What were the origins of Etruscan Civilisation?

What were the origins of Etruscan Civilisation?

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Given the differences between Etruscan civilisation and other Italian peoples of the same period, is the conclusion that Etruscan civilisation was autochthonous sensible?

It depends entirely on your definition. Before the Etruscans there probably lived some other group of people in Tuscany, and before them another.

If you consider where Etruscan culture developed as we know it, Wikipedia has a fairly good answer:

Culture that is identifiably Etruscan developed in Italy after about 800 BC approximately [in the area] of the preceding Iron Age Villanovan culture. The latter gave way in the 7th century to [an Etruscan] culture that was influenced by Greek traders and Greek neighbours in Magna Graecia, the Hellenic civilization of southern Italy. - Wikipedia on the Etruscan Civilization.

However, it is unknown where the Etruscan people came from genetically, or at least not their typically Etruscan genetic origin (they no doubt mixed blood with various other groups in the area). There are two hypotheses (from Wikipedia on Etruscan Origins):

  1. They developed out of the Villanovan culture that was in that region before them. Their ancestors were prehistoric people that had been in Europe for a long time, though their precise movements are unknown.

  2. They migrated to Italy from Anatolia.

Recent DNA and mitochondrian-DNA research provide some tentative evidence for the migration hypothesis: various genetic similarities have been found between Etruscan bones, modern Tuscans, and modern Tuscan cattle on the one hand, and people and cattle in Turkey and the Caucasus on the other. - Wikipedia.

The term "autochthonous" basically means the same as indigenous. Therefore, I interpret your question as asking if it is valid to claim that the Etruscan Civilization could be considered to be indigenous to the portion of Italy where they resided. The answer to that would be "yes".

The Estruscans were a unique civilation that resided in the northern part of Italy. they had their own language, their own forms of government, and their own distinct culture. According to wikipedia, they had existed for about 600 years before they became a part of the Roman Republic.

Roman mythology tells the story of Romulus and Remus and how they founded Rome. The manner in which they selected the location appeared to follow Etruscan tradition, and the name Rome is believed by some to be Etruscan.

It is my understanding that genetic research now tentatively supports Herodotus's claim (previously considered just another of his wild concoctions) that the Etruscans had originated in Asia Minor. Moreover, the same is true of Tuscan cattle as opposed to cattle in other parts of Italy.

The Lemnos stele inscribed in a language very similar to Etruscan does not contradict this theory, either, given the position of the island of Lemnos.

The origin of Etruscan civilization is one of the more mysterious historical enigmas that is with us to the present-day.

It is very likely that many of the present-day peoples of the Tuscan region in Central Italy, are of distant Etruscan ethnic descent. Although the Romans conquered the Tuscan region 2300 plus years ago, there is no historical evidence which suggests or explicitly states that the Etruscans entirely disappeared as a people. That is to say, the Etruscan language and culture disappeared, due to, (in all likelihood), forced assimilation/(Romanization). However, the Etruscans, as an actual people, most likely survived the Roman colonial onslaught, though have been fully Romanized/Italianized since the 300's BC/BCE.

There are some plausible theories which suggest that the Etruscans may have distant Greco-Anatolian ethnic origins and that Ancient Tuscany, may have been distant member of the Magna Graecia cities and regions. Etruscan Art, does have some quasi-Hellenic influences and even aspects of the (now defunct) Etruscan language, may have distant Hellenic roots.

The Etruscans may have been a Latin tribe distantly related to the Romans, though there appears to be little historical and linguistic evidence that is available for confirmation.

Overall, the ethnic origins of the Etruscans continues to remain a mystery to historians, linguists and archaeologists. Perhaps with advancements in archaeological technology and the study of Indo-European languages, more information regarding Etruscan ethnic genealogy will be available at a future date.

DNA Analysis Has Cleared Up The Origins of the Etruscans

Tuscany's name in modern days comes from the Etruscans, a very advanced ancient civilization, highly influential in the development of the early Roman civilization. But the origins of the Etruscan civilization has been a vivid debate amongst archaeologists, historians and linguists for centuries.

Three are three main theories about their origin: they came from Anatolia (modern day Turkey), as stated by the Greek historian Herotodus they developed from the local Iron Age Villanovan society, as suggested by another Greek historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus or they came from an Indo-European invasion from the north, like the Latins did.

Now, the most accurate approach, the DNA analysis, was applied. A team led by Professor Piazza has investigated genetic samples from three present-day Tuscany (central Italy) populations from in Murlo, Volterra, and Casentino. "We already knew that people living in this area were genetically different from those in the surrounding regions. Murlo and Volterra are among the most archaeologically important Etruscan sites in a region of Tuscany also known for having Etruscan-derived place names and local dialects. The Casentino valley sample was taken from an area bordering the area where Etruscan influence has been preserved."

