Ancient History & Civilisation


In the merging of prehistory into history two other peoples played a major part in the mingling of the races in early Italy: Etruscans and Greeks. The contribution of the Phoenicians and Celts was more indirect and less significant, though of considerable importance in the wider setting of the western Mediterranean which Rome was later to dominate. The Etruscans, early Rome’s greatest rivals in Italy, are discussed in the next and following sections.

In the Bronze Age, Mycenaean Greeks, as we have seen (p. 10), traded with southern Italy and Sicily and even appear to have maintained a permanent post at Tarentum. With the fall of Mycenaean civilization in the twelfth century this link was naturally almost severed, though perhaps not completely since some tenuous Greek influence appears to have lingered on in some of the smaller settlements near Tarentum.18 But any large-scale trade was suspended for centuries, and before it was resumed the Phoenicians were extending their exploration of the western Mediterranean.

While Greece was in turmoil during its Dark Ages, groups of Phoenician merchants and colonists from Tyre, Sidon and other coastal towns of Palestine and Syria were adventuring in the western Mediterranean. The conditions of their native land had ever focused their attention on the sea rather than on the soil as a means of livelihood, while their expanding population had been harassed by the Philistines and by pressure from the Hebrews of the desert. Exploration and the establishing of small trading-posts must have preceded the founding of large settlements, but the dating of both is uncertain: several were founded traditionally as early as c. 1100 BC, but there is no archaeological evidence for Phoenician settlements in the west before the eighth century. However, the Phoenicians gradually established themselves at Utica, Carthage and other sites in North Africa, at Gades on the Atlantic coast of Spain, where they soon encountered the kingdom of Tartessus in Andalusia, rich in silver, and also on the Spanish Mediterranean coast at Malaca and Sexi. They also ventured into the Atlantic through the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) with settlements not only at Gades but also on the Moroccan coast at Lixus; from these they sailed down the African coast four hundred miles to the little island of Mogador, while northwards they tapped the tin route to Brittany and Cornwall.19 But as Phoenicia from the seventh century was gradually oppressed by the great Oriental powers, the new settlement at Carthage took the lead in the west and continued the colonizing movement as well as establishing friendly relations with the Etruscans (see pp. 142ff.).

It is just possible that the Phoenician made some small settlements (as opposed to temporary landings for trade and barter) on the coast of Italy but if so, no remains of them have yet been found. However, Phoenician influences on the development of art during the orientalizing phase in Etruria and Latium were considerable: the princely tombs at Caere and Praeneste (pp. 36f.) contain precious objects which were either imports from Phoenicia or inspired by Phoenician artists. They recall the silver mixing-bowl described by Homer: ‘Sidonians, well skilled in handiwork, had wrought it, and men of the Phoenicians brought it over the misty deep’. An attempt has been made to show that the sanctuary of the Ara Maxima of Hercules in the Cattle Market (Forum Boarium) at Rome was preceded by a temple of the Phoenician god Melqart (= Hercules) dedicated by Phoenician merchants, but this is extremely doubtful; the presupposition of an early Tyrian settlement in this Forum is even more dubious.20 The Phoenicians, however, did give Rome one priceless gift, the alphabet. The legacy was mediated through the Greeks who took over this flexible instrument and adapted it to the needs of an Indo-European language. They then naturally took it with them to their colonies in Italy, whence both Etruscans and Romans received it. Thus it was that Italy became literate and written history eventually became possible.

The precise order in which Phoenicians and Greeks began to establish themselves in the west is still hotly debated by modern scholars, but there is no question as to their relative importance in Italy. From the second half of the eighth and during the seventh and sixth centuries the Greeks of the Aegean area established a series of colonies on the coast of Sicily, and others in western and southern Italy from the Bay of Naples round to Taranto, so that this latter area became known as Magna Graecia. The earliest and most northerly colony was settled in about 760 BC by Eretrians and Chalcidians from Euboea on the island of Pithecusae (Ischia) just north of the Bay of Naples. The fact that the settlers pressed so far north up the coast when there was good agricultural land available in the south suggests that their motive (unlike that of many later Greek colonists) was not purely agricultural: they wanted to trade with the mainland and obtain copper and iron from Etruria and Elba.21 Soon afterwards some of these colonists crossed over to the mainland and established themselves at Cumae and, supplanting the older Fossa culture settlement (p. 16), became a thriving community, whence both economic and cultural influences radiated outwards in Italy. The claim of Cumae to be the place from which the Greek alphabet spread to Etruria and Rome is illustrated by an inscription on a cup found at Pithecusae, written in the Chalcidian alphabet, which proclaimed that anyone who drank from it would be inflamed by Aphrodite and alleged that the cup was superior to that of Nestor, while another inscription in the same form of lettering on an early seventh-century vase from Cumae states, ‘I am the vessel of Tataei; may anyone who steals me be struck blind’. It is significant that the owner of the first cup knew about Nestor’s cup in the Iliad (further, a scene on a locally made geometric vase showing a shipwreck could perhaps refer to Odysseus): the Greeks were bringing to Italy not only their alphabet but also the Homeric poems. In consequence, whereas at first the wanderings of Odysseus after the fall of Troy were located in the east in the regions of the Black Sea (Pontus), places mentioned in the Odyssey were later located in the west: Scylla and Charybdis were identified with the Straits of Messina, the home of Aeolus with Lipari, the rocks of the Sirens with some rocks off Positano; an entrance to the underworld was placed at Cumae, and the sorceress Circe was commemorated by the headland named Circeii in Latium. Cumae also became the home of a sibyl, the prophetess of Apollo, whose oracles were thought to contain the destinies of Rome.22

