A Short History of Italy – From Myth to 44 BCE (Caesar’s Death)

In preparation for my move to Italy, I wrote a book about food in Italy. In the book, I wrote a short history of Italy. The history of Italy as a country is short because Italy only became a nation in 1861. But, the history of the Italian peninsula is long, so here is my version of it, thanks to Wikipedia. 

First, the name, Italy. Theories abound, but the one I like is that the name, Italia, comes from the Oscan, an extinct Indo-European language from the area of the ankle of Italy, for “land of calves” because that area of Italy is the “calf,” to boot. Another theory is that Italy is named after a king named Italos, this spelling is based on Ancient Greek. Italos was king of the Oenotrians, a pastoral tribe in southern Italy. The myth says that Italos was the grandson of Odysseus. Yes, that guy. The King of Ithaca, the hero of Homer’s tale of Odysseus, and the guy who took ten years to get home, interrupted not by traffic but by the Trojan War. Odysseus is famous for his “nostos” which is the theme of “homecoming” in Ancient Greek literature. This demonstrates how rare it was for Greek men to return home after going off to sea. The island of Ithaca is a real island located off the west coast of Greece, across the water from Italy. Italos, the king of the Oenotrians, is mentioned in the fourth century BCE (so 2,400 years ago) by Aristotle. My favorite part of this namedrop by Aristotle, is that King Italos, not only converted his people from being pastoral to agricultural, but he was the first to  “institute their system of common meals.” Since this is a book about Italian food, that’s a factoid that I wish I could learn more about, but Aristotle isn’t answering my emails. 

Second, some metrics about Italy today. Italy is the fifth most visited country in the world (behind China, the United States, Spain, and France in first place), with 60 million inhabitants, and 61 million tourists each year. 

After the time of Odysseus, around 50,000 years ago, there were some homo sapiens living in modern day Rome and Verona. These homo sapiens were Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, Neanderthals. Modern genetics has discovered that the Neanderthals did not die out but were amalgamated into modern human beings merging with the conquering Homo sapiens sapiens, us. Neanderthals get a bad rap, but that is because history is written by the victor. In this case, the victor was Homo sapiens sapiens. Neanderthals were shorter and broader in body type and supposedly those with red hair have more Neanderthal in them than the rest of us. Homo sapiens arose in Italy around 48,000 years ago. Fast forward to Otzi the Iceman. He was found in the Alps on the border with Austria and Italy. He was a copper age hunter who lived around 3,400–3,100 BCE (imagine the candles on that cake!). 

Otzi was part of the first Indo-European migration to Italy from mainland Europe. About five hundred years later, during the bronze age, a second migration happened and these people became the famous “Beaker Culture” in areas of modern day Tuscany, Sardinia, and Sicily. Around 2,000 BCE, a third wave happened. These people, the Apenninian culture and the Terremare cultures moved in to the Po Valley in modern day Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy. These people, named for the “black earth” of their settlement mounds, began to raise beans, grapes, wheat, and flax. A fourth wave of immigrants arrived around 1,000 BCE and moved in to northern and central Italy. These people were called “Proto-villanovans” by archeologists. Elsewhere, on the island of Sardinia, a native culture based around megaliths called, “nuraghe,” developed. The only reason I mention this in a book on food in Italy, is that it shows how local culture is a point of pride, and this includes food. It’s all local. Local pride before it became fashionable. 

In this quick trip through Italian history, we have now almost reached the Roman Empire. By 800 BCE, in the central part of the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans were flourishing. Their origin and much about them are a mystery, but they likely emerged from the Villanovan culture. Mitochondrial DNA shows that the modern day Tuscans, descendants of the Etruscans, originated from central Europe. The Etruscan language was not Indo-European and most of their writing is undeciphered to this day. The Etruscan kingdom engaged in territorial wars, mainly with its major contender, Magna Graecia, to the south.  

The story of Magna Graecia, great Greece, is also the story of Italy. Magna Graecia was the Roman term for the southern coastal parts of Italy and the island of Sicily. This area was a colony of Greece. These areas were Hellenistic, from Hellas, the name for Ancient Greece, in culture. Some of the best preserved Greek temples and remains are in Italy. The Roman Empire borrowed, stole, or bought, most of their art and culture from Greece. For an interesting example, listen to the “You’re Dead to Me” podcast about the original Olympics. It’s not what you thought you knew. 