This DNA samples were compared to those coming from healthy males from Northern Italy, the Southern Balkans, the island of Lemnos (Greece), Turkey, and the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

The Tuscan samples came from individuals living in the area for at least three generations, based on their surnames, having a geographical distribution limited to the linguistic area of sampling. "We found that the DNA samples from individuals from Murlo and Volterra were more closely related those from near Eastern people than those of the other Italian samples. In Murlo particularly, one genetic variant is shared only by people from Turkey, and, of the samples we obtained, the Tuscan ones also show the closest affinity with those from Lemnos", Piazza said.

Previously, the same relationship had been found for mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in the female lineages. Another mtDNA of local ancient breeds of cattle still living in Tuscany and other areas found a close link to those from Anatolia.

Many Etruscan cities were continuously inhabited since the Iron Age, and the people who lived in the ancient Etruria region did not appear "out of the blue". The Etruscans took the Greek alphabet, and their inscriptions revealed a language developed in situ before their first historical record, in 800 BC, without any connection with the Indo-European languages, thus the third theory was totally excluded. By 265BC, the Etruscans were totally incorporated into the Roman Empire. "But the question that remained to be answered was - how long was this process between pre-history and history?" said Piazza.

In 1885, an inscription in a pre-Greek language discovered in the island of Lemnos, dated to about the 6th century BC, presented many similarities with the Etruscan language both in its form and structure and its vocabulary. Herodotus' theory, criticized by many historians, claimed that the Etruscans emigrated from the ancient region of Lydia (now western Turkey). Half the population sailed from Smyrna (now Izmir) until they reached Umbria in Italy.

Indeed, tombs discovered in ancient Lydia are extremely similar to those of the Etruscans. The Etruscans were also skilled sailors, who traded with the Greeks and Cartagena and the God of the Sea, Neptunus, was important in their religion.

The Lydian theory also links the Etruscans to the Minoans and "People of the Sea", seafaring raiders that were at war with the Egyptians in the 12th century BC. Their civilization was centered in Crete (now an island in southern Greece) and other neighboring islands (like Lemnos) and these people spoke non-Indo-European related languages. There are significantly increasing proofs that match the Crete and Minoan civilization to Atlantis and its decline in a huge ancient tsunami.

"We think that our research provides convincing proof that Herodotus was right and that the Etruscans did indeed arrive from ancient Lydia. However, to be 100% certain we intend to sample other villages in Tuscany, and also to test whether there is a genetic continuity between the ancient Etruscans and modern-day Tuscans. This will have to be done by extracting DNA from fossils this has been tried before but the technique for doing so has proved to be very difficult." said Piazza.

"Interestingly, this study of historical origins will give us some pointers for carrying out case-control studies of disease today. In order to obtain a reliable result, we had to select the control population much more carefully that would normally be done, and we believe that this kind of careful selection would also help in studies of complex genetic diseases." he added.

The theory of Dionysos of Hallikarnas would have linked the Etruscans to the Basque, but the probability for Indigenous pre-Indo-European people to survive the massive Indo-European invasion for millennia and even impose their domination afterwards was relatively low.

The Etruscans, an introduction

Before the small village of Rome became “Rome” with a capital R (to paraphrase D.H. Lawrence), a brilliant civilization once controlled almost the entire peninsula we now call Italy. This was the Etruscan civilization, a vanished culture whose achievements set the stage not only for the development of ancient Roman art and culture but for the Italian Renaissance as well.

Though you may not have heard of them, the Etruscans were the first “superpower” of the Western Mediterranean who, alongside the Greeks, developed the earliest true cities in Europe. They were so successful, in fact, that the most important cities in modern Tuscany (Florence, Pisa, and Siena, to name a few) were first established by the Etruscans and have been continuously inhabited since then.

Yet the labels “mysterious” or “enigmatic” are often attached to the Etruscans since none of their own histories or literature survives. This is particularly ironic as it was the Etruscans who were responsible for teaching the Romans the alphabet and for spreading literacy throughout the Italian peninsula.

​ The influence on ancient Rome

Etruscan influence on ancient Roman culture was profound. It was from the Etruscans that the Romans inherited many of their own cultural and artistic traditions, from the spectacle of gladiatorial combat, to hydraulic engineering, temple design, and religious ritual, among many other things. In fact, hundreds of years after the Etruscans had been conquered by the Romans and absorbed into their empire, the Romans still maintained an Etruscan priesthood in Rome (which they thought necessary to consult when under attack from invading “barbarians”).

We even derive our very common word “person’” from the Etruscan mythological figure Phersu — the frightful, masked figure you see in this Early Etruscan tomb painting who would engage his victims in a dreadful “game” of blood letting in order to appease the soul of the deceased (the original gladiatorial games, according to the Romans!).

