Etruscan Italy

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The Etruscans originated in central Italy around 900 b.c. and were absorbed into the Roman Empire in the 80s b.c. During the first millennium b.c., they developed the earliest complex society in Italy. In common with other Mediterranean civilizations of their time, the Etruscans lived in city-states, had a specialized agricultural and craft economy, and exchanged goods and ideas with their neighbors. Distinctive to the Etruscans was their religion, social and political structure, and language. There is a wealth of archaeological evidence for Etruscan settlements, economy, society, and culture, including the remains of cities, towns, cemeteries, and everyday objects.


The traditional Etruscan territory in central Italy is delineated by the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west, the Apennines in the east, and the Arno and Tiber Rivers to the north and south. The Etruscan civilization arose out of the culture and society that developed in this area during the Late Bronze Age (1300–900 b.c.) and Iron Age (900–700 b.c.). During the Iron Age, the roots of Etruscan cities, economy, religion, and language were established.

Settlements. Most of the great Etruscan cities of later times originated as villages in the Iron Age. In southern Etruria, Iron Age villages usually were situated on volcanic tufa plateaus (Veio, Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci, and Orvieto). In central and northern Etruria, villages more often were built on isolated hilltops dominating the sea or inland waterways—Populonium (modern-day Populania), Vetulonia, Volterra, Chiusi, Cortona, and Arezzo. Small farms and hamlets surrounded Iron Age villages. Excavations at Volterra, in northern Etruria, provide archaeological evidence for early settlement patterns in one Etruscan city. During the Iron Age many small villages coexisted on the Volterran hilltop, placed wherever there was relatively flat land and a spring to provide water. Roadways leading into the countryside radiated out from the hilltop in every direction. Along these routes several burial areas developed.

Excavations at Tarquinia, in southern Etruria, have recovered evidence for Iron Age dwellings. Two kinds of huts were found in the Iron Age village: larger oval or rectangular huts, approximately 13 by 7 meters, that could have housed an extended family and smaller huts, approximately 5 by 4 meters, that could have housed a nuclear family. The area between the huts may have been used for growing small cottage gardens and keeping animals and poultry. Drainage channels carried rainwater away from the dwellings and into a central cistern.

Iron Age huts were built on foundation trenches cut into soil or rock. Exterior timber posts were set into holes in the foundation, to support the thatched roof. Walls were made of wattle screens woven from reeds and branches and covered with daub (clay). The door usually was placed at the short end of the structure and sometimes was protected by a small porch. Inside the hut was a central hearth, circular in shape. The interior may have been divided by a screen into a front and a back room.Cemeteries. Iron Age cemeteries were located outside villages, usually on surrounding hillsides. During the ninth century b.c., most individuals were cremated and their ashes placed into decorated pottery urns. The urns were buried, along with modest grave goods, in tombs cut into soil or rock. Toward the end of the Iron Age new burial customs emerged in central Italy, interpreted as evidence of the development of an aristocracy. By the eighth century b.c., a few rich burials appear among many more common ones, distinguished by their more numerous and expensive grave goods, especially fine metalwork.

Language and Religion. During the Iron Age a common culture developed among the residents of Etruria. The Etruscan language and religion were among the most significant elements in the culture. Etruscan is not an Indo-European language and is not related to the languages of neighboring Italic peoples. The Etruscans learned the alphabet from Greeks who settled in southern Italy and used it to write down their own language. The first texts written in Etruscan date to the end of the Iron Age, around 700 b.c.

The Etruscan religion, as we know it from the historical period, incorporated early cult practices from the Iron Age. The Etruscans believed that divinities determined the course of events in the human world. Etruscan worship took place in sacred groves, caves, and springs, where divinities were thought to reside. The role of Etruscan priests was to learn the will of the gods and then to follow the appropriate rituals and sacrifices. Individual worshippers asked for divine favor by sacrificing animals for the gods, offering them food or drink, or giving them other gifts. A spring at Banditella, near Vulci, was a sanctuary as early as the Middle Bronze Age (seventeenth century b.c.) into Etruscan times, indicating the continuity of religious practices from prehistory into the historic era.

Economy. The Iron Age economy was largely self-sufficient: each Etruscan village produced everything it needed. Agriculture was the foundation of the economy. Farmers grew cereals, legumes, fruits, nuts, and vegetables and raised sheep, goats, and pigs. Villagers also hunted, fished, and gathered in nearby woods and waters. Most tools, utensils, clothing, and other goods were made by each household for its own use. Certain specialized and luxury items were produced in Etruria and distributed throughout central Italy, the Mediterranean, and north of the Alps. By the Iron Age, a specialized metal industry already existed in Etruria. Metals were mined from the Colline Metallifere, or "metalbearing hills," and fashioned into metal objects in nearby Populonium and Vetulonia. In exchange, luxury objects were imported from Greece, Phoenicia, and Sardinia.

