The History of Rome (Mommsen)/Book 1/Chapter 3

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The History of Rome Book 1 by Theodor Mommsen
Chapter 3
Translated by William Purdie Dickson

II: The Settlements of the Latins[edit]

Indo-Germanic migrations[edit]

The home of the Indo-Germanic stock lay in the western portion of Central Asia; from this it spread partly in a south-eastern direction over India, partly in a north-western over Europe. It is difficult to determine the primitive seat of the Indo-Germans more precisely: it must, however, at any rate have been inland and remote from the sea, as there is no name for the sea common to the Asiatic and European branches. Many indications point more particularly to the regions of the Euphrates; so that, singularly enough, the primitive seats of two most important civilized stocks,—the Indo-Germanic and the Aramaean,—almost coincide as regards locality. This circumstance gives support to the hypothesis that these races also were originally connected, although, if there was such a connection, it certainly must have been anterior to all traceable development of culture and language. We cannot define more exactly their original locality, nor are we able to accompany the individual stocks in the course of their migrations. The European branch probably lingered in Persia and Armenia for some considerable time after the departure of the Indians; for, according to all appearance, that region has been the cradle of agriculture and of the culture of the vine. Barley, spelt, and wheat are indigenous in Mesopotamia, and the vine to the south of the Caucasus and of the Caspian Sea: there too the plum, the walnut, and others of the more easily transplanted fruit trees are native. It is worthy of notice that the name for the sea is common to most of the European stocks—Latins, Celts, Germans, and Slavonians; they must probably therefore before their separation have reached the coast of the Black Sea or of the Caspian. By what route from those regions the Italians reached the chain of the Alps, and where in particular they were settled while still united with the Hellenes alone, are questions that can only be answered when the problem is solved by what route—whether from Asia Minor or from the regions of the Danube—the Hellenes arrived in Greece. It may at all events be regarded as certain that the Italians, like the Indians, migrated into their peninsula from the north (p. 13).

The advance of the Umbro-Sabellian stock along the central mountain-ridge of Italy, in a direction from north to south, can still be clearly traced; indeed its last phases belong to purely historical times. Less is known regarding the route which the latin migration followed. Probably it proceeded in a similar direction along the west coast, long, in all likelihood, before the first Sabellian stocks began to move. The stream only overflows the heights when the lower grounds are already occupied; and only through the supposition that there were Latin stocks already settled on the coast are we able to explain why the Sabellians should have contented themselves with the rougher mountain districts, from which they afterwards issued and intruded, wherever it was possible, between the Latin tribes.

Extension of the Latins in Italy[edit]

It is well known that a Latin stock inhabited the country from the left bank of the Tiber to the Volscian mountains; but these mountains themselves, which appear to have been neglected on occasion of the first immigration when the plains of Latium and Campania still lay open to the settlers, were, as the Volscian inscriptions show, occupied by a stock more nearly related to the Sabellians than to the Latins. On the other end, Latins probably dwelt in Campania before the Greek and Samnite immigrations; for the Italian names Nouvla or Nola (new-town), Campani Capua, Volturnus (from volvere, like Iuturna from iuvare), Opsci (labourers), are demonstrably older than the Samnite invasion, and show that, at the time when Cumae was founded by the Greeks, an Italian and probably Latin stock, the Ausōnes, were in possession of Campania. The primitive inhabitants of the districts which the Lucani and Bruttii subsequently occupied, the itali proper (inhabitants of the land of oxen), are associated by the best observers not with the Iapygian, but with the Italian sotck; and there is nothing to hinder our regarding them as belonging to its Latin branch, although the Hellenizing of these districts which took place even before the commencement of the political development of Italy, and their subsequent inundation by Samnite hordes, have in this instance totally obliterated the traces of the older nationality. Very ancient legends bring the similarly extinct stock of the Siculi into relation with Rome. For instance, the earliest historian of Italy Antiochus of Syracuse tells us that a man named Sikelos came a fugitive from Rome of Morges king of Italia (i.e. the Bruttian peninsula). Such stories appear to be founded on the identity of race recognized by the narrators as subsisting between the Siculi (of whom there were some still in Italy in the time of Thucydides) and the Latins. The striking affinity of certain dialectic peculiarities of Sicilian Greek with the Latin is probably to be explained rather by the old commercial connections subsisting between Rome and Sicilian Greeks, than by the ancient identity of the languages of the Siculi and the Romans. According to all indications, however, not only Latium, but probably also the Campanian and Lucanian districts, the Italia proper between the gulfs of Tarentum and Laus, and the eastern half of Sicily were in primitive times inhabited by different branches of the Latin nation.