Phersu and his victim, Tomb of the Augurs, late 6th century B.C.E., Tarquinia

Etruscan hut urn (c. 800 B.C.E.), impasto (Vatican Museums)

​ Etruscan art and the afterlife

Early on the Etruscans developed a vibrant artistic and architectural culture, one that was often in dialogue with other Mediterranean civilizations. Trading of the many natural mineral resources found in Tuscany, the center of ancient Etruria, caused them to bump up against Greeks, Phoenicians and Egyptians in the Mediterranean. With these other Mediterranean cultures, they exchanged goods, ideas and, often, a shared artistic vocabulary.

Unlike with the Greeks, however, the majority of our knowledge about Etruscan art comes largely from their burials. (Since most Etruscan cities are still inhabited, they hide their Etruscan art and architecture under Roman, Medieval and Renaissance layers). Fortunately, though, the Etruscans cared very much about equipping their dead with everything necessary for the afterlife—from lively tomb paintings to sculpture to pottery that they could use in the next world.

From their extensive cemeteries, we can look at the “world of the dead” and begin to understand some about the “world of the living.” During the early phases of Etruscan civilization, they conceived of the afterlife in terms of life as they knew it. When someone died, he or she would be cremated and provided with another ‘home’ for the afterlife. ​

This type of hut urn (above left), made of an unrefined clay known as impasto, would be used to house the cremated remains of the deceased. Not coincidentally, it shows us in miniature form what a typical Etruscan house would have looked like in Iron Age Etruria (900-750 B.C.E.)—oval with a timber roof and a smoke hole for an internal hearth.

More opulent tombs

Later on, houses for the dead became much more elaborate. During the Orientalizing period (750-575 B.C.E.), when the Etruscans began to trade their natural resources with other Mediterranean cultures and became staggeringly wealthy as a result, their tombs became more and more opulent.

The well-known Regolini-Galassi tomb from the city of Cerveteri shows how this new wealth transformed the modest hut to an extravagant house for the dead. Built for a woman clearly of high rank, the massive stone tomb contains a long corridor with lateral, oval rooms leading to a main chamber.

Fibula from Regolini Galassi tomb in Cerveteri, gold, mid-seventh century B.C.E. (Vatican Museums)

​A stroll through the Etruscan rooms in the Vatican museum where the tomb artifacts are now housed presents a mind-boggling view of the enormous wealth of the period. Found near the woman were objects of various precious materials intended for personal adornment in the afterlife—a gold pectoral, gold bracelets, a gold brooch (or fibula) of outsized proportions, among other objects—as well as silver and bronze vessels and numerous other grave goods and furniture.

Bronze bed and carriage, Regolini-Galassi Tomb, (c. 650 B.C.E.), Cerveteri (Vatican Museums)

A bronze bed​

Of course, this important woman might also need her four-wheeled bronze-sheathed carriage in the afterlife as well as an incense burner, jewelry of amber and ivory, and, touchingly, her bronze bed around which thirty-three figurines, all in various gestures of mourning, were arranged.

Though later periods in Etruscan history are not characterized by such wealth, the Etruscans were, nevertheless, extremely powerful and influential and left a lasting imprint on the city of Rome and other parts of Italy.

Bettini Tomb in Tarquinia and virtual restoration of its frescoes using archive material

Herodotus of Halicarnassus Had an Origin Theory

Herodotus (484-425 BCE) was a Greek historian from Halicarnassus. He believed that Etruscans originated from the country of Lydia in Anatolia (present day Turkey) during the 2nd millennia BCE. Reference: (a-8).

Writing in the 5th century BCE, Herodotus told of a tale that occurred several centuries before his time, during the 2nd millennium. The kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) was suffering from a long famine. In order to solve this problem the Lydian King Atys decided to divide his kingdom into two. Half of the people would stay in Lydia under his leadership. He had his son Tyrrhenus lead the other half of the Lydian population in a mass migration across the sea. Tyrrhenus and his people sailed west until they landed in Italy and settled in Ombrici (present day Umbria, Italy). Then, they began to call themselves Tyrrhenians. (Ref: 3-i).

Other Greek historians cited similar eastern Mediterranean origins. Hellanicus of Lesbos wrote that Etruscans were originally Pelasgians (pre-Greek aborigines of Greece). They fled west to Italy after Greeks drove them out of their Aegean homeland.

Others with quirkier reasons joined the fray, according to Professor Tuck in his lecture, The Mysterious Etruscans. One group supported Herodotus’ claim, citing that Etruscans wore the same pointy shoes found in artwork from 6th century BCE Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). More recently, a group of scientists gave credence to Herodotus’ theory. Their study showed that the DNA of certain cow remains found in Italy were related to those found in Asia Minor. Since the cows were from Asia Minor, should we therefore conclude that the Etruscans were from the same place? (Ref: 6-i).

The Etruscans

The Etruscan civilization flourished in Italy in ancient times. It is famous for the huge influence that it exercised on the early history and civilization of Rome.


