What Archaeology Tells US About Pre-Roman Cultures
When we talk about the ancient ages of the Italian Peninsula, we often focus on Rome and the early history of its people. But the history of this crucial European region is very rich and intricate, and filled with a variety of tribes, cultures, and peoples that existed there long before the Romans came onto the stage.
From late Neolithic, to Chalcolithic and the Bronze Age, this unique peninsula was home to distinct cultures that emerged untroubled by the world’s evolving civilizations. This made them unique and independent, and the diverse geographical features of the Italian Peninsula made them quite diverse, even though they were neighbors.
Today we are reaching back in time, in order to discover who dwelt in Italy before the Romans changed its history forever.
A Guide to the Pre-Roman Cultures
The Italian Peninsula, like all of Europe, was quite different from what we know today. In prehistoric times, its geography and climate were completely different, but most importantly - the people were as well. Before the arrival of the Indo-European peoples, the region was inhabited by numerous Old European tribes - the earliest cultures that emerged from the Western European hunter gatherer tribes.
They exhibited different cultural aspects than the societies of Central Europe, and their partial isolation allowed them to develop unique styles of art. This same style later influenced the arriving Indo-Europeans, and paved the way for the establishing of strong, spread out tribes that dominated the Italian Peninsula.
Today we are mentioning some of the most important cultures that were the crucial stepping stones that lead to rise of early civilizations on the Italian Peninsula, and the biggest cultures that the early Romans had to subjugate.
The Cardium Pottery Culture
We start our story by mentioning one of the oldest distinct cultures of Italy - the so-called Cardium pottery culture, or impressed ware culture. This is one of the oldest cultures that developed on the territory of the peninsula and exhibits strong Old European elements.
It flourished in the Neolithic, from 6400 BC to 5500 BC, and was distinctly different from the contemporary cultures of the Balkans and Greece. This culture covered the whole of Italy and the Ligurian coast and was notable for the decoration of the pottery. This was done with the shells of marine mollusks known as Cardium Edulis .
Pottery from the Cardium pottery culture, one of the oldest cultures that developed in Italy. (Locutus Borg / Public Domain )
These shells gave a unique pattern that is easily recognizable and sets this culture apart. At its zenith, this culture was spread all along the coasts of the Mediterranean, reaching Sardinia, Corsica, Tuscany, and even the coasts of eastern Spain.
This points out that these early peoples were capable seamen, which is further proven with remains of fish that can be caught only in the open seas. The earliest archaeological site of this culture in Italy dates to 6,000 BC - discovered at the Coppa Navigata site.
During the late Neolithic, Italy was dominated by the widespread Megalithic cultural traits that covered most of Western Europe. This period left many dolmens, passage tombs, cists, liths, and circular tombs all across Italy and Sicily.
The Copper Age and Its Changes
The Chalcolithic in Italy brings a lot of unique changes in the development of the cultures there. The greater emphasis on tribal communities leads to differences between art styles, and several smaller cultures where previously there was one. Thus, we see the development of three main cultures in Italy with the coming of the Copper Age - the Rinaldone, Remedello, and Gaudo cultures.
Of these, the Gaudo culture is most fascinating. It flourished in a small area of southern Italy, near Campania, around the end of the 4th millennium BC.
The Gaudo culture is well known for its fascinating funerary rites which are quite unique in the ancient world. The largest and most well preserved necropolis of this culture was discovered during the Second World War, in 1943, and the Allied Campaign in Italy.
These tombs are characterized by small, oval stone chambers below the ground, which are accessed by vertical shafts. The dead would be laid in fetal positions in these small chambers and would be accompanied by exquisite grave goods. The rooms were re-used for further burials across generations.
A Gaudo culture tomb, made up of an access shaft with antechamber, from which branch off two burial chambers, containing ceremonial ceramics and human skeletons bound up in the fetal position. (Benstox~commonswiki / Public Domain )
As the period of the Copper Age progressed further, we can spot more and more influences from the steppe Indo European cultures. During the later Copper Age, we see distinct usage of upright stone menhirs, or stellae, which depict human faces and warrior features. This is most likely a distinct influence from the widespread Yamna culture of the Pontic Steppes.
