur at Pianello and at Timmari in Apulia in the south, and cremation cemeteries appear throughout the peninsula. But while aspects of their pottery and metalwork link them strongly to the Central European Urnfields, some of their products foreshadow those of the later Villanovans; hence this period (c. 1100–900 perhaps) has been called Proto-Villanovan. Greater skill in metallurgy was acquired, particularly in the making of sheet-bronze for buckets, helmets and greaves, while pottery developed, as did the use fibulae. Although some archaeologists date the beginning of the Early Iron Age at 900 BC, there was no dramatic change overnight, and the new metal came into use only very gradually. The later Villanovans fully exploited the rich iron deposits of Tuscany, and iron was employed for many everyday implements; nevertheless, bronze continued in constant use, particularly in decorative work. There remains one final question to which archaeologists can offer no certain and agreed answer: who were the essential antecedents of the Villanovans or, more crudely, who were the Villanovans? One view is that they came by sea from the Balkan area, some sailing up the Adriatic to the Po valley, others coming round the foot of Italy to the west coast and Etruria; some scholars would say that they developed from the Terramara people, others that they represent a local evolution of the Apennine culture, whilst others again stress the Central European connections. It is certainly not improbable that a fresh group of northerners came down into Italy and thus helped to transform the existing cultures in the Proto-Villanovan period into the fully-fledged culture of the Iron-Age Villanovans. If so, it would not have been a matter of mass movements (as it was with the Dorians who were invading Greece at about this time), but rather of gradual penetration, so that the resultant culture did not represent a monolithic ethnic unit.

Villanovans, or at any rate Villanovan culture, spread down the east coast of Italy as far as Rimini, but reached no further than this because of the survivors of the inhuming Apennine culture, which persisted into the Iron Age and was subjected in Picenum to the immigration of ‘warrior’ Illyrians from across the Adriatic. As a result, the Villanovans were forced into Tuscany and Latium, west of a line from Rimini to Rome. Archaeologists distinguish two main groups: the northern Villanovans around Bologna, who flourished from c. 800 to 400 BC, and the southern Villanovans of Tuscany and northern Latium, who settled as far south as the Alban Hills and at Rome, where they occupied the Palatine and used the Forum as a cemetery. In the north an outlying settlement was established at Fermo in the Marche near the Adriatic, but in the south expansion from Latium was more extensive and reached as far as the district around Salerno. All these Villanovans shared a common culture and practised cremation: they placed the ashes of the dead in an urn which they put into a round hole in the ground, sometimes enclosed by stones, and with it were laid ornaments, such as brooches, bracelets and razors, though not many weapons. But there were naturally some local differences: the northerners covered their biconical cinerary urns with inverted pottery bowls, while some Villanovans in Etruria used helmets (metal, or pottery copies) for this purpose; in other parts of Etruria and in Latium and the south, urns modelled like huts replaced the northern type of ossuary.

The largest settlement of the northern group was at Bologna, which held a strategic position astride the early trade routes. In return for the copper, and later the iron, that came from Tuscany, it exported manufactured metalwork as well as agricultural products: by the eighth century it had become ‘the Birmingham of early Italy’. Commerce increased, chiefly by land, though there was some shipping trade. Artistic skill and prosperity advanced hand in hand, while the womenfolk seem to have made increasing claims for personal adornments. Villages began to cluster together, forming larger communities which, although not yet to be regarded as towns (except possibly at Bologna), gave increased economic strength. The gens may now have begun to replace the family as the more important social unit. The arts of peace were cultivated; swords and spears have not been found in the tombs in such numbers as to suggest widespread warlike activity, although this may have increased somewhat later in the sixth century. No ‘warrior class’ apparently existed; at most there was a citizen militia. For long these Villanovans remained comparatively free from the orientalizing and Greek influences which were spreading among the southern group in Tuscany, but even when these increased in the later sixth century the northerners did not respond by developing into ‘Etruscans’ like the southerners. Indeed, when in about 500 BC the Etruscans advanced northwards over the Apennines to found Felsina on the site of modern Bologna, very near the existing Villanovan settlement, the two peoples remained curiously aloof from one another. The reason why the northern Villanovans were not transmuted into ‘Etruscans’ while the southerners in Tuscany were so changed is closely bound up with the question of Etruscan origins, which is discussed below. However, soon afterwards Villanovan culture declined and in the early fourth century the area fell to invading Celts.

The southern Villanovans in early times shared essentials of culture with the northerners: agriculture was the basis of life for the village communities, while the developing metal industry led to greater economic growth. The huts in which they lived can be reconstructed from their clay replica cinerary urns, and the foundations of three huts have been found on the Palatine at Rome (see pp. 39f.). They were roughly rectangular in shape and cut into the tufa rock; the disposition of the post-holes indicates the arrangement of the wooden superstructure, which had walls of wattle and daub. Remains of charcoal and ash attest a hearth inside the hut, while fragments of cooking-stands, smoke-blackened household utensils and charred animal bones reveal the nature of family meals and life of the early Romans. Clusters of such huts formed village settlements, and recent excavations at Veii in Etruria, some twelve miles north of Rome, show how several such villages built around a strong-point on a hill later fused into a unified town settlement.11 This seems to show a greater instinct in the Villanovans for social development than was previously realized. Other changes occurred: while they retained their practice of putting their cremation urns at the bottom of a pit (pozzo), from about 750 BCinhumation began to appear beside cremation, the bodies being placed in trenches (a fossa). The objects in the graves became finer and included more imports, including Greek vases, now that the Greeks were beginning to establish colonies in southern Italy. In the seventh century inhumation became normal in Tuscany and the dead were placed in chamber-tombs cut into the rock. The grave-goods became even richer; Greek and Oriental imports including gold and silver work increased, as did the use of iron. This orientalizing phase in art was seen first in the settlements near the coast, and spread inland only very slowly. Villanovan culture was being transformed: villages were growing into wealthy cities and men were beginning to use the Etruscan language. Whether this was due merely to the influx of new cultural influences or to the arrival of the Etruscans from overseas is discussed below (pp. 23f.). It is very remarkable that whereas the northern Villanovans retained their own culture until they died out, those of the southern group who lived north of the Tiber became Etruscan.

