Text #9435"Latins (Italic tribe)", in .
The Latins (Latin: Latini), sometimes known as the Latians, were an Italic tribe which included the early inhabitants of the city of Rome. From about 1000 BC, the Latins inhabited the small region known to the Romans as Old Latium (Latium Vetus), that is, the area between the river Tiber and the promontory of Mount Circeo 100 kilometres (62 mi) SE of Rome.
The Latins were an Indo-European people who probably migrated into the Italian peninsula during the late Bronze Age (1200–900 BC). Their language, Latin, belonged to the Italic branch of Indo-European. Their material culture, known as the Latial culture, was a distinctive subset of the Iron Age Villanovan culture that appeared in parts of the Italian peninsula after 1000 BC. Although divided from an early stage into communities which mutated into several independent, and often warring, city-states, the Latins maintained close culturo-religious relations until they were definitively united politically under Rome in 338 BC, and for centuries beyond. These included common festivals and religious sanctuaries.
The rise of Rome as by far the most populous and powerful Latin state from c. 600 BC led to volatile relations with the other Latin states, which numbered about 14 in 500 BC. In the period of the Tarquin monarchy (c. 550–500 BC), it appears that Rome acquired political hegemony over the other states. After the fall of the Roman monarchy in c. 500 BC, there appears to have been a century of military alliance between Rome and the other Latins to confront the threat posed to all Latium by raiding by the surrounding Italic mountain-tribes, especially the Volsci and Aequi. This system progressively broke down after c. 390 BC, when Rome’s aggressive expansionism led to conflict with other Latin states, both individually and collectively. In 341–338 BC, the Latin states jointly fought the Latin War against Rome in a final attempt to preserve their independence. The war resulted in 338 BC in a decisive Roman victory. The other Latin states were either annexed or permanently subjugated to Rome.
It has been suggested that the name Latium derives from the Latin word latus (“wide, broad”), referring, by extension, to the plains of the region (in contrast to the mainly mountainous Italian peninsula). If this is true, then Latini originally meant “men of the plain”.
The Latins belonged to a group of Indo-European (“IE”) tribes, conventionally known as the Italic tribes, that populated central and southern Italy during the Italian Iron Age (which began around 900 BC). The most common hypothesis is that the Italic peoples migrated into the Italian peninsula among the Ligurian tribes some time during the Italian Bronze Age (1800–900 BC) and the Apennine culture. The most likely migration route was from the Balkan peninsula along the Adriatic coast (see Vučedol culture).
The archaeological record shows a remarkable uniformity of culture in the peninsula during most of the Bronze Age, from 1800 to 1200 BC - the so-called “Apennine culture”. Pottery with much the same incised geometric designs is found throughout Italy, and the design of weapons and tools was also homogenous. During this period, it appears that Italy was a heavily wooded land with a sparse population, concentrated in the mountainous centre of the peninsula. Most people were pastoralists practising transhumance and living in, at most, small villages. Inhumation was the universal method of burial. However, in the Italian late Bronze Age (1200–900), cremation burials and distinct regional variations in culture appeared. Some historians have ascribed these changes to the arrival of the Italic peoples. But the distribution of the novel cremation culture (the “Villanovan culture”) is lacking in the central, mountainous region of the peninsula dominated by the Italic tribes, and is concentrated in Etruria, the region populated by the Etruscans. This could imply that the Etruscans, whose little-known language was probably not Indo-European, were late intruders and that the Indo-European Italics are represented by the Apennine culture: if so, it would date the arrival of the Italics to before c. 1800 BC, well before the time assumed by most scenarios based on the Kurgan hypothesis. Alternatively, it is possible that the diversification of the Apennine culture into regional variants after c. 1200 BC was due to the disruption caused by mass immigration of Indo-Europeans.
The archaeological record, therefore, does not provide clear-cut evidence for mass Indo-European immigration on a mainstream Kurgan timetable. In the words of Cornell: “Nothing in the archaeological record of the Italian Bronze and Iron ages proves, or even suggests, that any major invasions took place between ca. 1800 and ca. 800 BC”. Nevertheless, it should be noted that major migrations are not always evident in the archaeological record and that therefore the possibility of a mass immigration of Indo-Europeans during the Bronze Age cannot be excluded on archaeological grounds alone.
Leaving archaeology aside, the geographical distribution of the ancient languages of the peninsula may plausibly be explained by the immigration of successive waves of peoples with different languages, according to Cornell. On this model, it appears likely that the “West Italic” group (including the Latins) were the first wave, followed, and largely displaced by, the East Italic (Osco-Umbrian) group. This is deduced from the marginal locations of the surviving West Italic niches. Besides Latin, putative members of the West Italic group are Faliscan (now regarded as merely a Latin dialect), Venetic (in NE Italy) and Sicel, spoken in central Sicily. The West Italic languages were thus spoken in limited and isolated areas, whereas the “East Italic” group comprised the Oscan and Umbrian dialects spoken over much of central and southern Italy. However, the chronology of Indo-European immigration remains elusive, as does the relative chronology between of the Italic IE languages and the non-IE languages of the peninsula, notably Etruscan. Most scholars consider that Etruscan is a pre-IE survival, part of a Mediterranean linguistic substratum. Possible support for this view may be found in the evidence that, before the spread of Celtic languages in the plain of the river Po from c. 400 BC onwards, northern and central Italy appear to have been dominated by non-IE languages: Etruscan, its apparent close relative Raetic, the partially non-IE Ligurian and the language of the undeciphered Novilara inscriptions from the region around Ancona on the Adriatic coast. However, Etruscan could equally have been introduced by later migrants. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus preserves the tradition that the Tyrrhenoi (Etruscans) originated in Lydia in Anatolia. Possible support for an eastern origin for Etruscan may be provided by two inscriptions in a language closely related to Etruscan found on the island of Lemnos in the northern Aegean sea (see Lemnian language).
However, language change can be explained by scenarios other than mass migration e.g. by small immigrant-elites who acquire political/cultural hegemony over the indigenous majority and convert the latter to their language, a process known in historical linguistics as “elite transfer”.
The tribe spoke the Latin language, a member of the western branch of the Italic languages, in turn a branch of the Indo-European (IE) family of languages.
The oldest extant inscription in the Latin language is believed to be engraved on the Lapis Niger (“Black Stone”) discovered in 1899 in the Roman Forum, dating from around 600 BC: in the mid-Roman kingdom, according to the traditional Roman chronology, but more likely close to its inception. Written in a primitive form of Archaic Latin, it indicates that the Romans remained Latin-speakers in the period when some historians have suggested that Rome had become “Etruscanised” in both language and culture. (It also lends support to the existence of the Kings of Rome in this era, whom some historians regarded as mythical: the inscription contains the word recei, the word for “king” in the dative singular in archaic Latin - regi in classical Latin. However, it has been objected that the word may refer to a religious official, such as the rex sacrorum, rather than the political king of Rome).
There is no archaeological evidence at present that Old Latium hosted permanent settlements during the Bronze Age. Some very small amounts of Apennine culture pottery shards have been found in Latium, most likely belonging to transient pastoralists engaged in transhumance. It thus appears that the Latins occupied Latium Vetus not earlier than around 1000 BC. Initially, the Latin immigrants into Latium were probably concentrated in the low hills that extend from the central Apennine range into the coastal plain (much of which was then marshy and malarial, and thus uninhabitable). A notable area of early settlement were the Alban Hills, a plateau about 20 km (13 mi) SE of Rome containing a number of extinct volcanoes and 5 lakes, of which the largest are lacus Nemorensis (Lake Nemi) and lacus Tusculensis (Lake Albano). These hills provided a defensible, well-watered base. Also the hills on the site of Rome, certainly the Palatine and possibly the Capitoline and the Quirinal, hosted permanent settlements at a very early stage.
The Latins appear to have become culturally differentiated from the surrounding Osco-Umbrian Italic tribes from c. 1000 BC onwards. From this time, the Latins exhibit the features of the Iron Age Villanovan culture found in Etruria and the Po valley. In contrast, the Osco-Umbrian tribes do not exhibit Villanovan features. The Latins thus shared the broadly same material culture as the Etruscans. However, archaeologists have discerned in Latium a variant of Villanovan, dubbed the Latial culture. The most distinctive feature of Latial culture were cinerary urns in the shape of miniature tuguria (“huts”). In Phase I of the Latium culture (c. 1000–900 BC) these hut-urns only appear in some burials, but they become standard in Phase II cremation burials (900–770 BC). They represent the typical single-roomed hovels of contemporary peasants, which were made from simple, readily available materials: wattle-and-daub walls and straw roofs supported by wooden posts. The huts remained the main form of Latin housing until about 650 BC. The most famous exemplar was the Casa Romuli (“Hut of Romulus”) on the southern slope of the Palatine Hill, supposedly built by the legendary founder of Rome with his own hands and which reportedly survived until the time of emperor Augustus (ruled 30 BC - AD 14).
Around 650 BC began a period of urbanisation, with the establishment of political city-states in Latium. The most notable example is Rome itself, which was originally a group of separate settlements on the various hills. It appears that they coalesced into a single entity around 625 BC, when the first buildings were established on the site of the later Roman Forum.
According to the mainstream Kurgan hypothesis, the earliest Indo-Europeans were a nomadic steppe people of Caucasian race, originating in the Eurasian steppes (southern Russia, northern Caucasus and central Asia). Their livelihood was based on horses and herding. In the historical era, the same socio-cultural lifestyle was maintained, in the same regions, by peoples descended from the Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIEs) known to the Greco-Romans as Scythians, Sarmatians and Alans, whose languages belonged to the Iranian branch of IE. On the basis of common steppe-nomadic features in the cultures of the various Indo-European peoples in the historical era, scholars have reconstructed elements of proto-Indo-European culture. Relics of such elements have been discerned in Roman and Latin customs. Examples include:
1) The kinship-system of PIEs is considered by anthropologists to best fit the so-called “Omaha” system, i.e. a patrilineal exogamous society, i.e. a society in which descent is recognised through the father’s line and spouses are taken from outside the kinship-group. This is certainly the case with Roman society.
2) Supreme sky-god: It has been securely reconstructed that the chief god of PIEs was a male sky-god, known as “Father Sky”, from which descends the chief Latin god, Jupiter, deriving from archaic “Dieus - pater” (“sky-father”). PIEs also venerated a god of thunder and lightning. Among the Latins, this deity appears to have been merged with the sky-god, as Jupiter was ascribed the power to hurl thunderbolts. Among others, Jupiter was ascribed the epithets Jupiter Tonitrans (“Jupiter the Thunderer”), Jupiter Pluvius (“Jupiter the Rainmaker”), and Jupiter Fulgurator (“Jupiter the Thunderbolt-Flinger”)
3) Fire-worship: A central feature of PIE life was the domestic hearth. It is thus considered certain that PIEs worshipped fire. The best-known derivative is the fire-worship of the ancient Iranian religion (see Zoroastrianism). The Romans kept a perpetual sacred fire burning in the Temple of Vesta, who was the goddess of the hearth. To symbolise the hearth, it is the only Roman temple which was round, instead of square.
4) Horse-sacrifice: Originally a nomadic steppe-people, the life of PIEs was centred on horses. The sacrifice of horses was probably practised to consecrate kings. The Indic asvamedha ritual involves the sacrifice of a stallion and the ritual copulation with its corpse by the queen, followed by the distribution of the horse’s parts. The Romans practised a ritual known as the October Equus, whereby the right-hand horse of a victorious team in a chariot-race was sacrificed to Mars, the god of war. Its head was severed and fought over by two teams of people, and its tail hung from the Regia (the old royal palace in Rome).
