Four civilizations in Italy that pre-date the Roman Empire

Many observers of Italy often presume that the nation's origins can be traced back to ancient Rome. And while the Romans undoubtedly had a huge influence on a lot of what came after, earlier civilizations made their own key contributions.

Four civilizations in Italy that pre-date the Roman Empire
An Etruscan burial site at the Cerveteri Necropolis in Tarquinia, Lazio. Photo: wulwais/Depositphotos

The myth of the abandoned brothers Romulus and Remus, that lies behind the foundation of ancient Rome, is often mistaken as 'year zero' in Italian history.

Perhaps it is the enticing detail of the augury contest the two brothers competed in for who should be the righteous founder of the city, which led to Romulus becoming the ancient empire's first king and Remus' death, that hogs all the attention. Or the mystical detail that the siblings were supposedly rescued from a riverbank and nurtured by a she-wolf.

Most tourists and visitors to Italy flock to Rome to see the remains of the epic civilization that followed the feud between the two brothers, yet often overlook their predecessors.

The advances made by the Rome in engineering, urbanization, law and warfare to some extent justify the centrality of the Romans within Italian history. A more careful analysis, however, reveals a plethora of complex civilizations that already inhabited the territory today known as Italy. All contributed to Rome's ascension. 

READ ALSO: Ten must-see places within reach of Rome 

While a trip to Rome is undoubtedly one of the greatest rewards Italy has to offer, a tour of the remains of the Nuragic era in Sardinia, ancient Greek civilization in Sicily or the Etruscan ruins in central Italy will take visitors further back in time than the Roman Empire.

We've selected a shortlist of four ancient Italian civilizations that predate the Romans to give you an overview of off-the-beaten track ancient Italy.

1) The Etruscans (Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany)

The name 'Tuscany' originates from the ancient Roman appellation for this central Italian empire of city-states. The Etruscans were heavily influenced by the Greeks. Some historians argue they created the first republic in Italy.

Others say the Etruscans founded Rome, turning it from a village into a city state, while bringing their engineering knowledge to construct landmark urban development projects such as the city's first drainage system, aqueducts, city walls and temples.

The earliest Etruscan inscriptions date back to the 8th century BC, although some historians suggest the ancient civilization existed more than 3,000 years ago. The 4th century BC Roman-Etruscan Wars eventually saw the Etruscans' southern rivals gain supremacy and the Etruscan dominion collapsed as its influence diminished. 

Today, the best place to see remains of the Etruscan civilization is in the empire's former capital, Tarquinia, in Lazio, or in the Umbrian capital Perugia, another important former Etruscan trading hub.

READ ALSO: Five great places to visit near Perugia in Umbria

The necropolis in Tarquinia, an extensive 'city of the dead,' is one of the best-preserved ancient burial sites in southern Europe, replete with ornate artwork which has been described as “the first chapter in the history of great Italian painting.” The Etruscan well in Perugia highlights the extent of this civilization's engineering feats. 

A tomb in the the Etruscan Cerveteri Necropolis in Tarquinia. Photo: wulwais/Depositphotos

2) The Nuragic era (Sardinia)

The Nuragic civilization existed in Sardinia from approximately 1,800 BC in the Bronze Age until the island's collapse to the Roman Empire shortly before the birth of Christ. 

While the Nuragic era is also recognized for the advances made in metal works, the civilization's most enduring contributions were made of stone. 

The civilization's name derives from its most characteristic monument, the 'nuraghi,' large stone fortresses.

READ ALSO: Sandal in the Mediterranean: Why you should visit Sardinia

The Nuraghe Santu Antine, near Sassari, in the north of Sardinia. File photo: dnaumoid/Depositphotos

The Nuragic era is also famous for its communal burial sites, known as 'Giant Tombs,' for its water temples, its menhirs – huge, upright, standing stones – and dolmens, megalithic tombs.

The Su Nuraxi nuraghe in the south of the island is a World Heritage-listed site, although more than 7,000 other nuraghi are dotted across the island. 

3) Magna Graecia (Sicily, Calabria, Campania, Apulia, Basilicata)

The ancient Greeks of course were not native to Italy although their influence bore heavily on Rome. In the 8th century BC, Greeks began settling in the southern regions of Italy in what was known as Magna Graecia (Greater Greece).

These settlers brought with them much of the Hellenic civilization that would come to shape the Roman Empire, from their Gods, to their technology, their architecture and their food. 

Remains of this 500-year era can be seen in the temples and necropoles that survived in the regions of Sicily, Campania, Apulia, Basilicata and Calabria.

READ ALSO: Around Sicily in ten classic Italian films

The Sicilian city of Agrigento's 'Valley of Temples' is one of the most renowned and impressive sites. Seven temples within a few miles of each other, just outside the southern Sicilian city, lay testament to the Greek influence on the Italian island. 

The Temple of Concordia in Agrigento, Sicily. File photo: dnaumoid/Depositphotos

4) Cisalpine Gaul (Lombardy, Liguria, Veneto, Emilia Romagna, Piedmont)

Celts tend to be associated with France, Ireland and the UK, although many who fled wars in France ended up in Italy. The Insubres people founded Mediolanum, Milan, in 600 BC. Many more Celtic clans migrated en masse across the Alps in the 4th century BC, eventually becoming assimilated into the Roman Empire some three centuries later. 

At first, they settled in Liguria, Veneto and all along the Po river. But the roots of this migration began nearly a millennium earlier with the arrival of the Canegrate culture, which historians date as far back as the 16th century BC. 