One of the most successful Greek colonies was “New City,” Neopolis, modern day Naples. Neopolis was the first Greek colony absorbed into the Roman Republic, in 327 BCE. The last of the Greek colonies to fall to Rome was Sicily, capitulating in 241 BCE, during the first Punic War. The Punic Wars were fought between the two mighty naval empires of the third century BCE Mediterranean, Carthage and Rome. Syracuse, on the coast of Sicily, held out for another twenty years, and to this day, there are still Greek speakers in parts of southern Italy. Syracuse was an independent state and allies with Rome, until 214 BCE, on the death of the king. Political intrigue, perhaps involving Hannibal (yes, him, the guy with the elephants walking across the Alps), caused the Carthaginians to cede at the Siege of Syracuse. The Syracusans lost despite the might of the brain of mathematician and scientist Archimedes on their side. He even invented a weapon for this battle, the Claw of Archimedes. Another weapon used during the Siege of Syracuse was the sambuca. When I read this, I got quite excited thinking that they had used the anise flavored liqueur in the battle. But, they did not. The sambuca that they are referring to is a “siege engine” as in a type of “siege boat.” This weapon got its name because it resembled a harp, a sambuca. More on the drink later. I wonder where it got its name. Maybe because Bacchus, the god of drink and merriment, played a harp? 

The Greeks who settled in Italy came from the Mani (mania in Ancient Greek) Peninsula, and claimed to be descended from the Spartans. Thinking back to Odysseus and how rare it was for men to return from sea, the Spartans had a similar safeguard system. Spartans were not allowed to go to war until they had produced a boy child, which tells you of their return rate. The Maniot Greeks were famous for their military prowess and bloody vendettas, some of which continue to this day. Another group of Maniot Greeks moved to the island of Corsica in the seventeenth century CE under the protection of the Kingdom of Genoa. Whenever I hear the word, Corsica, I’m reminded of my favorite movie, Zorro the Gay Blade, when he is showing off and says how they will, “defeat the feetless, buy corsets from Corsica…” 

Before there was a Roman Empire, there was a Roman Kingdom. The founding of Rome is a great story. Can’t rival the greatest story ever told (because then, it would be), but it’s still fantastic. The story starts in the myths of time with Latinus, son of Odysseus, he who took so long to get back to his home, and Circe, a Greek enchantress who was good with herbs. Latinus had a son, Aeneas, who became the first king of Alba Longa, modern day Tuscany. Aeneas was a Trojan hero whose mother was Aphrodite, Venus in Roman mythology. Fourteen kings later, we get to two brothers, Numitor and Amulius. The other more famous Roman brothers come next. The short of it is that Numitor was supposed to inherit the throne but Amulius prevented him, and to make sure that Numitor couldn’t gain it back, he killed Numitor’s son and forced his daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a Vestal Virgin. 

A Vestal Virgin was a virgin priestess who served in the temple of Vestus. They were betrothed as girls to serve for 30 years. They served ten year terms as student, servant, and teacher. There were only two or four Vestal Virgins at once so it was a select group. They were responsible for keeping the fire burning at the temple of Vesta. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth, the home. Vestal Virgins were the keepers of the hearth for all Romans and they had duties beyond keeping the fire alive, including public ceremonies. They also had the ability to pardon a condemned man, or free a slave, due to their pureness. They prayed for the moral health of Rome. They were entrusted with precious documents, including the wills of Caesar and Mark Anthony. During the chief festival of the goddess of the hearth, in June, was the only time the Vestal Virgins would make their own “mola salsa.” Mola salsa was a holy paste of flour and salt. This paste was offered to the holy hearth, daubed between the horns of sacrificial animals, and sprinkled on the forehead. The Latin verb “immolare” means to sacrifice. From there, comes “mola” and that is where we get the word, “immolate” — the ultimate sacrifice, in modern English. 

The Vestal Virgins were celibate until they retired. Then a prestigious marriage was arranged for them. A Vestal Virgin was a good catch as she had a pension and was considered a good luck charm. People think that if a Vestal Virgin broke her vow of celibacy, she was buried alive, but it was worse than that. Burying alive was illegal. Instead, they would lock her up underground with a few days worth of food and water. Result was death. The men who had sex with Vestal Virgins were beaten to death. So when Amulius had Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia, made into a Vestal Virgin, he did so thinking that she would not produce heirs to the throne. 