5) Swastika symbol: This symbol, the hooked cross (crux uncinata in Latin), was widely used by IE-speaking peoples in both Europe and Asia (especially in India: the term swastika is Sanskrit). According to one theory, it was invented, and used as an ethnic emblem, by the Proto-Indo-Europeans. However, it is a documented symbol of the Stone Age Vinča culture of SE Europe (c. 5500 - 4500 BC), which was probably pre-Indo-European (although it may have been used as a hieroglyph, rather than a cultural symbol, by the Vinca people). Whatever its origin, it was widely adopted by the Indo-Europeans, among whom it probably symbolised the Sun (which was seen as a wheel rotating across the sky) and/or the Sky and was thus closely associated with their male supreme Sky-god. Among the Romans, it was not traditionally associated with the sky god Jupiter. However, it became associated with the sky god in Romano-Celtic southwest Gaul, where: numerous dedications to Jupiter have been discovered adorned with swastikas. In the later empire (4th century onwards), when pagan symbolism lost favour due to the advance of Christianity, it came to represent the Universe, or eternal life.
Despite their frequent internecine wars, the Latin city-states maintained close culturo-religious relations throughout their history. Their most important common tribal event was the four-day Latiar or Feriae Latinae (“Latin Festival”), held each winter on the sacred mons Albanus (Monte Cavo, Alban Hills, SE of Rome), an extinct volcano. The climax of the festival was a number of sacrifices to Jupiter Latiaris (“Jupiter of Latium”); the sacrificed meat was shared by the representatives of the Latin communities. These elaborate rituals, as did all Roman religious ceremonies, had to be performed with absolute precision and, if any procedural mistakes were made, had to be repeated from the start. The Latin Festival continued to be held long after all Latium Vetus was integrated into the Roman Republic after 338 BC (from then on, the Roman consuls presided over them) and into the Roman imperial era. The historian Livy, writing around AD 20, ascribed Rome’s disastrous defeat by the Carthaginian general Hannibal at the Battle of Lake Trasimene in 217 BC to the impiety of the consul Gaius Flaminius, who, in his eagerness to join his army at its assembly-point of Arretium, omitted to attend the Latin Festival.
Latin culturo-religious events were also held at other common cult-centres e.g. the major common shrine to Diana at Aricia. This may be the sacred grove to Diana which a fragment of Cato’s Origines recorded dedicated, probably c. 500 BC, by various Latin communities under the leadership of the dictator of Tusculum, Egerius Baebius. Cornell argues that the temple of Diana reportedly founded by the Roman king Servius Tullius on the Aventine hill at Rome was also a common Latin shrine, as it was built outside the pomerium or City boundary. There was also an important Latin cult-centre at Lavinium. Lavinium hosted the cult of the Penates, or Latin ancestor-gods. Cornell suggests that the “Sanctuary of the 13 altars” discovered in the 1960s at Lavinium was the site of the Penates cult. Since each of the altars differ in style and date, it has been suggested that each was erected by a separate Latin city-state.
Under the ever-growing influence of the Italiote Greeks, the Romans acquired their own national origin-legend sometime during the early Republican era (500-300 BC). It was centred around the figure of Aeneas, a supposed Trojan survivor of the destruction of Troy by the Achaean Greeks, as related in the poet Homer’s epic the Iliad (composed c. 800 BC). The legend provided the Romans with a heroic “Homeric” pedigree, as well as a (spurious) ethnic distinctiveness from the other Latins. It also provided a rationale (as poetic revenge for the destruction of Troy) for Rome’s hostilities against, and eventual subjugation of, the Greek cities of southern Italy, especially Taras (mod. Taranto) in the period ending 275 BC.
The figure of Aeneas as portrayed in the Iliad lent itself to his adoption as the Roman “Abraham”: a mighty warrior of (minor) royal blood who personally slew 28 Achaeans in the war, he was twice saved from certain death by the gods, implying that he had a great destiny to fulfil. A passage in Homer’s Iliad contains the prophecy that Aeneas and his descendants would one day rule the Trojans. Since the Trojans had been expelled from their own city, it was speculated that Aeneas and other Trojan survivors must have migrated elsewhere.
