The ancient language of the Latins, the tribespeople who occupied Latium, was to become the immediate predecessor of the Old Latin language, ancestor of Latin and the Romance languages. Latium has played an important role in history owing to its status as the host of the capital city of Rome, at one time the cultural and political centre of the Roman Empire. Consequently, Latium is home to celebrated works of art and architecture.
Earliest known Latium was the country of the Latini, a tribe whose recognised centre was a large, extinct volcano, Mons Albanus ("the Alban Mount", today's Colli Albani), 20 kilometres (12 mi) to the southeast of Rome, 64 kilometres (40 mi) in circumference. In its center is a crater lake, Lacus Albanus (Lago Albano), oval in shape, a few km long and wide. At the top of the second-highest peak (Monte Cavo) was a temple to Jupiter Latiaris, where the Latini held state functions before their subjection to Rome, and the Romans subsequently held religious and state ceremonies. The last pagan temple to be built stood until the Middle Ages when its stone and location were reused for various monasteries and finally a hotel. During World War II, the Wehrmacht turned it into a radio station, which was captured after an infantry battle by American troops in 1944, and it currently is a controversial telecommunications station surrounded by antennae considered unsightly by the population within view.
The selection of Jupiter as a state god and the descent of the name Latini to the name of the Latin language are sufficient to identify the Latins as a tribe of Indo-European descent. Virgil, a major poet of the early Roman Empire, under Augustus, derived Latium from the word for "hidden" (English latent) because in a myth Saturn, ruler of the golden age in Latium, hid (latuisset) from Jupiter there. A major modern etymology is that Lazio comes from the Latin word "latus", meaning "wide", expressing the idea of "flat land" meaning the Roman Campagna.
The region that would become Latium had been home to settled agricultural populations since the early Bronze Age and was known to the Ancient Greeks and even earlier to the Mycenaean Greeks. The name is most likely derived from the Latin word "latus", meaning "wide", expressing the idea of "flat land" (in contrast to the local Sabine high country) but the name may originate from an earlier, non-Indo-European one. The Etruscans, from their home region of Etruria (modern day Tuscany) exerted a strong cultural and political influence on Latium from about the 8th century BC onward. However, they were unable to assert political hegemony over the region, which was controlled by small, autonomous city-states in a manner roughly analogous to the state of affairs that prevailed in Ancient Greece. Indeed, the region's cultural and geographic proximity to the cities of Magna Graecia had a strong impact upon its early history.
By the 10th century BC, archaeology records a slow development in agriculture from the entire area of Latium with the establishment of numerous villages. The Latins cultivated grains (spelt and barley), grapes (Vitis vinifera), olives, apples, and fig trees. The various Latini populi (lit. "Latin peoples") lived in a society led by influential clans (gentes). These clans were a sign of their tribal origin, which continued in Rome as the thirty curiae which organized Roman society. However, as a social unit the gens was replaced by the family which was headed by the paterfamilias - the oldest male who held supreme authority over the family.
A fixed local center seemed necessary as the center of the region cannot have been one of the villages, but must have been a place of common assembly, containing the seat of justice and the common sanctuary of the district, where members of the clans met for purposes of administration and amusement, and where they obtained a safer shelter for themselves in case of war: in ordinary circumstances such a place was not at all or but scantily inhabited. Such a place was called in Italy "height" (capitolium, the mountain-top), or "stronghold" (arx, from arcere); it was not a town at first, but it became the nucleus of one, as houses naturally gathered around the stronghold and were afterwards surrounded with the "ring" (urbs, connected with urvus and curvus).
The isolated Alban range, that natural stronghold of Latium, which offered to settlers a secure position, would doubtless be first occupied by the newcomers. Here, along the narrow plateau above Palazzuola between the Alban lake (Lagiod di Castello) and the Alban mount (Monte Cavo), extended the town of Alba Longa, which was regarded as the primitive seat of the Latin stock, and the mother city of Rome as well as of all the other Old Latin communities; here on the slopes lay the very ancient Latin districts of Lanuvium, Aricia, and Tusculum. Here are found some primitive works of masonry, which usually mark the beginnings of civilization.