Enter Mars, the God, stage left. 

Mars was the god of war. He was based on Ares, the Greek god of war, brother of Athena. The sacred animals of Mars were the wolf, the woodpecker, and the bear. Roman Mars was different from Greek Ares, who was mostly about destruction. Mars was also the god of agriculture and he was the father of the people. The word “paternal” comes from the Latin pater. In particular Roman fashion, he was the god of war as good for you. Mars was seen as a god of war as a means to achieve peace. Sound familiar? Like today, we have peacekeeping troops, a phrase that seems like an oxymoron. Mars is also the root of the word “martial” as in martial law. The month of March is named after Mars as that is the month when planting begins. He is sometimes associated with October which is when the war season begins, after the harvest. Every year, a harvest and a war.

The Pantheon, originally temple to Mars was built in an area originally outside Rome, in the Field of Mars, but today it is in the historic center. The Pantheon was converted to a Catholic Church in the seventh century. It stands on the Piazza della Rotonda. The temple to Mars was built in the area around the Pantheon. It was meant to be a private temple for Marcus Agrippa, Roman statesman. Pantheon means a “sacred to the gods.” In 31 BCE, at the Battle of Actium, Marcus Agrippa helped Octavian, later Emperor Augustus, win against Marc Antony and Queen Cleopatra, of Egypt. Cleo actually visited Rome several times. Marcus Agrippa was responsible for helping Emperor Augustus build the Rome that he said, “He had found the city of brick but left it of marble.” 

A hundred or so years later, after a fire, Emperor Hadrian built another temple on the original temple built by Marcus Agrippa. Yes, he, Hadrian, who built that wall in the wilds of the Roman Empire at the far reach of “Provincia Britannia” on the border of modern day England and Scotland. Hadrian’s wall was probably, not only as legend says to hold out the Caledonians, modern Scots, but because it was cheaper to build a wall than to maintain an army at the border. To this day, the inscription on the Pantheon states, “M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM·FECIT,” which means “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this.” Hadrian kept this inscription instead of writing his own. 

The history of Rome, before the Pantheon, continues with Rhea Silvia, the Vestal Virgin, and Mars, god of war. One day, back in those misty days of time, when Rhea Silvia, Vestal Virgin and daughter of Numitor, he-who-should-have-been-king, went to a grove near the temple to gather water. While at this grove, she saw something. It was the god, Mars. He attempted to rape her but she managed to flee to a nearby cave. Mars chased her into the cave and impregnated her. Some accounts of this myth say that Rhea Silvia claimed that she saw a woodpecker and a wolf, both symbols of Mars, and therefore it was Mars who impregnated her. Her tale is told in the Aeneid, by Ovid, and by Livy. Livy, the Roman historian, seems to be the only one who doubted the paternity of her children. Despite Livy’s opinion, most images show Mars seducing Rhea Silvia. 

Rhea Silvia became pregnant with twins, Remus and Romulus, the founders of Rome. So not only figuratively, but also literally, Mars was the father of the Romans. Apparently the goddess Vesta was unhappy about this turn of events so she caused the fire in her temple to go out. One of the sacred duties of a Vestal Virgin is to maintain the light in the temple. Interestingly, in Italian, and in Spanish, the term for “to give birth” is “to give to the light.” Makes me wonder if there is a connection to this pre-Latin myth. 

When bad King Amulius heard of the birth of his twin nephews, potential heirs to the throne, he ordered them to be killed. According to the myth, a servant took pity on the baby boys and set them on the banks of the River Tiber. There, the river god, Tiberinus, saved them and took them to a she-wolf, a “lupa” in Latin, who had recently lost her own pups, to suckle. A “lupa” is also the Latin word for a prostitute. Even then, women had a rough time. Some say that Tiberinus married Rhea Silvia while other stories say she thew herself in the Tiber. I think they might mean the same thing. 

The location of the wolf’s cave was unknown until 2007 when an archeologist announced that she had found it under the house of Emperor Augustus, located on the Palatine hill. This would be fitting as Emperor Augustus considered calling himself Romulus as befitting a founder of a new Rome. 

