Villanovans and Etruscans
Villanovans, Part I
The Iron Age in Greece comes in with a bang, with the catastrophic destruction of the Mycenaean palatial civilization; in Italy the Iron Age comes in with a whimper, as the Late Bronze Age (where we left off in the previous lecture) just fades into the Early Iron Age. The time frame for this transition coincides with the first century or two of the new millennium, 1000-900 BC. For a long time it was fashionable and customary to call all or almost all of the Early Iron Age people Villanovans, after a culture whose material remains are known from a site called Villanova, in the Po valley near Bologna. In one sense this was valid. The people at Villanova were just one of many settlements of a group who represented some of the first iron workers in Italy; the distinctive features of their culture include cremation of the dead and burial in biconical urns. Their main settlements were in the area west of the Rome-to-Rimini line. The problem was that as more and more sites were excavated, including especially those of the late Bronze Age, more and more features of the "Villanovan" culture kept turning up. The interpretation of this new evidence tended to take the form of a debate over the question of at what date the Villanovan culture began; and the date kept getting pushed back. At length it became clear that there was, fundamentally, cultural continuity between the Terramare and Apennine peoples of the Late Bronze Age and the "Villanovans." So the former group is styled "proto-Villanovans" and our ability to refer to the latter group as Villanovans is preserved.
Even with that cleared up, the Villanovans remain problematic. Some scholars feel that the differences between late Bronze Age and Villanovan culture are great enough that the Villanovans must have come in from outside of Italy, and some put upon them the onus of having introduced Indo-European to Italy. Some again regard the Villanovans as an ethnically distinct group; but more now would say that is impossible, and regard them as essentially an indigenous group influenced by developments to the north and east. One approach (which you see in Carey and Scullard) relies on a division between northern and southern Villanovans, the latter group being distinguished by the use of burial urns in the shape of huts. In any case, we will look at the Villanovans as they appear primarily in two different locations, in Latium and in Etruria. If we admit that there is essential continuity between Villanovans and what succeeds them in these places, distinctions among different kinds of Villanovans come to seem less useful.
Of the situation elsewhere in Italy in the years 1000-800, in the east and in the south, there is little to say. The material remains are plentiful enough but it is almost impossible to trace the process by which the different regions took on their ethnic characteristics, except by recklessly projecting back from much later mythologies and nomenclatures. One anchor in that sea may be the Iapygians, who pretty clearly push in around this time from Illyria.
Introduction to Etruscans
When first we encounter them in Roman history, the Etruscans are a culturally and ethnically distinct group living in a well-defined region. Modern Tuscany has natural borders, with the Arno and the Tiber rivers to the north and south, the Apennine mountains to the east. The area was sparsely inhabited in the early and middle Bronze Age, and as elsewhere on the peninsula the Iron Age came in slowly, with much bronzework continuing to be done. The culture of the inhabitants of Etruria begins to distinguish itself markedly from the rest of Italy in the second half of 8th century, around the same time as cultural influences from Greece and Phoenicia are being felt throughout the region. To what extent this is a coincidence is disputed. What is clear is that the Etruscans had a high culture from the 7th century onwards; it went together with an empire of sorts, attested by Etruscan colonies or trading posts, such as Capua in Campania. Neighboring Latium in this period was within the Etruscan sphere of influence, but in the 5th century the Romans began a series of wars with their neighbours, including the Etruscans, in which the Romans eventually prevailed. Etruscan culture continues to show strongly independent features in the 4th century BC, but gradually thereafter they become merged with the other peoples of Italy and Rome, such that by the time of the transition from Republic to Empire they no longer constitute a distinctive group.