There is controversy about how and when Aeneas and his Trojans were adopted as ethnic ancestors by the Romans. One theory is that the Romans appropriated the legend from the Etruscans. There is evidence that the Aeneas legend was well-known among the Etruscans by 500 BC: excavations at the ancient Etruscan city of Veii discovered a series of statuettes portraying Aeneas fleeing Troy carrying his father on his back, as in the legend. Indeed, the Bulgarian linguist Vladimir Georgiev argued that the original Etruscans were in fact descendants of those Trojan refugees and that the Aeneas legend has a historical basis. Georgiev disputes the mainstream view that Etruscan was not Indo-European: he argues that Etruscan was closely related to the Indo-European Hittite and Lydian languages, on the basis of lexical and morphological correspondences.
Georgiev’s thesis has received only minority support from other scholars. But even if Etruscan was not Indo-European, that does not necessarily invalidate a possible Trojan origin for the Etruscans, as the everyday language of Troy in this period remains uncertain. Excavations at Troy have yielded a single written document, a letter in Luwian. But as Luwian (which certainly is closely related to Hittite) was used as a kind of diplomatic lingua franca in Anatolia, it cannot be argued conclusively that Luwian was the everyday language of Troy. Possible support for a Trojan-Etruscan link may be found in the existence of the so-called Lemnian language, which was spoken on the Aegean island of Lemnos at least until 500 BC, and is apparently closely related to Etruscan. Lemnos is close to the shore of Troy, and may have been a colony of the Trojans and/or a major destination for Trojan refugees after the destruction of their city. However, Cornell points out that the Romans may have acquired the legend directly from the Italiote Greeks. The earliest Greek literary reference to Rome as a foundation of Aeneas dates to c. 400 BC. There is also much archaeological evidence of contacts between the cities of archaic Latium and the Greek world e.g. the archaic sanctuary of the Penates at Lavinium, which shows “heavy Greek influence in architectural design and religious ideology”, according to Cornell.
But whatever the origin of the legend, it is clear that the Latins had no historical connection with Aeneas and none of their cities were founded by Trojan refugees. Furthermore, Cornell regards the city of Alba Longa itself as probably mythical. Early Latial-culture remains have been discovered on the shore of the Alban lake, but they indicate a series of small villages, not an urbanised city-state. In any case, traces of the earliest phase of Latial culture also occur at Rome at the same time (c. 1000 BC), so archaeology cannot be used to support the tradition that Rome was founded by people from Alba Longa. If Alba Longa did not exist, then nor did the “Alban kings”, whose genealogy was almost certainly fabricated to “prove” Romulus’ descent from Aeneas. The genealogy’s dubious nature is shown by the fact that it ascribes the 14 Alban kings an average reign of 30 years’ duration, an implausibly high figure. The false nature of the Aeneas-Romulus link is also demonstrated by the fact that, in some early versions of the tradition, Romulus is denoted as Aeneas’ grandson, despite being chronologically separated from Aeneas by some 450 years.
Mainstream scholarly opinion regards Romulus as an entirely mythical character, and the legend fictitious. On this view, Romulus was a name fabricated to provide Rome with an eponymous founding hero, a common feature of classical foundation-myths. However, it is possible that Romulus was named after Rome instead of vice versa. The name contains the Latin diminutive -ulus, so it means simply “Roman” or “little Roman”. It has been suggested that the name “Roma” was of Etruscan origin, or that it was derived from the Latin word ruma (“teat”), presumably because the shape of the Palatine Hill and/or Capitoline Hill resembled a woman’s teats. If Romulus was named after the city, it is more likely that he was historical. Nevertheless, Cornell argues that “Romulus probably never existed… His biography is a complex mixture of legend and folk-tale, interspersed with antiquarian speculation and political propaganda”.
Alföldi, Andreas (1966): Early Rome and the Latins
Carandini, Andrea (2011): Rome: Day One
Cornell, T. J. (1995): The Beginnings of Rome
Encyclopædia Britannica 15th Ed. (1995): Micropædia: “Latium”
Fortson, Benjamin W. (2010): Indo-European Language and Culture
Georgiev, Vladimir I. (1979): La Lingua e l’Origine degli Etruschi
Green, Miranda (1989):Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art