in Culture, History

Sabellians, Etruscans, and Greeks! O my! (Mommsen 1.8-10)

Chapters 8 through 10 form a unit that covers the other major populations in Italy before and during the establishment of Rome’s hegemony, and one of Mommsen’s chief aims (as before) seems to be to establish the relative independence of the Romans as a strong, unified group less influenced by others than driven by their own purity of logic and sense of nationhood. Despite the 41 pages and reams of data on Greek settlements of various types (Ionian, Achaean, and Dorian), not much needs to be said, so I’ll just have some scattered notes.


(Read Mommsen 1.8 online.)

He becomes sporadically poetic (as he has a few times in the past):

[O]ur information regarding [the migration of the Umbrians] comes to us like the sound of bells from a town that has been sunk in the sea.

Does that mean that it doesn’t come to us at all? At any rate, he reiterates the dubious reasoning he used before, namely that the Sabellians were latecomers because they dwelt in the mountains, yet later, while discussing the Dorians, talks of their reluctance to change their way of life, comfortable in the mountains. It never occurred to Mommsen that the Sabellians may have been mountain people from the beginning.

(I jotted a note about an old Greek professor of mine who made a big point about his countrymen always settling near the sea. He said you rarely find them in the plain states because of the Greek psychology. No matter what they do for a living, they’re still sea people.)

I was fascinated to learn again what Mommsen didn’t know: he discusses inscriptions recently discovered near Falerii that bear a resemblance to Old Latin, and I immediately recognized the language as Faliscan. It makes it clear that especially in these conjectural chapters there’s a lot of new evidence that would change Mommsen’s picture.

Ultimately what we take away from his treatment of the Sabellians is that of the major branches, the Umbrians seem to have been beaten down by conflicts with the Etruscans until they were eventually Latinized, that the Sabines lived securely and uneventfully in the mountains, and that the Samnites were to the east of Italy what the Latins were to the west.

Where they fell short was that they lacked a Rome. And this tells us something more about Mommsen’s view of great nations: part of their downfall was that they were defensive, rather than aggressive, like the Romans. For Mommsen great nations seek power and expansion.

His note on the Tarquins is worth repeating: even allowing for a king of Etruscan lineage, there’s no reason to assume Etruscan hegemony.


(Read Mommsen 1.9 online.)

Especially in light of the note on Faliscan, you can be sure that his information about the Etruscans is out of date. The one constant is that no one knows where they (ultimately) came from or how the language fits (if it does) into any of the world’s language families. For example, while some people consider it controversial, the Etruscans were probably descended from the Villanovan civilization in the same way that the Greeks of the historical period were descended from the Mycenaeans. The so-called Villanovan culture, though, was as recently discovered as Faliscan, so Mommsen may be excused.

I noted a strange statement on the accent of Etruscan that claimed that it was the same as Latin, namely that it was thrust back to the first syllable, but the Latin accent in polysyllabic words falls on the antepenult unless the penult is long.

Greeks, etc.

(Read Mommsen 1.10 online.)

He brings up an important point that I try to remind students of, namely that the dawn of Roman history was the full light of day for other cultures. Too often people have difficulty seeing how ancient civilizations stand in relation to one another. They have no sense of historical perspective, and this sort of image can be helpful.

Beyond that, and the lists of settlements (and discussions of ‘mongrel people’ again, and the ‘indolent’ Achaeans who stand in contrast to the Romans), Mommsen goes to great pains to show how the Greeks had no real part in the history of Italy. Yet in the process a very different story emerges: the conflicts of the Greeks with the Carthaginians and their Etruscan allies, and the relative Roman neutrality secured their position and later emergence.

But without the Greeks, who’s to say the Carthaginians wouldn’t have taken the south of Italy, hedged in the Romans against Etruria, and changed the course of history?

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