Etruscan Civilization

views updated May 11 2018

Etruscan Civilization

Type of Government

The Etruscan civilization comprised a group of diverse city-states. The Etruscans had no centralized system of government but were organized into confederacies or leagues that convened annual meetings. Individual city-states were governed independently by kings, but political power lay in the hands of the powerful landowning aristocracy.


The Etruscan civilization was located in the ancient region of Etruria (present-day Tuscany and Umbria) in central Italy, bounded to the west by the Tyrrhenian Sea, to the north by the Arno River, and to the east and south by the Tiber River. The city of Rome lay at its southern border.

It is difficult to form a definitive history of the Etruscans. They did not develop a literature of their own, and almost no written records have survived. Much of what is known about them comes from ancient Greek and Roman authors.

Even though the Greek writer Herodotus (c. 484–c. 429 BC) speculated that the Etruscans had originated in Asia Minor, some archaeological evidence suggests they were indigenous to Italy. The Villanovan culture of the eighth and ninth centuries BC is believed to have been an early Etruscan civilization, and a distinct Etruscan culture was evident by 800 BC.

The Etruscans expanded rapidly during the seventh century BC and peaked in the sixth century, at which time they had the most powerful civilization in pre-Roman Italy. Much of the region’s wealth and power derived from its vast resources of copper, iron, and other metal ores, and the Etruscans became known for their metalworking. They were also known as a great maritime power; indeed, they had a reputation as pirates throughout the Mediterranean.

There is evidence that Rome was founded by Etruscans, and they occupied Rome during the latter part of its regal period, from 616 to 510 BC. The legendary Tarquin kings of Rome were of Etruscan origin. In 510 BC, however, the last Etruscan monarch was expelled from Rome, marking the end of Etruscan dominance in the region and the ascendance of the Roman Republic. By the end of the fourth century BC, Rome controlled all of Italy.

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.

Political Parties and Factions

According to Roman legend, the Tarquin dynasty (from the Etruscan coastal city of Tarquinii) ruled Rome from 616 until 510 BC, when the last monarch was expelled. The Etruscan aristocracy, which comprised wealthy families of noble descent and prominent merchants and landowners, held the keys to power in the Etruscan city-states. Craftsmen, merchants, and seamen formed a middle class.

Major Events

The period from 620 to 500 BC marked the height of the Etruscans’ power. During this time, their empire spread from the Po River valley in the north to Campania (present-day Naples) in the south. The end of the sixth century BC, however, marked the decline of the Etruscan civilization. The Etruscans were driven out of south-central Italy by a coalition of Greeks, Latins, and Samnites, and their influence was limited to the northern part of the Tyrrhenian Sea as a result of the battle of Alalia (between 540 and 535 BC) against Carthage.

The last Etruscan monarch, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (d. after 510 BC), was expelled from Rome in 510 BC. The Etruscans suffered a crushing naval defeat off the coast of Cumae in 474 BC, and by the next century they had been driven out of Corsica and Elba and defeated by the Gauls.


The Etruscan civilization is recognized for its great influence on later Roman culture and political organization. Roman styles of architecture, such as the arch and vault, were modeled on Etruscan buildings, and the Romans borrowed the Etruscan alphabet. Politically, it is believed that the Roman Senate originally served as an advisory body to the Etruscan kings of Rome. The Etruscan symbol of authority, the fasces (a bundle of rods and an ax), was later appropriated by the Roman consuls.

Barker, Graeme, and Tom Rasmussen. The Etruscans. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998.

Grant, Michael. The Etruscans. New York: Scribner, 1980.

Haynes, Sybille. Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000.


views updated Jun 27 2018

E·trus·can / iˈtrəskən/ • adj. of or relating to ancient Etruria, its people, or their language. The Etruscan civilization was at its height c.500 bc and was an important influence on the Romans, who subdued the Etruscans by the end of the 3rd century bc.• n. 1. a native of ancient Etruria.2. the language of ancient Etruria, of unknown affinity, written in an alphabet derived from Greek.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Etruscan Inhabitant of ancient Etruria (modern Tuscany and Umbria), central Italy. Etruscan civilization flourished in the first millennium bc. Influenced by Greece, they organized their sophisticated society into city-states. Etruscan civilization reached its peak in the 6th century bc – their wealth and power based primarily on skill at ironworking and control of the iron trade. The Etruscan ‘cult of the dead’ led them to produce elaborate tombs. From the 5th to the 3rd century bc, they were gradually overrun by neighbouring peoples, particularly the Romans.