Roman Empire > Roman Empire History > Geography Of Italy - Early Inhabitants

Geography Of Italy - Early Inhabitants

Italy is the central one of the three great peninsulas which project from the south of Europe into the Mediterranean Sea. It is bounded on the north by the chain of the Alps, which form a natural barrier, and it is surrounded on other sides by the sea. Its shores are washed on the west by the "Mare Inferum," or the Lower Sea, and on the east by the Adriatic, called by the Romans the "Mare Superum," or the Upper Sea. It may be divided into two parts, the northern consisting of the great plain drained by the River Padus, or Po, and its tributaries, and the southern being a long tongue of land, with the Apennines as a back-bone running down its whole extent from north to south. The extreme length of the peninsula from the Alps to the Straits of Messina is 700 miles. The breadth of northern Italy is 350 miles, while that of the southern portion is on an average not more than 100 miles. But, till the time of the Empire, the Romans never included the plain of the Po in Italy. To this country they gave the general name of GALLIA CISALPINA, or Gaul on this (the Roman) side of the Alps, in consequence of its being inhabited by Gauls. The western-most portion of the plain was peopled by Ligurian tribes, and was therefore called LIGURIA, while its eastern extremity formed the Roman province of VENETIA.

The name ITALIA was originally applied to a very small tract of country. It was at first confined to the southern portion of Calabria, and was gradually extended northward, till about the time of the Punic wars it indicated the whole peninsula south of the Rivers Rubicon and Macra, the former separating Cisalpine Gaul and Umbria, the latter Liguria and Etruria. Italy, properly so called, is a very mountainous country, being filled up more or less by the broad mass of the Apennines, the offshoots or lateral branches of which, in some parts, descend quite to the sea, but in others leave a considerable space of level or low country. Excluding the plain of the Po, it was divided into the following districts:

1. ETRURIA, which extended along the coast of the Lower Sea from the River Macra on the north to the Tiber on the south. Inland, the Tiber also formed its eastern boundary, dividing it first from Umbria, afterward from the Sabines, and, lastly, from Latium. Its inhabitants were called Etrusci, or Tusci, the latter form being still preserved in the name of Tuscany. Besides the Tiber it possesses only one other river of any importance, the Arnus, or Arno, upon which the city of Florence now stands. Of its lakes the most considerable is the Lacus Trasimenus, about thirty-six miles in circumference, celebrated for the great victory which Hannibal there gained over the Romans.

2. UMBRIA, situated to the east of Etruria, and extending from the valley of the Tiber to the shores of the Adriatic. It was separated on the north from Gallia Cisalpina by the Rubicon, and on the south by the Æsis from Picenum, and by the Nar from the Sabines.

3. PICENUM extended along the Adriatic from the mouth of the Æsis to that of the Matrinus and inland as far as the central ridge of the Apennines. It was bounded on the north by Umbria, on the south by the Vestini, and on the west by Umbria and the Sabini. Its inhabitants, the Picentes, were a Sabine race, as is mentioned below.

4. The SABINI inhabited the rugged mountain-country in the central chain of the Apennines, lying between Etruria, Umbria, Picenum, Latium, and the country of the Marsi and Vestini. They were one of the most ancient races of Italy, and the progenitors of the far more numerous tribes which, under the names of Picentes, Peligni, and Samnites, spread themselves to the east and south. Modern writers have given the general name of Sabellians to all these tribes. The Sabines, like most other mountaineers, were brave, hardy, and frugal; and even the Romans looked up to them with admiration on account of their proverbial honesty and temperance.

5. The MARSI, PELIGNI, VESTINI, and MARRUCINI inhabited the valleys of the central Apennines, and were closely connected, being probably all of Sabine origin. The MARSI dwelt inland around the basin of the Lake Fucinus, which is about thirty miles in circumference, and the only one of any extent in the central Apennines. The PELIGNI also occupied an inland district east of the MARSI. The VESTINI dwelt east of the Sabines, and possessed on the coast of the Adriatic a narrow space between the mouth of the Matrinus and that of the Aternus, a distance of about six miles. The MARRUCINI inhabited a narrow strip of country on the Adriatic, east of the Peligni, and were bounded on the north by the Vestini and on the south by the Frentani.

6. The FRENTANI dwelt upon the coast of the Adriatic from the frontiers of the Marrucini to those of Apulia. They were bounded on the west by the Samnites, from whom they were originally descended, but they appear in Roman history as an independent people.

7. LATIUM was used in two senses. It originally signified only the land of the Latini, and was a country of small extent, bounded by the Tiber on the north, by the Apennines on the east, by the sea on the west, and by the Alban Hills on the south. But after the conquest of the Volscians, Hernici, Æquians, and other tribes, originally independent, the name of Latium was extended to all the country which the latter had previously occupied. It was thus applied to the whole region from the borders of Etruria to those of Campania, or from the Tiber to the Liris. The original abode of the Latins is of volcanic origin. The Alban Mountains are a great volcanic mass, and several of the craters have been filled with water, forming lakes, of which the Alban Lake is one of the most remarkable. The plain in which Rome stands, now called the Campagna, is not an unbroken level, but a broad undulating tract, intersected by numerous streams, which have cut themselves deep channels through the soft volcanic tufa of which the soil is composed. The climate of Latium was not healthy even in ancient times. The malaria of the Campagna renders Rome itself unhealthy in the summer and autumn; and the Pontine Marshes, which extend along the coast in the south of Latium for a distance of thirty miles, are still more pestilential.

