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The ancient Etruscans, their origins, culture and downfall

| The Etruscans and Rome | Origin of the Etruscans | Etruscan social structure | Wealth and economic dominance of the Etruscans | Etruscan Art | Downfall of the Etruscans | Romanisation | A lot about Ancient Rome |

EtruscansThe Etruscans and Rome

The historical role of Etruria and its people, the Etruscans, was one of alphabet, manufacture, art and religion rather than of politics. Their younger neighbours, the Romans, assimilated much of the Etruscans, including their territories, but certainly not their socio-political structure.

As you may already know, the Etruscans were a people who inhabited the triangular area between the Mediterranean Sea and the rivers Arno and Tiber in central Italy.

According to Roman historians their earliest history dated back to 907BC when the first saeculum began. The Etruscans measured their history in irregular periods roughly equal to 100 years called saecula  by the Romans. It was foretold that Etruscan greatness would last a full 10 saecula and so it was. 

Etruscan fresco. Detail from TarquiniaTheir origins are uncertain but language studies suggest they were not of Indo-European origins. Other elements of their tradition, such as the general emancipation of their women was also at odds with general Indo-European tradition.

At first Rome was simply a small pastoral village called Ruma on the banks of the River Tiber. A number of the first kings of Rome, the Tarquins, were in fact Etruscans and much of the existing Etruscan culture and knowledge formed the foundations of Roman learning in engineering and religion.  Around the 7th century BC (third saeculum) we have the earliest inscriptions and the painted tombs filled with riches.

By the 6th century bc (4th saeculum) the marshy lands had been rendered fertile, the metal quarries were under way and trade routes were well under control.  The Etruscans enjoyed supremacy over the other Italic peoples, including the Romans. In fact the reign of Tarquinius Priscus over the left bank of the Tiber, including Rome, lasted the first 40 years of this Saeculum.

Ancient Rome's GeographyInscriptions in the Francois tomb in norhtern Latium (south of Tuscany) tell us something of the social struggles of those years as the Etruscan democrat Servius Tullius (referred to in Etruscan as "Mcstarna" could be "Magister"?) aided by the Vibenna brothers fought and won against the essentially religious powers which ruled in Etruria. At least one of the Vibenna brothers, Coelius, died and it is in his memory that Servius Tullius renamed the Coelius hill (see map) which hitherto had been called Querculanus because of the oaks growing there.

During so many years of continuous contact between Etruscans and Roman many elements of Etruscan culture permeated into that of Rome. Writing, religion, construction, hydraulics and even the socio-political structure was taken from that of Etruria. Many of these became so Roman that their Etruscan origin was forgotten. An amazing example of this is the very name "Caesar" so strongly associated with the might of Rome. The name has roots in the Etruscan "Aisar" which meant "Great".

The end of the Etruscan civilisation is dated at 54ac. It was in this year that Emperor Claudius, great lover of the Etruscan civilisation and husband of the Etruscan princess Urgulanilla died. Claudius was supposedly the last speaker of the ancient language and used his access to the private libraries to write 20 books entitled "Tyrrhenika" on the history of the Etruscan people (now sadly lost).

Etruscans downfall

However, after four centuries of power and control the Etruscan cities could not withstand the force and (re) organisation of the Romans. Unlike the Etruscans they managed to form the harmonised and unitary state of society and government capable of rendering internal needs compatible with a common cause. This allowed them to gain such strength and dominance in the ensuing eight centuries or more. Read more about the ancient Romans and their Etruscan inheritance.

By the 7th saeculum (265bc) the Romans (the Roman league in fact) were already absorbing Etruscan civilisation city by city and as already mentioned above it was all but a glorious memory by the times of Emperor Nero

At its apex, the might and force of the Etruscan people stretched from the Alps in the north down to the Sicilian straights in the south but rather than a unified "country" or empire, theirs was a sort of loose coalition based on 12 cities and about as many colonies.

The might and extent of their reach is still to be witnessed by many of the names in Italian geography such as "Tuscany", "Tuscania", "Tyrrhenian" sea and "Adriatic" sea. "Tuscan" clearly comes from the common name given to the race since ancient times whilst Adriatic is believed to come from the name "Hadria" a settlement of those people on the eastern coasts of Italy. The region they principally inhabited was called Etruria, just to the north of Latium  where "Ruma" arose and the might of Rome was to rule supreme .

