Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.05.14

Massimo Pallottino, A History of Earliest Italy. Translated by Martin Ryle and Kate Soper. Jerome Lectures, 17th Series. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1991. Pp. x, 206; figs. 12; pls. 36. ISBN 0-472-10097-1. $32.50. Originally published as Storia della Prima Italia (Rusconi Libri, Milan, 1984).

Reviewed by Jean Turfa, Lansdale, PA.

The field of Italian early history has always been heavy on theory: it's a lot of fun, and, frankly, when new pieces of hard evidence do turn up, they create more problems than they solve -- take, for instance, the Pyrgi plaques. Only the master of Etruscan and Italic studies could have undertaken this history, which reads very convincingly. The book suffers from its oral origin, though: NO notes, even when the minuscule detail on which hinges a controversial point is going to be hard to find.

Much has happened since P. originally delivered the Thomas Spencer Jerome lectures in 1968, but none of the new discoveries contradicts his framework. It has been substantially updated (to 1984, some later bibliography pp. 192-194), but a few new finds of importance to P.'s arguments have not been fully integrated in his narrative.1

P.'s comments on Italian historiography are well reasoned. P. cautions us to avoid the a posteriori perspective: the assumption that, since Rome did take over, it was always going to. At least until the 3rd century B.C., no one expected Rome to dominate the entire peninsula, let alone the Mediterranean (p. 20).

P. himself at times succumbs to the temptation to link up all the dots of evidence: archaeological, epigraphic, linguistic and topographic, and an array of ancient authors, to make sense of everything, when perhaps we still need to admit to some broad gaps.2 He also relies heavily on linguistic evidence which may be controversial for some, and for others too difficult to criticize.

Since this is earliest history, P. must dwell on the Etruscans, for whom he has long espoused the most reasonable viewpoint: we ought not to be distracted by the ancient debate of origins, but see them, like the Italic peoples, as the culmination of centuries of assimilation of various immigrants with the pre-Indo-European substrate. Late Bronze Age Mycenaean and Levantine elements were attracted by a prestigious native tradition of metallurgy (and resources). The Iron Age began in the 9th century B.C. with most of the later players already endowed with ethnic and linguistic identities and, in many cases, territory of their own. Arrival of Greek colonies in Southern Italy and Sicily was of cataclysmic import for most of the natives; by the 6th century, we see the shape of things to come -- Etruscan "thalassocracy" and economic power being broken,3 Italic peoples coming in from the cold, Greeks warring themselves into corners from which, in the last centuries of the millennium, Rome will extricate them.

P. has carefully crafted an argument from the non-Romans' views of themselves and their neighbors, and of the seeming attempts at unification (the various leagues), which coalesced too late to withstand the Roman political and cultural onslaught (e.g., pp. 135-6: in 296 B.C., the quattuor gentes, Samnites, Etruscans, Gauls, Umbrians). He suggests that the end of Italic autonomy began with the allies' resistance to the Gracchan land reforms, and finished with their demands for citizenship during the Social War (called by Cicero the Italic War, and seen by the Italics as Roma vs Italia).

Some intriguing points: contact with the Mycenaean Empire left its stamp on the Mezzogiorno, where the native centers became accustomed to a complex, pre-urban society which kept them ahead of their neighbors until the arrival of Greek colonists. (Let's not call them "the Mycenaeans" [p. 55] though, unless they were proven natives of Mycenae -- surely a proofreading mistake for P., who would never say "the Villanovans".)

The "heroic tradition": P. makes an excellent plea to give reasonable credence to ancient accounts of Bronze Age travelers visiting/settling in Italian territory during the Trojan War Period (for him, end 13th-beginning 12th century B.C.). References to Aegean adventurers in the Western Mediterranean, Italy and Sicily are so numerous that they must express some actual phenomenon. The existence, from before the Archaic Period (probably) of hero shrines (e.g. Aeneas at Lavinium, Diomedes in the Adriatic etc., pp. 40-45) supports this as well.

Given such intercourse, what are the implications for the game of determining when the Etruscans, Latins et al. "got" Homer? If we are not constrained to explain the advent of a story or element of iconography in terms of when the Homeric version of it reached the Tyrrhenian, should we assume the availability, in real time, of other bards?4

We will still find points for dispute -- we've been stranded too long with our own theories to be completely satisfied now. For instance, P. assumes (p. 83) that the first Rome-Carthage treaty copied those concluded by Etruscan Rome, and by other Etruscan cities. I had always assumed this was Carthage pulling a fast one, knowing it had Rome at a weak moment. Surely other, Etruscan cities wouldn't have required the clauses about "accidentally" invading and pillaging parts of Latium or Campania?

P. is still a little influenced by the old model based on more recent Italy, occasionally assuming that new developments occurred in the coastal cities and south rather than the interior and north. Sites such as Poggio Civitate (Murlo) and Quinto Fiorentino, studies of the amber and salt routes, etc., indicate the early importance of the interior and the Adriatic, thriving on a network of overland and river trade routes by the Orientalizing Period. Metallurgy, export food production and timber supply, among other things, would account for their significance. Fiesole, Gubbio, Arezzo, Campobasso may not have been organized like Caere or Vulci, but all were commercially wealthy at an early date.

