Geography often plays an important part in human history. Where a people plan to live, whether or not they fight for that land with other peoples, whether or not they expand out of that land to colonize nearby, or cross oceans to settle elsewhere-geography plays an important part.
The people of a land form a part of the geography, and also matter in the history of a land. Rome’s history brought it into contact, both peaceful and warlike, with the Etruscans, the Latin Sabines, Volscians, and Samnites, the Greeks in southern Italy beyond Naples, the Celtic Gauls in northern Italy, and in Rome’s first foray outside its own shores, Carthaginians in the waters around Sicily.
Sicily lay just off the boot of Italy, across the narrow Straits of Messina. The island had an indigenous population, and attracted attention from the eastern Mediterranean, and was settled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Greeks. While Sicily played no significant role in Rome’s history until it became a province in 238 BC (before Hannibal invaded), its history was filled with battles and political wranglings. Eventually the wars between Greeks and Carthaginians, and between various Greek tyrants on the island, spilled onto the Italian mainland. First the Greek cities in southern Italy became involved-then Rome was drawn in. One cannot ignore one’s neighbors and events outside one’s borders.
Sardinia lies off the western coast of Italy. It had an indigenous population, the nuraghic culture, but was also settled by Phoenicians and Carthaginians. Sardinia played no role in Rome’s history until it became a province in 238. Before that, its Carthaginian presence involved it in the so-called Mercenary War. Sardinia’s role in Rome’s history after it became part of Rome’s empire differed from that of Sicily.
The Italian peninsula is shaped like a boot. The Etruscan people lived mostly in the north, while various groups of Latin peoples lived in the center of Italy. The Greeks settled in the south of italy, from Naples down through and into the toe and the heel of the boot. The Greeks invariably came into conflict with other Latin peoples like the Samnites, who migrated south. Rome became involved in their business in the early 3rd century.
The Alps mountain range separates Italy from France and Austria. Celtic tribesmen crossed the Alps and settled in the rich Po Valley, named for the longest River in Italy. The Gauls marched to Rome and at some point in the late 4th century, sacked Rome. They also met and pushed out the Etruscans. The region of the Po valley became known as Cisalpine Gaul. In the fourth quarter of the 3rd century, Hannibal the Carthaginian general crossed the Alps from France and rampaged south through Italy. The Po River starts in the western Italian Alps, and flows west to east emptying into the Adriatic. The cities of Parma, Ravenna, Felsina (modern Bologna) were established here by the Etruscans. One of the cities established there by a group of Gauls was Mediolanum (modern Milan).
The Apennines mountain range is said to form the spine for the Italian peninsula. The mountains begin in northwestern Italy in the area called Liguria, and run southeast, for a third of their length, thus forming the headwaters of the Tiber River which runs southwest to the Mediterranean Sea. The first two battles Hannibal waged in Italy against Rome, at Ticinus and Trebia, were fought in this first part of the Appenine range. They then run more or less south down the eastern side of Italy, leaving a narrow strip of land to the east, but a wider stretch of land along the west.
It is on this western side, the regions called Etruria and Latium that Latin and Etruscan cities such as Lavinium, Alba Longa, Caere, Veii, Tarquinii, Fidenae, Gabii, Praeneste, and of course, Rome near the mouth of the Tiber when it emptied into the Mediterranean, were established. The land here opened into plain and hill country, suitable for pasturing sheep, pigs, goats and cattle. The soil was rich and fertile, due to the activity of a line of volcanoes in western Italy, no longer active today. The people with whom Romulus associated for much of his youth were shepherds and herdsmen. The region known as Etruria, north of Latium, was bounded by the Arno and Tiber rivers and by the Apennines. Its rich deposits of iron and copper helped encourage the Etruscans to become skilled and famous for their metalcraft. Latium lay between Etruria and Campania, where the Greeks began settling as early as the date of Rome’s founding. The Apennines turn back toward the Mediterranean, after Campania, and end in Bruttium, in the toe of Italy’s boot. The plain of Apulia stretches down the heel of Italy. Here, at Cannae, Hannibal gave the Romans a disastrous defeat. But it was also here that the Roman legions began anew thereafter.
More on Rome in the Next post.