The minstrels who wandered from country to country in the ancient world told a legend of Aeneas, a Trojan prince. According to the story, Aeneas escaped the Greeks who broke through the walls of Troy and fled to his ships with a little band of warriors. Rowing out onto the Hellespont, they watched while a great fire destroyed their city and they knew that they could never return to Troy. Then, the storytellers said, the gods spoke to Aeneas, telling him to turn his ships west. They commanded him to sail away from the Hellespont and the Aegean Sea, past Crete and the country of the Greeks, into the unknown western ocean. There he would find a new land and build a new Troy, a mighty city that would conquer the Greeks and all the world.
Aeneas obeyed the gods and sailed west; but before he came to the place where his new city would be built, he knew many years of adventure and hardship. A storm wrecked his ships on the coast of Africa, where he was found by Dido, the queen of a great city called Carthage. Dido took Aeneas to her palace and told her people to greet him like a prince. While he lived in the palace, waiting for new ships to be built, the queen fell in love with him. She begged him to give up his wandering and his dreams of a new Troy. She would make him king of Carthage, if only he would stay with her. When he refused, she killed herself, calling on the gods to grant her curse: “May Carthage and the city of Aeneas be enemies, make war on one another and live in hatred forever.”
Aeneas sailed on, until he came to Italy and the ancient Greek city of Cumae. Here, the minstrels said, he met the Sibyl, a mysterious and powerful priestess who could speak with the gods. She told him how to find the site which the gods had chosen for the city. Then she gave him a book in which was written the future of the city for more than 800 years and the names of its heroes and enemies. Aeneas turned north, travelling by land and at last came to a mountain that stood above a green, hilly plain and a river. There, as the gods promised, he found good land and he began to build a city. This city was called Rome and it became the great city of the West and the conqueror of the world.
Years later, in the time of the Caesars, when the Roman Empire surrounded the Mediterranean Sea, generations of minstrels had told the story of Aeneas countless of times. It seemed only right that so great a city should have been founded by a prince and planned by the gods. Indeed, many things in the story were actual history. There has been a Carthage and a Cumae. It was also true that a band of sea-warriors had come to Italy from Asia Minor, from a place perhaps not far from Troy. The storytellers had forgotten that this did not happen until long after the Trojan War.
The true story of Rome began somewhere around 1,000 B. C., when Phoenician sailors first ventured into the unknown western half of the Mediterranean Sea. Sailors from Crete and the first Greek cities already knew the eastern Mediterranean as well as they knew the streets of their own towns. Their world stopped at the island of Sicily. The rest was a mystery – dangerous and too far away to matter.
Traders and Pirates
The Phoenicians were merchant-pirates, who had good reasons to look for havens in out-of-the-way places. They built the city of Carthage on the coast of North Africa and from there, they went exploring along the coasts of the western part of the Mediterranean. It was rough, uncivilized country, but the hills were rich with metals – gold, silver, iron for weapons and even tin. Tin was still so rare that it was used for jewelry and for decorating the palaces of kings. Near Carthage itself, the ocean floor held great beds of the shellfish whose ink was made into Tyrian Purple, the most fashionable and expensive dye in the ancient world. The Phoenicians found that trading was just as profitable as piracy. They hauled their western goods to the wealthy cities in the East and Carthage became rich and powerful.
In the true story of Rome, it was the sailors from Carthage who first explored the west coast of Italy. Trading in the ports of Greece and Egypt, they began to tell stories about the green peninsula northwest of Greece. They called it Vitelliu, which meant “calf-land,” a country of cattle and rich fields. When the Greeks heard these stories, they believed that they were just sailors’ tales. Their own explorers had scouted the east coast of the same peninsula and they said it was all mountains, with no good fields or harbours. In any case, like the seas beyond it, it was too far away to matter.