The Bronze Age Arrives to the Italian Peninsula
With the arrival of the Bronze Age in Italy, around 2,300 BC, the cultures evolve drastically, and display new methods of creating pottery, tools, jewelry, and agricultural implements. During the earliest beginnings of the Bronze Age , one culture stood out as dominant in the peninsula, the Polada culture.
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Reconstruction of a Polada culture stilt settlement. (Livia T99 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
It arose around the northern Alpine margins, especially in wetland areas and around lakes. It flourished from circa 2,200 BC to 1,600 BC. This culture is characterized by bland and rough pottery ware, but also by elaborate bronze work, which shows an emphasis on weapons and tools.
Due to their settlements being in wet areas, many objects made of wood and antler were preserved by the waterlogged conditions. One of the finest discoveries from the Polada culture is the Lavagnone Plough - a meticulously preserved wooden, oak plow that is the oldest discovered plow in the world.
Lavagnone Plough, of the Polada culture, discovered in Italy, from the Early Bronze Age. (Museo Archeologico G. Rambotti / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The metalworking of the Polada culture is highly accomplished and shares strong influences from the Unetice culture from across the Alps. This shows us the greater emphasis on trade and migrations that were common in the Bronze Age and placed Italy in touch with the rest of Europe.
As is common with the development of cultures in the Middle Bronze Age, from 1,700 BC, the societies receive a greater emphasis on tribal hierarchy, warrior elites, and warfare in general. The best insights into this are the archaeological discoveries of individual tombs and small necropolises, which show a clear advantage for warriors and chieftains, whose bronze weapons certainly gave them status.
The Rise and Fall of the Terramare Culture
The Terramare culture remains one of the most distinct and advanced technology complexes of the Italian Peninsula and flourished from 1,700 to 1,150 BC. It was established in the Emilia region in the Po Valley, and lends its name to terra marle - the rich black earth that made it possible for this society to develop greatly and become advanced. Over 60 Terramare villages were excavated in that region from 1860 to 1910 and yielded some fantastic insights into the Pre-Roman cultures of the region.
Reconstructed Terramare culture houses in Italy. (Reever / Public Domain )
The peoples of this culture are characterized by great skill as metallurgists and bronze workers, so much so that the findings yielded almost no stone tools. A variety of bronze slot axes, knives, daggers, and tools were discovered. In time, the culture spread greatly and several tight knit villages arose, none of them more than 1.24 miles (2 kilometers) distanced from one another.
But around 1,200 BC, the Terramare reaches the end of its road and experienced an abrupt collapse. This end was not war related - in fact it was almost entirely economical. The culture grew to a very high number for that age - roughly 200,000 villagers spread out across the area.
After reaching their zenith, they suddenly experienced a few years of drought and failed crops which resulted in widespread famine. This abrupt crisis led to the fall of their hierarchy, loss of political order, and in the end the collapse of their society.
It is most likely that the culture simply over-exploited their region and experienced a depletion of natural resources. After the collapse, these peoples became scattered, mingling with neighboring cultures and assimilating into them.
After abandonment, the Terramare culture sites were not resettled, and lay forsaken for several centuries, effectively disappearing. The heritage of such an advanced culture was picked up by the succeeding Proto-Villanovan culture which would grow to cover the entire Italian Peninsula.
The Proto-Villanovan Culture – Urnfield Reaches Italy
The late Bronze Age Proto-Villanovan culture flourished from the 12th up to the 10th century BC and had all the characteristics of the widespread European Urnfield culture . Moreover, these similarities have been connected by leading scholars to the arrival of Proto-Italics - i.e. Indo-Europeans - to the Italian Peninsula.
With the “vacuum” that was left after the collapse of the Terramare culture, this theory could be possible, as the Urnfield Peoples spread to other corners of Europe. These peoples quickly spread over the entire Italian Peninsula, and today, archaeological finds of this type are discovered all across Italy, and in Sicily.