Etruscans, Part I
According to Herodotus (1.94), the Etruscans were immigrants from Lydia in Asia Minor. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, however, was convinced that they were natives of Italy (1. 26-30), whereas Hellanicus of Lesbos, the earliest of the Atthidographers or chroniclers of Athens and a contemporary of Herodotus, claimed them as originally "Pelasgians", a rubric applied by Greek authors to an ethnically distinct group of ancestors, but one which is impossible to identify plausibly with any known civilization or settlement (cf. Hdt. 1. 57-8 on Pelasgians; DH 1.28 for Hellanikos on Etruscans). Most modern scholars believe that Herodotus is right about the Etruscans, or rather that the Etruscans as we know them represent a combination of local (i.e. Villanovan) and Asian elements, with a strong infusion of Greek culture for good measure. The difference between the Etruscans and what we find in the rest of Italy at this time is too great for the Etruscans to be purely a native phenomenon. The linguistic evidence also favors the immigration hypothesis. A 6th century BC inscription from Lemnos provides the closest known linguistic parallel to Etruscan. Lemnos is not Lydia but it is in the eastern Mediterranean, and some Lydians could have settled there. The alternative to supposing that this inscription is a trace of the same people who formed the backbone of Etruscan civilization is to suppose that these are independent survivals of a pre-Indo-European tongue; that seems far-fetched. But the tendency now is the regard the question as moot; it is more enlightening to trace the progress and the different stages of Etruscan culture than to inquire into their origins.
In the 9th and 8th centuries the Etruscans are still essentially Villanovans. They live in small villages, in round or rectangular huts. They practice cremation and buried their ashes in urnfields. Already in the 9th century they begin to supply grave goods with the burials. At first these show no great differentiation in terms of wealth, age, and gender. The bronzes (especially the fibulae, ancient safety pins or brooches) show central European influence but also contacts with other parts of Italy, especially Sicily, Campania, and Calabria (the toe). In the first half of the 8th century we begin to see Greek pottery of the late Geometric and then proto-Corinthian types in Etruria. A few of these are imports, but most are locally made in imitation of Greek styles.
The western Greeks are important for us as students of Roman History because they are the vehicle for the transmission of Greek culture and technology to Italy. Among the debts of the Italians to the Greek traders and colonists of the second half of the 8th and the 7th centuries are letters (literacy), viticulture, olives, stone fortification walls, and the hoplite phalanx.
As noted before, contact between Greeks and Italians had ceased during the Greek Dark Ages (c. 1050-800 BC). The colonies of the 8th century BC, therefore, are not continuations but something new. In the course of the 8th century, the "Age of Colonization" in Greece, Greeks virtually took over western Sicily and much of the south of Italy. Among the most vigorous of the colonizing states were Chalkis and Eretria, whose foundations included Pithekoussai (on Ischia), Cymae (an offshoot of Pithekoussai), Zankle, Mylae, Rhegion, Naxos, Leontinoi, and Katane. The earliest of these, Pithekoussai (founded around 750 BC) was also the furthest north. It was strategically positioned to export the mineral resources of Etruria (copper, iron, tin), and to sell Greek imports (bronzes and fine ware pottery).
The purpose of some of the other colonies can also be deduced from their locations. Zankle (Messana) and Rhegion were to guard the passage through the straights of Messina. Massilia (Marseilles), a later foundation (c. 600 BC) by the Phokaians (whose home is on the coast of Asia Minor north of Smyrna), was positioned to trade with Gaul, especially for tin. Its existence accounts for such discoveries as this bronze crater, of Laconian manufacture and dating to the sixth century BC, found at Vix.
Etruscans, Part 2
To a lesser extent in the late 8th and 7th centuries the Etruscans were influenced by the Phoenicians, whose presence in the region centered around their colony at Carthage in North Africa, and settlements in western Sicily and on Sardinia. These gold bracelets from Praeneste, dated to around 675 BC, show Phoenician themes.
Now too, in the late 8th century, we begin to see greater social stratification in the grave goods. One example is the type of the warrior grave, represented by the helmet-topped urn. There are other indications, too, of the effectiveness of the Etruscans in warfare. The absence of any Greek or Phoenician colonies in Etruria ought to mean that the Etruscans were strong enough to prevent them from being founded. Oddly, there is no evidence for circuit walls around Etruscan cities earlier than the 6th century BC (at Roselle; the walls of Veii date to the 5th century). This could mean that Etruscan naval power was sufficient to keep the cities safe. Certainly ancient authors preserved a memory of Etruscan naval power (see Ephoros apud Strabo, 6.2.2; Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, 6-8; DH 1. 25; Pliny, NH 7.56.209).