History Time Map of the Etruscans


Etruscan civilization is the modern English name given to a civilization of ancient Italy. Its homeland was in the area of central Italy, just north of Rome, which is today called Tuscany.

In ancient times there was a strong tradition that the Etruscans had emigrated from Lydia, on the eastern coast of present-day Turkey. Modern historians have largely discounted this idea, and believe that the Etruscans were an indigenous population – a belief largely confirmed by modern DNA studies. The sudden flowering of Etruscan civilization at a date earlier than other indigenous peoples of central and northern Italy probably points to the blossoming of strong trading relations between the peoples of the area – identified by modern scholars as belonging to the Iron-age Villanovan culture – and merchants (and possibly some colonists) from the eastern Mediterranean. Mining of metals, especially copper and iron, would have led to early enrichment for the Etruscans, and to a higher material culture than other Italic peoples.

The Etruscan civilization lasted from the 8th century BCE to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. In the 6th century the Etruscans expanded their influence over a wide area of Italy. They founded city-states in northern Italy, and to the south, their influence expanded down into Latium and beyond. Early Rome was deeply influenced by Etruscan culture (the word “Rome” is Etruscan). The Etruscans also gained control of Corsica.

Location of Etruscan Civilization and the city states.
Reproduced under License 3.0

Between the late 6th and early 4th centuries BCE, Etruscan power declined. To the south, the rising power of the Greek city-states of Sicily and southern Italy weakened Etruscan political and military influence, and cities which they had either dominated or founded, such as Rome, threw out their overlords and became independent city-states. In the north, Gallic tribes moved into northern Italy and destroyed the Etruscan cities there. However, in their homeland the Etruscan cities remained powerful, and were formidable opponents of the rising power of Rome. It was only over a long period, in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, that they surrendered their independence to the Romans.

The Etruscans spoke a unique language, unrelated to those of their neighbors. Their culture was influenced by Greek traders, and by the Greek colonists of southern Italy. The Etruscan alphabet is Greek in its origins. They in turn passed on their alphabet to the Romans.


The Etruscans adopted the city-state as their political unit from the Greeks, earlier than their neighbors in central Italy. The Etruscan homeland was originally divided into twelve city-states, but new cities sprang up as the Etruscans expanded their sphere of influence.

Like the Greeks, most Etruscan cities moved from monarchy to oligarchy in the 6th century BCE. Some seem to have retained their monarchies.

The different city-states of Etruria were united by a common religion, and apparently too by a loose political confederacy. This did not stop the different states from going to war with one another from time to time.


The Etruscan system of belief was, like those of the Greeks and Romans, polytheistic, based on the worship of many gods and goddesses: Tin or Tinia, the sky, Uni his wife, and Cel, the earth goddess. Later, Greek deities were taken into the Etruscan system: Aritimi (Artemis), Menrva (Minerva), Pacha (Dionysus). The Greek heroes taken from Homer also appear extensively in Etruscan art.

These deities were active in the world of man and could be persuaded to influence human affairs. Legend had it that, to understand the will of the gods, and how to influence them, had been “revealed” to the Etruscans in the form of oracles which were written down in a series of mysterious sacred books. These books were secret, only to be consulted by the priests.


Like other ancient cultures, warfare was a major aspect of their political life. Like many ancient societies, the Etruscans conducted campaigns during summer months, raiding neighboring areas, attempting to gain territory, and engaging in – or combating – piracy.

An Etruscan Helmut in the British Museum

Human sacrifice was a feature of their religion, and prisoners of war could end up on the altars of Etruscan gods. As a part of this sacrifice, prisoners were sometimes set to fight one another. the Romans later took this practice over, and it grew into the gladiatorial entertainments of the Roman amphitheaters.

Art and Architecture

The surviving Etruscan art which has come down to us is figurative sculpture in terracotta (especially life-size tomb statues in temples) and cast bronze, wall-painting and metalworking (especially engraved bronze mirrors).

As with all ancient peoples, Etruscan art was strongly connected to religion the afterlife was of major importance in Etruscan art.

The Etruscan musical instruments seen in frescoes and bas-reliefs are different types of pipes, such as Pan pipes and double pipes, percussion instruments, and stringed instruments like the lyre.

5th century BCE fresco of dancers and musicians, tomb of the leopards

The only written records of Etruscan origin that remain are inscriptions, mainly funerary. Otherwise, Etruscan literature is evidenced only in references by later Roman authors.

The Architecture of the ancient Etruscans was derived from that of the Greeks, and went on to influence that of early Rome.