Another recent discovery which shows how Greek cultural influences began to penetrate into central Italy is a Greek sanctuary of c. 580 BC which was found, together with large quantities of Greek pottery, in the Etruscan town of Gravisca, the port of Tarquinii. This suggests a settlement of resident Greeks; early in the fifth century it was taken over and enlarged by the Etruscans. Among many inscriptions, which include dedications to Hera, Aphrodite and Demeter, is a sixth-century dedication to Apollo in the alphabet and dialect of Aegina: ‘I belong to Aeginetan Apollo; Sostratus son of … had me made’. This Sostratus is almost certainly the Aeginetan Sostratus, son of Laodamus, of whom Herodotus spoke: of all the Greek traders known to the historian he brought back the greatest wealth ‘and none could rival him’. He prospered even more than Colaeus the Samian master-mariner, who was the first Greek to reach Tartessus. It has often wrongly been assumed that Sostratus also made his profit from Tartessus, but Herodotus does not say this; the immensely rich source that Sostratus tapped now appears to have been Etruria.23 In fact, by this date Greek pottery had begun to flood central Italy; long before this another Greek trader, Demaratus, a noble of Corinth, migrated to Etruria when his native city fell into the hands of a tyrant (c. 655 BC). He took with him his workmen, potters and painters, and settled at Tarquinii where he married an Etruscan noblewoman: their son later moved to Rome, where he gained the throne and reigned as Tarquinius the elder. Sceptical historians have been all too ready to dismiss Demaratus as a legendary figure (though recent evidence from Gravisca may now give them some reason to pause). However, even if Demaratus himself was fictitious, his story reflects the historical developments of the years between 750 and 500 BC, when Italy became one of the chief markets for the Greek export trade. Numerous traders arrived on the shores of Etruria, where they were perhaps allowed greater freedom of movement inland in the seventh than in the sixth century. Others sailed from Tarentum up the Adriatic coast to Hadria (near the Po estuary) and advanced inland as far as the Apennines.24

The further spread of Greek colonization belongs to the history of the Greek rather than of the Roman world, but we may note some stages. Control of the Straits of Messina, which formed a sea link with Greece, was vital to trade and expansion, so some settlers from Cumae and Chalcis colonized Zancle-Messene (modern Messina) and these in turn, reinforced by some Messenians from the Peloponnese, founded Rhegium across the Strait on the toe of Italy. Sybaris was colonized by Achaeans traditionally in 721, to be followed by Locri, Croton, Metapontum, Caulonia and others; Taras (Tarentum) was also occupied (this district had enjoyed links with Mycenaean Greece centuries before). Sybaris, whose growing wealth gained her a reputation for luxury, was cut off from the Straits by the rival Chalcidians, so she established a land route across the toe of Italy, with colonies at Laos and Scidros and subsequently at the much more important Poseidonia (Paestum). She could thus act as a middle-man and send to the Tyrrhenian Sea and Etruria the woollens, carpets and other valuable goods of Miletus which her Chalcidian trading rivals excluded from the Straits. All these Greek cities shared in a marvellous flowering of architecture, town-planning, art, sculpture, the plastic arts, coinage, literature, science and philosophy, as is apparent, for example, in the temples of Paestum, the terracottas of Locri, the bronzes of Tarentum, the philosophers of Elia, the Pythagoreans at Croton. In some ways they remained a group of closed communities, cut off from the rest of Italy, often quarrelling among themselves or suffering civil war within a city. Thus they lacked the power or the will to try to extend the area of their dominance, and their bickerings would not have encouraged other Italic peoples to imitate their more advanced institutions. However, through commerce and other contacts many aspects of their culture began to reach central Italy; thus Greek religious ideas and deities spread outwards, so that Apollo, Heracles, and Castor and Polydeukes became known in Latium and Rome and were ‘Italicized’, together with many of the figures of Greek mythology; while Etruscan art, though maintaining its own flavour, owed an infinite debt to the Greeks.

The Celts did not play an important role in Rome’s history until the beginning of the fourth century when they sacked the city, but since they formed an influential part of the early western European ‘barbarian’ scene, they require brief mention here. As we have seen, by 1000 BC bearers of the Urnfield culture had spread widely across central Europe, from the Upper Danube to the Rhine, the Rhône, the Seine and the Low Countries. Their identification with the Celts is maintained by some, and qualified by other, scholars; probably this culture (as at Hallstatt, a typical site in Austria) resulted from gradual infiltrations rather than from a massive invasion. In France it increasingly became marked by the practice of inhumation in mounds; from c. 650 BC chieftains, laid on a wagon with its wheels beside it and accompanied by iron spears and swords, were buried in wooden chambers under great tumuli: iron, inhumation and wagon-burial reinforced older Urnfield practices. Whether the impetus came from foreign settlers or only from foreign influences remains uncertain, but from these wagon-buriers developed the people we call the Celts. From c. 550 they began to import Greek pottery: imports into France came from the Greek city of Massilia (Marseilles) and along the Rhône and Saône valleys. The most famous tomb is at Vix in Burgundy where a princess was buried on a wagon surrounded by Greek and Etruscan ornaments, including the famous bronze crater nearly five and a half feet high. Gradually this Celtic culture merged into that of La Tène (a typical site near Lake Neuchâtel) which imported fewer Greek and more Etruscan goods. Further contacts between Celt and Etruscan and the advance of some Celtic tribes over the Alps into the northern plain of Italy are discussed below.25

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