A history of Latin part 1: The Latins, 1000 – 650 BCE

Latin started out as most languages do, as a spoken language but not a written one. It belonged to a people called the Latins, who migrated to the Italian peninsula sometime around 1000 BCE and settled in a territory called Latium, along the Tiber River.

Little is known about them. They were pastoralists who periodically moved their herds to new pasture, following the same course from one place to the next, year after year. They lived in huts which they built according to the ‘wattle and daub’ construction technique. The walls were made from straw and perhaps strips of wood, held together with a ‘cement’ made from locally available materials such as mud, clay, and animal dung. The roof was a woven mat of straw supported by wooden posts.

They cremated their dead in pottery urns which were shaped like miniature versions of their huts. These funeral urns were buried in stone-lined holes, along with grave goods, such as small statues and miniature versions of useful items such as spindle-whorls or armor and weapons. They were polytheists who believed in a pantheon of gods. It’s hard to know how much their religion had in common with the famous Roman pantheon of Apollo, Jupiter, Diana, Minerva, Mars and Venus; the famous Roman pantheon did not appear until centuries later, and it was strongly influenced by Greek religious beliefs.

The Latins shared the Italian peninsula with a patchwork of other peoples, each with their own territory. Over time the Latins undoubtedly had contact with and were influenced by these other cultures, but what form the interactions took – whether they could speak each-others’ languages, whether there was trade, or inter-marriage, or whether there were raids or battles over territory, or whether the different groups simply ignored one-another – is unknown.

A map of Italy didvided into blobs of color, each representing a different language. Latin is a tiny blob in west-central Italy. Other languages include Etruscan, Umbrian, Faliscan, Oscan, Greek, Sicel.
Peoples / languages of Italy, around 600 BCE. Latin is a tiny slice in the west-center of the peninsula. Image by Wikimedia user Dbachmann, CC Attribution Share-Alike 3.0.