A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War

A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War

by Gary Forsythe

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520940291
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/14/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Gary Forsythe is Assistant Professor of History at Texas Tech University.

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A Critical History of Early Rome

From Prehistory to the First Punic War
By Gary Forsythe

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2005 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-22651-8

Chapter One

Italy in Prehistory The Land and its Linguistic Diversity

The past two hundred years of human history have witnessed continuous and rapid technological change and progress on an unparalleled scale. Yet despite the highly advanced nature of present-day technology, geographical and climatic factors still exercise a profound influence upon the regional economies and cultures of human populations worldwide. The presence or absence of mountains, desert, rich farmland, water, forests, petroleum, coal, and other mineral resources continue to shape modern societies and nations in many fundamental ways. It therefore should come as no surprise that an inverse relationship has long existed between human technology and geographical determinism: the less control people have over their physical surroundings, the greater is the impact that their physical environment has upon their existence and way of life. Consequently, much of human prehistory and history has been a struggle to develop a material culture that mitigates the effects of climate, environment, and geography. The prehistory of Italy was no exception to this generalrule.

The Italian peninsula, measuring 116,372 square miles (roughly the size of Nevada), exhibits great diversity of mountains, plain, and hill country, which frequently exist together in the same locale (see map 1). Situated in the middle of the Mediterranean, Italy consists of two distinct areas determined by the Alpine and Apennine mountain ranges. One of these two regions, the Po Valley of northern Italy, is roughly triangular in shape. It is bounded on the north by the Alps, on the south by the Apennines, and by the Adriatic Sea to the east. Since during the fifth and fourth centuries b.c. Celtic tribes (termed Gauls by the Romans) from continental Europe crossed the Alps and took up residence throughout the Po Valley, the ancient Romans called this region Cisalpine Gaul, meaning "Gaul on this side of the Alps." This plain is good for agriculture and is bisected by the Po River, the largest river of Italy, which flows west to east for 418 miles, receives the runoff from both mountain ranges in numerous streams, and empties into the Adriatic. Since the land nearest the Po was often marshy, the earliest human inhabitants of northern Italy tended to settle in areas away from the river. Settlement of the mountain slopes and plain promoted the exchange of commodities peculiar to each environment. The arc of the Alps separates northern Italy from continental Europe. Yet despite their height, they never constituted an insuperable barrier to early man, but several passes were routinely used for travel to and from southern France to the west and the central Danube to the east. Although the Po Valley was the last area of Italy to succumb to Roman arms, its geographical ties to continental Europe played an important role in the prehistory and early history of Italy by its reception of new cultural influences and peoples beyond the Alps and transmission of new ideas across the Apennines.

The other major area of Italy is the peninsula south of the Po Valley. This region is geographically very complex and diverse. The Apennine Mountains form a compact range along the southern side of the Po Valley, but after they turn southeastward to run the length of the peninsula, they diverge into parallel ranges separated from one another by deep gorges. This terrain was well suited for pastoralism. Herders kept their cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats down in the valleys to avoid the rigors of winter, but drove them into the uplands to enjoy the cooler pastures of summer. This pattern of seasonal pastoralism is termed transhumance. It originated at some time during Italy's prehistoric period and continued to be practiced until modern times. In addition, mountain ridges and valleys formed important paths which facilitated the movement of people, goods, and ideas.

For much of their southeasterly course the Apennines are much closer to the eastern coast of Italy and often run right down to the Adriatic. As a result, the northern and central areas of western Italy open up into a complex tangle of plain and hill country, which form the three major areas of Etruria, Latium, and Campania, all possessing a rich volcanic soil, enjoying a moderate annual rainfall, and destined to play the most important roles in the history of ancient Italy. Etruria, enclosed by the Arno and Tiber Rivers, the Tyrrhenian Sea, and the Apennine Mountains, was blessed with rich metal deposits, primarily iron and copper; and because Phoenicians and Greeks from the more highly civilized eastern Mediterranean came in search of these ores, Etruria became the homeland of the first high civilization of Italy. Campania possessed the richest agricultural land of Italy and was later famous for its bountiful crops and wine. In early historical times, the northern Campanian coast was settled by Greek colonists, who thus constituted the first Greek neighbors to the Romans. Latium, bordering Etruria along the lower Tiber and separated from Campania by mountains, although initially lagging behind Etruria in economic and cultural development, was the homeland of the Latins and of Rome itself, which eventually emerged as the ruling power of all Italy. Since the Apennines swing away from the Adriatic coast in southern Italy, turn toward the Tyrrhenian Sea, and terminate in the foot and toe of Bruttium, the southeastern coast of the peninsula comprises the large plain of Apulia, which was receptive to influences from across the Adriatic.

