The Veneti

The Veneti

. The Veneti are an ancient people who inhabit the area of north-eastern Italy, including the region known today as the 'Veneto'. The Veneti were indigenous to the region, and, unlike so many of their neighbours, they were not assimilated or swept away by the Gallic migrations that transformed the Po Valley during the period 500-350 BC.

With the advent of the early Iron Age in Italy, in the ninth century BC, regional differences begin to manifest themselves in the archaeological record, reflecting the linguistic and ethnic diversity which later characterized pre-Roman Italy in historical times. For example, to take funerary customs, for which archaeological data are the most plentiful, inhumation predominated in the region east and south of an imaginary line drawn between Rimini and Rome, whereas cremation was the most prevalent burial custom west and north of this line.

The inhabitants of the latter area placed the ashes in a bi-conical urn, covered it with an inverted bowl or helmet, and deposited the vessel in a pit grave. This culture, which was common throughout Etruria and much of the Po Valley, takes its name from Villanova, a hamlet near Bologna (Bononia) in south-eastern Cisalpine Gaul, which was the first site of this type excavated by Count Gozzadini during the1850s. By the middle of the eighth century BC the “Villanovan Culture” of Etruria was evolving into what soon became the Etruscan civilization, while the Villanovan Culture of the eastern Po Valley developed into what archaeologists call the “Este Culture”.

It is this “Este Culture” that is known to historians as the Veneti. Linguistically, the Este Culture was characterized by a non-Indo-European language whose origin and connection with other known languages are still enigmatic. The tongue of the Este Culture was named Veneti by the Romans, and Enetoi by the Greeks, and is generally believed to belong to the Italic family of Indo-European languages, although this is a matter of sharp debate [1]. The Italic family of Indo-European languages included Latin, Oscan, Umbrian as well as Venetic. The Veneti language is attested by over 300 short inscriptions dating from between the 6th century BC and 1st century.

Hence, it is likely that the Etruscan and Venetic languages were already established in their respective areas at the beginning of the Iron Age, and these two populations, though linguistically distinct, for a time shared a common material culture.

The people of the “Este Culture”, henceforth known as the Veneti, occupied the eastern Po Valley, specifically the shore of the Adriatic from Trieste to the mouth of the Po River. As they occupied the southern flank of the Alps, the Veneti were in a prime position to control the routes connecting the Etruscan city-states with the Transalpine Celtic zone. The Early and Late “Halstatt Culture” of the Celts in central Europe was fed commercially by the Etruscans and Greeks via the Veneti and Golasecca cultures of the Po Valley.

For this reason, the Veneti – together with the “Golasecca Culture” who spoke the now extinct Lepontic language, and inhabited the western Po Valley – prospered, owing their riches to their central position. In the period c. 600-400 BC this trade intensified, as Etruscan colonies on the Adriatic at Spina and Adria, together with Greek colonies in the Adriatic, were established. The Golasecca and Este Cultures became a bridge between the Mediterranean states and the changing Halstatt world, trading metals and prestige items to the north, and amber and horses southward to the Etruscans and Greeks (Herodotus, 5.9).

“[In northern Italy we see an] expansion of metalwork and trade at important transition zones, leading to the formation of new elites and regional cultural traditions in the southern Alps at nodal points of transfer between Italy and the Alpine region. These come to form the Este and Golasecca cultures.”

The indigenous Italic-Villanovan material culture of the Veneti absorbed significant Etruscan and Greek influences during the period 600-400 BC. The Este begin using the Etruscan alphabet (itself derived from the Phoenician) to develop their own script. As a result of this exchange, the Veneti adopted Etruscan material culture, ideology and institutions, and urban settlements, of which Este and Padua were the most significant. Kristiansen goes so far as to call the Golasecca and Este cultures “northern provinces of Etruscan culture”;

“The Hellenisation, or, more precisely, the acculturation to an Etruscan lifestyle must have been considerable in Slovenia, but of course it had already been underway since the 7th century. The exchange was not only of goods but also of craft specialists, as well as dynastic marriages, was the basis of this development, turning Slovenia into a barbarian Etruscan province.“

During the period 500-350 BC the Po Valley was transformed by the Celtic migrations. Celts of the “Early La Tene Culture” from Transalpine Gaul migrated over the Alps and overran the Po valley. The Golasecca Culture, centred around Lakes Como, Lugano and Maggiore, was destroyed, as were the Etruscan cities in the Po Valley, and Celtic tribes like the Insubres, Boii, Cenomani and Senones carved out new homelands for themselves in northern Italy. The Etruscan, Golasecca and other indigenous populations in these areas were conquered, expelled or assimilated by their new Celtic masters.