Society. By the end of the Iron Age Etruscan society probably included several classes, linked through patron-client ties. Farmers met their own needs and also produced goods and labor for petty chiefs. In exchange, the petty chiefs provided their clients with protection, communal works, and foodstuffs. The petty chiefs, in turn, were clients of paramount chiefs, who redistributed foodstuffs and prestige goods regionally.


The Etruscan period begins around 700 b.c., when the first surviving historic documents were written in the Etruscan language. Etruscan society evolved directly from the prehistoric Iron Age. Many of the most characteristic features of Etruscan society—settlement in towns, distinctive cultural customs, production of goods for regional and long-distance trade and exchange—were present in incipient form during the Iron Age. Early Etruscans also were influenced by the Greeks, Phoenicians, and other contemporary Mediterranean societies.

The Orientalizing period (700–575 b.c.) is named for the imported goods and foreign styles adopted by the Etruscans during this time. The early Etruscans' economic power was based on mineral and agricultural resources, which they transformed into goods for exchange. They cut a dashing figure across the Mediterranean, renowned for their seafaring skills as traders and pirates. As reflected in their art, monuments, and historical documents, Etruscans of the Orientalizing period were prosperous and cultured.

Settlements. The Orientalizing period saw the transition from village to town life in Etruria. Excavations in Etruscan towns of this period have revealed signs of urban planning and public works, such as streets, drainage channels, reservoirs, retaining walls, fortifications, and sanctuaries. Volterra, in northern Etruria, became a small, fortified settlement at this time. In the seventh century b.c., the numerous villages on the Volterran hilltop agglomerated into a single town. In the sixth century a circuit of walls was built to enclose the town, and sanctuaries were demarcated throughout the city (fig. 1). Differences among dwelling and burial types were accentuated, indicating that an aristocracy of prominent families had formed. A similar type of urban development occurred in many other cities in Etruria and Latium (modern-day Lazio), including Roselle, Veio, Vetulonia, and Tarquinia.

Across Etruria there was a significant change in domestic architecture during the Orientalizing period. Stone houses, presumably elite residences, appeared among the thatched huts. Excavations at Poggio Civitate, near Murlo, have uncovered the remains of a princely residence built during the seventh century b.c. The complex at Poggio Civitate was built of rubble foundations, earthen walls coated with lime plaster, and beaten-earth floors. The roof was tiled and decorated with terra-cotta sculpture. The buildings were placed in a U shape around a central courtyard. Two wings of the complex were residential, while the third served as a workshop for crafts made of metal, glass, pottery, wool, and other materials.

A fire destroyed the Orientalizing period residence, and a second complex was built at Poggio Civitate in the early sixth century b.c., or the beginning of the Archaic period of Etruscan history (575–470 b.c.). The early Archaic building surrounded a central courtyard, with colonnaded porches on three sides. At least twenty-three statues stood on the peak of the roof, including the famous seated "cowboy" figure, with his distinctive hat. Watchtowers were located at two corners of the complex.

Cemeteries. Cemeteries surrounded Etruscan towns. Early cemeteries were placed next to hilltop settlements; as town populations grew during the Orientalizing period, burial areas spread down the hill. The rock-cut Tomb of the Five Chairs at Cerveteri, dating to the second half of the seventh century b.c., provides some insight into burial rites of the time. The main chamber of the tomb held two bodies, while a side chamber provided space for mourners to worship an ancestor cult. Five chairs were carved from rock to hold terra-cotta statues representing ancestors, two women and three men. The ancestor statues sat before rock-carved tables laden with food offerings. A nearby altar held their drinks. Two empty chairs allowed the buried couple to join their ancestors at the feast.

By the seventh century, burials show clear evidence of status differentiation according to gender, socioeconomic status, and region. While existing burial traditions continued, during the Orientalizing period the elite classes began building elaborate chamber tombs covered with tumuli (mounds). Chamber tombs were carved out from soft volcanic rock faces or built from stone slabs or blocks. Their mounds could be as large as 30–40 meters in diameter and 12–15 meters high. A particularly grand example is the Tomb of the Chariots, Populonium, from the middle of the Orientalizing period (mid-seventh to early sixth century b.c.). Under a tumulus 28 meters in diameter, the tomb contained funerary beds for four occupants. At least one woman, with gold jewelry, was buried in the tomb. She was accompanied by men, who were provided with a chariot and two-wheeled carriage.

Religion. Traditional Etruscan worship in open-air sanctuaries continued during the Orientalizing period, but new religious practices also arose. Influenced by Greek ideas, Etruscans began using enclosed structures for worship and representing gods in human form. The earliest known temple in Etruria, built around 600 b.c., was excavated at Veio. It took the form of a large house; a distinctive architectural form would not be developed for Etruscan temples until the Archaic period.

Economy. By the Orientalizing period the Etruscan agricultural system was specialized and intensified, allowing farmers to support the growing town population. Drainage and irrigation techniques improved poor land, and new farming technologies, such as ironclad wooden plowshares, allowed farmers to work more efficiently. Farmers exchanged their surplus subsistence and luxury foodstuffs for craft goods.

Craft production became increasingly specialized and intensified during the Orientalizing period. Etruscans were adept at numerous arts and crafts, including pottery, metalworking, and sculpture. Technological improvements, learned from the Greeks, transformed Etruscan pottery production. Potters purified clay, built vessels on the fast wheel, and fired them at high temperatures in closed kilns. As production became more specialized and intensified during this period, pottery forms were increasingly standardized and distributed in a wide area. Bucchero, a kind of tableware with a distinctive gray core, glossy black surface, and stamped or molded decoration, was a famous Etruscan pottery product of the Orientalizing period. Other fine pottery wares included black figure vase painting, produced locally after eastern Greek models.

Metalworking remained an important industry at this time. Bronze was worked into vessels, utensils, armor, furniture, chariots, and carriages. Metalwork ornamentation was inspired by eastern styles, incorporating floral patterns, animals, humans, and divine figures. Etruscan bronze products were exported widely, throughout the Mediterranean and beyond the Alps. Etruria also was famous for jewelry production, particularly ornaments decorated with gold granulation (using fine beads of gold) and filigree (using fine spiral gold and silver wire). Etruscans probably learned these techniques from the Syrians or the Phoenicians.

Trade grew steadily. Beginning in the eighth century, Etruscans had extensive trade contact with eastern Mediterranean cultures, notably Greece and Phoenicia. Recovered shipwrecks were loaded with Etruscan trade goods: pottery and other crafts and amphorae filled with agricultural products, such as pine nuts, wine, and olives. In exchange, the Etruscans imported the eastern luxury goods found in such abundance in aristocratic graves. Etruscan trade was not administered centrally. Instead, many small political units, controlled by the elite, competed on more or less equal terms. The Greeks also established trade towns on the coast of southern Etruria, and Greek craft producers settled permanently to work in Etruria.


The Etruscan civilization reached its greatest political and economic significance during the Archaic and Classical periods (575–470 b.c. and 470–300 b.c., respectively). During the sixth and fifth centuries b.c., the powerful Etruscan city-states developed and allied themselves in the League of Twelve Cities. The most important Etruscan cities were Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci, Roselle, Vetulonia, Populonium, Veio, Bolsena, Chiusi, Perugia, Cortona, Arezzo, Fiesole, Volterra, and Pisa. (The number of cities in the league varied through time.) Etruscan city-states were autonomous and had their own sociocultural institutions, spheres of influence, and political and economic institutions. Etruscan political organization was generally oligarchic, with important families controlling the territory of individual city-states. A patron-client system linked families within cities and between cities and the countryside.

During the Archaic period the Etruscans expanded beyond their traditional boundaries, in order to establish new commercial bases. They colonized land as far south as Campania, as far north as the Po valley, and east to the Adriatic coast of Italy. Roman annalists report that the Tarquin dynasty of Etruscan kings was established in Rome throughout much of the Archaic period, from 616 to 509 b.c. Many of these colonized lands were lost during the Classical period.

Settlements. During the Archaic and Classical periods, Etruscan towns developed into city-states—urban centers surrounded by regional territories. In Volterra the process of urbanization is visible in increasing settlement density and in the expansion and reorganization of urban space, including the development of public works, places, and cults. A great wall circuit was begun during the Classical period, with a perimeter of 7 kilometers enclosing an area of 116 hectares. Traces of the wall are still visible at numerous points, including the city gates of Porta all'Arco and Porta Diana. A network of roads connected the foothills and valley bottom to the city.