Finally, in this period the first signs of synoikism, the consolidation of villages into urban centers, appear in Etruria. The huts are being replaced (later 7th) by rectangular houses, with stone foundations and walls of unfired brick. Urbanization is a major component of the Etruscan legacy to Rome. In the Etruscan colony at Capua can be seen one of the the first true examples of the grid system, with the cardo (running N-S) and decumanus (E-W). Here we will leave the events of Etruscan history in the late 7th and 6th centuries for next time, as they become ever more closely entwined with Roman history as it crosses the line from fiction to fact.
It is customary to begin any discussion of Early Rome with a discussion of the literary tradition. Modern writers on early Rome fall into two groups, broadly speaking: those who try to interpret the archaeological record in such a way as to be able to claim that there are kernels of truth in the annalistic tradition (Ogilvie is among these), and those who regard that attempt as fruitless and confine themselves to remarking on the archaeological record, believing in essence that nothing of what the classical writers have to say about pre-Republican Rome is true (e.g. Holloway). This whole controversy is well worth exploring, but in fact it does not even become a serious issue until we come to the tradition about, and the remains of, the late sixth century BC. TodayÕs remarks will take us only up to the 7th.
Whether we call the inhabitants of Rome and the Alban hills in the early Iron Age southern Villanovans, or rather follow Holloway and insist that Latial culture develops directly from proto-Villanovan (that, in other words, there is no true Villanovan in Latium) is mainly a matter of terminology. These early Romans lived in circular huts, as the discovery of these post-holes from the Palatine show. The form of the huts is known from the hut-urns in which they buried their cremated dead, and these hut-shaped urns are a distinctive feature of this proto-Latial culture. The hut urns were found primarily in a cemetery in the Forum Romanum excavated by the great Italian archaeologist Boni in the early part of this century. The grave goods are characterized by miniaturization, as seen in this sketch of Forum Grave Y; the smaller vessels contained foodstuffs.
From approximately the same time period, nearby on the Esquiline hill, there are a number of inhumations a fossa (in trenches, as opposed to the cremation burials a pozzo, in pits). The Corinthian olpe, dating to around 720 BC and inscribed with the name of its Greek owner, Ktektos, comes from one of these graves. The key question for the history of early Rome is whether the people who bury cremated remains in urns in the Forum Romanum are the same people as, or ethnically distinct from, the ones who practiced inhumation in graves on the Esquiline.
One approach to this question, still popular today, is to say that the cremators were Latins, the inhumers Sabines. This argument points out that there are parallels for the inhumations to the south of Latium, and that later on in the Forum cemetery we get a combination of inhumation and cremation burials. This seems to indicate that two different peoples combined with one another, and recalls what the Romans believed happened in the time of Romulus, with the rape of the Sabine women and the subsequent commingling of the two peoples. A form of this approach appears in Ogilvie.
A refinement of this hypothesis is given by Torelli (CAH 7.2). He suggests that after the two types begin to appear together, only "princes" are being buried in the cremation graves, because the cremation graves contain primarily the remains of adult males, with weapons. He also thinks that the hut-urn marks the deceased as a head of household, a paterfamilias. The burial practice would thus reflect an increasing degree of social stratification, consistent with the tradition of the kings. TorelliÕs softer approach is reasonable. Increasing social stratification appears at the same time in neighboring Etruria (though not, apparently, in the houses which continue to be of uniform type into the 6th century), no doubt a reflection of Greek influence. But the whole idea that we have two distinct cultures combining in 8th century Rome has been called into question. The differences between the pottery and other objects in the graves on the Esquiline and in the Forum are subtle at best. It may be that they represent different time periods as opposed to different ethnic groups (see revised chronology). Finally, the presence of a few early cremations in hut urns on the Esquiline badly upsets the neatness of the scheme. It stems from the desire to rescue some shred of truth from the annalistic tradition on early Rome; but that desire, as we will see more fully next time, is hardly worthy of being fulfilled.
R. Ross Holloway, The Archaeology of Early Rome and Latium (Routledge, 1994).
E. MacNamara, The Etruscans (British Museum, 1991).
M. Pallotino, A History of Earliest Italy (U. of Michigan Press, 1991).
D. Strong, The Early Etruscans (Putnam's 1968).
Source: Villanovans and Etruscans