The Italian peninsula is easily identified on a map because of its distinctive shape—it resembles a high-heeled boot. A long spine of mountains—the Apennines—runs down the center of the peninsula. In the north, where the peninsula meets the European mainland, the land is rich and fertile; in the south, it is rocky and barren, good for growing grapes. Archaeologists continue to find ancient Roman amphorae and wine containers throughout the former empire; even today, Italy is the world’s largest wine producer. In ancient times, Italy’s position in the middle of the Mediterranean gave it a central role in international trade.
By the ninth century BC, three civilizations flourished on the Italian peninsula. The Etruscans held sway in the north, the Romans controlled the center, and the Greeks established independent city-states in the extreme south, including Syracuse on the island of Sicily. The Romans would eventually overpower the other two and control all of Italy.
The Etruscans were not native Italians; historians disagree about where they originally came from. Their roots may lie in Anatolia (Turkey), or they may be descended from the Sea Peoples who roamed the Mediterranean in gangs around 1200 BC. There is strong evidence that they came from somewhere in the Near East. Evidence includes their literacy; their skill at all kinds of building projects, from shipbuilding to making jewelry; and the complexity and sophistication of their political systems. Historians believe that the Etruscan civilization was organized into independent cities or city-states that resembled the Greek model. Politically, the Etruscans would dominate the Romans until about 500 BC.
The Romans originated among the Italic tribes who are native to the peninsula. These Latin-speaking people organized themselves into free cities, some of which formed leagues for their mutual advantage and security. Rome, the most important city, was built in a hilly area on the banks of the Tiber River, in the spot where it was easiest to cross. Roman mythology assigns 753 BC as the official date on which the city was founded, although it had, of course, existed as a town for some time before that date. The Romans absorbed a great deal from the dominant Etruscan civilization. Roman scribes adapted the Etruscan alphabet to write in Latin, Roman artists and artisans adopted and imitated Etruscan methods and models, and Roman political and military leaders studied Etruscan systems of organization.
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