Etruscan Heritage

Rome is located on the edge of what was the Etruscan homeland. Certain institutions and customs came directly from the Etruscans to Rome. In fact, the name of Rome itself has of Etruscan origin, as are the names of its legendary founders, Romulus and Remus. There were strong Latin and Italic elements to Roman culture, and later Romans proudly celebrated these multiple origins. Before the Etruscan arrived (undoubtedly as a ruling group), however, Rome was probably a collection of small farming settlements. The Etruscan elite provided it with its early political arrangements (monarchy, army) and urban infrastructure (walls, forum, drainage system) in short, it was probably they who turned Rome into a full-blown city-state.

Few Etruscan words entered the Latin language, but those that did tended to be to do with state authority: the toga palmata (a magistrate’s robe), the sella curulis (magistrate’s chair), and the fasces – a bundle of whipping rods surrounding a double-bladed axe, carried by magistrate’s attendants (lictors). The fasces symbolized magisterial power. Also, the word populus is of Etruscan derivation, and originally referred to the people assembled for war, as an army, rather than the general populace.

The early Romans were deeply influenced by their more civilized Etruscan rulers, whose imprint can be seen in the Romans’ writing, art and architecture, religion, military matters, entertainment (as in the gladiatorial combat) and probably a host of other aspects of daily life. In thus helping to shape Roman civilization, the Etruscans had an enduring influence on later Western culture.

The Etruscan Empire: Exploring Their Origins, Expansion and Characteristics

This powerful civilization held great influence particularly in North and Western Italy. However, very little evidence remains of their contributions to modern society.

The Etruscans were a people of little known origin who became prominent in a large part of Italy in the 8thCentury BC. Eventually they surrendered to the Romans in the 3rd-Century BC but their influences continued to pervade particularly in religion, civil engineering and urban planning. Much of these influences are still evident today.

Etruscan Origins

Historical opinions differ on the origins of the Etruscans but it is generally thought that they developed as a result of Villanovan culture, which is characterised by the practice of cremating the dead and burying their ashes in urns. As seafarers, they built a trading relationship with the Mediterranean populations. Evidence shows they were an advanced civilization, wealthy and supreme but due to the lack of recorded literature disappeared from the history sheet. Many of the opinions have been formed by the study of city walls, houses, monuments and tombs, especially in Tuscany and Umbria. The archaeological evidence unearthed at these sites and religious sanctuaries show their particular accomplishment in metalwork and other artefacts. However, little Etruscan literature remains and the language of the inscriptions only partly deciphered.

Etruscan Expansion and Downfall

By the mid 7th Century BC the major Etruscan towns had been founded, largely motivated by a continued threat from Greece who were expanding their hold on Sicily and Southern Italy. They continued to conquer in North and West Italy from the Apennine mountains where populations were more scattered and less unified.

In the 6th Century BC, they became influential in many major cities including Rome, which had previously been a small collection of villages. This powerful relationship with the Latin city enabled the Etruscan culture to flourish. The Etruscan ‘Tarquin’ Dynasty provided three of the seven Roman Kings during the Roman Empire.

The Etruscan stronghold however began to falter towards the latter part of the century when Rome chose to become a Republic and many Etruscan cities were defeated or absorbed into peaceful relationships with the influential and powerful Romans.

Etruscan Characteristics

The Etruscan language is a mystery but is considered similar in dialect to some Greek cultures but otherwise very different from other Mediterranean languages. Etruscan inscriptions use the Greek alphabet, and many have been deciphered, but the exact meanings of words are widely unknown. The preservation of its language apparently held little importance and very few translations to Latin exist. Most of the written language that has survived pertains to spiritual traditions.

The Etruscans believed in the supernatural, after life and divination. Ceremonies and rituals were therefore very important to them. Their tombs often resembled their houses and everyday common objects including food, drink and clothing were left for their after life. Many of the necropolises discovered have painted scenes and frescoes of Etruscan life and have provided important information about how they lived.

The Etruscans built a thriving and agricultural civilisation, which influenced large parts of Italy, and particularly Rome, the evidence of which is contained within its history. They were also skilled artisans and engineers producing important advances in cultural and artistic terms, demonstrated in their paintings, jewellery, ceramic, and pottery ware. Much of what is known about the Etruscans is drawn from this very scarce but informative evidence base.

Who Were The Etruscans?

For most of us, ‘Etruscan’ is one of those words we’ve met many times but, if pressed, couldn’t precisely explain. We might know the word has some connection with Tuscany. We might even know that the Etruscans were a people, and that they did impressive things of some kind. But like ‘Phoenicians’ and ‘Carthaginians’, they tend to be a name with no picture – another obscure, long-dead ethnic group only familiar perhaps to people with a classical education. If you plan to visit anywhere in central Italy, it’s really worth sharpening up your hazy understanding. You’re going to meet that word ‘Etruscan’ everywhere you go a lot of irritation can be saved by clearing it up here. A word of warning, though: it’s a well-founded cliché that anyone who starts learning about the Etruscans quickly becomes hooked on the subject. If you can’t bear to acquire a new interest, look away now.