The Celts brought with them advances in the use of bronze and other metals, as well as the practice of cremation for their dead. 

Few remains exist from this era in ancient Italian history, although the Archaeological Civic Museum L. Fantini in Monterenzio, near Bologna, hosts 40 burial sites and hundreds of artifacts. 

All of these civilizations were eventually absorbed by the power of the Roman Empire, but each contributed to the Romans' rise. The ruins, burial sites and artifacts that remain are sure to enrich any trip to Central Italy, Sardinia or Sicily. 

READ MORE: This map shows Ancient Roman roads as a subway network



Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Spooky traditions haven’t really caught on in Italy where strong Catholic beliefs mean the country has its own way of honoring the dead, says Silvia Marchetti.

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Many Italians gathered last night to celebrate Halloween dressed as ghosts, witches, skeletons and zombies. Hotels, restaurants and pubs organised Halloween-themed events with spooky decor and music.

Each year I’m shocked by how Halloween penetrates Italian culture even though it’s a foreign import from Anglo-Saxon countries.

The real Italian festivities this week are All Saints’ Day (Ognissanti) celebrated on November 1st to remember all saints and martyrs during Christian history, and Il Giorno dei Morti o dei Defunti on November 2nd (the Day of the Dead, known elsewhere as All Souls’ Day) to commemorate the beloved deceased ones, mainly family members but also close friends.

While November 1st is a public holiday (and many Italians exploit it as an excuse for a ponte, a long weekend), November 2nd is a working day.

The entire week preceding All Saints’ Day sees cars queuing up to go to the cemetery, people rush to bring flowers and a few prayers to the tombs of deceased loved ones, and streets are often jammed.

For many Catholic Italians, it’s actually the only time of the year they remember to honor their dead, as if ‘imposed’ by their religion. A bit like going to mass on Sundays; if they fail to do so, they might feel guilty or even fear punishment from above. 

After spending an hour or so at the graveyards – places Italians usually tend to avoid – on All Saints Day, after the spiritual duties are accomplished, they might gather for lunch, bringing cakes and pastries.

People in Italy bring flowers to their loved ones’ graves on All Saints’ Day. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

In some southern regions so-called ossa di morto (bones of the dead) pumpkin-filled biscuits and raisin pan dei morti (bread of the dead) are bought, while in the north chestnut pies are baked. 

Ognissanti is a very private event that usually involves little or restricted get-togethers, brothers and close relatives share the graveyard trip but then each goes back home, with little feasting on fine food. 

Catholics don’t have any macabre ritual involving leaving an empty place at the table for a spirit to join us. It is a moment of sadness but also of joy because our dead loved ones have ascended to heaven and are all there waiting for us. It’s the celebration of love, rebirth over doom, and the promise of a future reunion with them in heaven. 

That is why November 1st and November 2nd in Italy really have nothing to do with Halloween, which I call the ‘culture of the grave’ and the celebration of ‘scary death as an end to itself’. 

Even though they may partake in Halloween as a mere consumeristic party, Italians are mainly Catholic and believers do not believe in the darkness of the night, in the damnation of the grave, in being haunted by wicked spirits who long to take vengeance on us, in witches flying on broomsticks and terrifying zombies coming out of tombs. 

Pumpkin is something we occasionally eat as a pasta filling; it’s certainly not a decorative spooky element.

Halloween, which in my view is imbued with paganism and the Protestant belief in an evil superior being and naughty spirits ready to strike down on sinners instead of forgiving them, is celebrated in Italy but lacks a religious or spiritual nature. It’s like the Chinese celebrating Christmas for the sake of buying gifts and acting western. 

Halloween deeply affected my childhood. I’m Roman Catholic and I attended Anglo-American schools abroad where Catholics were a minority and each year I drove my mom crazy by forcing her to sew me a ghost or witch dress. She’d take a bed blanket and cut open three holes for the eyes and nose, annoyed that I should be influenced by a celebration that was not part of my tradition. 

In elementary and middle school my foreign teachers would make us decorate classrooms with spooky drawings, bake skeleton-themed biscuits for trick-or-treating, and tell us ghost stories in the dark to create an eerie vibe. 

Once we were also taken to visit a cemetery and when I told my dad about it he got annoyed and did all sorts of superstitious gestures to ward off evil. 

Halloween has always freaked me out but I did not want to miss out on the ‘fun’ for fear of being looked down upon by other kids. And so I too started believing in vampires, zombies, and ghosts, particularly at night when I was alone in my bed and had to turn on the light. Still today, and I am much, much older, I have a recurring nightmare of an ugly evil witch who torments me and chases me up the staircase.

I soon learned that if for Anglo-Saxons a trip to the graveyard is a jolly event, like a stroll in the park, and ‘graveyard tourism’ is on the rise, for Catholic Italians it is a place accessible only during funerals, moments of prayer, or during the week of All Saints and All Souls days. 

Last time I visited Ireland the guide took us to a monumental graveyard with tombs as high as cars, and lavishly decorated. A few of my Italian male friends refused to enter and spent the whole day scratching their genitals to ward off jinx.

Halloween night is said to be when the barrier between the worlds of ghosts and humans comes down. But Italians don’t usually like to ‘party’ and mingle with the dead or other spirits. We instead honor the deceased with our prayers but the boundary remains firm in place: in fact, this is why our graveyards are placed outside of city centres.