Then the eastern world was not the first time that this had happened, for Europe, to the north, was filled with restless, warring tribesmen. The huge continent seethed like a great cauldron. From time to time, the cauldron boiled over, spilling its angry people over the rim of mountains that usually kept them from the Mediterranean lands. About 1000 B. C., Europe boiled up as never before and horn-helmeted savages poured into Greece. For two hundred years they came, burning the towns and driving the Greeks from their fields. Homeless Greeks fled across the Aegean to look for new homes on the islands or along the Asian coast. There was never enough land for all of them and always the invaders were at their heels. Some of the refugees remembered the tales of Vitelliu and decided to sail west.
The time the Greeks went to the far side of the Peninsula, the western side that faced away from the world they had always known. There they found the green fields and good harbours that the Carthaginian sailors had told them about. The mountains which the first Greek explorers had seen were only on the eastern side. When the news reached Greece, one shipload of colonists after another set off for Vitelliu, though their scouts warned them that winning land there would not be easy. Other men had heard of the rich peninsula, too, they said. Some of them had already settled there – the barbarians, the Carthaginians and a third group of settlers who were called the Etruscans. Colonists from Greece would somehow have to come to terms with all three.
When the Greeks landed, they found the plains dotted with the farms and little huts of the barbaric tribesmen. The barbarians had been the first settlers to arrive in Vitelliu, at about the same time that their kinsmen had invaded Greece. They had come south from the Alps, struggling over the steep wall of mountains which guarded the northern end of the peninsula. Like their kinsmen, who had driven the Greeks from their homeland, the tribesmen were fierce fighters. They could not hold back the Greeks who came to Vitelliu. These Greeks were well-organized, well-armed and determined to win a foothold in the new land. They took turns standing guard, building walls and clearing fields. As their settlements grew, they welcomed as citizens any of the barbarians who were willing to live with them in peace and fought off those who were not.
The Greek colonists did their best to get along with the Carthaginians. At first, this usually meant staying out of their way. Carthage’s own tough colonists had settled on all the islands near Vitelliu – on Sicily, just off the southern tip of the peninsula and on Corsica and Sardinia, to the west. They had left the mainland to the savages, because they wanted seaports and mines, not fields for raising cattle. When the Greeks turned up, the Carthaginians did little to interfere with them and even begin to trade with them. All was well, so long as the Greeks kept to the mainland. After a few years, however, the Greeks began to set up colonies on Sicily. The Carthaginians protested angrily, but the Greeks went on building. The island became the home of two sets of rival cities, Greek and Carthaginian, which lived side by side in an uneasy peace because neither was strong enough to destroy the other.
The Greeks were much more cautious in dealing with the third group of settlers. These were the people called Etruscans, because their strongholds were in Etruria, the widest of the plains in the centre of the peninsula. They were a nation of sea-warriors with a powerful fleet and strong armies. A hundred years before the first Greek colonists came to Vitelliu, a squadron of Etruscan war-boats had suddenly appeared in the channel between the peninsula and Sicily and had pushed their way past the Carthaginian ships which guarded the passage. The warriors sailed up the coast, took the land they wanted and held it with their spears. Like Aeneas in the legend, they had come from Asia Minor. They were not Trojans, of course. When they landed in Etruria, in their bright plumed helmets and jangling metal jewelry, they brought the civilization of the East to the West and the building of cities in Vitelliu began. By the time the Greeks arrived, the Etruscan settlements were so strong that the new colonists did not dare to go near them. The Greeks built their towns on the southern tip of the peninsula, well away from Etruria and avoided the Etruscans except when they came to trade.
For two years or more, the four very different peoples shared the riches of Vitelliu and life on the peninsula began to change. Olive trees and grapevines were planted. As the plants took hold in the new land, so did many other things of the eastern world. In the south the Greek cities grew and prospered. It was in the centre of the peninsula, the area of the Etruscans, that the first great changes came about.
The Etruscans were builders as well as warriors. They dug tunnels and built dams to drain the marshy fields and they put up houses of sun-baked bricks. Their twelve city-kingdoms in Etruria had paved streets and were protected by heavy walls. The Etruscans taught the barbarians the secret of using wedge-shaped stones to build arches of great strength. They began to pronounce the name of the land in a new way – now, and for thousands of years to come, it would be Italia. In English it would be known as Italy.