For P., invasions of Gauls began in the 7th century (p. 108), but he does not emphasize that early incursions were probably peaceful. Oddly, he doesn't mention the 6th century tomb at Orvieto naming a Gaulish family as owners, which must mean they had been integrated into the city sometime prior to subscribing to that necropolis.5

We might wish for a better definition of the Italic cultures that parade through this history: Faliscans, Oscans, Umbrians. P. demands that we think of them in evolutionary terms only, as he has described them.

P. assumes his audience is rather well versed in history and archaeology: p. 66 -- P. identifies Orvieto with the famous Etruscan Volsinii: he is almost certainly right, but there is no inscriptional evidence, other than the wealth of archaic Orvieto. p. 76 -- P. slips, as do we all, referring to "the Etruscan navy's home waters". Probably there were never more than city fleets, which barely allied for Alalia and Cumae. The character of exports suggests that only a few places had thoroughgoing maritime interests: Vulci, Caere, Tarquinii etc. We still need to shed our thoughts of a Greek-type polis doing familiar civic things. p. 83 -- Etruscan thesauroi at Delphi only and only from individual cities, Caere and Spina (Strabo 5.2.3, 5.1.7). Olympia has early Italian bronzes, treasuries from five Greek/Italian colonies (Pausanias 7.19). The presence of Villanovan type arms and armor at Olympia makes one wonder about the source: heroic gifts or spoils of Greek aggression? What about the oracle at Delphi as the source for politicizing the (re-)opening of the West? P. avoids speculation on Greek history. p. 122 -- "Greek Sicily, after the fissiparous excesses of government by tyrants and internal struggles, achieved a new unity." Fissiparous (Biological term): reproducing by spontaneous cell division. Typo or satire? p. 140 -- calling Etruria "in some cases ... a virtual Carthaginian protectorate" is going very far on the evidence only of two Pyrgi plaques. For all we really know, the gratitude of Thefarie Velianas, zilac of Caere, refers to a gambling debt! And, as always, Etruria is topography: alliances and anything political would be decided individually by each city. Pl. 30 -- the Esquiline tomb historical painting: not cited or explained in the text, and potentially controversial.6

It is handy to have so many maps available, although they suffer from the small page size. Maps that include Italian, Latin and Greek versions of a name lose some features and can be confusing. The enlarged territory maps (Figs. 4, 7) have been translated into English, but some typos have fallen through the cracks. On Fig. 7, p. 90 (Campania): Foce del Sele not Sale, Teanum not Teenum, Pithekoussai is the usual spelling. Also on Fig. 7, near Salerno, the designation "Steblee" is very confusing: did they mean Stabiae? and mean it to connect with the solid circle near the other coast? (I wouldn't worry about Stabiae in the 8th-5th centuries anyhow). Near Salerno, "(Marcina?)" is presumably the modern Vietri to which P. refers p. 70.

Overall, who can criticize the master? Still, I would read this work for a challenge, and perhaps as background when preparing a lecture. Graduate students might gain a lot by evaluating (and scouting up) the archaeological and epigraphic evidence for some passages. P. is probably right in all his conjectures; in a few more years, the hard evidence may have caught up with his insights.


  • [1] For instance, native and hellenized towns in southern Italy, such as those in the sphere of Metaponto; salvage excavations along the highways of Latium, e.g., Ficana; final analyses of archaic material found in Rome, such as the sanctuary in the Forum Boarium under the church of Sant'Omobono; also marine finds, small wrecks presumed to be Etruscan off Bon Porte (France) and Isola del Giglio, which further support P's points about the early direct involvement of Tyrrhenian Italy in maritime trade.

  • [2] Torrelli's Etruscan histories (Storia degli Etruschi, Rome and Bari 1981; Chap. II: 'History: Land and People,' in Etruscan Life and Afterlife, ed. L. Bonfante, Detroit, 1986, 47-65), beautifully reasoned, also make every puzzle piece fit, when some evidence is at best equivocal. More reliable are the relevant Cambridge Ancient History sections, especially David Ridgway's 'The Etruscans'.

  • [3] P. could be more critical of this, the judgment of Greek historians' "pirates" probably equates with "market competitors" for any ancient narrator. The only evidence of piracy remains with the Greeks (including inscriptions, e.g., the Delphi tripod base, P. Amandry, BCH 111, 1987: 124-6). Even the Caeretan vase, pl. 16 top, can be interpreted as Greeks attacking an Etruscan merchantman.

  • [4] And how will that fit with the inscribed "Nestor's cup" (p. 7a) found in the late 8th century Euboean style burial mound of a teenage Levantine boy on Ischia? Still just a souvenir from dad's business club?

  • [5] The name Katicina: C. de Simone in ParPass 33, 1978: 370-95. It may be that P. disagrees with this linguistic analysis, but he might have said so.

  • [6] See, for instance, E. La Rocca, "Fabio o Fannio: L'affresco medio-repubblicana dell'Esquilino come riflesso dell'arte 'rappresentative' e come espressione di mobilita sociale," Dialoghi di archeologia ser. 3, 2.1, 1984: 31-53.