8. CAMPANIA extended along the coast from the Liris, which separated it from Latium, to the Silarus, which formed the boundary of Lucania. It is the fairest portion of Italy. The greater part of it is an unbroken plain, celebrated in ancient as well as in modern times for its extraordinary beauty and fertility. The Bay of Naples - formerly called Sinus Cumanus and Puteolanus, from the neighboring cities of Cumæ and Puteoli - is one of the most lovely spots in the world; and the softness of its climate, as well as the beauty of its scenery, attracted the Roman nobles, who had numerous villas along its coasts.

9. SAMNIUM was an inland district, bounded on the north by the Marsi and Peligni, on the east by the Frentani and Apulia, on the west by Latium and Campania, and on the south by Lucania. It is a mountainous country, being entirely filled with the masses of the Apennines. Its inhabitants, the Samnites, were of Sabine origin, as has been already mentioned, and they settled in the country at a comparatively late period. They were one of the most warlike races in Italy, and carried on a long and fierce struggle with the Romans.

10. APULIA extended along the coast of the Adriatic from the Frentani on the north to Calabria on the south, and was bounded on the west by the Apennines, which separated it from Samnium and Lucania. It consists almost entirely of a great plain, sloping down from the Apennines to the sea.

11. CALABRIA formed the heel of Italy, lying south of Apulia, and surrounded on every other side by the sea. It contains no mountains, and only hills of moderate elevation, the Apennines running to the southwest through Lucania and the Bruttii.

12. LUCANIA was bounded on the north by Campania and Samnium, on the east by Apulia, and on the south by the Bruttii. The Apennines run through the province in its whole extent. The Lucanians were a branch of the Samnite nation, which separated from the main body of that people, and pressed on still farther to the south.

13. The BRUTTII inhabited the southern extremity of Italy, lying south of Lucania; and, like Lucania, their country is traversed throughout by the chain of the Apennines.

Italy has been in all ages renowned for its beauty and fertility. The lofty ranges of the Apennines, and the seas which bathe its shores on both sides, contribute at once to temper and vary its climate, so as to adapt it for the productions alike of the temperate and the warmest parts of Europe. In the plains on either side of the Apennines corn is produced in abundance; olives flourish on the southern slopes of the mountains; and the vine is cultivated in every part of the peninsula, the vineyards of northern Campania being the most celebrated in antiquity.

The early inhabitants of Italy may be divided into three great classes - the Italians proper, the Iapygians, and the Etruscans, who are clearly distinguished from each other by their respective languages.

(1.) The Italians proper inhabited the centre of the peninsula. They were divided into two branches, the Latins and the Umbro-Sabellians, including the Umbrians, Sabines, Samnites, and their numerous colonies. The dialects of the Latins and Umbro-Sabellians, though marked by striking differences, still show clearest evidence of a common origin, and both are closely related to the Greek. It is evident that at some remote period a race migrated from the East, embracing the ancestors of both the Greeks and Italians - that from it the Italians branched off - and that they again were divided into the Latins on the west and the Umbrians and Sabellians on the east.

(2.) The Iapygians dwelt in Calabria, in the extreme southeast corner of Italy. Inscriptions in a peculiar language have here been discovered, clearly showing that the inhabitants belonged to a different race from those whom we have designated as the Italians. They were doubtless the oldest inhabitants of Italy, who were driven toward the extremity of the peninsula as the Latins and Sabellians pressed farther to the south.

(3.) The Etruscans, or, as they called themselves, Rasena, form a striking contrast to the Latins and Sabellians as well as to the Greeks. Their language is radically different from the other languages of Italy; and their manners and customs clearly prove them to be a people originally quite distinct from the Greek and Italian races. Their religion was of a gloomy character, delighting in mysteries and in wild and horrible rites. Their origin is unknown. Most ancient writers relate that the Etruscans were Lydians who had migrated by sea from Asia to Italy; but this is very improbable, and it is now more generally believed that the Etruscans descended into Italy from, the Rhætian Alps. It is expressly stated by ancient writers that the Rhætians were Etruscans, and that they spoke the same language; while their name is perhaps the same as that of Rasena, the native name of the Etruscans. In more ancient times, before the Roman dominion, the Etruscans inhabited not only the country called Etruria, but also the great plain of the Po, as far as the foot of the Alps. Here they maintained their ground till they were expelled or subdued by the invading Gauls. The Etruscans, both in the north of Italy and to the south of the Apennines, consisted of a confederacy of twelve cities, each of which was independent, possessing the power of even making war and peace on its own account. In Etruria proper Volsinii was regarded as the metropolis.

Besides these three races, two foreign races also settled in the peninsula in historical times. These are the Greeks and the Gauls.

(4.) The Greeks planted so many colonies upon the coasts of southern Italy that they gave to that district the name of Magna Græcia. The most ancient, and, at the same time, the most northerly Greek city in Italy, was Cumæ in Campania. Most of the other Greek colonies were situated farther to the south, where many of them attained to great power and opulence. Of these, some of the most distinguished were Tarentum, Sybaris, Croton, and Metapontum.

(5.) The Gauls, as we have already said, occupied the greater part of northern Italy, and were so numerous and important as to give to the whole basin of the Po the name of Gallia Cisalpina. They were of the same race with the Gauls who inhabited the country beyond the Alps, and their migration and settlement in Italy were referred by the Roman historian to the time of the Tarquins.

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The Alban Hills
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