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Who Were the Etruscans?
The Etruscans were a civilization that flourished in central Italy from the eighth to the first century BC. The Etruscans apparently called themselves “Rasenna” and were known to the Romans as Etrusci or Tusci and to the Greeks as Tyrrhenians or Tyrsenians.
The Etruscan civilization reached its cultural zenith from the eighth to the fifth century BC. They inhabited roughly the triangular region on the west coast of Italy, bounded by the Aron River to the north and east and by the Tiber River to the south. The area encompassed what is now a large part of Tuscany and portions of Latium and Umbria.
Unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans, who left many written records, little Etruscan literature or written historical information has survived the ages. As a result of the scarcity of Etruscan written texts, modern scholars have had to rely on archaeological evidence and the few references to these elusive people from Greek and Roman authors.
This civilization dominated the Italian peninsula in the centuries before Roman hegemony, and their customs and religion played heavily in the development of the Roman Empire.
Origin of the Etruscan People
According to ancient historians, the Etruscans may have come to central Italy by crossing the sea from Asia Minor in the Homeric period or may have been part of the mysterious race of Pelasgians. The early historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote that the Etruscans were indigenous to the region.
Modern historians have not come up with a clear understanding of the origin of these peoples; possibly, they came from the east, migrated down into Italy from the Alps, or were the prehistoric people of central Italy. Whatever their origin story, they were the civilization that existed around the formation of the Roman Kingdom in the eighth century BC.
Ancient References to the Etruscans
Since the Etruscans left few writings that have been properly deciphered, two sources of information on the ancient civilization come from what the Roman historians Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus tell us in their texts. Livy was a Roman living in the first century BC who wrote a multivolume text on the history of Rome titled Ab Urbe Condita. In book five, section 33, Livy relates:
“Before Roman rule the power of the Etruscans extended widely by land and sea. The names of the upper and lower seas that surround Italy, as if it were an island, are a proof of the greatness of their power. The peoples of Italy call one the Tuscan Sea, using the name of the race, and the other Atriatic from Atria, a Tuscan colony; whereas the Greeks call them the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic. The Etruscans inhabited the lands that face each sea in twelve cities in each area, firstly on this side of the Apennines near the lower sea, and later the same number across the Apennines when they sent out the same number of colonies as the founding cities. And so they held all the area across the Po, with the exception of the corner belonging to the Veneti who inhabit the gulf.”
The Greek historian and teacher Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who lived in Rome during the same time as Livy, wrote Roman Antiquities. In Book 1.30, Dionysius gives some insight into the Etruscans, whom he called Tyrrhenians:
“As regard to these Tyrrhenians, some declare them to be natives of Italy, but others call them foreigners. Those who make them a native race say that their name was given them from the forts, which they were the first of the inhabitants of this country to build; for covered buildings enclosed by walls are called by the Tyrrhenians as well as by the Greeks tyrseis or ‘towers.’ ”
These are by no means the only references to the Etruscans in ancient texts. Many other authors refer to these ancient peoples in their works.
Much as their origin is a mystery, so is their language. The remnants of the written language left behind are clearly different from the languages of the neighboring peoples of Italy, such as the Latins, the Sabines, and the Umbrians. The language contains Indo-European elements with a basic structure that is obscure, possibly related to the language of the pre-Hellenic peoples of the Aegean.
What documents remain are written in the Greek alphabet, with some additional native characters. Most of the remnants are short religious and sepulchral inscriptions. Through the existence of a small number of artifacts with both Latin and Etruscan writings, modern scholars have been able to piece together a vocabulary of some 200 words, whose meanings have been approximately established. However, the grammar and morphology of the language are not fully understood, and the precise meaning of many Etruscan texts remains unclear.
Similar to the alphabets of the Middle East and the early forms of the Greek alphabet, the Etruscan script was usually written from right to left. There was no word division or punctuation in the early versions of the language. About the sixth century BC, a system of dots inscribed vertically was introduced to mark word boundaries and to indicate syllables and abbreviations. The alphabet went through many changes over centuries to reach its “classical” form around 400 BC, consisting of 20 letters—four vowels (a,e, i,u) and 16 consonants.
One of the lengthiest Etruscan texts was inadvertently found on the wrappings of a mummy. The 1,300-word, so-called Liber Linteus text was found in the 19th century on linen used to wrap an ancient Egyptian mummy. It had originally been a book made of linen cloth cut into strips to wrap a mummy. The text is the longest Etruscan text; it contains a calendar and instructions for sacrifice. The text is long enough to give some idea of the concepts espoused in Etruscan religious literature.
Over the centuries, there have been many attempts to decipher the Etruscan language fully; however, the efforts have been met with limited success. Like the Etruscan culture, the Etruscan language went out of use, becoming a dead language during the first century BC, replaced by the universal spread of Latin.
