BMCR 2001.11.03

Ancient Umbria: State, Culture, and Identity in Central Italy from the Iron Age to the Augustan Era

, Ancient Umbria : state, culture, and identity in central Italy from the Iron Age to the Augustan era. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (xiv, 333 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 1423785681 $85.00.

In modern classical scholarship ancient Umbria is known for little more than being the birthplace of Plautus and Propertius and for the Iguvine Tablets. Up to the present day its ancient archaeological remains have been meager, and testimonia in the ancient historical sources are also none too plentiful. Consequently, even in one of the very few modern studies which focuses upon Umbria, W. V. Harris’ Rome in Etruria and Umbria (Oxford 1969), Umbria clearly comes in a distant second in treatment behind Etruria with its much better documented history and archaeology. In addition, although scholars of Indo-European historical linguistics have lavished considerable attention upon the Iguvine Tablets, the Umbrian people and culture that created these fascinating texts have continued to go largely unstudied. Bradley’s book attempts to fill this obvious void by synthesizing all known data concerning the region during the first millennium B.C.; and in fact, it succeeds quite well in this purpose. It will therefore be of great interest to students of pre-Roman and republican Italy and to Indo-Europeanists specializing in Italic. But since the relative dearth of analyzable data necessarily make for a study long on tracing broad historical trends from material remains and short on neat illustrative case studies, Indo-Europeanists are likely to find the volume less satisfying than historians of early Italy and of republican Rome. In some respects this book can be regarded as the Umbrian counterpart to Emma Dench’s From Barbarians to New Men: Greek, Roman, and Modern Perceptions of the Peoples of the Central Apennines (Oxford 1995), which studies the Samnites from the currently fashionable perspective of ethnic identity. The first of the book’s six chapters (“Approaching the History of Ancient Umbria” pp.1-28) describes the modern history and general state of our knowledge of ancient Umbria and defines the fundamental questions addressed by this study: the long-term social and political changes that transformed Umbria over time; the nature, scale, and consequences of Romanization; and changes in Umbrian ethnic identity. The next four chapters develop these major themes by tracing, as the data permit and in chronological order, Umbrian prehistory and history from the early Iron Age down to the time of Augustus.

Chapter 2, “Umbria Before the Roman Conquest” (pp.29-102), the longest of these chapters, covers the longest span of time (six or seven centuries), and is the most archaeological chapter of the book. Bradley (hereafter, B.) begins by opining that urbanism with its attendant physical manifestations is an inadequate model for tracing social and political development. He prefers instead to employ the concept of state organization and cites the Umbrians’ Sabellian kin, the Samnites, as a parallel problem. While this distinction might strike some readers as an attempt to make a virtue out of a necessity caused by a lack of data, B. makes good use of recent modern scholarship on related problems involving archaic Greece (see especially n.8 on p.32) and notes that not all states were poleis, and that some states were better defined by their people than by their physical remains (e.g. classical Sparta). B. argues (not surprisingly) that, like the Samnites, the Umbrians supported themselves through a mixed economy of agriculture and pastoralism, including transhumance. A series of so-called hillforts near Plestia are interpreted not as mere temporary refuges but as foci of regular occupation, burial, religious activity, trade, and administration. Early shrines were very simple and may have served more than their local inhabitants. B. conjectures that like the fair associated with Lucus Feroniae mentioned by Dionysius of Halicarnassus ( Ant. Rom. III.32), shrines might have brought different groups into regular contact. Bronze votive figurines, mostly warriors, dating from the sixth to fourth centuries B.C., testify to the existence of a native Umbrian tradition of bronze working; but the archaeological record, especially the grave goods from Plestia, Interamna, and Tuder, shows that Umbrian cultural development during the pre-Roman period was far more fragmented than that of neighboring Etruria. For example, the graves excavated at Plestia exhibit a gradual transition from very simple, locally produced items with no signs of social differentiation in their earliest period to better made pottery, some metal objects, and some imported foreign material with clear signs of social differences. On the other hand, Tuder, bordering on Etruria, led the way in absorbing Etruscan artistic influence and has even yielded some Attic pottery.

Chapter 3, “The Roman Conquest and Colonization of Umbria” (pp.103-54), begins with an overview of Roman-Umbrian affairs as known from the meager literary evidence for the last decade of the fourth century and early third century B.C. The discussion then shifts to Rome’s treaties with the various Umbrian communities and what they imply for Umbria’s political organization: the existence of several separate and distinct states (e.g. Ocriculum, Camerinum, Tuder) that had some form of central authority capable of making an alliance with Rome and of levying troops to fulfill treaty obligations. Roman colonization (Narnia 299, Ariminum 268, Spoletium 241) and the building of the Via Flaminia in 220 B.C. opened up Umbria to Roman immigration, whose extent and consequences are not easily determined except that there were greater concentrations of people into town centers rather than hillforts. By the time of the Telamon campaign of 225 B.C. Umbria was expected to supply 20,000 infantry to the Roman war machine (Polyb. II.24.7).

Chapter 4, “Urbanism and Society in Umbria between the Conquest and the Social War” (pp.155-89), claims to be the first such study of Umbrian social change and urbanism during this period. Archaeological data from numerous sites (e.g. Asisium, Hispellum, Ameria) exhibit monumentalization, especially in the form of city walls and temples. There is a decline in votive offerings at rural sanctuaries. The earlier tradition of bronze votive figurines ceases, and the votive material is more typical of contemporary Italian culture (pottery, coins, and votives of an anatomical nature). The archaeological record for Umbria during this period exhibits both change and diversity, much of which is attributable to influence from Etruscan Perusia and Volsinii.

In Chapter 5, “Romanization, The Social War, and Integration into the Roman State” (pp.190-245), B. first discusses the meaning of Romanization and how it may or may not relate to cultural change in Umbria before and after the Social War. The emergence of new cultural features was not synonymous with replicating Rome. Rome was not the sole source of influence; and, besides, Roman culture was itself a complex amalgamation of divergent elements. In reference to the issue of Umbrian ethnic identity B. correctly observes that the Umbrians are likely to have fought together more frequently in military units of the Roman army after the conquest than before it and that such service may have played an important role in the emergence of Umbrian ethnic identity. Thus, service in the Roman army may have produced the two contrasting results of Umbrian ethnic identity and identification with Rome.

What will probably prove to be the single most interesting section of this book for Roman historians, Latinists, and historical linguists appears on pages 203-17, which treat the spread of Latin and its implications. Several Latin inscriptions from Asisium, Nevania, Trebiae, and Tuder are discussed, including a bilingual (Latin and Celtic) epitaph of two brothers. B. disputes Harris’ contention that Umbria was Latinized before Etruria. While noting that Umbria has produced few inscriptions dating to the second century B.C., B. plausibly opines that the epigraphic habit was characteristic of the Etruscans and Romans but not of the Umbrians and that following the Social War there was a great increase in Latin inscriptions. The aftermath of the Social War in Umbria was marked by other significant changes: an increase in public building as part of municipalization and the growth in the number of rural villas. Umbria’s absorption into the political system of Roman Italy is borne out by the Cocceii Nervae from Narnia (the family of the Emperor Nerva that produced a consul in 36 B.C.) and by the Arruntii of Interamna (a family of great prominence during the early principate). Yet, while becoming Roman, many Umbrians (e.g. the poet Propertius) maintained pride in their Umbrian heritage.

In the book’s final chapter, “Umbria in Italy, Some Comparisons and Conclusions” (pp.246-69), B. attempts to place the history of ancient Umbria in the wider context of early Italy largely by comparing its development with that of neighboring Picenum. The reviewer found this portion of the book to be a major disappointment in an otherwise solid survey and synthesis of existing data. Although there may be valid archaeological reasons for such a comparison, it seemed to be attempting to clarify one poorly understood region of Italy by referring to an equally or even more poorly understood region (obscurum per obscurius). Comparisons and contrasts could have been more profitably drawn between Umbria and Etruria and/or Latium. For example, the historical pattern of grave goods found at Plestia (see pp.85-8) has a parallel at Osteria dell’Osa in Latium. See Anna Maria Bietti Sestieri, The Iron Age Community of Osteria dell’Osa: A Study of Socio-Political Development in Central Tyrrhenian Italy, Cambridge 1992. In addition, some of the observations offered in this concluding section would have been better incorporated into the book’s second chapter. Yet, despite these shortcomings and missed opportunities, this book is a solid contribution to the history of a region of pre-Roman Italy.