Although Italy has a coastline of approximately two thousand miles, and no place south of the Po Valley is more than seventy miles from the sea, it has very few large navigable rivers, and the native peoples did not take to the sea to a significant degree until early historical times when they adopted the superior maritime technology and seafaring skills of the Greeks and Phoenicians. Many of the rivulets that flowed down from the mountains or hill country into the sea were little more than winter torrents that usually dried up during the summer, when their beds could be used as roads for pedestrian travel, wheeled transport, or the driving of livestock. Nevertheless, the country was by no means isolated. In particular, the people along the eastern coast from the Neolithic period onwards were in communication with the inhabitants of the opposite shore of the Adriatic. Thus, although surrounded by the Mediterranean on three sides and bounded on the north by the Alps, prehistoric Italy at different times and in varying degrees received new ideas and peoples from all quarters.

Since language has always been a principal factor in defining a people's cultural and ethnic identity, a region's linguistic history can be useful in understanding major cultural patterns. Even more than in Greece, Italy's complex geography fostered the growth of cultural and linguistic diversity, which is perhaps best illustrated by a map showing the distribution of languages in pre-Roman times (see map 2). Before Rome embarked upon its conquest of the peninsula, the land was inhabited by peoples speaking several different languages that were unintelligible to one another. It is therefore a great testimony to the political skills of the ancient Romans that they succeeded in forging unity out of such diversity. The modern study of the pre-Roman languages of ancient Italy is a very complex and difficult subject, involving many unanswered questions due to the fact that many local languages are now known only from a relatively small body of inscribed texts. Nevertheless, scholars of historical linguistics have been able to arrive at many firm conclusions about the overall character of these languages and their historical links to one another.

Before Latin began to drive the other languages of ancient Italy into extinction during the first century b.c., a substantial portion of the country's inhabitants spoke one of four languages: Venetic, Latin, Umbrian, and Oscan, which because of shared similarities of vocabulary and grammar have been grouped together by modern scholars into the Italic family of Indo-European. Venetic was spoken by the people of the eastern Po Valley. As the result of the migration of Celtic tribes into northern Italy during the fifth and fourth centuries b.c., the inhabitants of the western and central districts of the Po Valley were Celtic in speech, although Ligurian, Lepontic, and Raetic, which are not well understood due to the paucity of surviving evidence, continued to be spoken by peoples dwelling in and along the Alps. The inhabitants of Latium, including the Romans, spoke Latin. The various peoples dwelling in the Apennine Mountains of peninsular Italy spoke one of several languages belonging to the Sabellian subgroup within Italic. These dialects included the speech of the Umbrians, Sabines, Marsi, Marrucini, Vestini, Paeligni, Frentani, Aequi, Volsci, and Samnites. Umbrian, known almost entirely from seven inscribed bronze tablets from Iguvium outlining public religious rites of the community, was the language of the people dwelling in the Apennines in an area south of the Po and bordering on Etruria. The other major Sabellian dialect was Oscan, which was the speech of the Samnites, the non-Greek inhabitants of Campania, and the people of Lucania and Bruttium. The people living in the southeastern portion of the peninsula spoke an Indo-European language called Messapic, which was not Italic but might have been related to the speech of the Illyrians, who dwelled on the Balkan coast of the Adriatic. Most enigmatic of all is the language of the Etruscans. Not only is it non-Indo-European, but there is no other known language to which it can be clearly related. Exactly how this linguistic diversity arose in Italy in prehistoric and protohistorical times is still largely shrouded in mystery, but the phenomenon alone is solid proof of the complexities of cultural evolution and formation during Italy's prehistory.

Modern Archaeology and Prehistory

History and prehistory differ in that the former involves studying a past society with the benefit of written accounts, whereas in the latter no written records exist to aid the investigator. A prehistoric people of the past can be studied only by analyzing the surviving material remains of their culture, and these physical remains are recovered by archaeological excavations of inhabited sites or graves. Although modern archaeology has become extremely sophisticated and can call upon many scientific analytical methods, this has not always been the case. Consequently, since the beginning of the modern study of Italian prehistory during the mid-nineteenth century, manifold valuable archaeological data have been lost as the result of unscientific methods of excavation. In addition, two very important ideas should always be kept in mind when archaeological data are being discussed. The first one is that archaeological finds are quite often totally fortuitous, resulting from bulldozing for a new highway or digging the foundations of a new office building, and they therefore may not be representative of an entire society. Sometimes graves of a past people are discovered but not their place of residence. In other instances the foundations of their huts and hearths are unearthed but not their cemetery. Thus an excavated site may offer information about only certain aspects of the people's lives. Indeed, archaeological data for much of Italian prehistory are quite often confined to items that were buried with the dead, and the range of such items is usually of limited variety, being the product of prevailing funerary customs and religious beliefs.

