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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Rome
Tenney Frank

published by
Henry Holt and Company
New York 1923

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter II

 p1  Chapter I

Early Invasions of Italy

The early peoples of Italy. The hordes of Celts, Goths, Vandals, and Lombards that have in historical times overrun Italy provide examples of what the peninsula must have experienced during the many thousands of years before Rome was built. The superb climate and the luxuriant vegetation of a soil far richer than that of the eastern Mediterranean have always invited armies of migrants from the inclement North. And when in the course of time each invading horde has itself grown indolent under the softening influence of the Italian conditions, it in turn has had to give way to a more enterprising stock not yet enervated.

How long Italy has been settled it is impossible to tell. The caves of southern France, with their walls decorated with surprisingly artistic drawings, prove that soon after the last glacial period, when reindeer still roamed about, a race of magnificent build and notable intelligence inhabited southern Europe. The so‑called Cro‑Magnon race seems to have lived about twenty thousand years ago. These people may well have overrun Italy also, but the absence in Italy of limestone caves, which might have preserved such records, leaves us without information.

We know, however, that all of Italy was inhabited by savages long before the use of metals was known. In practically every district of the peninsula there have been discovered peculiar rounded depressions which prove, by the  p2 fragments of tools and pottery found in them, that they served as floors of human habitations. The tools are of flint and rough stone, and the houses covering these round depressions were doubtless a kind of straw wigwam. These savages, to judge from skeletal remains, seem to have been a short, dark people not unlike the Berbers of to‑day.

The Terramara invasion. About two thousand years before Christ, various Indo-European tribes began to push their way across the Alpine ranges into the Mediterranean countries. They were apparently a tall, well-built, fair-haired race closely related to the ancestors of the modern Celts, Germans, and Anglo-Saxons. In Greece these migrants were called Hellenes and became the basic element of the remarkable Greek people. The tribes that first entered the Po valley of Italy came gradually, and developed more slowly than the Hellenes, since they came into contact with nothing but barbaric folk in Italy, whereas the Hellenes had at once mingled along the Aegean coast with the most cultured peoples then in existence.

Before entering Italy, while dwelling near the numerous Swiss lakes, these migrating tribes had adopted the ingenious custom of finding safety from their enemies by building their huts on wooden piles driven into the water along the shallow margins of the lakes. Hence they are often called lake-dwellers, and their homes pile-dwellings. Coming over the Alpine passes they found in the Italian lakes places suited for such dwellings.

Here they pursued their habitual occasions of fishing, hunting, herding, and cultivating a few products of the soil. Fishing from the back door must have been a congenial as well as profitable occasion. Wild boar could be found in numbers in the foothills of the Alps nearby. Their hunting tools were still largely of flint, finely finished, but they had also learned to prize bronze when any happened to be brought their way. In fact, though they had no direct access to copper deposits, they had learned the arts of  p3 smelting, molding, and working the metal — useful arts in reshaping instruments out of broken fragments. They had also domesticated the ox for food and for work, the pig, the dog, and the sheep. They used wool and flax for their clothing: and the work of spinning and weaving kept the women well occupied.

Of agriculture there are very few traces in the earliest pile settlements in Italy, but it was not long before the raising of millet, wheat, and flax became the mainstay of the rapidly increasing settlements in that rich new country. The development of agriculture was of course of supreme importance, for it soon suggested the desirability of private ownership of land, it promoted the organization of government for the unified protection of the crops and stores of grain against invaders, and it encouraged the invention of new implements of agriculture and the training of the oxen to help in the heavy work. This, in turn, caused the growth of a more heterogeneous society; private ownership soon divided the prudent and frugal from the shiftless, the need of advanced tools gave play to talents for practical industry and a primitive commerce, and the development of the social organization provided positions of authority for men who distinguished themselves by their prudence and ability to govern.

During the millennium that followed the appearance of the first lake-dwellers, new waves of the same stock kept coming on. The lakes could no longer provide space for their dwellings, and so they pushed on southward into the margins of the marshes that were still extensive in the Po valley, and finally even created places for their customary pile-settlements on dry land. This they did by surrounding a block of houses by a ditch into which they ran the water from some nearby river. It is from the numerous remains of these later settlements, now filled with débris about the regular rows of decaying poles, that the Italian archaeologists have given the name terramara or terramarna to such  p4 MAP  p5  sites. The word means "fertile soil," and the term was first applied to them by the modern Italian peasants who have long made a practice of employing this débris for fertilizing their fields.

