Etruscan civilization, highest civilization in Italy before the rise of Rome. The core of the territory of the Etruscans, known as Etruria to the Latins, was northwest of the Tiber River, now in modern Tuscany and part of Umbria. The Latins called the people Etrusci or Tusci, and the Greeks called them Tyrrhenoi [whence Tyrrhenian Sea]; they called themselves Rasenna.
There are three theories that seek to explain the obscure origin of the Etruscans. Their language and culture differed markedly from that of other ancient peoples of the Italian peninsula at the time—Villanovans, Umbrians, and Picenes. As a result, many scholars long upheld the tradition of Herodotus that the Etruscans migrated to Italy from Lydia in the 12th cent. BC to escape a severe famine. Other scholars have argued that the Etruscans are an ancient people, indigenous to Italy, whose customs are merely distinct from other Italian peoples. The third theory—that the Etruscans came down from the north through the Alpine passes—has been largely discredited. Genetic studies in the early 21st cent. have shown similarities between the modern Tuscans and their cattle and people and cattle found in the Middle East.
Rise and Fall
Regardless of the obscurity of their origins, it is clear that a distinctive Etruscan culture evolved about the 8th cent. BC, developed rapidly during the 7th cent., achieved its peak of power and wealth during the 6th cent., and declined during the 5th and 4th cent. Etruria had no centralized government, but rather comprised a loose confederation of city-states. Important centers were Clusium (modern Chiusi), Tarquinii (modern Tarquinia), Caere (modern Cerveteri), Veii (modern Veio), Volterra, Vetulonia, Perusia (modern Perugia), and Volsinii (modern Orvieto).
The political domination of the Etruscans was at its height c.500 BC, a time in which they had consolidated the Umbrian cities and had occupied a large part of Latium. During this period the Etruscans were a great maritime power and established colonies on Corsica, Elba, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands, and on the coast of Spain. In the late 6th cent. a mutual agreement between Etruria and Carthage, with whom Etruria had allied itself against the Greeks c.535 BC, restricted Etruscan trade, and by the late 5th cent. their sea power had come to an end.
The Romans, whose culture had been greatly influenced by the Etruscans (the Tarquin rulers of Rome were Etruscans), were distrustful of Etruscan power. The Etruscans had occuped Rome itself from c.616 BC, but in c.510 BC they were driven out by the Romans. In the early 4th cent., after Etruria had been weakened by Gallic invasions, the Romans attempted to beat the Etruscans back. Beginning with Veii (c.396 BC) one Etruscan city after another fell to the Romans, and civil war further weakened Etruscan power. In the wars of the 3d cent., in which Rome defeated Carthage, the Etruscans provided support against their former allies. During the Social War (90–88 BC) of Sulla and Marius the remaining Etruscan families allied themselves with Marius, and in 88 BC Sulla eradicated the last traces of Etruscan independence.
Much of the actual work in Etruria was done by the native population, who were subject to, though probably not slaves of, their conquerors; the nobility of Etruscan birth formed an exclusive caste. Women had an unusually high status compared to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Etruscan wealth and power were in part based upon their knowledge of ironworking and their exploitation of iron deposits that were abundant in Etruria. Etruscan art, which largely consisted of sculpture in clay and metal, fresco tomb paintings, and fine pottery, had some of its origins in Greek and Eastern arts and was extremely influential on the art of the Romans. Fond of music, games, and racing, the Etruscans introduced the chariot into Italy. They were also highly religious. Seeking to impose order on nature, they established strict laws to govern the relations between people and gods. Lacking the scientific rationalism of the Greeks, they tried to prolong the lives of the dead by decorating their tombs like houses. While religion is perhaps the best-known aspect of Etruscan civilization, even it remains quite enigmatic.
The Etruscan language also presents difficulties to the scholar. It can be easily read (the alphabet is of Greek extraction, and the sound value of the signs is known), but, with the exception of only a few words, the vocabulary is not understood. Although the language seems to contain both Indo-European and non-Indo-European elements as well as traces of ancient Mediterranean tongues, it cannot be classified into any known group of languages. Etruscan is known from some 10,000 epigraphic records dating from the 7th cent. BC to the 1st cent. AD; most are brief and repetitious dedications. One of the mysteries of Etruscan civilization is why the written record is so sparse and why the Romans wrote almost nothing about the Etruscan language or its literature.
See M. Pallottino, The Etruscans (tr. 1955); O. W. von Vacano, The Etruscans in the Ancient World (tr. 1960, repr. 1965); E. Richardson, The Etruscans: Their Art and Civilization (1976); M. Grant, The Etruscans (1981); E. MacNamara, Everyday Life of the Etruscans (1987); S. Haynes, Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History (2000); M. Torelli, Etruscans (2001).
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.
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.
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.
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.