Rise of the Etruscans
The evolution and origin of the Etruscan people are obscure due to the relative scarcity of literature and historical documents from that period. Through archeological evidence and Greek and Roman writers, we know that the Etruscans were divided into autonomous city-states throughout central Italy, called populi. They created a sacred Etruscan league, the influence of which extended into their economic and political life.
Originally there were 12 city-states; later more developed. The city-states are conventionally divided into a southern group, including Veii, Caere, Tarquinii, and Vulci; a northern group, comprising Volaterrae, Populonia, Vetulonia, and Rusellae; and an inland group, including Arretium, Cortona, Perusia, Clusium, and Volsinii. The major city-states began to appear as early as the eighth century BC, during the Late Iron Age, in the so-called “Villanovan” and “Orientalizing” phases of the development of their civilizations.
Some of the Etruscan cities have been partially excavated by archeologists, revealing elaborate cemeteries laid out like cities that were established outside the walls of the actual city. These intricate cemeteries, with ornately decorated tombs, are called necropolises and were for aristocratic burials. Their rich décor and exotic grave goods provide evidence of a remarkable civilization and their obsession with the afterlife.
As smaller settlements combined to form cities later in the seventh century BC, organized areas for public and sacred use became evident. Archaeological evidence indicates that the social, economic, and political transformation during this period was mainly internally generated though undoubtedly influenced by contact with other civilizations such as the Greeks.
The Etruscans penetrated far inland and controlled a large continental empire, stretching from the Po Valley in the north to much of Latium and Campania to the south. From about 800 to 500 BC, the Etruscan domain, Etruria, was the center of Italian history. Allied with the Carthaginians, the Etruscans won the naval Battle of Alalia about 540 BC over the Greeks and occupied the coast of Corsica. To the north, they crossed the Apennines Mountains and extended their domain to the Adriatic Sea.
The development of Etruscan society was heavily influenced by the Greeks, from whom they acquired many customs, skills, and the fundamentals of rational thought. The Etruscans were not known to have developed philosophical schools of thought such as those developed by the Greek philosophers Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and others. Consequently, many aspects of their civilization remained closer to those of primitive cultures.
Traders in the Mediterranean World
The Etruscans were known as great seafarers, traveling over much of the Mediterranean Sea region as traders. Archeological remains support this idea as there is an abundance of Etruscan ware, particularly black-glazed pottery, found all along the shores of Italy, Sardinia, Corsica, North Africa, Greece, southern France, and Spain.
They produced many metal objects worthy of trade from their iron, copper, silver, and lead mines in the central Mediterranean and the island of Elba just off the Etruscan coast. The forests of Etruria provided abundant firewood for metallurgical operations as well as timber for shipbuilding.
To understand the Etruscans as a civilization, scholars have had to look to the archaeological evidence left behind. The lack of literature by the Etruscans and the conflicting historical accounts from ancient Roman and Greek writers have prompted historians to carefully sift through the remains of their civilization to gain an understanding. Archaeologists have been able to recover Etruscan pottery, metalwork, sculpture, painting, human and animal remains, and the objects of daily life.
The most abundant physical evidence we have of the Etruscans is funerary, thus giving a great deal of information about their ideas of the afterlife and death. The Etruscan city of Marzabotto near Bologna, which flourished about 500 BC, has provided much information about its inhabitants. The city was among the first in the Mediterranean to lay out a city in a grid pattern, oriented to the cardinal directions of the compass. The layout of Marzabotto is an exception, as more often, the towns of Etruria are found in irregular patterns resulting from the merging of villages in the Villanovan period (900 to 720 BC).
The Etruscan Archaeological Site at Poggio Civitate
South of the city of Florence in the heart of Tuscany is an Etruscan archeological site known as Poggio Civitate. The site was discovered in 1920, but it wasn’t until 1966 that archeological excavations began. The site has been an active dig site for nearly 50 years, revealing some new insights into the world of the ancient Etruscans.
The site contains remains of several buildings that date back to the seventh century BC. The largest structure unearthed is a square building measuring about 197 feet on each side, featuring a large courtyard in the middle. The building is far larger than any other structure in the ancient Mediterranean world at that time. It was made of stone and daub, with each wing covered with a tile roof. The structure was decorated with terracotta frieze plaques covering each wing. Four different scenes were found on the plaques: a luxurious banquet, a procession, what appears to be a horse race, and a series of figures.
Adorning the roofs of the wings of the building were molded terracotta sculptures of enthroned male and female figures. The male figure is wearing a large hat, which prompted the excavators to nickname him “the Cowboy.” In the area surrounding the large building are the remains of several smaller buildings with evidence of living quarters and workshops. The exact purpose of the complex at Poggio Civitate is unknown; however, archaeologists speculate it may have been a temple, a political meeting place, or a palace.