Secondly, archaeology can only recover physical manifestations of a culture that have happened to survive in the particular soil or water conditions of a site, and what has perished may be as important in understanding a culture as what has survived. In addition, the surviving physical remains of a culture can often tell us about a people's diet, the floor plan of their dwellings, their funerary practices, and what kind of stone, ceramic, or metal utensils were in daily use, but many other aspects of their culture, such as their language, social organization, political structure, or religious beliefs, are more often than not archaeologically invisible. It should therefore be realized that while modern archaeology can often succeed in reconstructing many aspects of a past society's material culture, there are many other important questions that excavations cannot answer. In order to assess prehistoric data judiciously, we must be well aware of what archaeology can and cannot do. These observations apply not only to the study of the earliest inhabitants of Italy treated in this chapter but also to the beginnings of Etruscan and Latin culture and Roman history described in chapters 2 and 4.

Archaeologists have traditionally divided European prehistory into periods of time that take their names from the technology used in making tools. Thus, Italy's prehistory consists of the Paleolithic (Old Stone) Age, Neolithic (New Stone) Age, Copper Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. These periods are often subdivided into early, middle, and late or numbered phases, as has seemed best to prehistorians for the purpose of charting the changes in material culture. Moreover, since the material remains of prehistoric peoples within the same time period exhibit major differences from region to region, archaeologists employ other terms, often taken from the names of excavated sites such as Remedello or Villanova, in order to distinguish one prehistoric culture from another. These differences can include such things as how people disposed of the dead (inhumation or cremation), or how they shaped and decorated their pottery or jewelry. In addition, changes in burial customs or pottery styles can provide important evidence for the exchange of ideas from one region to another. Unfortunately, archaeology cannot usually determine whether such exchanges were brought about through trade networks or by people migrating from one area to another and bringing their characteristic material culture with them. It should also be realized that two population groups who lived next to one another could have shared the same material culture while they spoke different languages and regarded one another as ethnically distinct. Consequently, the material remains of prehistoric peoples uncovered by archaeology can usually provide only a partial picture of past cultures.

Prehistoric Italy

During the past two million years, the world's climate has undergone major warming and cooling trends as reflected in the advance and retreat of glaciers. Prolonged cold climatic conditions have fostered the growth of enormous ice sheets, whose movements have left their marks on the earth's surface. For example, the lake beds of Maggiore, Como, and Garda below the Alps in northern Italy were carved out by glacial action. Furthermore, glaciers are composed of such massive amounts of water that their expansion and contraction have drastically affected sea levels worldwide. Thus, at the height of the Wurm glaciation periods (i.e. four intervals occurring during the past 125,000 years) the level in the Adriatic dropped so far that dry land at times extended as far south as Ancona. Conversely, in interglaciation periods the sea level rose as glaciers melted, and parts of what are now the Tyrrhenian coast and the eastern Po Valley were submerged beneath the sea. Plant and animal life throughout Europe and Asia fluctuated in accordance with these geological and climatic changes, and Paleolithic hominids (Homo erectus, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens sapiens) adjusted to regional conditions by hunting animals and gathering edible plants, by using fire, caves, and animal skins to shelter themselves from the rigors of cold weather, and by fashioning various utensils and tools out of wood, animal bone or horn, and stone. Under such conditions human existence was extremely hard and precarious and differed little from that of the animals upon whom early people depended for food, clothing, and tools. The landscape was very thinly populated by small bands of our hominid ancestors, who were often obliged to change their abode frequently in their pursuit of deer, bison, mammoth, and other animal populations. Those dwelling near major bodies of water also supplemented their diet with aquatic and marine life. Human survival depended upon close cooperation within the group. As in hunting and gathering societies in different parts of the world studied by modern anthropologists, the adult males were probably responsible for hunting big game and making tools, while the women stayed close to the home site, watching the children, gathering edible plants, berries, and nuts, and performing other tasks.


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Table of Contents

List of Maps and Figures

1. Italy in Prehistory
2. Archaic Italy c. 800–500 B.C.
3. The Ancient Sources for Early Roman History
4. Rome During the Regal Period
5. Archaic Roman Religion
6. The Beginning of the Roman Republic
7. Rome of the Twelve Tables
8. Evolution and Growth of the Roman State 444–367 B.C.
9. Rome’s Rise to Dominance, 366–300 B.C.
10. Rome’s Conquest and Unification of Italy, 299–264 B.C.

Appendix: Early Roman Chronology
Works Cited

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Critical History of Early Rome - from Prehistory to the First Punic War 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
HarmlessTed on LibraryThing 7 months ago
This is an extraordinarily interesting book, in which the author takes - as the title implies - a critical look at the early history of rome. Using empirical and analytical methods, archaeological data and comparison between ancient Roman with Greek and other historical texts, Forsythe takes the reader from Italian prehistory, through the roman archaic and regel periods right down to the end of the Pyrrhic war. Definitely worth 5 stars!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Despite his disclaimer, Professor Forsythe's book is not likely to serve the needs of someone unacquainted with the history of Rome before the first Punic War. On the other hand, for those familiar with Roman history, it does an excellent job of summarizing what is currently known about this obscure earliest period and its prehistory, and what contemporary scholarship makes of the topics treated in his chapters. He also contributes to the ongoing discussion by frequently proposing interesting hypotheses about the subject under discussion.