Etruscan Legacy

For half a millennium or more, the Etruscans were Europe’s most advanced civilisation outside Greece. Made wealthy by international trade, they spent their time making wine, building roads, draining marshes, painting vases, founding cities, creating sculptures, and constructing aqueducts. Hmmm. sounds a bit like the Romans, doesn’t it? Well it should. Consider three facts: i) at least two of Rome’s earliest kings were Etruscans ii) most Romans had some Etruscan ancestors and iii) the Romans took many of their ideas on art, law, religion, public institutions, water management and road-building directly from the Etruscans. You owe more to these unfamiliar ancient people than you probably imagine.
So why haven’t you heard more about them? Because they were completely overshadowed by the Romans. And because so much of what they did was lost before historians could grasp it and imprint it on our popular map of the past. Building in wood and plaster, materials totally consumed over the centuries, the Etruscans left behind no temples, amphitheatres or triumphal arches to stamp their civilisation on our minds.
They don’t speak to us from the page, either. While early Roman schoolboys studied Etruscan literature as part of their curriculum, modern-day scholars can only understand a few hundred words of the language (it’s not part of the Indo-European family). Most Etruscan writing that could have helped linguists was burnt to ashes by Christian Roman Emperors eager to stamp out paganism what survived was torched by devout early Muslims in North Africa.

Laid-back Lifestyle

The Etruscans themselves, keen on living for the moment, didn’t seem to care whether or not they preserved their glory for posterity. When their civilisation was subsumed into Roman, they didn’t bother asserting a self-consciously distinct ethnicity and melded with the newcomers. Thus an artistic and fun-loving culture was half erased from history – a culture in which banquets were eaten in bed while dancers pranced about and wine-throwing games were played. A culture with strong erotic sensibilities, but also with rudimentary sexual equality – something lost, alas, on the Romans.
With so little testament to the particularities of Etruscan existence and so much testament to the spectacular existence of the Romans, popular and academic attention has understandably always concentrated on the latter. Indeed, scholarship on things Etruscan only really started in the last century or two – and studies still abound with words like ‘mysterious’ and ‘enigmatic’. Etruscan civilization might have been rescued from historical oblivion, but only just.

Fast Learners

What is known is that the Etruscans lived across a large swathe of central Italy encompassing modern-day Tuscany, western Umbria, and northern Lazio. Their civilisation had its roots in what we now call ‘Villanovan’ culture, which existed across and beyond the same area from the 9th century BC (and was distinguished by its funerary practices). Wily Greeks, exploring Italy for minerals in the 8th century, encountered these comparatively primitive Villanovans and began filling their heads with ideas. They traded with them, showed them various technologies, and taught them to write. (Thus the Etruscans wrote in Greek letters, which they reshaped and passed to the Romans, who modified them and gave us our current alphabet. The characters you’re reading here have their roots in Etruscan).
Put simply, the Greeks galvanised the Villanovans they met – so much so that the people became something else. They became a recognisably new civilisation worthy of a new name: the Etruscans. In Greek-style ships, these Etruscans were soon whisking raw materials across the Med to Greece, Sardinia, Spain and Egypt, and getting rich enough on the proceeds to support a great civilisation – innovating technologies and commanding far-flung political power. The intimate relationship with Greece would weather the centuries, however, as is attested by two stray facts: more Greek pottery has been found in Etruscan tombs than in Greece itself and, in a coals-to-Newcastle coup, Etruscan potters eventually supplied Greece’s domestic market with perfect Greek-style pots.

What’s in a Name?

Fittingly, it was the Greeks who christened them, calling these new people the Tyrsenoi or Tyrrhenoi – names which Latin fiddled with to give us ‘Etruscan’, ‘Tyrrhenian’, ‘Etruria’, and ‘Tuscany’. The key element in these terms is probably the very ancient word tir or tur meaning ‘tower’ or ‘tall rocky hill’ (which has planted versions of itself in many languages – Glastonbury Tor is a venerable English example). The Greeks and Romans seemed to think of the Etruscans as a tower-people, and indeed most of their settlements were on high places or included tall defensive structures. The Etruscans, by the way, called themselves the Rasna or Rasenna – which, like Cymru to the Welsh, might just mean ‘the people’.
Whatever names given to them, they got on with being who they were from around the 8th century BC until the advent of the Christian era. The beginning of the end came when a little town called Rome started to get ideas above its station. From the 4th century BC, Romans began a slow, systematic conquest of Etruria. Their policy wasn’t slash and burn, but colonise and control. While many Etruscan cities resisted, others meekly allied themselves with the awesomely-organised newcomers. The last to fall to Roman control, in 264 BC, was Velzna (modern-day Orvieto).