Like much of their culture, the Etruscans borrowed many of their gods and religious practices from the Greeks. The Etruscans appeared to have been more devoted to religious rituals than any of the other civilizations in the ancient Western world. They possessed a comprehensive collection of rules that regulated religious rites. Their major deities included Tin, or Tinia, who was equivalent to the Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter; Uni to Hera/Juno; Sethlans to Hephaestus/Vulcan; Turms to Hermes/Mercury; Menrva to Athena/Minerva; and a host of others. However, their gods’ characteristics and mythology often differed from that of the Greeks.
The Etruscans didn’t bring the gods of the Greeks wholesale into their religious practices; rather, they put their own twist on the characteristics of the gods and goddesses. For example, the popular Etruscan goddess Menrva, goddess of war, art, wisdom, and medicine, was also regarded as a sponsor of marriage and childbirth. This contrasted with the Greek Athena, who was much more concerned with the affairs of males. The Etruscan Menrva was associated with weather phenomena, over which Athena had no such powers for the Greeks. In general, the depiction of the deities of the Etruscans was often vague, and references to them can be ambiguous about their numbers, attributes, and even their genders.
They also had many demigods, demi goddesses, underworld divinities, and frightful demons. The Etruscans relied upon a series of sacred books that contained the precepts revealed by the demigod Tages and the nymph Vegoe for instructions in religion, divination, future events, rituals, and the world beyond the grave. They built temples and altars used to honor their gods.
Knowing the will of the gods was extremely important to the Etruscans. More than the Romans or the Greeks, they were known throughout the ancient world for their practice of the art of divination, seeing into the future. Any public or private event of any importance required an interrogation of the will of the gods through one of three methods.
The first and most important form of divination was haruspicy—the study of the entrails of sacrificed animals, particularly the livers of sheep. A priest, known as a haruspex, interpreted the signs of the gods from a liver. He looked for any irregularity in the liver and established which gods were angry, favorable, or neutral and what the future held.
Secondly, the observation of lighting, celestial events, or the flight of birds could reveal an important omen regarding future events. Finally was the interpretation of prodigies—special events observed in the sky or on the earth. The Romans adopted these practices, which many ancient authors explicitly link to the Etruscans.
Their religious beliefs led them to be obsessed with the afterlife, about which they formed complex and imaginative pictures of life after death. Their tombs were elaborate, magnificently equipped, and decorated with lavish sacrifices. Early Etruscan tombs have been found with a wealth of gold furniture comparable to that of Bronze Age Greece. The Etruscans believed that an individual somehow continued in their mortal remains after death, making it important to take pleasure in their graves or tombs so they would not return to haunt the living.
Women in Etruscan society enjoyed a more elevated status than their contemporaries in Rome or Greece. They were allowed to own luxurious clothing and objects, participate in public life, and attend parties and theatrical performances. In public, they could dance, drink, and rest in close physical proximity to their husbands or other men on banqueting couches. From inscriptions on their mirrors, it is believed that Etruscan women were often literate. Their prominence in the family and society seems to have played a role in the stability and durability of their society.
During the early period of the Etruscan civilization, it was controlled by a series of kings called Lucumos. Later, this system was replaced by a constitutional republic with elected magistrates called zil or zilath. Power was concentrated in the hands of the hereditary aristocracy, which was also the traditional source of the priesthood. During the final period of Etruscan independence, the northern cities of Etruria attempted a democratic revolution.
Decline of the Etruscans
As the Greeks began to grow stronger in their control of the trade within the Tyrrhenian Sea between the end of the sixth century and the start of the fifth century BC, the decline of the Etruscans began. Several crises occurred during that period that would spell the eventual end of the Etruscans as a separate people.
In 509 BC, the second Etruscan king to rule Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was sent into exile, thus bringing any alliance between the Romans and the Etruscans to an end. The split deprived the Etruscans of control of a strategic spot on the Tiber River and cut off their land route access to the southern city of Campania.
Around the early sixth century BC, the Gauls began their infiltration of the Po Valley from the Alps, threatening Etruria. The Gauls advanced as far south as Rome, sacking the city in 390 BC. Rome, heavily influenced by the Etruscans, was gaining its own identity and military strength. The Romans and the Etruscans had a long history of warfare, with victories usually won by the former.
Starting with the city of Veii in 396 BC, the Etruscan towns began to fall to the Romans one by one until the Etruscan league was destroyed. This brought the northern cities of Etruria into an alliance with Rome. During the last years of Etruscan history, Etruria lost its political independence and became incorporated into the Roman-Italic federation.
However, the Etruscans kept their linguistic and cultural traditions. By the first century BC, Etruria was officially annexed, like much of Italy, into the Roman Republic.
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- Hornblower, Simon and Anthony Spawforth (Editors). The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Third Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Smith, Christopher. The Etruscans: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
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- Shipley, Lucy. “Poggio Civitate: Exploring Etruscan enigmas on the Plain of Treasures” https://www.umass.edu/hfa/sites/default/files/assets/026-031_cwa067_poggio_mesc.pdf
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Doug West