Life of Etruscans
For the barbaric tribesmen, who would one day be the Italians, the Etruscans were conquerors, teachers and often a puzzling mystery. When the tribesmen camped in the hills above the new towns, they heard for the first time the sound of flutes and the strange, throbbing music of Asian songs. They saw men whose everyday clothes were as brightly coloured as their metal armour was strong. Later, as the tribesmen were defeated in battle or came of their own accord to live in the cities, they became the subjects of Etruscan masters. They threw away the animal skins they had worn and put on togas, flowing folds of cloth the Etruscans wrapped themselves in. On festival days, they joined the singing and dancing that sometimes went on all night.
From their new masters, the Italians learned to love everything that made life pleasant and gay – music and games, the bright colours they wore, wall paintings in their houses and temples. When trading – and sometimes piracy – made the Etruscans rich, they filled their homes with fine Greek pottery and decked themselves with jewelry of silver and gold. Life was to be enjoyed, they said, because death was a time of agony. They frightened the barbarians with stories and pictures of demons who tortured the spirits of the dead. They taught them to celebrate funerals of important men with duels. The demons would torture the ghosts of the men sacrificed in the duels and leave the other spirits in peace.
Like all seafarers, the Etruscans worried about the gods who controlled nature – the winds and the sun and the seasons. They saw omens of good or evil in every lightning flash and shooting star. Before they planted crops or went to battle, their priests tried to foretell what would happen by studying the livers of sacrificed animals. Many of the omens must have been good, for the Etruscan warriors went to war often. For nearly 300 years, armies from the cities in Etruria won victories all along the peninsula – from the great Po Valley under the Alps to the plains and foothills of the southwest. They captured dozens of little Italian towns, among them the busy market town would be called Rome. Then they marched far to the south, to the walls of the Greek cities. There they stopped.
The Greek colonists in Italy had had time to put up good defenses and now they could call for help of the Greek settlers on the island of Sicily. The Etruscans had only their own troops and their Italian subjects, who deserted them as soon as war with the Greeks began. Cities the Etruscans themselves had built suddenly locked their gates against them. Then a new wave of barbarians battled through the Alps and attacked from the north. Slowly the Etruscan armies, squeezed between the Greeks and the barbarians, retreated into Etruria. In their own cities they were safe. Never again did they put on their helmets and march in triumph through Italy.
The victorious Greeks did not conquer the peninsula – at least, not with weapons. Now it was their turn to be teachers of Italy. From their cities in the south, their ideas spread along the peninsula and conquered it for all time.
Like Aeneas in the story, the Italians found wisdom in Cumae and the Greek settlements. Again, when the storytellers told it, they mixed up the dates. In the true story, Cumae, the first Greek colony in Italy, was built about 750 B. C., when Rome was already a country town with high hopes for its future. The Greek pioneer towns grew quickly. They became large cities – cities with handsome houses, busy markets, schools and tall white temples as splendid as any in Greece. Syracuse, on Sicily, became the largest city in the Greek world. Sybaris became the most luxurious; and so famous that for thousands of years anyone who loved pleasure and comfort was called a Sybarite. By 500 B. C., southern Italy and Sicily were so filled with Greeks that the area was called Magna Graecia, “greater Greece”.
For the Etruscans and Italians who came trading, a visit to the Greek cities was an education. They learned about mathematics and science and an alphabet for writing down words. They saw money, instead of grain and cattle, used for trading. They took home delicately painted Greek pottery and tried to copy it in their own workshops. They began to add Greek columns and carvings to their Etruscan buildings. The gods they knew by Etruscan names came to seem very like the old Greek gods. Jupiter, the king of the gods, was like Zeus. Juno was like Zeus’ wife, Hera. Venus, the goddess of love, was as powerful and as fickle as Aphrodite.
One god was changed. Ares, the god of war, was not a Greek god in Greece. In the city that became Rome, he was called Mars and he was nearly as important as Jupiter. The people of that city had already sought Mars’ aid when they helped the Greeks to defeat the Etruscans. Later, when they began to look with envy at the rich colonies in the south, they turned to Mars again. The Greeks’ time in Italy was growing short.