Later, Romulus and Remus were raised by a shepherd, Faustulus and his wife, Acca Larentia. In some versions of the story, Larentia was not a wife but a courtesan, or “she-wolf” who gave money to help the city of Rome, after giving her services to Romans.

Romulus and Remus grew up to be fine young men. As with many young men, they became involved in the hot topic of the day. The topic was a dispute about Numitor and King Amulius. In the scuffle, Remus was captured and taken to the court at Alba Longa. Both his grandfather and his granduncle suspected his true identity. Can you imagine that meeting? Meanwhile, Romulus was gathering forces to free his brother. During this struggle, Romulus also learned of his royal identity. Eventually, Romulus, Remus, and Numitor deposed the unlawful king, Amulius, and set Numitor back on his rightful throne. Speaking of thrones, the toilets in ancient Rome were communal and instead of toilet paper, they used a rag on the end of a stick. This gives us the expression, “To get a hold of the wrong end of the stick.” Yuck. 

The young men, Romulus and Remus, fresh from setting their grandfather back on his throne, set out to found a city of their own. If you are a mythical being, I guess this fits in one’s goals for life. 

What do you want to do when you grow up, little Romy? 

Found a city. 

Oh, right, go to the city. 

No, found a city. 

Eat your peas. We’ll talk later, you megalomaniac. 

Romulus and Remus arrived in the area along the Tiber River where there were seven hills (still there today) and had to pick which hill to use for their kingdom. Romulus preferred the Palatine hill above the “Lupercal” cave where he and Remus had suckled at the she-wolf’s teats. Remus preferred the look of the Aventine hill, which had the advantage of placement and could be easily fortified. Thus ensued a serious discussion as location, location, location, is at the heart of real estate, and certainly, a kingdom. As neither could convince the other of the merits of their chosen hillock, they asked for advice from higher powers. No, not their dad. He was a shepherd. No, nor their father. He was a rapist. 

But in a way, they did ask him. They sought out augury. The art of augury is the art of looking for auspicious signs from birds, guided by the divinity of the gods. The practice of augury went way back and was an old and trusted method by the time of Romulus and Remus. The twins decided to see who would see the most auspicious sign. They sat on the ground, about a foot from each other, and waited. Remus was the first to see some birds when he spotted six birds. But, Romulus saw twelve, and proclaimed himself the winner. Maybe Romulus was just a better birdwatcher than Remus. Maybe he was a typical older brother (“I was born two minutes before you!”). The brothers continued their dispute and Remus was killed, possibly by his brother. 

On April 21, 753 BCE, Romulus founded Rome. The Palatine hill overlooks the forum, which was a shopping center that grew up after the settlement on the Palatine. Romulus set up the new city on his hill of choice and went on to rule Rome, named after him, happily ever after. Oh wait. After the Rape of the Sabines. In every way reprehensible, the rape that is mentioned in the Rape of the Sabines is a translation of “rapture” or “abduct.” Not an excuse, but sadly the way of much of history. Even today, girls, fourteen year olds, even younger, are kidnapped parts of the world like central Asia. They are kidnapped until they agree to marry the kidnapper. In the case of the Sabines, Romulus, after setting up his new kingdom, with his buddies, realized that he needed women to found a dynasty. Hence the plundering of women from neighboring areas, like the Sabines, which are misty foothills northeast of Rome. 

No one really knows if the myth of Romulus and Remus is true. The earliest version of the story is recorded in the third century BCE. From the mists of myth to 509 BCE. In 509 BCE, the Romans threw out their king and established an oligarchic republic. Thus continued another period of constant warfare between the peoples of the Mediterranean, except for some unity under Magna Graecia. You might be wondering why a quick romp through Italian history seems to be focusing on Rome, but this is because the Romans conquered much of the Italian peninsula, and as you may recall, much beyond, including France, land of the Gauls. The Gauls were tribes of peoples who lived in modern day France, southern England, and mainland Europe. The Gauls imported wine from the mediterranean, so it’s not surprising that Gaul became the nation of France, famous for their love of wine.

At the beginning of the second century BCE, there were great names that you recall from history class, and the movies, like Tiberius, Spartacus, Pompey, and Caesar. Caesar is so famous that it seems hardly worth mentioning him. But, in a book about food (yes, that’s what this book is about), he’s worth a mention for various reasons. He reformed the calendar that we still use today. So when making a reservation at a restaurant, we are still in touch with Caesar. 

