Ethnicity and social power in pre-Roman Italy

There’s been lots of talk lately about immigration. Here’s a look at the topic from the point of view of early Rome.

Joshua R. Hall

Immigrants, and immigration, are hot topics in today’s media, politics, and popular imagination. No one person nor group seems to know exactly what to think about “foreigners”, whether this is in President Trump’s bombasts against Mexican immigrants or the hyperbolic stories which helped to drive the Brexit vote. Most contentious, of course, are those discussions which revolve around migrants from the war-torn Middle East.

Within this discourse are many arguments ad historicam (if that is a proper argumentative concept). Pro-immigrant groups cite America’s history as a “nation of immigrants” in support of their position, while anti-immigrant groups reference certain notions about the fall of the Roman Empire. It has been an interesting, if not disheartening, conversation to watch play out. I would like to interject my own views on the subject based on the historical period of which I have an expert knowledge, early Rome.

Many peoples

Ancient Italy, in the period before the Roman conquest, was a diverse peninsula of many different peoples and languages. These different populations have been of interest to learned people from classical times through to modern scholars. Ancient ethnographers readily divided the area into a number of regions based on various characteristics, most commonly language and stereotypical cultural mores.

During the reorganization of Roman administration under the first emperor, Augustus, Italy was divided into eleven regions, many named after the traditional ethnic groups attributed to the areas, such as Lucania after the Lucanii, Picenum after the Piceni, or most obviously Etruria after the Etruscans. Most modern works that examine the history and archaeology of early Italy readily adopt these names and the idea that peoples within them represent some type of overarching ethnic identity. This is, of course, a very simplistic summary of academic discourse, as it has been recognized by many commentators that this quite an incorrect view. The most recent works on the topic recognize that identity is much more nuanced than to allow for large regional descriptions.

Ethnicity in the ancient world was, as it is today, a widely discussed topic. For instance, the Greeks were acutely aware of differences between groups of people. It is, in fact, from their tongue that we get the word “ethnicity”. Their term for this concept was ethnos and can roughly be translated as the same nebulous concept as its modern equivalent. Ethnē were differentiated, as set out by Herodotus, by shared descent, language, cult, and custom. Of course, the most important ethnos for the father of history, and his compatriots, was his own, the Hellenes.

The Greeks were quick to categorize barbarian groups into different groups though, even if they did not really have a clue about who those people were. Much as some people in the modern world do, Greek authors were inexact in their use of ethnic terms. This is perhaps best exhibited by the Greeks’ understanding of the Etruscans. Literary sources tell us that they were known as either Tyrrhenoi or Tyrsenoi, terms which were essentially synonymous.

That said, though, they also used this ethnic term to describe different groups of peoples from the shores of the Aegean Sea, nowhere near Italy. It seems likely that this was a term applicable to any group which shared one or more apparent characteristic with each other, much as many ethnic terms are used in the modern world. Again, similar to some modern commentators, the Greeks were very evidently ignorant of the details of Etruscan ethnicity, as “Tyrrhenianess” was probably not inherent to Italy but the application of a certain presumed standard to a “foreigner”.

How much “Etruscaness” was a concept within Italy itself is unclear, so perhaps the Greeks are to be forgiven. There is reason to believe that an Etruscan’s ethnic identity, through their own eyes, would have been closely related to their hometown. The paintings of the François Tomb, in Vulci, for instance, identify numerous figures from the central Italian mythological tradition by the settlement whence they came. When people moved to a new town, they often retained their hometown as a cognomen. This is almost certainly true of Aule Feluske, whom we know only through his ninth century funerary stele from the Costiaccia Bambagini necropolis of Vetulonia. His second name, Feluske, has been persuasively argued to mean “Faliscan”.

This would mean, then, that Aule, or perhaps his ancestors, were originally from the area around Falerii and from the “ethnic” group of the Falisci. These people occupied a small region bordering on the territories of the Latins and the Etruscans, and spoke an Indo-European language closely related to Latin. If his grave stele is an accurate reflection of Aule’s life, it would appear that he was a warrior of some kind. If this is the case, it is probable that he came to Vetulonia from his homeland as a mercenary, or condottiero. This type of behaviour was common in the region during this period. Giovanni Colonna has assembled a list of figures who fit this description. While his evidence comes from throughout Etruria, the names found in the inscriptions show that immigrants settled in Etruscan cities and came from all over central Italy, Greece, and possibly Africa and the Celtic lands north of the River Po.

