The Latini (whence, the Latin language) were related tribes living in Latium, an area of ancient Italy now known as Lazio. They spoke an early version of what became the classical Latin language. When Rome, part of the Latini (or more simply, the Latins) first came into contact with her neighbors, Latin wasn't the lingua franca of Italy, let alone the known world. Many of Rome's neighbors spoke Italic dialects, but others spoke the non-Italic, Etruscan language. Here is an introduction to the areas near Rome and the languages they spoke before Rome made Latin the dominant language.
Cicero, a Roman contemporary of Julius Caesar -- so about 700 years after the legendary founding of Rome -- whether by twins Romulus and Remus, or Aeneas and his band of Trojan War refugees, or someone else -- grouped the main Italian peoples in Italy as:
3. Volscians (in southern Latium),
4. Samnites, and
Separate from those are the Greek-speakers of Magna Graecia, who are linked in the passage* with Assyrians, Persians, and Carthaginians [Source: Walbank]. The Latins, Sabines, Volscians, and Samnites all spoke related languages.
Connections Between the Italic Language Groups Cicero Delineated
The main groups of Italic Dialects are:
Although there are scholars who disagree, Latin is generally believed to be related to the related and often hyphenated language groups of Oscan and Umbrian. To the southeast of Rome was Samnium, home to Samnite dialect speakers of the Oscan language. Oscan dialects were widespread and spoken in Campania, Apulua, Lucania, and Bruttium. Umbria, to Rome's northeast, spoke Umbrian, which is related to Oscan [source: Palmer]. Also like Oscan were the languages of the Paeligni, Marrucini, and Vestini, grouped together as Sabellian. There was also the language of the Volsci, Rome's closest non-Latin neighbors in Latium, known mainly from the Tabula Veliterna. The Italic language of Volscian is thought to have been similar to both Oscan and Umbrian. These and the early form of Latin spoken by the Romans, Sabines (perhaps Oscan speakers [source: Italic Languages]), and Latium are considered similar enough to be grouped under the label of Italic dialects.
Non-Italic Languages on the Italic Peninsula
Non-Italic Languages of Italy:
- North Picene
Cicero grouped the Etruscans with the Latin people. Remember that language and ethnicity are often related, but they are not identical. To the north of Rome and west of the Tiber, and in parts of the Po Valley and Campania, the language was Etruscan, except in the city of Falerii, which spoke an Italic dialect known as Faliscan (thought to be closely related to Latin). Etruscan, a non-Italic language, was the other major language group in Italy, but there were others.
Although the South Picene people are thought to have spoken a language related to Oscan and Umbrian, North Picene, as known from the Novilara Stele, may not even have been Indo-European. In the Italian northwest, mountain-dwelling people spoke Ligurian (which might not have been an Indo-European language), and people by the mouth of the Po, spoke Venetic, thought to be related to the Latin and Illyrian languages. To the south, in the heel of the Italian boot, some spoke Messapian (also, possibly related to Illyrian). There were also the Greek-speaking areas, and as Gallic tribes crossed the Alps into the Po Valley, there were people speaking Celtic dialects. [Source: Kent]
Spreading Dominance of Latin
In the early years of Rome, legend says that Romans and Sabines came to an understanding after the Romans stole the nubile Sabine women. Rome put a Sabine king on its throne. Later kings were Etruscan, but by the time of the Gallic sack of Rome, Rome was in control of much of Etruria, the area where Etruscan was spoken. After the Gallic sack, Latin cities, the Aequi (on the Apennines), Hernici (another people from Latium), and Volscians fought against and were defeated by Rome. Rome made them subjects, with Latin used as the administrative language. From the mid-fourth to mid-third century, Rome fought wars against the Samnites on behalf of Campania. Most of Umbria as well as the rest of Etruria were now under Roman dominance. With the Pyrrhic wars, Magna Graecia started to come under Rome's dominance, so by 265, Italy south of the Po was at least allied with Rome, and so, like the other parts of Italy, using Latin, although Greek remained in use, too.
- "Nationality as a Factor in Roman History," by F. W. Walbank; Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 76 (1972), pp. 145-168.
- "The Conquests of the Latin Language," by Roland G. Kent; The Classical Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Dec., 1928), pp. 191-212.
- "Recent Venetic Inscriptions: A Supplement to the Prae-Italic Dialects of Italy, Part One, 'The Venetic Inscriptions,'" by Robert J. Kispert; Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association Vol. 102, (1971), pp. 217-263.
- The Latin Language, by L. R. Palmer; Reprint 1987.
- "The Volscian Tabula Veliterna: A New Interpretation," by Ernst Pulgram; Glotta 54. Bd., 3./4. H. (1976), pp. 253-261.
- A New Model of Indo-European Subgrouping and Dispersal
"quodsi aut Italiae Latium, aut eiusdem Sabinam aut Volscam gentem, si Samnium, si Etruriam, si magnam illam Graeciam conlustrare animo voluerimus, si deinde Assyrios, si Persas, si Poenos, ei haec...."
Cicero De re publica III.7