The History of Etruria


   Introduction   |    Origins   |    Orientalizing Period   |    Early Rome   |    Etruscan Decline   |    Burning of the books   |    Home   |


(see also A Chronology of Early Italian History)

Virtually all that we know about Etruscan history today comes to us from indirect sources- either from Roman historians who had a patriotic axe to grind, or from Ancient Greek historians, who in some cases failed to grasp the very different sets of values held by the Etruscans. For example the status of women in Etruscan society, which was so alien to the Greeks and Romans alike, both being of Indo European origins. The Greeks saw the Etruscans as being an immoral race of people (although this accusation was on very shaky ground given their own morality). The Greeks also refer to the Etruscans quite frequently as pirates. There is no evidence to suggest that the Etruscans dabbled in piracy any more than other races of the day, and what was piracy to one group of people was defense to others. One fact was indisputable, and that was that during their heyday, the Etruscans controlled a significant part of the Mediterreanean.

The Etruscans went on to lay the foundation of the city of Rome, to clear the shepherds huts which once littered the Palatine Hill, to drain the swamps and transform what had been a collection of tribal sheep herders into a true city which would eventually dominate large tracts of Europe, Asia and North Africa alike. From the Etruscans came writing, and Roman history was born in the true sense.

From their beginnings in the area that is now Tuscany, these Etruscans had deep rooted influences which survive to this day. Although the Etruscan language is by no means totally decoded, we now know enough to see that many words of Etruscan origin found themselves into Latin and from there into English. For an unknown language, many Etruscan words look very familiar.

Their Religious legacy had profound influences on at least the rituals and dress of the Church. Etruscan Art had obvious influences on renaissance artists such as Michelangelo.

While the Roman legions conquered region after region, the Etruscan cities were occupied by Veterans, and the citizens of the once proud Etruria bowed to the pressure and became part of Rome or died during numerous rebellious uprisings.

Those same legions were organised in accordance with Etruscan traditions, responded to the sound of the tuba (from Etruria), built their camps on a North/ South grid, as specified by the Etruscan sacred books, and carried a Standard inscribed with SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus. "Populus" is a word of Etruscan origin, -que (Etruscan -c with probably the same pronunciation) means "and", and even Romanus itself probably came from the Etruscan language. There are various theories among which connect it with the Etruscan gentilial name Rumlua

The Etruscan Haruspices and soothsayers remained well into the 5th Century CE, and according to some reports, may have survived in the Eastern Empire in Byzantium. The ancient tradition of their ancestral leaders proved difficult for the Romans to give up entirely.


The question of Etruscan origins has been a controversial subject for many years. Nowadays, it is fair to say that most authorities would agree that the Etruscans were autochthonous, and that the predecessors of the Etruscan civilization that started to manifest itself in the regions of Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci and Vetulonia in the North in the early 7th century BCE had been in the region for many hundreds of years beforehand. There is however a large gulf between popular conceptions of the Etruscans, and the generally well established beliefs of academics in the field, as the generally acknowledged 'father of Etruscology', Massimo Pallatino pointed out in his introduction to the 1986 reprint of D.L. Lawrence's "Etruscan Places" :

"I dont think there is any other field of human knowledge in which there is such a daft cleavage between what has been scientifically ascertained and the unshakeable beliefs of the public...."

It is however interesting to examine the various theories about Etruscan origins.

Above: Representation of a sea fight between the Egyptians and the Sea people from the reliefs at Medinet Habou. This dates to the period of Ramses III (1200-1166 BCE) and thought by some to represent the ancestors of the Achaeans, Etruscans, Sicilians and others.

Even among ancient writers, there was difference of opinion as to whether the Etruscans were Autochthonous (indigenous) or originated from Asia Minor. The earliest historical account of the Etruscans was given by Hesiod who mentions the Etruscans in the "Theogony". However it is fair to say that the works of such early writers as Hesiod and Homer consist of an equitable mixture of legend and fact, stemming from the period around 750 BCE in Ionian Greece, part of Asia Minor. Homer himself is probably not one, but the collected oral traditions of many authors.

The first reasonably believable account was given by Herodotus in the 5th Century BCE. He writes that the Etruscans originated in Lydia, in Asia Minor, and that due to a famine in the area, they invented a number of games to take their minds off the lack of food:

"...After some time, the famine had not improved, so they drew lots, and half the population, and eating on the following day without playing. In this way they got through 18 years. Things got worse, however, rather than better, and the king therefore divided all the Lydians into two groups and drew lots to decide which should stay and which should emigrate, putting himself at the head of those who were to remain and appointing his son, who was called Tyrrhenus, as the leader for those who had to leave. Those Lydians whose lot it was to leave went down to Smyrna and built boats on to which they loaded all their possessions and sailed away to seek a life elsewhere. After sailing past many lands they came to Umbria in Italy where they built cities and still live to this day, changing their name from Lydians to Tyrrhenians after the king's son Tyrrhenus who had led them...."

