Ancient History & Civilisation

5. THE ITALIC PEOPLES

Such in brief is the picture drawn by the archaeologist. But there are other strands of evidence, both literary and linguistic. The names of the various peoples which are recorded in written history are almost numerous enough to give the racial map of pre-Roman Italy the appearance of a mosaic, while remains of numerous dialects and varying alphabets exist. These three strands of evidence, however, cannot always be woven into as neat a pattern as might be desired. For instance, the pre-Etruscan inhabitants of Etruria were called Ombrikoi, but it must not necessarily be assumed that they spoke the dialect known as Umbrian or that they are to be equated with the southern Villanovans of the archaeologists. Archaeology sometimes supplements linguistics by providing inscriptions, but not, unfortunately, for the beginning of the Iron Age, when the peoples of Italy were illiterate and therefore left no inscriptions. What languages they spoke can only be inferred by arguing backwards from the later known tongues of Italy.

Within the widespread variety of Indo-European languages philologists used to distinguish an Italic-Celtic group, and concluded that the ancestors of the Italic peoples and of the Celts of historical times had once lived together in immediate contact for a long period, but this view is now regarded as improbable. In any case the Celts did not try to press into Italy until the fifth century, while the Italic dialects, wherever they originated, had been spoken in Italy for many centuries before that. Here two main groups of Italic speakers appeared, differing in dialect and fortune, but alike in temperament, social organization, and religious outlook: the Latins and the Umbro-Sabellians (the term ‘Italic dialects’ is strictly applied only to the latter, but it is convenient to include the kindred Latin and indeed all Indo-European languages of the peninsula).14 The Latins were a relatively small group who were gradually driven into the coastal plain of Latium to the east and south of the Tiber and were hemmed around by other peoples; they remained essentially a lowland race, soon outstripping their kinsmen in the less fertile hills thanks to their geographical position which favoured the growth of city life and common action. One branch, the Falisci, thrust themselves like a wedge into southern Etruria. To the south and east of Latium proper was a group of tribes, the Marsi, Aequi and Hernici, who used the Latinian tongue, although the Marsi and Aequi probably originally spoke dialects of the Osco-Umbrian group. Further south the indigenous population of Campania, the Ausones (or Aurunci), seem to have used, before the spread of Latin, a dialect similar to that of the Volsci (Osco-Umbrian group ?); they also appear originally to have been called Opici or Osci, before they were overwhelmed in the mid-fifth century by the Sabellian highlanders of Samnium and Lucania (see pp. 98f.) whose language in turn (confusingly) became known as Oscan.

The Umbro-Sabellian speaking peoples, who lived east of the Latins, occupied the mountains and evolved a lower type of political organization. Separated by valleys and hills, they only united in face of common danger, and had no towns comparable with the cities of the plains, which were organized into federal leagues for self-protection. But the various tribes were at least united by a common tongue, Safine or Osco-Umbrian, which divided them sharply from the Latins: thus Oscan pod contrasts with Latin quod(cf. the Brythonic Celts who used p where the Goidelic used q) and whereas the Latin for fire was ignis Umbrian used pur (cf. the Greek for fire). From this speech derivative dialects are known, Volscian and Umbrian, the latter being represented by the Iguvine Tables, the liturgy of a sacred brotherhood.15 The names of these tribes usually had the suffix- ni (thus Vestini, Sabini, Marrucini, Paeligni, Frentani, Safineis) (as the Samnites called themselves), Hirpini and Lucani). This is in contrast with the older and rarer suffix - ci or -tes (as in Osci). The process of domination is seen in the transformation of the Marruci and Ardeates into the Marrucini and Ardeatini. From their mountain fastnesses the Samnites and Lucani later descended to harass and supplant the cities of Campania and the toe of Italy. Naturally the distribution of these peoples and dialects was not accomplished in a short period, but it was accelerated by a custom called the Sacred Spring (ver sacrum), by which all living creatures born in a given year were vowed to a deity; all the boys and girls thus dedicated were obliged, when grown up, to leave their homes and seek fresh territory.16

How these various peoples were related to the Bronze Age Villanovan folk is uncertain: there is no unbroken bridge between the prehistoric and historical peoples, no firm interlocking between the archaeological and linguistic evidence. While it is generally agreed that the Italic dialects originated from a common source, which most would find more immediately in the Danube area, it is less clear how they reached Italy, whether by land or sea (though Venetic in the north and Messapic in the south were almost certainly brought by Illyrians from across the Adriatic). Their arrival may have involved the immigration of large numbers of people; or they may have spread mainly through the infiltration of small numbers. If they were the result of mass movements, the individual dialects may have arisen either before or after their speakers arrived in Italy. Such speculations have evoked varied answers. According to what was for long the generally accepted view, two waves of Indo-European speakers crossed the Alps into Italy; first the cremators who settled west of a line from Rimini to just south of Rome, and secondly the inhumers who settled east of this line. But since the inhuming Italici have left no traces in north Italy, this half of the theory must be abandoned (we will return to the other part below). Rather, the Osco-Sabellian dialects will have emerged in the old Bronze Age Apennine culture with the infiltration of a relatively small number of speakers, since there is no need to presuppose a mass immigration, from whatever precise direction they came.

The settlers west of the Rimini-Rome line, namely Terramaricoli, Villanovans and Latins, came probably from the north and spoke Indo-European. The view that the Urnfield culture reached Etruria by sea from the east rather than by land from the north is far less acceptable. Another theory is that the Villanovans did not come from anywhere but were autochthonous, and that their culture was a native growth, based on Apennine culture which absorbed Urnfield elements brought (perhaps by land and sea) by immigrants in such small numbers as to make no basic ethnic change; in that case the Indo-European dialects could have reached Italy in successive waves from across the Adriatic, as has been suggested.17 However, the idea of a northern origin still seems tenable, and ‘Villanovan’ is best used to denote a common culture rather than to suggest a somewhat rigid and unified racial and linguistic block.

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