The Romans were relatively benign masters to the Etruscans, charmed as they were by their achievements and recognising that they could learn things from them. But a mutual esteem between the two cultures hastened the loss of a distinct, exclusively ‘Etruscan’ people. In 89 BC, all Etruscans were granted Roman citizenship. They had literally been turned into Romans.
It can be useful to think of the Etruscans occupying a key position in an over-simplified genealogy of modern European civilisation. Imagine the ancient Egyptians shooting the spark of organised, creative life to the Minoans (and others), who passed it to the Greeks, who shared it with the Etruscans, who stoked up the Romans, who spread a fire across the rest of Europe. The full evolution of European civilisation is, of course, a bit more complicated. But the Etruscans certainly deserve a place among its most influential players.

Government Structure

The Etruscan civilization was a conglomeration of diverse city-states modeled on the Greek polis, each encompassing an urban center and surrounding territories.

The Etruscans had no centralized system of government. However, the city-states were organized into leagues, of which there were three. Ancient sources refer to a league of “Twelve Peoples,” which met annually at the Fanum Voltumnae (Shrine of Voltumna), the Etruscans’ main sanctuary, near the city of Volsinii. Each city-state sent representatives to the meetings, which were largely religious in nature but also included some political business, as well as athletic games and a fair. The representatives annually elected one of their members to serve as leader this office was likely concerned with religious and organizational matters.

Individual city-states were governed independently by kings who served as the head of state, commander in chief, high priest, and judge. However, these kings were neither heredity monarchs nor absolute rulers rather, real political power was in the hands of the powerful landowning aristocracy.

Etruscan Artifacts

Historians have no literature, or original Etruscan religious or philosophical texts, on which to base knowledge of their civilization. So much of what is known is derived from grave goods and tomb findings.


Explain the importance of Etruscan artifacts to our understanding of their history


Key Points

  • Princely tombs did not house individuals, but families who were interred over long periods.
  • Although many Etruscan cities were later assimilated by Italic, Celtlic, or Roman ethnic groups, the Etruscan names and inscriptions that survive within the ruins provide historic evidence as to the range of settlements that the Etruscans constructed.
  • It is unclear whether Etruscan cultural objects are influences upon Roman culture or part of native Roman heritage. The criterion for deciding whether or not an object originated in Rome or descended to the Romans from the Etruscans is the date of the object and the opinion of ancient sources regarding the provenance of the object’s style.
  • Although Diodorus of Sicily wrote, in the 1 st century, of the great achievements of the Etruscans, little survives or is known of it.

Key Terms

  • sarcophagi: A box-like funeral receptacle for a corpse, most commonly carved in stone and displayed above ground.
  • oligarchic: A form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who typically pass their influence from one generation to the next, but inheritance is not a necessary condition for the application of this term.

Historians have no literature or original Etruscan religious or philosophical texts on which to base knowledge of their civilization, so much of what is known is derived from grave goods and tomb findings. Princely tombs did not house individuals, but families who were interred over long periods. The decorations and objects included at these sites paint a picture of Etruscan social and political life. For instance, wealth from trade seems to have supported the rise of aristocratic families who, in turn, were likely foundational to the Etruscan oligarchic system of governance. Indeed, at some Etruscan tombs, physical evidence of trade has been found in the form of grave goods, including fine faience ware cups, which was likely the result of trade with Egypt. Additionally, the depiction of married couples on many sarcophagi provide insight into the respect and freedoms granted to women within Etruscan society, as well as the emphasis placed on romantic love as a basis for marriage pairings.

Sarcophagus of the Spouses: Sarcophagus of an Etruscan couple in the Louvre, Room 18.

Although many Etruscan cities were later assimilated by Italic, Celtic, or Roman ethnic groups, the Etruscan names and inscriptions that survive within the ruins provide historic evidence of the range of settlements constructed by the Etruscans. Etruscan cities flourished over most of Italy during the Roman Iron Age. According to ancient sources, some cities were founded by the Etruscans in prehistoric times, and bore entirely Etruscan names. Others were later colonized by the Etruscans from Italic groups.

Nonetheless, relatively little is known about the architecture of the ancient Etruscans. What is known is that they adapted the native Italic styles with influence from the external appearance of Greek architecture. Etruscan architecture is not generally considered part of the body of Greco-Roman classical architecture. Though the houses of the wealthy were evidently very large and comfortable, the burial chambers of tombs, and the grave-goods that filled them, survived in greater numbers. In the southern Etruscan area, tombs contain large, rock-cut chambers under a tumulus in large necropoli.

There is some debate among historians as to whether Rome was founded by Italic cultures and then invaded by the Etruscans, or whether Etruscan cultural objects were adopted subsequently by Roman peoples. In other words, it is unclear whether Etruscan cultural objects are influences upon Roman culture, or part of native Roman heritage. Among archaeologists, the main criteria for deciding whether or not an object originated in Rome, or descended to the Romans from the Etruscans, is the date of the object, which is often determined by process of carbon dating. After this process, the opinion of ancient sources is consulted.

