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Italy in 400 BC.

The Picentes or Picentini (Ancient Greek: Πίκεντες, Πικεντῖνοι) were an Italic tribe who lived in Picenum in the northern Adriatic coastal plain of ancient Italy. The endonym, if any, and its language are not known for certain.

The definition of Picenum depends on the time period. The region between the Apennines and the Adriatic Sea south of Ancona (originally a Greek colony) was in Picenum during the entire early historic period. Between Ancona and Rimini to the north the population was multi-ethnic. In the Roman Republic it was Gallia Togata, but the Gauls were known to have combined or supplanted earlier populations. The ager Gallicus, as it was called, was considered both Gaul and Picenum. Under the Roman Empire the coast south of Rimini was united or reunited with the country south of Ancona as Picenum. By then the only language spoken was Latin.

From Ancona southward a language of the Umbrian Group was spoken, today called South Picene. It is attested mainly in inscriptions. Umbrian was an Italic language.[1] North of Ancona around Pesaro a totally different language is attested by four inscriptions, only one of any length, termed for convenience North Picene. The inscriptions are not understood, and it is not possible to ascertain the language's relationships, if any to other languages. Some authors without evidence have given it the Picene tag on the theory that it may represent an original language spoken in all of Picenum south of Rimini.


Statue of the Capestrano Warrior at Chieti Museum.

Edward Togo Salmon suggested that the endonym may be pupeneis "or something similar," an ethnic name used in four south Picene language inscriptions found near Ascoli Piceno.[2] Later refinements of the argument connected it to the Latin name Poponius, as in inscription TE 1 found near Teramo:

apaes ...púpúnis nir
"Appaes ... a Poponian man"

The connection between Poponian and Picentes, if any, remains obscure.[3]

The first document to mention the Latin name is the Fasti triumphales, which record for 268/267 BC a triumph given to Publius Sempronius Sophus for a victory de Peicentibus, "over the Picentes," where the -ei- is an Old Latin form. The entire group of Latin Picene words delivered subsequently appear to follow the standard rules for Latin word formation. The root is Pīc-, provenience and meaning yet unknown. The extended Pīc-ēn- is used to form a second-declension adjective, appearing in such phrases as Pīcēnus ager, "Picene country," Pīcēnae olivae, "Picene olives", and the neuter used as a noun, Pīcēnum. These are not references to any people, *Pīcēni, but to the country. Pīcēni where it occurs is the genitive case of Pīcēnum and not a nominative plural; that is "of Picenum" and not "the Piceni." Similarly Pīcēnus used alone implies Pīcēnus ager, the "Picene (country)" and does not mean one resident of Picenum. This adjective is never used of the people.

For the people, a third-declension adjective stem is formed: Pīc-ent-, used in Pīcens and Pīcentes, "a Picentine" and "the Picentines," which are nouns formed from the adjective. This adjective can be used of people or of other words, as well as in a second formation of the name of the country, Pīcentum. From it comes a final name of the people, Pīcentini.[4] The historical order in which these words appeared or whether they came from each other remains unknown.

Legends about the Picentines[edit]

The Sabine origin[edit]

Bronze fibula and "pettorale" at Museo Archeologico Nazionale delle Marche, Ancona
The Marche Region coat of arms inspired by the picus legend

The Piceni were Sabellians who lived north of the Sabines and frequently erroneously confused as originally from them by many Roman authors.[5][6]

The woodpecker etymology[edit]

Strabo relates the legend that when the people who would become the Picentini left Sabine country for the country they would name Picenum a woodpecker (Latin: picus) led the way. In antiquity, the ethnonym was thought to mean "those of the Woodpecker."[7] His concept was that the interior of Italy was colonized by the Samnites, the colonists relying on the divinely-inspired guidance of a ritually selected animal: a bull for the Sabines, a woodpecker for the Picentes, a wolf for the Hirpini ("those of the wolf"). A few, but not all, ancient authors agreed with Strabo.

The woodpecker played a part in Picene religion, and the ancient etymology, while not based on modern scientific linguistics, reflects a system of belief. The theory has its modern advocates also; Joshua Whatmough, taking up a tradition initiated by Frazer, regarded the woodpecker as a tribal totem, supposing some Italic tribes were named after totems. The Hirpini, for example, would have had the wolf (hirpo) as a totem, the Lucani also the wolf, from *luco-, "wolf," corresponding to the Roman wolf. Italia was thought to mean "land of calves." As Whatmough implies, it would have to mean "the people of the calf" and would have to once have been one tribe.[8]


In 299 BC the Romans captured Nequinum, a city of the Umbrians, colonized it and renamed it Narni (after the River Nar). They also concluded a treaty with a people Livy calls the Picentes (the term used is cum Picenti populo, "with the Picentine people").[9] In 297 BC the Picentes warned the Roman Senate that they had been approached by the Samnites asking for alliance in renewed hostilities with Rome. The Senate thanked them.[10]

After a gap in the record of nearly 30 years the Picentes appear again in a totally different relationship with Rome. The Ager Gallicus on the northeast coast of Italy had for some time been populated by different ethnic groups, mainly Picentes, Etruscans and Gauls. Ancona had been placed there by the Greeks of Sicily; north of it the Gauls predominated. In 283 BC after a series of victories over the Gauls, including the Battle of Lake Vadimon, the Romans expelled the Gallic Senones from the coastal region and annexed it down to Ancona, after which it became "Gallia Togata." In 268 BC the Picentes were defeated in Gallia Togata by two consular armies. Evidently they had rebelled against Rome, probably in 269.[11]

Ancona and Asculum remained independent but the rest of Picenum was annexed. The Romans placed two more colonies to hold it: Ariminum in 268 and Firmum in 264.[12] Between these years they moved large numbers of Picentes to Campania, giving them land at Paestum and on the river Silarus and assisted them to build a city, Picentia. They also placed a garrison at Salernum to monitor them. Strabo reports that in his time they had depopulated the city in favor of villages scattered about the Salerno region.[13] In Ptolemy's time (2nd century AD) a population named by him the Picentini were still at Salernum and Surentum.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wikipedia language articles use the SIL International classification. Salmon proposed unsuccessfully that South Picene is the language from which Osco-Umbrian descended subsequent to the 6th century BC.
  2. ^ Salmon, Edward Togo (1988). "The Iron Age: the peoples of Italy". In Boardman, John; Hammond, NGL; Lewis, DM; et al. The Cambridge Ancient History. Volume 4: Persia, Greece and the Western Mediterranean, c.525 to 479 BC (2nd ed.). pp. 697–698. ISBN 0-521-22804-2. Four of those found north of the Tronto or near Ascoli Piceno allude to a people called Pupeneis or something similar: could these be the Italic Picentes known to the Romans? 
  3. ^ Weiss, Michael (2001). "Observations on the South Picene Inscription TE 1 (S. Omero)" (PDF). Cornell University. Retrieved 30 August 2010. 
  4. ^ Lewis, Charlton T.; Short, Charles (2007) [1879]. "Pīcēnum". A Latin Dictionary. Perseus Digital LIbrary, Tufts University. Retrieved 4 September 2010. 
  5. ^ Strabo, Geography (V, 3, 1)[1]:The Sabini not only are a very ancient race but are also the indigenous inhabitants (and both the Picentini and the Samnitae are colonists from the Sabini, and the Leucani from the Samnitae, and the Brettii from the Leucani).
  6. ^ A system of ancient and mediaeval geography for the use of schools and colleges. by Charles Anthon. by Michigan Historical Reprint Series,ISBN 1-4255-7080-1,2005,page 302,"... in Strabo's time, a city of note. - PICENUM. (A.) NAME, BOUNDARIES, &C. 1. Picénum took its name from the Picentes, its inhabitants, who were a colony of Sabines ; ..."
  7. ^ Strabo. Geography. Book V, Chapter 4, Sections 2 and 12. The Picentini are originally from the Sabine country, a woodpecker having led the way ... and hence their name, for they call this bird 'picus', and consider it sacred to Mars 
  8. ^ Whatmough, Joshua (1937). The Foundations of Roman Italy. New York: Haskell House Publishers Ltd. p. 242. 
  9. ^ Livy (1st century AD). "Book 10, Chapter 10". History of Rome.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  10. ^ Livy (1st century AD). "Book 10, Chapter 11". History of Rome.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  11. ^ Boatwright, Mary T; Gargola, Daniel J; Talbert, Richard JA (2004). The Romans: From Village to Empire. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 87. ISBN 0-19-511876-6. By the 260s, few, if any, communities in Etruria, Umbria and Picenum possessed any real independence.... The Picentes revolted in 269. 
  12. ^ Staveley, ES (1989). "Rome and Italy in the Early Third Century". In Walbank, Frank William. The Cambridge Ancient History. Volume VII: the Hellenistic World: Part 2: The Rise of Rome to 220 BC. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 425. Certainly, steps designed to consolidate her hold in the north-east followed this incident in quick succession: the foundation in 268 of the Latin colony of Ariminum .... the annexation of the whole Picentine land save for ... Ancona and ... Asculum; the transportation of large numbers of Picentes to the ager Picentinus on the west coast, and finally in 264 the planting of a second large Latin colony on the coast at Firmum. 
  13. ^ Strabo (1st century AD). "Book 5, Chapter 4, Section 13". Geography.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  14. ^ Ptolemaeus, Claudius (2nd century AD). "Book III, Chapter I, Section 7".  Check date values in: |date= (help); Missing or empty |title= (help)