When the Terramara peoples had filled the lower plains of the Po, and had made their way into the upper districts, passing the Apennines, and finally overrunning a large part of Italy, they abandoned, of course, the habitations protected by water and constructed their villages in a more normal fashion. But even then they preserved their old custom of carefully planting their village areas and making a regular pattern for their towns which had been forced upon them by the expense of cutting their canals and dikes. The Romans of Caesar's day still made their military camps on a plan which closely resembled that of the Terramara town of a thousand years before.

The Villanova settlements. A branch of these northern peoples had overrun that part of Italy which we now call Umbria and Tuscany. After the introduction of iron into Italy, more than a thousand years before Christ, this group grew into a strong people, and developed certain customs of workmanship that seem to distinguish them from the Terramara people. Many of their villages grew into strong cities, the principal one of which was the one now called Bologna. The cemetery of this town, at Villanova near Bologna, has given its name to this people. Their remains are distinguished particularly by a certain type of funeral urn found in their cemeteries. Many thousand examples of this so‑called "Villanova urn" have been found in northern Italy. Their pottery and copper implements bear decorative designs that indicate contact with the Cretan civilization. Their iron weapons are skilfully made and their tools show that they were an industrious and prosperous agricultural people. Whether they represent a new wave of immigrants from the North that introduced the use of iron or whether they were a branch of the Terramara folk  p6 which progressed along peculiar lines on Italian soil because of contact with commerce on the Tuscan and Adriatic coasts, is not wholly clear. It is generally conceded that these are the Umbrians of historical times, who, as their language implies, were cousins of the Latins and Samnites.

The Terramara and Villanova peoples certainly represent the largest groups of northern immigrants that during the second millennium before Christ took possession of practically all the good land of Italy. It is not likely that any large part of the native barbaric stock remained, as the native element in Greece seems to have done. The Italian barbarians, not being tillers of the soil, had cared little for the possession of land; and such barbarians — like the North American Indians for example — prefer to emigrate before land-seeking invaders rather than to fight or remain in subjection — as did the land-tilling South American Indians. The earlier Italian natives, therefore, were generally driven to the high mountains of Liguria or western Italy and Sicily, and even over the seas. The monuments of Egypt, indeed, show pictures of such rude refugees who had taken service with the Pharaohs.

At the dawn of history, the Italian peoples derived from the northern immigrants held nearly all of Italy. The Latins were a relatively small group of these dwelling near the Tiber; the Sabine and Samnite tribes, who spoke a dialect so like Latin that it could very quickly be learned by the Latins, held central and southern Italy except for the southern-most end of the peninsula; and the Umbrians, as we have seen, held Tuscany and Umbria. The Po valley was also still in the hands of Italic tribes. The non‑Indo-European native tribes were left in mass only in the Ligurian mountains above Genoa and in Calabria and Apulia.

In this group of immigrants who took possession of most of Italy we are particularly interested because they are the first Indo-Europeans with whom history has any acquaintance. This tall light race, though far from precocious and  p7 seldom the originator of a new culture, has nevertheless shown a marked capacity for analytical thought and for orderly government, as well as a distinct ability to assimilate and appreciate high artistic ideals. Their capacities have to be sure beenº variously dulled or quickened by intermixture with other races. In Greece, for instance, they doubtless gained in artistic power and lost in political genius by freely mixing with the native Aegean peoples. In Italy, however, we may study them in their more normal development, since there the more thorough elimination of the native element seems to have left the immigrant stock for a long time fairly pure.

The Etruscans. Italy, however, by jutting deep down into the Mediterranean, also invited immigrants from over the sea. Two or three centuries before Rome was built, crowds of an eastern people, the Etruscans, began to come from Asia Minor by ship to settle the coast towns of the Umbrians north of Rome. Whence these people originally came, and who they were, no one knows. Egyptian monuments of the 13th century B.C. tell of the Turuscha, who are presumably these people, and who were then making sea‑raids on the Egyptian coast. The religious rites of the Etruscans prove furthermore that they had at one time come in close contact with the Mesopotamian people. We may suppose then that after migrating to the Asia Minor coast from the interior they had taken to sea roving, and, when hard pressed from behind, had sailed in considerable groups to Italy where they took possession of several Umbrian towns. We still have about eight thousand inscriptions of theirs, chiefly brief epitaphs upon tombstones, but though the letters and words can be deciphered, being written in an adapted Greek alphabet, no one can understand the language itself, nor has any one found any other language to which it seems to be related. The Etruscans indeed are one of the strangest mysteries of history.