Destinies very dissimilar awaited these different branches. Those settled in Sicily, Magna Graecia, and Campania came into contact with the Greeks at a period when they were unable to offer resistance to their civilization, and were either completely Hellenized, as in the case of Sicily, or at any rate so weakened that they succumbed without marked resistance to the fresh energy of the Sabine tribes. In this way the Siculi, the Itali and Morgetes, and the Ausonians never came to play an active part in the history of the peninsula. It was otherwise with Latium, where no Greek colonies were founded, and the inhabitants after hard struggles were successful in maintaining their ground against the Sabines as well as against their northern neighbours. Let us cast a glance at this district, which was destined more than any other to influence the fortunes of the ancient world.


The plain of Latium must have been in primeval times the scene of the grandest conflicts of nature, while the slowly formative agency of water deposited, and the eruptions of mighty volcanoes upheaved, the successive strata of that soil on which was to be decided the question to what people the sovereignty of the world should belong. Latium is bounded on the east by the mountains of the Sabines and Aequi which form part of the Apennines; and on the south by the Volscian range rising to the height of 4000 feet, which is separated from the main chain of the Apennines by the ancient territory of the Hernici, the tableland of the Sacco (Trerus, a tributary of the Liris), and stretching in a westerly direction terminates in the promontory of Terracina. On the west its boundary is the sea, which on this part of the coast forms but few and indifferent harbours. On the north it imperceptibly merges into the broad hill-land of Etruria. The region thus enclosed forms a magnificent plain traversed by the Tiber, the "mountain-stream" which issues from the Umbrian, and by the Anio, which rises in the Sabine mountains. Hills here and there emerge, like islands, from the plain; some of them steep limestone cliffs, such as that of Soracte in the north-east, and that of the Circeian promontory on the south-west, as well as the similar though lower height of the Janiculum near Rome; others volcanic elevations, whose extinct craters had become converted into lakes which in some cases still exist; the most important of these in the Alban range, which, free on every side, stands forth from the plain between the Volscian chain and the river Tiber.

Here settled the shock which is known to history under the name of the Latins, or, as they were subsequently called by way of distinction from the Latin communities beyond the bounds of Latium, the "Old Latins" (prisci Latini). But the territory occupied by them, the district of Latium, was only a small portion of the central plain of Italy. All the country north of the Tiber was to the Latins a foreign and even hostile domain, with whose inhabitants no lasting alliance, no public peace, was possible, and such armistices as were concluded appear always to have been for a limited period. The Tiber formed the northern boundary from early times; and neither in history nor in the more reliable traditions has any reminiscence been preserved as to the period or occasion of the establishment of a frontier line so important in its results. We find, at the time when our history begins, the flat and marshy tracts to the south of the Alban range in the hands of Umbro-Sabellian stocks, the Rutuli and Volsci; Ardea and Velitrae are no longer in the number of originally Latin towns. Only the central portion of that region between the Tiber, the spurs of the Apennines, the Alban Mount, and the sea—a district of about 700 square miles, not much larger than the present canton of Zurich—was Latium proper, the "plain,"[1] as it appears to the eye of the observer from the heights of Monte Cavo. Though the country is a plain, it is not monotonously flat. With the exception of the sea-beach which is sandy and formed in part by the accumulations of the Tiber, the level is everywhere broken by hills of tufa moderate in height though often somewhat steep, and by deep fissures of the ground. These altering elevations and depressions of the surface lead to the formation of lakes in winter; and the exhalations proceeding in the heat of summer from the putrescent organic substances which they contain engender that noxious fever-laden atmosphere, which in ancient times tainted the district as it taints it at the present day. It is a mistake to suppose that these miasmata were first occasioned by the neglect of cultivation, which was the result of the misgovernment in the last century of the Republic and under the Papacy. Their cause lies rather in the want of natural outlets for the water; and it operates now as it operated thousands of years ago. It is true, however, that the malaria may to a certain extent be banished by thoroughness of a tillage—a fact which has not yet received its full explanation, but may be partly accounted for by the circumstance that the working of the surface accelerates the drying up of the stagnant waters. It must always remain a a remarkable phenomenon, that a dense agricultural population should have arisen in regions where no healthy population can at present subsist, and where the traveller is unwilling to tarry even for a single night, such as the plain of Latium and the lowlands of Sybaris and Metapontum. We must bear in mind that man in a low stage civilization has generally a quicker perception of what nature demands, and a greater readiness in conforming to her requirements; perhaps, also, a more elastic physical constitution, which accomodates itself more readily to the conditions of the soil where he dwells. In Sardinia agriculture is prosecuted under physical conditions precisely similar even at the present day; the pestilential atmosphere exists, but the peasant avoids its injurious effects by caution in reference to clothing, food, and the choice of his hours of labour. In fact, nothing is so certain a protection against that "aria cattiva" as wearing the fleece of animals and keeping a blazing fire; which explains why the Roman countryman went constantly clothed in heavy woollen stuffs, and never allowed the fire on his hearth to be extinguished. In other respects the district must have appeared attractive to an immigrant agricultural people: the soil is easily laboured with mattock and hoe and is productive even without being manured, although, tried by an Italian standard, it does not yield any extraordinary return: wheat yields on an average about five-fold.[2] Good water is not abundant; the higher and more sacred on that account was the esteem in which every fresh spring was held by the inhabitants.

Latin settlements[edit]

No accounts have been preserved of the mode in which the settlements of the Latins took place in the district which has since borne their name; and we are left to gather what we can almost exclusively from à posteriori inference regarding them. Some knowledge may, however, in this way be gained, or at any rate some conjectures that wear an aspect of probability.


The Roman territory was divided in the earliest times into a number of clan-districts, which were subsequently employed in the formation of the earliest "rural wards" (tribus rusticae). Tradition informs us as to the tribus Claudia, that it originated from the settlement of the Claudian clansmen on the Anio; and that the other districts of the earliest division originated in a similar manner is indicated quite as certainly by their names. These names are not, like those of the districts added at a later period, derived from the localities, but are formed without exception from the names of clans; and the clans who thus gave their names to the wards of the original Roman territory are, so far as they have not become entirely extinct (as is the case with the Camilii, Galerii, Lemonii, Pollii, Pupinii, Voltinii), the very oldest patrician families of Rome, the Ameilii, Cornelii, Fabii, Horatii, Menenii, Papirii, Romilii, Sergii, Voturii. It is worthy of remark, that not one of these clans can be shown to have taken up its settlement in Rome only at a later epoch. Every Italian, and doubtless also every Hellenic, canton must, like the Roman, have been divided into a number of groups associated at once by locality and by clanship; such a clan-settlement is the "house" (οικία) of the Greeks, from which very frequently the κώμαι and δημοι originated among them, like the tribus in Rome. The corresponding Italian terms "house" (vicus) or "district" (pagus, from pangere) indicate, in like manner, the joint settlement of the member of a clan, and thence come by an easily understood transition to signify in common use hamlet or village. As each household had its own portion of land, so the clan-household or village had a clan-land belonging to it, which, as will afterwards be shown, was managed up to a comparatively late period after the analogy of household-land, that is, on the system of joint-possession. Whether it was in Latium itself that the clan-households became developed into clan-villages, or whether the Latins were already associated in clans when they immigrated into Latium, are questions we are just as little able to answer as we are to determine what was the form assumed by the management on joint account, which such an arrangement required,[3] or how far, in addition to the original ground of common ancestry, the clan may have been based on the incorporation or co-ordination from without of individuals not related to it by blood.

  1. Like lătus (side) and πλατύς (flat); it deontes therefore the flat country in contrast to the Sabine mountain-land, just as Campania, the "plain," forms the contrast to Samnium. Lātus, formerly stlātus, has no connection with Latium.
  2. A French statist, Dureau de la Malle (Écon. Pol. des Romains, ii. 226), compares with the Roman Campagna the district of Limagne in Auvergne, which is likewise a wide, much intersected, and uneven plain, with a superficial soil of decomposed lava and ashes—the remains of extinct volcanoes. The population, a least 2500 to the square league, is one of the densest to be found in purely agricultural districts: property is subdivided to an extraordinary extent. Tillage is carried on almost entirely by manual labour, with spade, hoe, or mattock; only exceptional cases a light plough is substituted drawn by two cows, the wife of the peasant not unfrequently taking the place of one of them in the yoke. The team serves at once to furnish milk and to till the land. They have two harvests in the year, corn and vegetables; there is no fallow. The average yearly rent for an arpent of arable landis 100 francs. If instead of such an arrangement this same land were to be divided among six or seven large landholders, and a system of management by stewards and day labourers were to supersede the husbandry of the small proprietors, in a hundred years the Limagne would doubtless be as waste, forsaken, and miserable as the Campagna di Roma is at the present day.
  3. In Slavonia, where the patriarchal economy is retained up to the present day, the whole family, often to the number of fifty or even a hundred persons, remains together in the same house under the orders of the house-father (Goszpodàr) chosen by the whole family for life. The property of the household, which consists chiefly in cattle, is administered by the house-father; the surplus is distributed according to the family-branches. Private acquisitions by industry and trade remain separate property. Instances of quitting the household occur, in the case even of men, e.g. by marrying into a stranger household (Csaplovies, Slavonien, i. 106, 179).—Under such circumstances, which are probably not very widely different from the earliest Roman conditions, the household approximates in character to the community.