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Origin of the Etruscans

The origins of the Etruscan peoples has often been subject of debate and the most popular belief was one of an oriental origin. However the location and structure of their cities betrays an Italic origin. As opposed to coastal settlements such as might be expected of Greek or Phoenician colonies, Etruscan cities are characterised by being located on heights at a certain distance from the coast or on the conjunction between coastal area and hinterland.

Ancient writers such as Livy, Herodotus give contradicting theories. The general suggestion is that Etruscan civilisation was the result of a fusion of two or more peoples. Possibly a people from the Orient (Lidia in western Turkey) with a resident Italic population. This is a very enticing theory since it bears some parallelisms with the earliest period of central Italy which is strongly linked to Evander which myth (eg Virgil's Aenid) suggests was a Greek from Arcadia ie Greece, and had met the Trojan Anchises with whom he shared ancestry and subsequently aided the Trojan Aeneas when he landed on Italian shores. He came to italy before the Trojan war.

A recent article reports that DNA research announced at the European Human Genetic Conference in Nice in 2007 compared DNA strains of people living at a few sites in Tuscany and Umbria regions (ie those which were the centre of Etruscan culture) and found a strong correlation with populations from Turkey - Izmir (formerly Smyrna).

Etymological study also indicates potential link between the name of these people "tuscii" with the concept of walled/towered city. This may relate either to the types of city which they constructed or indeed to THE towered city of Troy. Reinforcing the Trojan link to central Italy. It is interesting to note that one of Homer's suggested birth places is Anatolia - Smyrna.

Social structure of the Etruscans

Religion was perhaps what united the different Etruscan cities most and  was motivated by a strong belief in the afterlife which in many ways is more reminiscent of the Orient and Egyptians than the classical-Roman. The structure of society and its religious beliefs is most vivid in the frescos and funerary paintings to be seen in locations such as Tarquinia (an hour or so north of Rome).

What does seem clear is that society was based on a well organised nobility and feudal system which the Romans were later to claim as theirs. It is interesting that the Romans should consider the Etruscans as the "ancients" shrouded in much the same mystery we see them today. Emperor Claudius was probably one of the last if not the last person to speak the ancient Etruscan language.

It would be unjust to speak of social structure without making reference to two fundamental elements which by themselves would deserve in depth study:

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Wealth and economic dominance of the ancient Etruscans

The Etruscans were particularly good merchants and traders and much of their own culture is in fact strongly influenced by the Greeks from whom they assimilated much in the way of art and beliefs. Thus whilst early Etruscan artifacts are clearly Italic later periods of the culture shows a shift and assimilation of the Greek. This is particularly evident in the pottery which was partly imported and partly produced locally. It is said that more "Greek" pottery has been found in certain areas of central Italy than in Greece itself for example at sites such as Vulci. Thus the decoration of pottery can be clearly seen transforming itself from the "Villanovian" geometrical style towards the more vivid figurative red figure paintings the Greeks are so renowned for, traversing the Corinthian (or proto Corinthian) style along the way. Their jewelry and particularly their gold beading techniques are of particular international interest.

The geographical and economic power of the Etruscans is of great interest. They can clearly be said to be the most advanced of the Italic populations of their time, which in turn led them to be the ones who most quickly assimilated the alphabet assimilated from the Greeks.

Their dominance of the Tyrrhanean sea meant control over trade between the Mediterranean and the European continent and as a consequence frequent contact with both Greeks and Carthaginians of N. Africa with whom they traded and from whom they defended their control over trade in the area.

The control over the most important mining areas of Italy of that time gave them a monopoly over metal and arms trade to complement that of agriculture. Labour organisation, high productivity and far reaching trading connections did the rest.

As already mentioned, their strength was not only an economic one but also one of geography allowing them to act as bridge between oriental, African and continental European (Gauls/Celts). The Umbrians to the east of Etruria absorbed much of the Etruscan influence although it is unclear to exactly what extent.

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Etruscan sarcofagus. Tuscania church of Saint Peter.Art of the Ancient Etruscans

Although it should be said that ancient Etruscan art should be viewed as an example of assimilation and development of the ancient Greek, rather than a mere copy, it should also be recognised that the Etruscan aesthetic need was driven by the need to show wealth and depict religious rites rather than a need borne of a homogeneous people with profound intellectual/cultural aspirations. I personally feel this is most evident in some of the late period sarcophagi which often had sculptures of their "inhabitants" as part of the lid. These sculptures, often painted in vivid colours, can clearly be seen to purposely accentuate features of opulence such as a large belly. | Pictures of ancient Etruscan frescoes |


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revised and published by Giovanni Milani in July 2011 for - selfcatering villas and apartments