The Etruscans

Statue from an intact Etruscan tomb Photo Credit-

Statue from an intact Etruscan tomb Photo Credit-

Before the Romans, there was another advanced civilization living in central Italy- the Etruscans. Not much is known about them, and what we do know comes from the Romans, who threw off their rule to become independent. Therefore, most of our view of them are colored by Roman attitudes, which were less than favorable. Who were the Etruscans really?

The Etruscans lived in central Italy in an area including Tuscany, western Umbria and northern Lazio. Some theories say the Etruscans were descendents of the “Sea Peoples”. This would have made them a mix of peoples including the biblical Canaanites or Phoenicians. Hellanicaus of Lesbos wrote in the 5th century BCE a group of Sea Peoples who traveled to Italy and changed their name. Herodotus claimed they were from Lydia in Asia Minor leaving after a famine. However, yet another ancient writer, Dionysus of Halicarnassus, believed the Etruscans to be native Italians. There is conflicting evidence to support both theories. Recent genetic studies show many of today’s Tuscans and Umbrians share Y chromosomes with men from modern day Turkey and the Greek island of Lemnos. There were excavations on Lemnos which turned up a community dating to 600 BCE, which has a stone tablet or stele with language very similar to Etruscan on it. However, additional excavations have linked the Etruscans to an Iron Age culture known as the Villanovans. Most of the Etruscan cities were built on top of former Villanovan settlements.

However they got to Italy, native or not, much of their culture was influenced by the Greeks. The Greek explorers encountered them and set up a trade network. As usual, ideas as well as goods flowed between the two groups. One of the things passed on was writing, as the Etruscan language was written in Greek letters. These Greek letters were reshaped and passed onto the Romans, and from there our current alphabet. According to Gregory Warden, a classical archaeologist affiliated with both Southern Methodist University in Texas and Franklin University Switzerland, “The reason we go ‘A, B, C’ instead of ‘A, B, G’—which is what it would be in Greek, alpha, beta, gamma—is because the Etruscans didn’t have that G sound.” Soon they were traveling the seas in Greek-style ships taking raw materials to places as far away as Spain and Egypt. Their society was sophisticated and surprisingly egalitarian. Women and men both had equal rights under the law. However, the gap between slave and free, rich and poor was vast and deep. Roman historian Livy described them as “no people was ever more devoted to religious observances.” They were also described as loving dancing, music, food and wine. To the sober Romans, this was scandalous.

The Etruscans took control of the area around Rome in 650 BCE to control the ford over the Tiber river. They introduced rectangular city planning, drained the marshes and built underground sewers. All the niceties of urban living. Roman men would send their sons to be educated in Etruscan schools, and although we can no longer read the language school boys studied Etruscan literature. This was all under the Etruscan League of twelve cities. There is no definitive list of which cities these were, but the historical consensus is: Arretium, Caisra, Clevsin, Curtun, Perusna, Pupluna, Veii, Tarchna, Vetluna, Volterra, Velzna and Velch. This was a loose association similar to the Greek city states. Notice Rome was not included in the league. That must have smarted.

After a two previous dust ups with the Etruscans, Rome overthrew their king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, whose family originated from Tarquinii in Etruria, in 509 BCE. This was the founding of the Roman Republic. The Etruscans stuck around for a while, but they were definitely in the decline. By the 3rd century BCE, Rome was starting to come into its own and they were absorbed by the burgeoning Roman empire, even though it was still technically a republic. This Roman absorption has both colored and clouded the achievements and culture of the Etruscans. What was left that we knew about them was lost when Christians in the 4th century CE burned all the Etruscan literature they could get their hands on. For them, these works represented pagan beliefs, which were entrenched in Roman society.

Even with this lack of concrete information, we are still making headway in finding out about this rich culture. In August 2016, an inscription on a temple in Poggio Colla was translated to dedicate the temple to Uni, a divinity of fertility and possibly a mother goddess.


Sources available on request