Numa Pompilius

When we reach the protohistorical period we have evidence for a slightly different dynamic regarding ethnic origins and access to social power, especially in Rome. Here we see immigrants reaching the heights of society even though they were not Roman. Famously, the second king amongst the semi-mythical seven canonical reges was Numa Pompilius who supposedly came from the ethnic group known as the Sabines.

This group inhabited territory bordering on Roman and Latin lands and spoke a language which has been precariously placed within the Umbrian branch of the Italic language family. Although most of the aspects of Numa’s life are likely fictitious, such as his learning under Pythagoras, which even Livy (1.18) and Plutarch believed to be a fabrication. This particular aspect was problematic for more reasons than a priori assumption, as the traditional chronology of Numa’s reign did not line up with the lifespan of Pythagoras! The latter lived a hundred or so years after Rome’s second king supposedly reigned.

Tarquinius Priscus

The last three kings of Rome mark a break in the history of the regency. The first of these figures was Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. He was the son of Demaratus, an immigrant to the town of Tarquinii from the Greek city of Corinth, and a Tarquinian mother.

Because of his mixed heritage, Tarquinius was prevented from entering into political life in his hometown. His wife, Tanaquil, convinced him to immigrate to Rome and seek his fortune there. He ingratiated himself with the population and found a place in the entourage of the sitting king, Ancus Marcius. Upon Ancus’ death, the people elected Tarquinius as their new king. As with Numa Pompilius, there is no indication in our sources that his ethnicity, whether it was understood as Etruscan, Greek, or something else, was looked down upon.

A number of scholars have pointed to this aspect of the Roman kingship as being one of its “most important features” (Cornell 1995, p. 142). Non-Romans were not prevented from being made rex, and seem to have been readily accepted into the community as leaders.

Appius Claudius

The openness of Roman society to persons of other ethnicities was not limited to the Regal Period. Sometime around 504 BC, some five or six years after the expulsion of the kings and the foundation of the Republic, factions within the Sabine peoples began infighting. In the wake of this, a figure by the name of Attius Clausus moved to Rome with his family and his clients. As was the case with the foreign born kings mentioned above, Clausus was welcomed into the Roman social scene and his entire family and their retainers were given citizenship and lands.

The success of these immigrants is notable, as their Romanized name betrays. Attius Clausus was known to the Romans as Appius Claudius. His family became one of the most influential in the city. Appius was elected to the consulship, the Republic’s highest magistrate, in 495, signalling the beginning of a political dynasty. Their family remained politically and economically powerful through to the Imperial Period. The first dynasty of emperors are known as the Julio-Claudians, as from Tiberius onward the emperors were decent from both the Julii and the Claudii.


Rome was not the only society in the sixth and fifth centuries that was open to people of other ethnicities. This is attested by a series of events which started in 491. Strife between the ruling elite of Rome, known as the Patricians, and the common people, the Plebians, had reached a critical point, and disruption in the military, political, and economic spheres were continuous.

Within the milieu of the so-called Struggle of the Orders emerged Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus, an ambitious and able young Patrician. He began speaking vehemently against the Plebs, going so far as to propose that they be either killed or made into slaves. When he had pushed the people as much as he could, he was forced to flee Rome.

Coriolanus went on to find a new home with the Volsci, an ethnic group originating in the foothills of the Apennines. Livy tells us that they “welcomed him kindly” into their community (2.35). As time went on, Coriolanus’ animosity towards his homeland grew, and eventually he helped the Volsci wage a war against Rome. This was very successful, and they captured from the Romans a series of settlements: Satricum, Longula, Polusca, Corioli, Mugilla, Lavinium, Corbio, Vetelia, Tolerium, Labici, and Pedum (2.39).

Eventually the Volsci retreated from Roman lands. Coriolanus lived out the rest of his life with them. Although it is unclear how he died, the first Roman historian, Fabius Pictor, recorded that he lived into old age, becoming progressively lonely and homesick until his death (Livy 2.40).

All of the evidence that we have just discussed has led many scholars to the conclusion that Rome, and many of the cities of central Italy, were “open societies”, having what Tim Cornell has described as an “open-door policy” towards immigrants. In addition to the figures I have discussed, Carmine Ampolo identified a number of magistrates from the fasti, the Roman magistrate lists, whose names indicate that they were immigrants themselves, or that their families had recently immigrated to the city. These are Postumus Cominius Auruncus, presumably originally of the Aurunci, an ethnic group that inhabited the land just north of Campania and the Bay of Naples. Titus Siccius Sabinus was consul in 487 and is another example of a Sabine immigrant family achieving political prominence in Rome.

Further consuls in the fifth century had ethnic cognomen such as Siculus, Tuscus, Volscus, and Rutilus (Ampolo 1981, p. 58). The multi-ethnic character of early Rome is supported by epigraphic evidence. A number of dedicatory inscriptions in Etruscan have been found in Rome, dating to the Regal Period. While these could have been inscribed by travelers and dedicated in Roman sanctuaries as they passed, a number of linguistic oddities amongst them have led to some specialists to conclude that it was a Roman dialect of Etruscan.

This would have developed within a community of Etruscan immigrants who had settled in the city. This community could have been quite large, as there was a part of the city known as the Tuscan precinct, or Vicus tuscus, as late as the end of the Republic. As has been observed by academics since Ampolo, and some before, Rome’s societa aperta was a lasting aspect of their culture throughout the archaic period and throughout their conquests of the Italian Peninsula and further.

Runciman and the “Citizen State”

This aspect of Roman society has been argued by W. G. Runciman to be one of its defining features. He has elaborated this in contrast to Greek poleis, which were almost entirely closed societies. Rome’s ability to integrate new citizens, whether through immigration as noted above, or conquest in its later history, continually increased its population and thus its productivity, creativity, and military might.

This is true also, as Runciman points out, of the Roman practice of manumission. By freeing slaves and making them citizens, rather than a class without those rights, “fed into the citizen body a steady stream of new recruits who, as well as being for the most part both able and industrious, were, although of inferior status to those born free, more grateful for their freedom than resentful of their inferiority” (Runciman 1990, p. 357).


I hope to have shown through this relatively short discussion that ancient peoples, especially in Italy, were keenly aware of cultural differences between different ethnic groups. Unlike in more recent history, there was not nearly as much stigma about these differences. This is one of the general conclusions reached by a number of other scholars recently, and is by no means a unique nor groundbreaking contribution on my part.

The reason, though, that I felt this an important topic to talk with you all about is because it is such a poignant topic for our current situation in this country. (This article is based on a lecture given in the United States.) My point can be succinctly illustrated by contrasting Athens and Rome. Athenian perception of ethnicity was well defined, and quite discriminatory. Though they were certainly Hellenes, in a broad sense, they were more importantly Athenians. Within their city and their empire, Athenian citizens were the only ones who really mattered, and to be an Athenian citizen one had to be born into it. Unlike in Rome, where immigrants integrated into the socio-political system, immigrants into Athens were called metics and were not considered citizens. This was poignantly shown in Pericles’ citizenship law of 451 BC, in which it was legislated that only the children of two Athenian citizens could be citizens themselves (Arist. Pol. 1278a).

This type of discrimination was cited by Runciman as one of the major failings of the classical Greek states and linked to their eventual downfall. It was certainly one of the most obvious reasons that they could not stand against the might of the Macedonians when Phillip and Alexander decided to conquer all of Hellas. Compare this with Rome, who for most of its history welcomed foreigners into their citizen population and social and political systems.

This is, of course, a simple version of events, as there were various degrees of citizenship that people could have, especially if they were a conquered people. After the Social War in the second century BC, however, all of Italy were made Roman citizens. By continually accepting persons from other ethnic groups into their system of social power from the Regal Period onward, though, the Roman state was continually strengthened. This spurred on economic growth and success and helped the city-state to secure military dominance over the entire peninsula.

It is important for us to remember that our country’s own success has its origins in similar treatment of immigrant groups and that if we want to see continued growth as Rome did throughout its history we cannot turn our backs on a 2800 year tradition of which we are most certainly a part.