In the instance of the Golasecca Culture, this process may have been accelerated by a strong pre-existing Celtic influence on their material culture and pre-existing Celtic populations in Cisalpine Gaul.[6] Some scholars even consider the Golasecca Culture “Celtic” rather than Italic (i.e. Ligurian). As the result of the migration of Celtic tribes into northern Italy during the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the inhabitants of the western and central districts of the Po Valley became Celtic in speech and material culture, and languages like Ligurian, Lepontic and Raetic were henceforth only spoken by peoples dwelling in and along the Alps.[

Only the Veneti appear to have survived this “Gallic cataclysm” and the Celtic ethnogenesis of northern Italy. The Veneti appear to have successfully defended their homeland from the Celts, and so their culture and language remained a distinctly Italic (proto-Etruscan) enclave in what was otherwise part of the Celtic world. The earliest documented occurrence of the name "Veneti" occurs in 390 BC, in the accounts of the sack of Rome by the Senone Gauls. After sacking Rome, the Gauls withdrew back to their homeland in order to counter a Veneti invasion there (Polybius, 2.18.3).

Thereafter, the Veneti remained loyal and valuable allies to Rome in her struggles for mastery of northern Italy. The Veneti supported Rome throughout her wars. When the Insubres, Boii and Gaesetae invaded central Italy in 225 BC, they were obliged to detach a part of their host to protect their lands from the Veneti (Polybius, 2.23.). The Veneti supported Rome in expanding its control over the Adriatic; in 221 BC Livy reports that both Roman consuls waged a successful military campaign against the Veneti's neighbours, the Histri, an Illyrian tribe that inhabited the region of modern Istria, and who were regarded as notorious pirates in the northern Adriatic Sea (Livy, 20); in 219 BC both the Roman consuls successfully waged the Second Illyrian War. Again, during the Second Punic War, the Veneti remained loyal to Rome, and supported Rome against Hannibal and his Gallic allies.

Thereafter, the Veneti were brought into the Roman alliance system, retaining complete autonomy in their internal affairs, while becoming part of the Roman hegemony. In 181 BC the Roman triumvirate of Publius Scipio Nasica, Caius Flaminius and Lucius Manlius Acidinus founded the Latin colony at Aquileia in Veneti, so as to protect the territory of the Veneti from incursions by the hostile Carni and Istri tribes. Thereafter, Roman influence over Veneti steadily increased. In 148 BC the Via Postumia was completed connecting Aquileia to Genua. In 131 B.C., the Via Annia joined Adria to Patavium to Altinum to Concordia to Aquileia. Gradually, the Roman Republic transformed its alliance with the Veneti into a relationship of dominance. Immediately after the 91 BC Italic rebellion, in 89 BC, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo conferred the rights of partial Roman citizenship (ius latinum) upon the Veneti, together with the rest of Transpadania, according to the Lex Pompeia Transpadanis.

An illustration of the Roman friendship and regard for the Veneti was the Roman propagation of a Veneti foundation myth. According to Livy, the Veneti were formed by a merging of the indigenous peoples known as the Euganei and a Trojan-Paphlagonian tribe known as the Eneti (or Enetoi in Greek) who had settled in the area between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea. Homer, and perhaps more significantly, Pliny the Elder, assert that with the death of King Pylaemenes of the Paphlagonians, Antenor the Trojan led the Eneti across the Mediterranean towards the coast of north-east Italy near the Brenta river, where their descendants, the Veneti lived (Natural History, 6.2.5). Antenor was a comrade of Aeneas. Homer (Iliad, 2.852) speaks of the Paphlagonian Eneti as breeders of "wild mules", and this fondness for horses is regarded as proof of their descent from the "horse-taming" Trojans. This is also stated by Pliny the Elder, who indicates the Veneti ancestry as being Trojan (Natural History, 3.130). Dionysius I, tyrant of Syracuse, who assisted the Veneti to repel the attacks of the Liburnian pirates, is said to have kept a stud in their country (Strabo, 5.1.4).