Within two centuries of their coming they had taken  p8 possession of all of Tuscany, had crossed into the Po valley where they founded a large number of cities, and then turning south past Latium — which still for a while resisted the invasion — they seized Campania, the most fertile plain of Italy. How immigrants coming in ships could do all this, it is difficult to explain. Had they merely sought land for colonization as the Italic immigrants had done, the feat would have been impossible. Their object and their methods, however, must have been totally different. Like the Normans who invaded Sicily in the middle ages, they came apparently as conquerors and overlords eager to organize, rule, and exploit the inhabitants already there, rather than to drive them out in order to get their soil. Hence we may suppose that relatively small bands of adventurers seized city after city, organized armies of the Umbrians to do their bidding, and levied taxes to support their princely courts. But though they succeeded in imposing their language on the people of Tuscany, it is not to be supposed that the Etruscans of Cicero's day were predominantly of the Oriental stock. Notwithstanding the fact that they spoke the Etruscan language, they must have been in the main of Umbrian stock with some Oriental admixture.

The Etruscans had an easy advantage over the quiet Italian farmers, for, having lived in Asia Minor where the current of all the latest ideas flowed, and having roved the seas, they had the latest weapons, were skilled in the best devices of military and political organization, and could with their ships keep in touch with the arts and crafts of the East.

When, therefore, in the eighth and seventh centuries there was a remarkable blossoming of Greek civilization in the East, the Etruscans very quickly brought the artistic products of this civilization to Tuscany. At a time when the Latin farmers were intent only on their crops, Etruscan princes at Caere, Tarquinii, and even the Latin town of Praeneste, which they had captured, were building magnificent  p9 temples for the decoration of which they brought in Greek artists. They also imported beautifully wrought gold and silver table-ware from Cyprus, Egypt, and Phoenicia, as well as the precious stones, jewelry, and ointment which Phoenician traders handled. Presently their own craftsmen learned to reproduce the terracotta statues, the exquisite pottery, and the intricate jewelry that were then appearing in Ionia and Greece. Their large tomb-chambers, which they cut into the solid rock in the form of dwelling-rooms, have preserved in many cases the best examples in existence of the seventh and sixth century art of Greece. Though their civilization shows but little originality, and did not survive very long, the Etruscans by acting as a distributing medium for the arts and crafts of more gifted peoples exercised a profound influence upon Italian history.

The Greek colonists in southern Italy. We must finally mention the numerous Greek colonies of southern Italy that were founded in the eighth, seventh, and sixth centuries. The trading folk of Euboea took possession of the bay of Naples with the colonies of Cumae and Dicaearchia before the Etruscans arrived there, and then, perhaps to guard the route through the Sicilian straits, planted colonies on both sides of the water. Dorians established themselves on several sites on the southern coast of Italy and in Sicily; of those Tarentum and Syracuse especially rose into prominence. Finally, Ionians driven from Phocaea by the Persians, settled Massilia (Marseilles), far up beyond Italy near the mouth of the Rhone. Most of these Greek colonies, settled by adventurers and traders, contributed relatively little to Greek literature or philosophy. But their service to Rome was worthy of note. They had some opportunity by their commerce to keep the home-loving Latins in touch with the outside world, they blocked the advances northward of the Carthaginian power, kept the Sicilian straits open, and, recognizing a kindred spirit in the Latins,  p10 aided Rome at times of great peril from being overwhelmed by Etruscans and Carthaginians. Especially true is this of the Greeks nearest Rome in the cities of Cumae, Marseilles, and Syracuse.

[image ALT: A relief map of Italy showing its principal tribes in protohistoric times: Umbrians, Sabines, Latins, Samnites, and Lucanians; and her invaders during that period and the main routes they followed: Celts, Terramara and Villanova peoples, Illyrians, Greeks, Etruscans, and Phoenicians/Carthaginians.]

Invasions of Italy

[A larger version, fully readable, opens here.]

Physical geography of Italy. Though historians have lost some of their former confidence in the doctrine that environment determines racial characteristics, geography still has a legitimate place in history. A glance at the map of Italy will show that the peninsula, over six hundred miles long, juts boldly down into the Mediterranean sea about half‑way between Asia and Spain. Since this sea bordered all the civilized lands at a time when communication by water was easier than by land we may venture to suppose that Italy was favorably situated as the home of an imperial power. It is also to be noticed that the Alps formed a palisade that must have turned back many a migrating horde of Northerners and made Italy relatively easy for any fairly well-organized people to defend. In other words, Rome was seldom compelled to waste man‑power in defense of Italy, and she did not constantly have to fear that in sending armies abroad she was exposing her vital center to attack.