Then, there’s that salad. The salad was actually named after an Italian immigrant named Caesar Cardini. Cardini invented the salad in his eponymous restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, on July 4, 1924, when a sudden rush of guests meant that he had run out of ingredients. To add flourish to this simple dish of lettuce, eggs, croutons, and parmesan, he presented it at the table and tossed it live in front of the guests. Julia Child mentioned eating this salad when she was a child. Cardini’s daughter stated in the 1970s that the original recipe was to use whole lettuce leaves to lift the coddled eggs to the mouth. I wonder if they serve caesar salad in Rome. 

Gaius Julius Caesar was born into a patrician, upper class,   Alban family in Rome. Romans had three names, a first, a family, and a “cognomen” which means “together with” which is a nickname. Caesar was the nickname. According to Pliny the Elder, Caesar as a nickname came from an ancestor who had been born via caesarian. Caesar was not born via caesarian. Caesar is derived from the Latin for “to cut.” There were three other interpretations of the source of Caesar and Caesar seems to have preferred the version from “caesai” which stems from the Moorish language. “Caesai” referred to when Caesar killed an elephant in the Punic Wars, which Caesar commemorated by having coins minted with the design of an elephant. The other two meanings of his name are that he had a thick head of hair or that he had bright gray eyes. 

When Caesar was 16, his father died, making Caesar the head of his family. He was chosen as a “Flamen Dialis,” high priest, at the temple of Jupiter, also called Jove. So when people say, “By Jove” they are actually cussing. The god who was most powerful was actually Janus. New year’s celebrations grew out of the celebration of Janus. The god Janus had two faces as he was the god of new beginnings, doorways, time, and change. He was the most important god in the pantheon of gods. A prayer to him was begun before any other prayers. So really, it should be, “By Janus!”

In his job as a Flamen Dialis, Caesar had many benefits, including becoming an ex officio, which means by way of another position, a member of the senate. Being a Flamen Dialis entailed many privileges and many rules. The ones that relate to food were:

  • He might not touch flour, nor leaven, nor leavened bread,
  • He was forbidden either to touch or to name a dog, a she-goat, ivy, beans, or raw flesh.
  • It was unlawful to place a box containing sacrificial cakes in contact with the bedstead.
  • He was not allowed to be present at a table without food so that he never appeared wanting.

What I find interesting about these house rules is that they show how different a world he lived in. The purpose of  the rules were to keep him focused on his job as a priest and to not allow any distractions or temptations. Bread, beans, raw flesh, cake, food… all temptations.

Then, politics, and history, intervened. Due to political maneuvering, Caesar was removed from his position as a priest. This was fortuitous as it allowed him to become a warrior, as priests were not allowed to take up arms. What follows next is Caesar’s rise to power, including governorships, and much political fighting. In one of the many wars he got involved in, he even met Cleopatra, who was in a civil war in Egypt, which she ruled. While Caesar was winning battles, the Senate in Rome was conferring him with more and more accolades and honors. 

When Caesar returned to Rome, a massive celebration of games, “bread and circuses,” was thrown in his honor. Even then, the populace complained of the extravagance, rioting in the streets. The rioting only ended when Caesar had two rioters sacrificed at the temple in the Field of Mars. Over his career, Caesar had been in the position of elected dictator several times, but one month before his death, he became dictator for life. He was assassinated on the Ides of March, March 15, 44 BCE. 

Caesar’s greatest contributions were done in a short five year period between when he crossed the Rubicon and was assassinated. The phrase “cross the Rubicon” is used to mean that the “die are cast” or that there is no going back. The previous Roman calendar was based on the moon but Caesar’s calendar, the Julian calendar, was based on the sun as was the Egyptian, and included a leap year. My guess is that he picked up the idea from his time with Cleo. The Julian calendar was more accurate than the previous calendar and it was in use from 45 BCE to 1582 CE, when Pope Gregory XIII changed it to the modern calendar that we use, the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian chant is from earlier, but Charlemagne, coronated in 800 CE, was a bit of a crusader and forced people to Christianity. The Gregorian chant was one of his weapons as he forced people to use it. Charlemagne’s name, Carolus, is the root of the word “king” in many of the slavic languages. 

More next time on the history of the Italian peninsula.