By Periklis Deligiannis
In antiquity, at least ten different ethno-linguistic groups shared the Italian Peninsula and the neighboring islands. Its fertile land attracted invaders and colonizers coming from various other regions. Only two of these ethno-linguistic families were Italian (Italic); the Latin group and the Osco-Umbrian group, which were a minority among the peoples of the newcomers. All the rest were migrants from elsewhere: The Iapyges (Iapygians) and the Piceni of eastern Italy spoke Proto-Illyrian languages, originating partly from the opposite Dalmatian coast. The Ligurians in the north-west were a very ancient people who formerly used to live in much of Western Europe. The Veneti or Eneti of the north-eastern country, ancestors of the modern Venetians, were in a similar ethno-linguistic position. Many scholars believe that they were an Illyrian people.
The Siculi (or Sikels), Sardi and Corsi who lived in Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica respectively, have been linked by the modern researchers to two of the renowned “Sea Peoples” of the Aegean Sea who created havoc around the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age, namely the Shekelesh (Shklsh) and the Sherden or Shardana (Shrdn). These two migrant seafaring tribes, rather of Anatolian origin, were possibly mixed with the Ligurian and Iberian natives of these islands to produce the aforementioned peoples. The Corsi seem to have been an offshoot of the Sherden/Sardi. The other two peoples of Sicily, namely the Elymi (Elymians) and the Sikani had rather ‘Iberian origins’ accorging to the ancient Greek writers, that is to say rather being natives of the local Mediterranean pre-IE ethnolinguistic substratum. The same goes for the natives of Sardenia and Corsica (living at those isles before the coming of the Sea Peoples). The Phoenicians, skillful Canaanite sailors and colonists, settled later in Sicily and Sardinia.
The Early Romans belonged to the native Italic population, being a fusion of Latins and a minority of Sabine clans.
Τhe broad Greek colonization in the Italian lands is well known. The Cretan and Mycenaean navigators were the pioneers there. Except the ‘official’ colonization organized by the Southern Greek city-states, there were also migrations of some Greek tribes of the North, for example the migration of a part of Macedonian Pelagones who at an unknown date crossed the Strait of Otranto and settled in Central Italy, where their tribal name was attributed as “Peligni” in Oscan. The Pelagones/Peligni adopted the Oscan language but they retained several elements of their Greek legacy. In the 5th century BC the Greeks were the largest ethnic group of Italy (in her modern borders) numbering around 33 % of the total population. The last, chronologically, migrant population in the modern Italian territory were the Celts who in the 4th century BC conquered the Po Valley. The aforementioned migrant peoples were coming from almost all the places of the Known World of that era; from Syria in the Middle East to Spain in the West and to the frozen Celtic cradle in the North. Thus ancient Italy looked ethnologically like a “thumbnail” of the Known World. The fact that the languages and cultures of most of these migrants and the two native Italian groups were not related at all, explains the strong contrasts and conflicts that took place between them.
The marvellous Etruscans were one of the great nations of colonists in the Peninsula. The theories on the origin of this significant and elegant people are numerous, and the debate among the scholars continues to this day. However in the recent decades, the view that the Etruscans were born from a fusion of Anatolian newcomers from the Aegean coasts who settled at the end of the Bronze Age in the region of modern Tuscany with the native Italians of this region, tends to prevail. In their ethnogenesis attended a number of individual groups of Greek settlers, as well as an ethnic component coming from the Alps, possibly Proto-Rhaetian. The settlers from Asia Minor were probably another “Sea People“, the Teresh or Tursha or Tyrsha (Trsh), known to the Greeks as the Tyrrhenians or Tyrsenians, who rather became the ruling class of the new nation. The Greeks called them as mentioned; the Romans called them Etruscans or Tuscans (modern Tuscany bears their name). They called themselves the Rasen(n)a.
The Etruscans brought their Anatolian culture to their new home where they mixed it with the local Italian but much more to that of the Greek colonies. They had a paradoxical relationship of continuous trade and simultaneous military confrontation with the latter. However, the result of this Anatolian-Italian-Greek cultural mixture was a new, high-leveled civilization which through Rome left a great legacy for today’s world and remarkable finds for the archaeologists. The Tyrrhenians used to adopt immediately any mainland or colonial Greek invention concerning any aspect of life of a people, including warfare. They also adopted the Greek political organization in city-states but they did not follow their democratic evolution remaining aristocratic mainly for ethnological reasons.
The Etruscan city-states, although officially united in a Confederation, used to fight one another. However they equally often used to unite their military forces for joint expansion into new territories. Having inherited the warlike spirit of their Aegean-Anatolian ancestors, they achieved much: until 510 BC they conquered and colonized the Po Valley, Coastal Liguria, Latium, Campania and Corsica, quadrupling the size of their territories. Around 510 they were holding an area of about 90,000 sq. Km. with 1 to 1.5 million inhabitants.
These conquests were achieved through Etruscan warfare which inherited many of its elements to the subsequent Roman army, the conqueror of half the known World. The Tyrsenian armies successfully dealt with several formidable enemies before they decline under the decisive military blows of the Greeks, the Romans and the Gauls.
The Etruscans, having past the Villanovan phase of their culture (corresponding to the “Dark Ages” of Greece) in the 7th century BC were organized in city-states. There were at times over twenty such city-states in Etruria and around the same number in the areas were the Tyrrhenians expanded after 600 BC. However, only the twelve strongest cities were allowed to participate in the Etruscan Confederacy, a loose political union which was based on their common ancestry, language, and religion. Rome (Aruma in Etruscan) was one of the members of the Tyrsenian Dodekapolis in the 6th century BC. The Sanctuary of Voltumna (respective to the Greek Zeus), in the territory of Velzna (Volsinii) was the political center of the Confederacy. The Tyrrhenian colonies of the Po Valley and Campania were organized in similar Confederations. The coalitions of Etruscan armies in cases of emergency or common interest, were often due to inspirational leaders of a city-state such as Larth Porsen(n)a of Clusium (Clevsin), Velthur Spurin(n)a of Tarquinia (Tarchna) and others.
An Etruscan battle-axe.
Leaving the broader politico-military organization and going on the level of the city-state, there are several theories on the organization and composition of the armies of each individual city. The most popular is the one that accepts the Etrusco-Roman army of the 6th century BC as the Tyrsenian general model. The army was organized by a Tyrrhenian warlord coming from the city-state Vulci and mentioned in the Roman chronicles as Macstarna, which is not a personal name but rather the Etruscan office of the magister (also inherited to the Romans). Rome was founded as a real city-state in 600 BC by Tarquinius I who was murdered by her Latin citizens (578 BC). Macstarna and his men – rather sent by the Etruscan Dodekapolis/Confederation – crushed the rebellion and recaptured Aruma or Ruma (Rome). The Etruscan warlord became the new ruler of the city (magister/macstarna) and in order to “flatter” the indigenous Romans took the Latin name Servius Tyllius. It is therefore natural that the latter followed the general Etruscan pattern for the organization of the Roman army, whose description follows.
Macstarna divided the men who were within the age limits for conscription into five Classes depending on their financial situation. Each class was divided into companies (centuries in Latin). Each company consisted of four squads, regarding at least the heavy infantry.
Class I was substantially comprised of the nobles, manning the cavalry and heavy infantry. This group was permanently in a state of military readiness, which characterized the aristocratic classes generally in ancient Italy. Class I of Etruscan Rome consisted of 80 infantry companies, six cavalry companies (alae) and two engineer companies. Their equipment was the typical Hoplite Greek including helmet, armor, hoplite shield, greaves, spear and sword.
An Etruscan hoplite (Class I). Archaic age. Corinthian helmet, bell-type cuirass, greaves, hoplite Argive shield and hoplite sword.
Classes II and III corresponding to the middle social strata were enlisted only in wartime. In early Rome, each of them was divided into 20 companies. Class II was using the same equipment as Class I without the cuirass, and with Italian shield (scutum) instead of the Greek Argive one. The protection was usually supplemented with a pactorale. Class III had the same weapons as the Second excluding the greaves. Classes IV and V included the spearmen and the slingers respectively, i.e. the light infantry. The other Etruscan cities had archers as well. These classes were divided into 20 and 30 companies respectively, always regarding the Etrusco-Roman army.
However the bulk of the poor citizens were exempt from military service, at least as combatants. It can be hypothesized that in wartime they were employed in food production, the supply of the army, as carriers etc.
This division into Classes which was applied in the battle system as well, was possibly the model for the division of the subsequent Roman army in the battle classes of the hastati, principes, triarii, velites and rorarii. But this Roman distinction was democratic comparing to the Etruscan one, because it was based on the age and the experience of the fighting men. The Etruscan class division was additionally based on ethnological criteria, in the opinion of some researchers (including the author of this article). They believe that the “authentic” Etruscans were the Anatolians who settled in Tuscany and there became the ruling class (unlike the current Italian “patriotic” view considering the Etruscans as an indigenous people of Italy). They probably constituted the bulk of Class I. It has even been estimated that their ethnic name (Rasenna) applied only to the nobles. The indigenous Umbrians (or Ambrones), Ligurians and Latins were the middle and lower strata of fighting men (the other four Classes) and the non-combatant serfs. The main resources of the Tyrsenian city-states came from the agricultural production of the numerous serfs. The large number of the latter was a permanent disadvantage for the numerical strength of the Etruscan armies.
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