However, despite the fact that he travelled widely, the accounts of Herodotus were prone to inaccuracies.

It has been suggested that the Etruscans were part of the famous Pelasgians, or Sea Peoples of Lemnos, and the evidence is that the Pelasgians were a mixture of various peoples including some of the biblical Canaanites who later became the Phoenicians. There are many ancient references which use the terms Tyrrhenian and Pelasgian interchangeably.

Hellanicus of Lesbos, another Greek historian writing in the fifth century BC, mentioned a group of Pelasgians who arrived in Italy and there changed their name to Tyrrhenians.

Roman authors confirmed an eastern origin for the Etruscans. Virgil referred to the town of '. . . Cerveteri, built on an ancient rock where once the Lydians, a race distinguished in war, settled the hills of Tuscany.' And Seneca (who died in AD 65) stated that '. . . Asia claims the Etruscans as her own.' Tacitus (first to second centuries AD) accepted the story as told by Herodotus. Other tales also locate the Etruscans in Asia Minor, linking them with the Pelasgians; and refer to Tyrsenians or Tyrrhenians on the islands of Lemnos, Imbros and Lesbos, just off the Asian coast in the northern Aegean, and on Delos, the holy island in the centre of the Cyclades.

The Etruscans referred to themselves as Rasenna, but to the Romans and Greeks they were Etrusci, Tusci, Tyrrheni, or Tyrseni. To the modern Italians they are still Etrusci and the name of the Etruscan Sea is still the Tyrrhenian, after perhaps 3,000 years.

But in the first century BC, a dissenting voice spoke up. Dionysius, another Greek historian from Halicarnassus, writing four centuries later than Herodotus, declared a different finding:

"I do not believe that the Tyrrhenians were a colony of the Lydians, for they do not use the same language as the latter, nor can it be alleged that, though they no longer speak a similar tongue, they still retain some other indications of their mother country."

The controversy was to rage on until the late 20th century.

Perhaps the strongest evidence put forward by the Eastern providence school is the Lemnian inscription. Excavations on Lemnos turned up a community there which dates to around 600 BCE and which links the Etruscans to that place.

The inscription on the Lemnos Stele was dated at 600BCE and was written in a language similar to Etruscan. It was found in a warrior's tomb with weapons and pottery which are very similar to early Etruscan. The necropolis of the city contained 130 cremated burials. In the women's burials an early form of Etruscan Bucchero pottery was found. Bucchero clay was used by the people of Asia Minor and by the Etruscans. In the male sites daggers and axes of the Cretan and Etruscan models were found. The evidence, then, is for a small community which had strong cultural ties with the Etruscans and, to a lesser extent, the inhabitants of Asia Minor.

One theory that was put forward was that the inhabitants of Lemnos represented a pocket of pre-indoeuropean speaking people, whose language was similar to Etruscan. There are difficulties with that theory when one examines the alphabet and the language in some detail. The Stele is dated at approximately 600, and uses an alphabet used in Northern Etruria at that time. The first evidence of Etruscan inscriptions dates to about 750 BCE, and use a script which was based on the early Euboan alphabet, learned from the Greeks at Cumae. The Greeks first established their colony at Cumae in about 750 BCE, yet there was evidence of the Etruscans in Italy well before this time. If the Lemnos stele was an isolated outlier of a pre-indo european language, then the alphabet is too similar to Etruscan for it to have developed from any other source. It is more likely to represent an isolated colony of either 'Pelasgians' or Etruscan pirates.

The Northern provenance theory, which bases its evidence on the similarities of Raetian and Etruscan languages has one major flaw, in that the Raetian Alpine inscriptions are much later, and are more consistent with later Etruscan influences, or associated with the scattering of the Northern Etruscans as a result of Celtic incursions.

There are problems with all theories which suggest that the truth is far more complicated as always.A likely solution is that the Etruscans were autochthonous, but were subjected to cultural influences and immigrants at various stages in their history. The nature of these cultural influences are nowadays understood much better. The result of this was a gradual development of an Etruscan civilisation. The influx at some time of a group from Lydia is not inconsistent with this Neo Autochthonous theory which is gaining more and more acceptance.

There is no precise time when we can say that the Etruscan civilisation began. According to the libri fatales as described by Censorinus, the date can be calculated at 968 BCE, but it was a gradual change that came over the land that was to become Etruria. Between the 10th and the 8th century BCE, several things began to happen: There was a drift from scattered village settlements into urbanised centres. The incidence of cremations decreased in favour of inhumation. Land was cleared and drained on a massive scale. Trade with the Aegean commenced, evident from the appearance of Greek artifacts.

The plentiful deposits of metals on Elba and the nearby coastline, and the bounty of Etruscan agriculture resulted in growing prosperity for the Etruscans. Bulk export trade typically used large shipping amphorae, and metal ingots have also been found in several sites.