Whether Italy should be considered favorably situated for commerce, it is difficult to say. The peninsula to be sure protrudes down into the routes of seafarers, and has two thousand miles of coast line. But it does not possess many natural harbors. The eastern shore has no good port, but it also has but little fertile land that would need shipping facilities. The fertile western coast is washed by a shallow sea. This was a great advantage in the early days when skippers stranded their flat-bottomed vessels while landing for trade, and in that day the Etruscans were a great trading people. But the lack of deep and easily protected harbors proved to be a disadvantage when larger vessels came into use and when pirates began to attack exposed ports. The best harbors were at Tarentum and in the bay of  p11 Naples, and of those two places the Greeks with their good commercial sense early took possession. Possibly the Romans might have become a trading people like the Greeks had they possessed better harbors and less fertile lands to induce homekeeping. However, it would hazardous to affirm or deny this.

That the soil of Italy was relatively good in comparison with that of Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, and North Africa we know. To be sure the persistent chain of Apennines runs the whole length of the peninsula, and covers more than half its width. But these hills are not very inhospitable. Somewhat like our Appalachians, they contain many broad and fertile valleys and at worst provided timber and pasture ground. They also attracted precipitation, stored water on their timbered slopes, supplied subsoil moisture and irrigating streams for the plains below. Italy was thus better watered than she might otherwise have been. And compared with other Mediterranean countries Italy has a large area of arable land. The western strip of rich lowland, though seldom over twenty-five miles wide, is several hundred miles long; and the extensive Po valley is composed of unmeasured depths of alluvium that has silted in from the mountains on three sides. With cereal and vegetable culture on the plains and in the valleys, and large herds of sheep and cattle on the mountain pastures, modern Italy is capable of supporting about 30,000,000 of her people, and that is a larger population than ancient Italy ever contained. Presumably this condition of the soil helps to explain the fact that the Romans prided themselves on being an agricultural people.

Summary. Such then was Italy and such were the peoples that merged together to make the stock destined to rule the Mediterranean world. In the conglomeration the predominant element was the Italic group: the Latins, Umbrians, Sabellians, and the Samnites. The thinly scattered group of Orientals soon lost itself in the whole, after planting  p12 the seeds of Aegean culture. The Greek colonies of the southern rim retained their identity longer, serving always as a means of transmission of Greek thought and art. But it was the Italic inheritance of prudence and sobriety, of patience and persistence, of integrity and clean living that gave its stamp to the Roman character of the Republic.

Rome was the first city state which discovered a formula whereby a republic could expand beyond the confines of a city, unify other peoples in goodwill under its leadership, and thus give a free field for the peaceful extension of culture. There were many ingredients in that formula, but the most important one was a strong sense of justice and equity resulting in a code of laws which has educated every nation since then in the principles of government. Of this code Bryce has said: "They imparted to the law as it left their hands a spirit of honour, good faith and equitable firmness which modern systems have never surpassed and which is in some respects higher than that of our English Law."1

The Greeks, to be sure, were a more original people, in fact they are probably the only Indo-Europeans that have distinguished themselves for originality in every form of art and thought. But the Romans, in temper more like the modern representatives of the Indo-European stock, performed an inestimable service at a time when Greece could no longer stem the almost overwhelming pressure of seething barbarian migrations. They unified the civilized world and made it possible for all the cultural acquisitions of other ages to pass into the possession of one extensive empire so that they could not be blotted out wholly when the crash came. Through their capacity to assimilate, the Romans saved for future ages practically all that was worthy of saving. The new Europe of the renaissance found at hand not only Roman law, Roman governmental ideas, Roman literature, and an architecture adapted out  p13 of the Aegean for European use, but also Greek literature, philosophy, and art saved from destruction, and not least, the Christian religion which had come to Rome from Palestine and which the Romans had assimilated before the dark ages came.

In the following pages we shall especially give attention to the experiments of the government which accomplished these things. It was the only republic before our own​a that succeeded for a considerable period in maintaining liberty and potency. Its problems were to a large extent the very ones that we have had to solve. The Romans approached these problems with hardly any precedents to guide them, and from their failures and successes we can derive valid principles of government.

The Author's Note:

1 Studies in History and Jurisprudence, p591.

Thayer's Note:

a The author has made it clear in his preface that he is writing specifically for readers in the United States.

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Page updated: 10 Dec 20