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Some things don't change. The illegal immigrants who struggle across the Mediterranean from North Africa and over the Adriatic from Albania and the former Yugoslavia are just the latest human wave to break across Italian shores. Their predecessors, from ancient Greece, North Africa, the far-off lands of Troy and beyond, came by sea as well, thousands of years before Christ. Still other peoples came from the north, across the mighty Alps. By the time Rome was founded, the peninsula had been long inhabited by a different array of peoples.

Italy's long coastlines and central position in the Mediterranean have made it the focus of migration and invasion repeatedly throughout its history. But it's not all been one-way traffic, for it made an ideal launch pad for the creation of one of the world's greatest empires, Ancient Rome. Over the centuries, Italy (which from the fall of the Roman Empire until the formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 remained a fragmented collection of often squabbling states and city-states) remained a pole of attention.

In better times its more enterprising powers threw wide trade nets across the Mediterranean and beyond. In frequently less happy times, the peninsula (or parts of it) was the object of the covetous attention of a constantly changing crew of foreign powers. In the last century Italy's most telling "expansion" came in the form of massive emigration to the four corners of the earth, the bombast of Mussolini and his "new Rome" notwithstanding.


The Italian peninsula has supported human life for thousand of years. Archaeological finds show that Palaeolithic nomadic hunter-gatherers roamed across Italy as long as 70.000 years ago. By around 4000BC, thee Neolithic humans entering Italy from the east were bringing with them the art of cultivating the land. Agriculture meant staying in one spot and so the first fixed settlements emerged. It appears the Bronze Age reached Italy around 3000 BC (see the boxed text "The Iceman Cometh").

By 1800 BC Italy had been settled by numerous tribes united by the Indo-European origins of their various Italic languages. Hunters, farmers, fishermen and traders, the people of these tribes travelled overland, by canoe along the rivers and in sailing boats across broad sweeps of the Mediterranean. Trade and cultural exchanges, especially with Crete and the Greek mainland, enriched their lives and fostered contact. Inevitably such contact led frequently to conflict.

North of the Apennines the main tribes were the Lingurians (in the north-west), the Raeti (later over-run by the Etruscans) and the Veneti.

The Iceman Cometh
In 1991 tourists in the mountains near the Italo-Austrian border stumbled across the body of a prehistoric hunter, remarkably well preserved in ice, together with weapons, leather clothing and a basket. The hunter subsequently become known as Otzi, the iceman.

The body, the oldest frozen mummy yet found, was taken to Innsbruck, in Austria, where scientists dated it to around 3000 BC. This forced a re-evaluation of when the Bronze Age arrived in Italy, which until this discovery had been put at around 1800 BC.

The Austrians were intent on keeping the body until surveyors discovered that the site where it was found is 11m inside the Italian border. After a six-year custody battle, in 1998 the Iceman was transported to the northern Italian city of Bolzano, where museum curators created a refrigerated showcase to keep him in the same frozen state that preserved his body for 5000 years.


In Latium (Lazio today), the  dominant tribes were the Latins, who later would come to dominate the entire peninsula. Most of central Italy was inhabited by a group of tribes (including the Marsi, Acqui, Volsci, Sabines, Umbrians and Samnites) often collectively known as the Umbro-Sabellians. The south was dominated by the Oscans, except in Apulia, which was populated by various tribes together know as the Iapygians (later Apulians). Before the arrival of the Greeks, Sicily was dominated by the Siculi, while Sardinia was populated by the descendents of Neolithic tribes.


Historians differ on the origins of the Eturscan people and when they reached the Italian peninsula, although it is widely agreed that they migrated from the Aegeo-Asian area at the end of the 12th century BC. It is known that the Etruscans created a flourishing civilisation between the Arno and Tiber valleys, with other important settlements in Campania, Lazio and the Po Valle (Pianura Padana).

The earliest evidence of the Etruscan people in Italy dates from the Villanovan culture (around the 9th century BC), centred around present-day Bologna and characterised by the practice of cremating the dead and burying their ashes in urns.

From the 7th to the 6th century BC, Etruscan culture was at its height. Etruria was based on large city-state, among them Cacre (Cerveteri), Tarquinii (Tarquinia), Veli (Veio), Volsinii (believed to be either Bolsena or  Orvieto), Felsina (Bologna), Perusia (Perugia), Volaterrae (Volterra), Faesulae (Fiesole) and Arretium (Arezzo), which were collectively known as the Etruscan League. The Etruscans were predominantly navigators and traders, competing against the Phoenicians and Greeks for markets to the Mediterranean.

A good deal of what is known about Etruscan culture has been learned from the archaeological evidence unearthed at the sites of their tombs and religious sanctuaries, many of which can be visited today. Their belief in life after death necessitated the burial of the dead with everything they might need in afterlife. This included such items as  food and drink, clothing, ornaments and weapons. Painted tombs depicting scenes of everyday life, notably those discovered at Tarquinia near Rome, provide important information about how the Etruscans lived.

The long period of Etruscan decline began in 533BC when the Greeks of Campania defeated an Etruscan war fleet in the battle of Cumae. By the 4th century BC battle they had lost their northern territories to invaders from Gaul and settlements in Campania to the Samnites, confining Etruria to its original territories in central Italy. Etruscan civilisation continues to flourish but its development was increasingly determined  by its relationship  with the growing power of the Latin city of Rome.

The Romans had long been profoundly influenced by Etruscan culture and three of the seven Roman kings who ruled before the Republic (see Romulus, Kings & the Republic later) were Etruscans, known as the Tarquins.

The Etruscan and Roman civilisations coexisted relatively peacefully until the defeat of Veii and its incorporation into Roman territory i 396 BC. During the ensuing century, Etruscan cities were either defeated or entered into peaceful alliances with the increasingly powerful Romans. However, they maintained a fair degree of autonomy until 90BC - when the Etruscans (along with all the Italic peoples of the peninsula) were granted Roman citizenship.

The separate Etruscan culture and language rapidly disappeared, partly because scholars of the day attached little importance to their preservation and few translations into Latin were made. No Etruscan literature survives and the only remaining samples of the written language are related to religious and funerary customs.


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