Who lived in Rome before the Romans?
This question is, of course, completely stupid and illogical. The Romans founded Rome, so no one could have lived there before them. Yet there are some mythical ancient histories that mention other tribes occupying the location that later became Rome. We will have a look at the list coming from the Roman antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.
Note: do not be surprised by a suspiciously large number of Greek tribes in the following list. Dionysius, being a Greek himself, seized every opportunity to prove that the Romans were in fact Greeks.
Dionysius mentions them as the earliest known occupants. They held the land until the defeat by Aborigines and then migrated to the south. The Sicels ended up in Sicily and in fact gave the name to that island. They were the largest of the three tribes that occupied Sicily, but that didn’t save them from losing their original culture and being assimilated into the culture of the newly-arriving Greek colonists.
The Italic tribe that drove out the Sicels. Their origin is unsure. Opinions vary on whether they were original inhabitants of Italy for many centuries or whether they came from Greece. It is said that 17 generations before the Trojan war a Greek from Arcadia called Oenotrus left Greece and settled in Italy. Why did he leave his homeland? He had 21 brothers and inheriting just such a small fraction from his father’s land just didn’t seem enough for him. They found a new home on the Apennine peninsula. One of their more successful later kings was called Italus and if his name sounds to you suspiciously similar to “Italy”, you are right. The peninsula was supposedly named after him.
Aborigines thrived, and their population soon began to expand beyond the point when all could be fed by the crops harvested in their territory. The traditional ancient way to solve this problem included sending some people out to seek new territories and colonize them. This is exactly what the Aborigines did – they sent out groups of armed men to wander through neighbouring lands. Unfortunately for the Sicels, the neighbouring lands were occupied by them. They were harassed by one group of Aborigine colonists after another up to the point when the conflict escalated to a full-scale war. With a little help from the Pelasgians, a small tribe with Greek origins, Aborigines won the war and forced Sicels to leave their homes. This happened three generations before the Trojan war.
Originally, they were a not overly developed tribe settled in the mountains, but the success in the war motivated them to change their way of life. They came down from the mountains and built large walled cities, just as other advanced tribes of that period.
The tribe later changed its name to Latins (to honour a well-respected king Latinus) and they are known under this name until the time when Aeneas and the fleeing Trojans landed in their land. Latins and Trojans merged into one tribe, still called Latins. Part of these people then went on to found the city of Rome and they became Romans.
These people were originally from the Peloponnesus peninsula in Greece. They were unfortunate in many ways. Adverse circumstances forced them to migrate quite frequently and even when they reached a promisingly looking new land, they often couldn’t stay long. After arrival to Italy, they were a very powerful tribe, exceptionally skilled in the matters of war. It was their alliance that helped the Aborigines to win the war against the Sicels. After that war, things didn’t go as they planned. A drought and several natural catastrophes made them very vulnerable and it didn’t take long until their enemies took advantage of their week position.
In the war among the Sicels and the Aborigines, the later side gained a victory. One of the reasons behind their superiority was the alliance with the Pelasgians. However, after this war, the might of the Pelasgians rapidly declined. Most of their settlements couldn’t resist the force of the new conquerors – the Tyrrhenians.
Ancient legend tells us that this nation got their name from king Tyrrhenus, who moved away from his homeland in Lydia and settled on the Apennine peninsula. Dionysius does not agree with this legend, nevertheless, he admits they must have been a very ancient nation. The Tyrrhenians retain their fame up to this day, although most of us know them under a different name - Etruscans.
This tribe doesn’t even belong to Italy. Arcadia is a region in Greece. And yet, colonists from that region supposedly played a major role in the events that lead to the birth of Rome. They came from Pallantium and Evander, son of god Hermes, led them. The asked the Aborigines for a piece of land and received it without any unnecessary war. This land was situated in the location very near the future city-centre of Rome. They established a village on a hill and called it “Pallantium”, but Romans soon changed the name of the location to “Palatium” (Palatine). You can find the hill today very close to the Forum Romanum. For ages, it was the luxurious quarter with villas of the leading Roman politicians. Moreover, the Arcadians, despite not being numerous, brought the modern Greek culture with them. They introduced the Greek letters and also several new musical instruments to the Aborigines.
Shortly after the arrival of Evander’s Arcadians, another group of Greeks emerged. They were led by none other than Hercules, the demigod himself, just coming back from successfully finishing one of his labours. He had some fun in Italy and let some of his companions here to settle. Most of this bunch were Epeans of Elise (a region of ancient Greece). They didn’t join Evander’s group on the Palatine, but built their village on another hill – the one later called Capitolium.
You surely know this one. Aeneas, the beloved saviour of his elderly father and the breaker of Carthaginian hearts is the top celebrity of the Roman myths. After a long journey from Troy, he settled down in a newly-founded town called Lavinium. His son then founded the city of Alba Longa and later his ancestors founded Rome. Or at least, so the legend said.
Sources: Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities