Tuesday 16 April 2013

Ancient Italy - the first multicultural Europe

This may be a surprise to a lot of people, but prior to the Roman conquest of Italy, this peninsular was a hodgepodge of languages and cultures from throughout the Mediterranean - there was no common language and there was no 'Italian' people as we would recognise them today. In 400BC the Latin speaking Celts living around the small city of Rome made up a tiny part of the Italian population - they had migrated from the Danube region during the 1st-millennium BC.

To their north in modern Tuscany was the Etrurian homeland. Like the Latins, the Etrurians arrived around the beginning of the 1st-millennium BC, but unlike the Latins they spoke an eastern language with Lidian origins - historically and ethnographically the Etrurians were or were closely related to the Trojans and that part of modern Turkey.

North of Etruria along the modern day Po valley, the towns that would become Milan and Turin were populated by Celtic Gauls - similar in language and culture to their Latin cousins around Rome.

East of Etruria and south of Rome were the Umbrians, Samnites and Lucanians who spoke the Osco-Umbrian language - the basis for modern Italian. Culturally and linguistically distinct from the Latins and Gauls, these guys began building cities in the 9th-century BC, but are believed to be the descendants of Italy's bronze and iron age inhabitants prior to the 1st-millennium BC.

But, hey, that's not all, most of the coastal cities south of Rome - and all the way to Sicily - were Greek colonies founded during the 8th and 7th-centuries BC - and many of these were still speaking Greek even after the fall of the Roman Empire.

As for Sicily - it's western side was filled with Punic speaking Carthaginians, the east was Greek and in the middle were relatives of the Lucanians. So if you're thinking of Italians before all of Italy became 'Roman', then it's important you know exactly what part of Italy you're thinking about. For more reading on the Italian cultures checkout 'Mischance and Happenstance' on Amazon - just follow the links  

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