Excavations at Acquarossa, in southern Etruria, provide evidence for domestic architecture during the Archaic period. Houses were rectangular, built on stone-block foundations. The walls usually were built of sun-dried mud bricks, supported by a wooden framework, covered with plaster, and painted. Roofs were made of terra-cotta tiles and decorated with statues and other terra-cotta ornaments. The floor plan often included a larger central room in front and two or three smaller rooms in the back. Sometimes a porch protected the doorway. The house interior was used for sleeping, protection from bad weather, and storage of tools and foodstuffs. The adjacent outdoor courtyard was where most daily activities took place. Storage spaces and shelters for cattle were carved into rock outcrops next to the houses. Archaic Acquarossa also included one monumental residential building complex constructed after the mid-sixth century: two buildings laid out in an L-shaped plan, with a large courtyard. The complex boasted a portico in front and revetment plaques on the facade, with scenes of banquets, dancing, warfare, and mythical events.

Marzabotto, an Etruscan colony established in northern Italy at the beginning of the fifth century, was laid out on a regular plan—similar to that of Greek colonial towns and quite different from the plans of settlements that developed through time, such as Volterra and Acquarossa. Four main streets, each 15 meters wide, defined the habitation area of Marzabotto. One north-west street ran the length of the town, and three east-west streets crossed it. Minor streets, each 5 meters wide, ran parallel to the main north-south axis, creating rectangular blocks. Marzabotto's city blocks were filled with mud-brick houses and workshops. Craft workshops—including pottery and tile kilns, iron smithies, bronze foundries, and smelting furnaces—faced the street. Living quarters were located in interior courtyards, reached through narrow passageways. Each courtyard had a cistern to collect rainwater running off the tiled roofs.Cemeteries. Archaic period cemeteries reflect the development of new "middle" classes. Whereas cemeteries of the previous period comprised many humble tombs and a few dominating tumuli, Archaic period cemeteries consisted of many simple, uniform tombs laid on streets. Examples of Archaic cemeteries include the Banditaccia at Cerveteri and Crocefisso del Tufo at Orvieto, both from the sixth century b.c. The streets of Crocefisso del Tufo were laid out in a grid during the later sixth century, and the cemetery was used throughout the fifth century b.c. The small, rectangular tombs were constructed from tufa stone blocks. Their chambers usually have two stone benches for deposition of the dead. The roofs are made of stone slabs and covered with a modest mound and small stone markers (cippi). A view down one of the streets gives a sense of how a residential neighborhood in an Etruscan town might have looked.

A Classical period house interior is re-created in the Tomb of the Reliefs, from the Banditaccia necropolis at Cerveteri, built at the end of the fourth century b.c. The underground tomb was carved from tufa stone; then a stucco surface was applied to the walls and painted. The original owners, a married couple, were represented lying side by side in bed. They are surrounded by relief stucco representations of everything they might need to keep house: utensils, tools, vessels, and even a gaming board. The power of the husband, a magistrate, is indicated by his ivory folding chair, trumpet, and weaponry.

Religion and Temples. During the Archaic period Etruscans continued their own distinctive religious practices, although Etruscan divinities were assimilated with the Greek Olympian gods. Again influenced by the Greeks, Etruscans also began building monumental temples. The Temple of Minerva at Portonaccio, Veio, was constructed in the mid-sixth century b.c. and rebuilt at the end of the century. The Tuscan-style temple is oriented to the east, facing a paved piazza. It has a square plan, each side approximately 18.5 meters. The temple was built on a low podium. Steps at the front of the temple led to a deep porch, or pronaos. The pronaos had two columns with Tuscan capitals; beyond it was placed the sacrificial altar and a sacred pit where libations to the underworld divinity were poured. At the back of the temples were three cellae, or rooms, side by side.

The foundation, walls, and columns of the Temple of Minerva were built of tufa stone blocks. The wooden roof was decorated with terra-cotta sculpture, a famous product of Veio. The revetments were graced with floral ornamentation; the antefixes included heads of nymphs and masks of the Gorgons, the snake-haired sisters of Greek myth. Painted terra-cotta statues, larger than life size, were placed on the roof ridge. The famous statue of Apollo (now in the Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia, Rome) probably aimed his bow at Heracles, representing the Greek myth of their conflict over the golden-horned hind of Ceryneia.