South of the Tiber the Villanovan settlements fall into two groups: one in Latium, the other around Salerno. The former, which is now sometimes distinguished as ‘Latial’, is found at Rome, on the Alban Hills and elsewhere. A substratum of Apennine culture was overlaid by incoming Villanovans, who in turn were later reinforced by some representatives of the Fossa culture; these developments are discussed below (pp. 33–4). Evidence for the still more southerly group has come to light only in recent years with the discovery of a series of Villanovan cemeteries: at Sala Consilana in the Valle di Diano (about a thousand graves), at Capodifiume near Paestum, at Pontecagnano south-east of Salerno and at Capua in two cemeteries of the eighth to seventh centuries. Although these settlements were gradually infiltrated by other elements and finally absorbed by the native population, their extent is surprising.12

Beside the Villanovans two other main kindred groups who cremated their dead can be distinguished in North Italy from about 900 BC onwards: the Golasecca culture and the Atestine, the former around Lake Maggiore, in Piedmont and Lombardy, and around Lake Como, where regional differences occur; the latter around Este (ancient Ateste) in Venetia. The Golaseccans, unlike the Atestines and Villanovans of Bologna, had a warrior class, as is clear from the chariots and weapons found in the graves of some of their chieftains. In the fifth century trade increased with the Etruscan and Greek areas; Celtic penetration followed and then final absorption by Rome. While the Golaseccans may originally have entered Italy from over the Alps, the Atestines probably came from Illyria under the impulse of the movement of peoples which led to the Dorian invasion of Greece. Although they show fewer traces of a sharp distinction between rich and poor than do the Golaseccans, their metal work almost rivals that of the northern Villanovans. Their pictorially decorated bronze buckets (situlae) provide splendid scenes of everyday life, involving ploughmen, huntsmen, soldiers, charioteers, boxers and banqueters.13 Their language, which was written in an alphabet derived from the Etruscan, was Indo-European and closely related to Latin, as is shown by inscriptions which are found on offerings to Reitia, a goddess of healing. In the fourth century their culture became so Celticized that Polybius described the second-century Veneti as practically indistinguishable from the Celts except in language. Although they had by then come under Roman control, their language and customs survived into Christian times.

There is still some doubt about the Ligurians, whom the classical writers placed in a wide area from southern France to the western part of the plain of the Po valley; archaeology has supplied no clear evidence for a single culture over such a great stretch of country after the Neolithic Age. Probably Neolithic man was pressed back into the mountains by invaders who spoke an Indo-European tongue, since this was the language in Liguria in classical times. From the beginning of the Iron Age, Urnfield elements are strong, and some settlements on the coast run parallel to the culture of Golasecca, Bologna and Este. These coastal people enjoyed a fairly rich culture, thanks to trade, while those who lived in the mountains (possibly descendants of the Neolithic people) remained wild and backward even into Roman times.

Contrasted with these cremating peoples are various groups of Iron Age cultures in which inhumation was practised. (a) The Picenes of the Adriatic coast and Umbria (roughly the present-day region of the Marche). Recent excavations at Ancona illustrate their domestic life and supplement our knowledge derived from the famous cemeteries at Novilara near Pesaro. The Picenes were probably invaders from Illyria who mingled with the indigenous population; their language, as recorded later, was Indo-European and akin to Illyrian. They were a warrior race; their cemeteries contain an extraordinary number of weapons, and stelae of the sixth century depict their ships in battle, presumably protecting their trade in the Adriatic. By 500 BC this trade included the importing of many Greek works from Apulia and Tarentum and also of amber. A seventh-century rich woman’s grave at Novilara illustrates their wealth. (b) The Fossa Grave culture of Campania and Calabria, named from its trench graves, which first appeared during the final stages of the Late Bronze Age. One such trench-grave cemetery of the tenth or ninth century was found at Cumae, at the foot of a hill. On this hill was an important settlement which traded as far north as Etruria and as far south as Calabria and Sicily; it imported Greek pottery probably of the ninth century, and also shows traces of Villanovan influence. Other Fossa culture settlements are known on the offshore islands of Ischia (Pithecusae) and Vivara, where they succeeded to Apennine villages. However, about the mid-eighth century, as we shall see (p. 20), the settlements at both Cumae and Ischia were superseded by the arrival of Greek colonists. The Fossa sites in Calabria are closely linked to others in Sicily: this accords with the Greek tradition, preserved by Hellanicus in the fifth century, that when Greek colonists reached eastern Sicily in the late eighth century they encountered a people named the Siculi who had recently come to Sicily from southern Italy. (c) The peoples of Apulia in the heel of Italy, who were later known to the Romans as Daunians, Peucetians and Messapians. Since Greek legend attributed an Illyrian origin to Daunus, Iapyx and Peucetius, and since Illyrian tribal and place names recur in Messapia, these tribes were probably of Illyrian origin. After the founding of Taras and other Greek colonies in south Italy they increasingly came under the influence of this superior culture, but continued to produce distinctive pottery: Daunian ware (c. 600–450) was fanciful and even grotesque.

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