The elements of the Urnfield culture were a great change for the established practices of earlier Italian cultures. Greater skill in most fields of technology is evident - from elaborate and adorned pottery, to brooches and fibulae, exquisite bronze weaponry, jewelry, and the biggest difference of all - cremation.
Where the Terramare peoples practiced inhumation in ossuaries, the Urnfield peoples introduced cremation. The ashes of the dead were placed in decorated urns and buried in the ground - thus the name Urnfield.
After this culture spread and overwhelmed the entire peninsula, and experienced around two centuries of stabilization, it began showing some regional varieties, of which the most notable is the Villanovan culture . It emerged with the beginning of the Iron Age, and flourished from 900 to 700 BC, as the direct successor of the Proto-Villanovan culture. They developed unique traits and further developed all the traditions of the preceding culture.
Cremation was even more emphasized and biconical funerary urns were finer. The urns even evolved into house shapes, in which the ashes were housed. This is an important link to the highly emphasized ancestor cult of Old and of Indo Europeans. The early Villanovan culture shows many influences from the neighboring Hallstatt Proto-Celtic culture, mainly in weapons and armor, and this early period generally shows a unified connection with the rest of Europe - a struggling remnant of its Urnfield origins.
But by the 700 BC, this identity slowly loses its shape, and the Villanovans become more and more influenced by the Hellenistic civilization and the contacts from maritime trade. This introduces radical changes, and little by little, a new identity emerges. This Orientalizing period brought forth the outline of a new culture which was the direct precursor to the emergence of the Etruscans.
Etruscan ivory pyxis (box) and lid with sphinx-shaped handle, 650–625 BC. The 7th and early 6th centuries BC are known as the Orientalizing period because of the many eastern elements in the art. In this prosperous era of international trade, Etruscan artists manufactured luxury goods, such as those seen in this case, that reflect influences from the art of the eastern Mediterranean. (Walters Art Museum / Public Domain )
The Mysteries of the Nuragic Civilization
One of the most mysterious, unique, and advanced civilizations that existed in Pre-Roman Italy, is the Nuragic civilization. It flourished on the island of Sardinia from 18th century BC, up to 238 BC, when it was colonized by the Romans. It developed from older cultures like the Beaker and Ozieri and showed great influences from the Polada culture of central Italy and was unlike any other European civilization.
These Proto Sardinians were skilled seafarers and warriors, and above all stone workers. The Nuragic civilization is characterized by the Nuraghes, large stone fortresses that dot the island of Sardinia. There are more than 7,000 of them remaining today. Typically, these stacked-stone forts were surrounded by small stone huts and were most likely ruled by regional chiefs or tribal chieftains.
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A Nuragic civilization stone fortress, in Sardinia, Italy. (UT70619 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
From advanced cultures of Sardinia, this civilization rose above all other contemporary cultures and peoples. They developed religion, temples, advanced weapons, and elaborate bronze art pieces. They became skilled at seafaring and could have been the mythical “sea peoples” that raided Egypt and caused the collapse of its empire.
But their advance civilization shows us an important insight in how Sardinia could have developed in such a unique way - even though it is so close to Italy, it was still isolated enough to reach such heights much faster than the contemporary cultures that neighbored it.
The Romans End It All
From this complex story of Pre-Roman cultures, we can understand that the Romans didn’t have an easy task when they embarked on their conquest of the neighboring peoples.
Centuries and millennia of rises and falls, of technological developments and migrating peoples could have been a recipe for disaster for these emerging conquerors. But on the contrary - the Romans persevered against all odds and proved to have the strongest culture of them all - by subjugating all their neighbors.
Top image: The Pre-Roman cultures shaped Italy into the civilization it became. Source: Tryfonov / Adobe Stock.
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Kipfer, B. 2000. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology . Springer Publishing.
Webster, G. 1996. A Prehistory of Sardinia, 2300-500 BC . Sheffield Academic Press.