Although Diodorus of Sicily wrote in the 1st century of the great achievements of the Etruscans, little survives or is known of it. Most Etruscan script that does survive are fragments of religious and funeral texts. However, it is evident, from Etruscan visual art, that Greek myths were well known.

Crisis and decline

The end of the 6th century and the beginning of the 5th was a turning point for Etruscan civilization. Several crises occurred at this time, from which the Etruscans never fully recovered and which in fact turned out to be only the first of numerous reverses they were to suffer in the ensuing centuries. The expulsion of the Tarquins from Rome (509 bce ) deprived them of control over this strategic spot on the Tiber and also cut off their land route to Campania. Soon afterward, their naval supremacy also collapsed when the ships of the ambitious Hieron I of Syracuse inflicted a devastating loss on their fleet off Cumae in 474 bce . Completely out of touch with the Etruscan cities of Campania, they were unable to prevent a takeover of this area by restless Umbro-Sabellian tribes moving from the interior toward the coast.

All these reverses led to economic depression and a sharp interruption of trade for the cities on the coast and in the south and caused a redirection of commerce toward the Adriatic harbour of Spina. The situation in the south deteriorated even further as Veii experienced periodic conflict with Rome, its close neighbour, and became the first Etruscan state to fall to this growing power in central Italy (396 bce ).

A measure of prosperity had come to the Po valley and the Adriatic towns, but even this Etruscan vitality in the north was short-lived. The progressive infiltration and pressure of the Celts, who had penetrated and settled in the plain of the Po, eventually suffocated and overpowered the flourishing Etruscan urban communities, almost completely destroying their civilization by the mid-4th century bce and thus returning a large part of northern Italy to a protohistoric stage of culture. Meanwhile, the Gallic Senones firmly occupied the Picenum district on the Adriatic Sea, and Celtic incursions reached on the one hand Tyrrhenian Etruria and Rome (captured and burned about 390 bce ) and on the other as far as Puglia.

In the 4th century bce ancient Italy had become profoundly transformed. The eastern Italic people of Umbro-Sabellian stock diffused over most of the peninsula the Syracusan empire and lastly the growing power of Rome had replaced the Etruscans (and the Greek colonies of southern Italy) as the dominant force. The Etruscan world had been reduced to a circumscribed, regional sphere, secluded in its traditional values this situation determined its progressive passage into the political system of Rome.

Within this context, Etruria experienced an economic recovery and a rebounding of the aristocracy. Tomb groups once again contain riches, and the sequence of painted tombs at Tarquinii, interrupted during the 5th century, resumes. All the same, there is a new atmosphere in these tombs now one finds images of a grim afterlife, represented as an underworld replete with demons and overhung by dark clouds.

Renewed resistance to the power on the Tiber proved futile. Roman history is filled with records of victories and triumphs over Etruscan cities, especially in the south. Tarquinii sued for peace in 351 bce , and Caere was granted a truce in 353 there were triumphs over Rusellae in 302 and over Volaterrae in 298, with the final defeat of Rusellae coming in 294. Volsinii also was attacked in this year, and its fields devastated. During this same bleak period, Etruscan society was wracked with class struggles that eventually led to the development of a substantial freedman class, especially in northern Etruria, where numerous small rural settlements sprang up in the hills. In some cities, the aristocracy looked to Rome for assistance against the restless slave class. The noble Cilnii family at Arretium called for help with a revolt of the lower classes in 302 bce , while at Volsinii the situation deteriorated so badly that the Romans marched in and razed the city (265 bce ), resettling its inhabitants in Volsinii Novi (probably Bolsena).

By the mid-3rd century all Etruria appears to have been pacified and firmly subjected to Roman hegemony. In most cases, the Etruscan cities and their territories preserved a formal autonomy as independent states with their own magistrates, thus passing an uneventful period in the 2nd century bce , when the sources are largely silent about Etruria.

But the saddest chapter of all remained to be written in the 1st century bce . In 90 bce Rome granted citizenship to all Italic peoples, an act that in effect created total political unification of the Italic-Roman state and eliminated the last pretenses of autonomy in the Etruscan city-states. Northern Etruria, in addition, underwent a final devastation as it became the battleground for the opposing forces of the civil war of Marius and Sulla. Many Etruscan cities sided with Marius and were sacked and punished with all the vengeance the victorious Sulla could muster (80–79 bce ). At Faesulae, Arretium, Volaterrae, and Clusium, the dictator confiscated and distributed territorial lands to soldiers from his 23 victorious legions. The new colonists brutally abused the old inhabitants and at the same time squandered their military rewards, sinking hopelessly into debt. Revolts and reprisals followed, but the agonizing process of Romanization was not actually completed until the reign of Augustus (31 bce –14 ce ) brought new economic stability and reconciliation. By this time Latin had almost completely replaced the Etruscan language.

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