Ancient Italy

The Roman Forum in Rome
The Roman Forum in Rome

Ancient History: Etruscans, Greeks, Romans

What we now call Italy had several different names in early antiquity, among which were Enotria, Ausonia, Esperia as well as many others.

Ancient Italy was inhabited by various peoples, what we nowadays might call “ethnic groups”, whose names sometimes, but not always, corresponded to the regions of today’s Italy they lived on. Examples are Liguri in Liguria, Umbri in Umbria and so on.

There were Celts (called “Gauls” by the Romans) who had come south to the Po Plain in northern Italy, and Greeks from classical Greece in southern Italy.

Among the most important of these populations were the Etruscans, who developed a refined and advanced civilization that had great influence on Rome and the Latin world. By the mid-sixth century BC the Etruscans had managed to create a strong and evolved federation of city-states that went from the Po Valley in the north to Campania (the region of modern day’s Naples) down to the south, and which also included Rome and its territory.

The Italian geographical region was politically united for the first time with the Roman Republic (509-27 BC). The numerous conquests, stretching around Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, made by Rome in the following centuries gave the City its well-known imperial character, thus revolutionizing the national character that Italy was acquiring at the end of the 1st century BC.

As a modern unified country Italy was born only in 1861, after the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy, which united the various small states, duchies and kingdoms of the Italian regions and populations into a single, independent sovereign state.

But the Italian people’s history goes back much longer than that, lasting over 2,500 years, if we consider that the city of Rome was founded on 21 April 753 BC on the Palatine Hill by Romulus, who had defeated and killed his twin brother Remus in a duel for the privilege of being the founder of the new city, and who became its first king.

That means 753 years before the birth of Christ over 2,000 years ago. That 753 BC was the year from which the Romans were dating history: every year was calculated ab urbe condita, which in Latin means “from the founding of the City”, in the same way as we count years from the birth of our Lord and Saviour.

Even before the Romans, the Italian peninsula was inhabited by a people of great and ancient civilisation we mentioned earlier, whose origins are not exactly defined but started in the 9th-8th centuries BC: the Etruscans, who lived mostly in an area called Etruria, roughly corresponding to the modern regions of Tuscany, western Umbria and northern and central Lazio, but also inhabited some parts of northern and southern Italy.

The Etruscan civilization had a profound influence on Roman civilization, and later merged with it at the end of the first century BC, after a long process of cultural assimilation conventionally beginning with the Roman conquest of the Etruscan city of Veii (aka Veius and, in Italian, Veio) in 396 BC.

Such was the influence and power of the Etruscans on Rome that, during the earliest period of Roman history, the age of in which Rome was a kingdom, of the seven kings of Rome the first four, of Latin origin, were followed by three kings of Etruscan origin: Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius and Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquinius the Proud).

The kingdom period in Roman history was followed by the age of the republic and then finally by the time of the empire.

Between the 8th and 7th centuries BC, people from classic Greece began to settle on the coasts of southern Italy and Sicily,  and this enormously advanced and refined civilisation gave rise to great philosophers, scholars, artists and scientists, from Pythagoras in Crotone (in the region of Calabria) to Archimedes in Syracuse (in the island of Sicily), and many more. Some Greek temples can still be seen in Magna Graecia (“Great Greece”), the Latin name for southern Italy at the time that expressed the Roman marvel at the richness and splendour of these regions.

In the 3rd century BC all these Greek colonies were absorbed in the Roman State.

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