In giving the Veneti a Trojan ancestry, the Romans elevated the Veneti from being “barbarians”, and instead considered them distant relatives, as the Romans themselves believed themselves descended from the Trojan Aeneas. This fable also explained for Romans the presence of a culturally similar enclave among the predominantly Celtic population of Cisalpine Gaul.

Veneti Ekdromoi (Spearmen)

The Veneti Ekdromoi were recruited from among the common Veneti farmers and mountaineers, and they fought as unarmoured spearmen, quick moving and flexible and able to protect the flanks of the heavier Veneti Hoplomachi. They wore the distinctive, simple Veneti “disk and stud” helmets, carry large scutum shields, with a rim and boss of bronze, and fight with both javelins and a heavy spear.

Veneti Hoplomachi (Spearmen)

The Venetic fighting system was a primitive, local adaptation of the older Etruscan military system, and so in some respects had a similar heritage to the military system of Rome. Like both Etruscans and Romans, the Veneti were clean shaven. Veneti warriors also wore short, sleeveless, unbelted tunics (like the Illyrians). The Veneti Hoplomachi were recruited from among the elites of the Veneti, the aristocracy and their clients, and the wealthier citizens. They fought in the manner of hoplites, and they formed the core of the Veneti battle line. In their panoply, the Hoplomachi demonstrated the important Greek and Etruscan influences that have shaped these people; the open helmet is adorned with a long plume, and is a typical northern Italic type, which provides the wearer with unrestricted vision and hearing; the large hoplon shield is embossed with bronze; the metal cuirass is a typical Hellenistic armour, but decorated in a distinctive Villanovian-Veneti style. These hoplites fought in the traditional manner of close-order spearmen, with a heavy spear (dory) as their principal weapon, and a sword as their secondary weapon.

Equites Veneti (Light Cavalry)

The Equites Veneti were a tough cavalry unit, recruited from among the farmers and mountaineers of the Veneti and were valued for their ability to operate across rugged terrain and from ambush, and act as scouts. They wore short, sleeveless, unbelted tunics (like the Illyrians), which had a Gallic-style pattern and fought in the manner of mounted skirmishers, relying on a simple open-faced helmet that enabled vision and hearing, a sturdy round shield of typical Gallic style, and a bundle of javelins.


1. See Eric P Hamp, ‘The Relationship of Venetic within Italic’, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 75, No. 2 (1954), pp. 183-186; the Slovenian linguist Matej Bor asserts that ancient Venetic is actually an early proto-Slovenian.
2. Kristian Kristiansen, Europe Before History, New Studies in Archaeology, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 218-225; Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts, Penguin Books, 1997, pp. 51, 302-303.
3. Kristian Kristiansen, Europe Before History, New Studies in Archaeology, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 218-225; Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts, Penguin Books, 1997, p. 166.
4. Loredana Capuis, ‘The Etruscans in Veneto’, in Giovannangelo Camporeale (ed.), The Etruscans Outside Etruria, Getty Publications, Paul J Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2004.
5. Kristian Kristiansen, Europe Before History, New Studies in Archaeology, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 218-225; Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts, Penguin Books, 1997, p. 274
6. J H C Williams, Beyond the Rubicon. Romans and Gauls in Republican Italy, Oxford Classical Monographs, 2001, pp. 185-222
7. R De Mainis, ‘Golasecca Culture and its links with Celts beyond the Alps’, pp. 92-102, in Moscati et. al. (eds.), The Celts, Milan, 1991; for the Ligurian thesis, see F Rittatore Vonwiller, ‘Liguri, Etruschi e Celti in Transpadana’, in Convegno su Archeologia e Storia nella Lombardia Pedemontana Occidentale, Cuomo, 1969, pp. 3-38.
8. Gary Forsythe, A Critical History of Early Rome, From Pre-history to the First Punic War, University of California Press, 2005, pp. 11-12, 26-27; J H C Williams, Beyond the Rubicon. Romans and Gauls in Republican Italy, Oxford Classical Monographs, 2001, pp. 185-222.

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