By the end of the 7th Century BCE,
Etruscan territory had expanded to include parts of Northern italy, with the Po Valley league, and the Etruscan city states held sway over large areas of Latium, including Rome, and Campania to the South.

With the increasing trade and the specialization of crafts, the application of new techniques, particularly in metal extraction and agriculture, the living standard improved. This corresponded to an exponential increase in demographic growth. The Etruscan aristocracy increased in power, authority and wealth. They were buried in rich tombs or necropolises next to cities such as Tarquinia, Caere, Vulci and Veii.

Greek immigrants started to arrive and began to exert a significant influence in the art and culture of Etruria.

It was also during this period that grapes were introduced to the Italian peninsula. Grape seeds found in early Etruscan grave sites in Chiusi, show that the predecessor of Chiante had arrived. Craters and other vessels of Greek design started to appear.

The Orientalizing Period is generally taken as the period between the end of the 8th Century until the late 7th Century BCE. It is so called because of the eastern influence in art and artifacts. Typical of this period was the Regolini Galassi tomb at Caere, in which were found objects with obvious Egyptian and Eastern influence such as Ostrich eggs, Sphinxes, scarabs and lions with an Assyrian like character.

During this period, the Etruscans began to take control of sea trade particularly in the Tyrrhenian sea, and the control of sea routes to Campania, where a strong Etruscan core settled around Capua and Salerno.

The orientalization period was not unique to the Etruscans, and a similar trend of eastern influence was evident in the Greek cities of the Archaic age.


The Sixth Century - Etruscan Glory Days

The Decline of the Etruscans

The burning of the books

This Section is titled "The burning of the books" and the title suggests that much of Etruscan literature was in fact deliberately destroyed. This is certainly the view expressed by a number of authors, but was this entirely the case?

There are many unanswered questions, owing to the lack of the literature in the first place. How much of a literature base did the Etruscans have and what was the nature of this literature?

Did they have written histories, or were their writings mainly for the purpose of trade and religion, in the same way as the Phoenicians?

Early Christians in the 4th Century CE have been blamed for the systematic destruction of Etruscan literature. It may have been the fact that Etruscan religious beliefs and practices were so deep-rooted among the Romans that led to the complete destruction of all Etruscan literature as a result of the advent of Christianity. Arnobius, one of the first Christian apologists, living around 300CE, wrote "Etruria is the originator and mother of all superstition".

There is evidence that a significant portion of Etruscan literature was systematically destroyed following the Theodosian code, since it represented the Old Religion and was considered as idolatry and the work of the devil. (It is recorded that Flavius Stilicho, a regent for the Emperor Honorius between 394 and 408 CE, burnt a number of "Pagan volumes" which included the Tagetic books, which had been stored in the Temple of Apollo in Rome.) However there are other probable reasons that led to the demise of Etruscan literature.

In order to better understand the fate of Etruscan literature we should first look at how Roman writing was recorded. The Roman literature that survives today originates from about 200 BCE onwards. There is very little from before this period. In the early days, wax tablets were used as notebooks. Schoolchildren learnt to write on wax tablets. Papyrus was used, but this was an expensive item, since much of it had to be imported. Carbonised papyrus rolls have been found at Herculaneum, some of them partially legible, but the bulk of Papyrii available nowadays survive as fragments, usually from Egypt and Byzantium.

In the later Roman period, Papyrus began to be replaced by Vellum and parchment. These materials are treated animal skins. These survived much better than papyrus, and became very popular since they could be scraped, and re-used many times. During the dark ages, monks spent many long hours manually transcribing Classical literature, some religious, but some of secular origin. It is largely thanks to these monks that we have quite an extensive library of Latin and Greek literature to this day.

But what of the Etruscans? One noted discovery of the 20
th Century was the Liber Linteus, or Linen book, which was thought to be the fragments of an Etruscan book made of linen and re-used to preserve an Egyptian Mummy. The Liber Linteus can be seen in Zagreb museum. If linen was used as a medium, then this would have had even less chance of survival than papyrus. Certainly there have been examples of models of Etruscan books found in the tombs of Cerveteri. These suggest that Linen was indeed traditionally used by the Etruscans for the written word.

The question of the scope of Etruscan literature remains unanswered, but it is quite clear from other sources that it must have been quite substantial. Censorinus refers to the Annals of Etruria, and during the late Roman Republic and Early Imperial years it was considered quite fashionable for Roman Patricians to send their boys to Etruscan schools to further their education. Some of this would no doubt have been a grounding in the disciplina etrusca, but it seems unlikely that that was all that they learned. We also know that enough of the history of Etruria survived in written form even up to late Imperial times for the emperor Claudius to write a twenty volume history of Etruria. (together with an 8 volume history of the Carthaginians, both in the Greek Language) If even a fragment of this history survived today it would answer a great many questions.

   Introduction   |    Origins   |    Orientalizing Period   |    Early Rome   |    Etruscan Decline   |    Burning of the books   |    Home   |

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