Sculpture. Etruscan monumental sculpture typically was executed in terra-cotta or bronze. The Etruscan city of Cerveteri was famous for its terracotta sculpture during the Archaic period. One well-known example is a sarcophagus depicting a married couple reclining on a bed, placed in a chamber tomb beneath a tumulus in the Banditaccia necropolis around 525 b.c. (now in the Villa Giulia museum, see fig. 2). The husband lies behind his wife, placing his hand on her shoulder. She pours scented oil onto his palm, a rite for the deceased.

The statue of the Chimera (now in the Archaeological Museum, Florence), is a fine example of Etruscan bronze sculpture. The Chimera was a mythological fire-breathing creature with the body of a lion and heads of a lion, goat, and snake. In this representation, the creature is wounded, suggesting that the statue may have been part of a group that included the hero Bellerophon and his winged horse Pegasus. The statue (or group) probably was created as a votive offering in the late fifth century or early fourth century b.c.

Painting. Tarquinia was the main center of tomb painting during the Archaic period. The rock-cut tombs from the Monterozzi necropolis are small, rectangular chambers with shallow ridge roofs. After about 530 b.c. brightly colored paintings covered entire walls of the chambers. The paintings showed mythological scenes, funerary games and ceremonies, banqueting and entertainment, sports, and scenes of the underworld. The Tomb of the Leopards, from the early fifth century b.c., is a vibrant example.Economy. The Etruscan economy became increasingly specialized and intensified during the Archaic period. New socioeconomic classes emerged, based in the great city-states and trading towns: manufacturers, crafts producers, and merchants. Internal trade throughout Etruria was effected via coastal waters, rivers, and roads. Long-distance trade was completed in emporia, or trade towns, along the Etruscan coastline. Bronze ingots dating to the early Archaic period probably were used as currency in long-distance trade.

Pottery and metalworking remained important Etruscan industries during the Archaic and Classical periods. Early in the Archaic period the Etruscans created their own versions of red figure pottery, modeled after the famous Greek products. Beginning in the fourth century b.c. a distinctive Etruscan product dominated the pottery industry: tableware coated with a glossy black slip, and decorated with stamped and modeled (relief) motifs. Workshops at Vulci and other Etruscan cities worked bronze into chariots, weapons, armor, vessels, and other utensils. Precious metals, such as gold, were made into jewelry.

Society. Etruscan society changed greatly during the Archaic period. Cities and trade towns supported the growth of new socioeconomic classes—merchants, manufacturers, foreigners—that were not bound by traditional patron-client relationships. These new groups shared common political and economic interests that were at odds with the interests of the established Etruscan aristocracy. Their growing influence and power contributed to the dissolution of the traditional Etruscan social system.


During the Classical and Hellenistic periods (470–300 b.c. and 300–31 b.c., respectively), the Etruscans' economic power, political autonomy, and distinctive cultural identity gradually eroded, until the Etruscans no longer existed as a separate people. During the Classical period the Etruscan cities engaged in a series of conflicts over sea and land, which ultimately weakened their economic and political significance in Italy.

At the end of the Classical period, the Roman Republic emerged as the preeminent threat to the autonomy of the Etruscan city-states. In 396 b.c. the first Etruscan city, Veio, fell to the Romans after a brutal ten-year siege. With the Battle of Sentinum in 295 b.c., between Rome and the Quattuor Gentes (an alliance of Samnites, Gauls, Umbrians, and certain Etruscans), Rome gained supremacy over the entire Italian peninsula. After 270 b.c. relations were largely peaceful between the Etruscans and Romans. Rome began to colonize southern Etruria in the third century b.c. During the second century b.c. the Romans built the via Aurelia, via Clodia, and via Cassia, roads that provided them with communication and control over all of Etruria. By the first century b.c. Etruria was no longer a separate entity, politically or culturally; instead, it was part of the growing Roman state. In 89 b.c. all residents of Etruria were given Roman citizenship and registered in Roman tribes for bureaucratic and voting purposes. By the end of the first century b.c. Etruria for the most part was Latin speaking and assimilated into Roman culture.

Settlements and Cemeteries. The conflicts of the Classical and Hellenistic periods (the fifth to first centuries b.c.) affected the Etruscan city-states differently. Whereas many Etruscan cities in the south were hurt by the maritime and territorial wars, other cities in the north continued to thrive. Volterra was minimally affected by the upheaval during late Etruscan times. The Hellenistic period was, in fact, a time of great urban development and renovation. Public works—including roads, agricultural terraces, city walls, and religious and civic structures—allowed settlement in the Volterra on a far greater scale than before. The city walls, begun during the late Classical period, were completed during the Hellenistic period. The city also was provided with terracing walls, a sewer, and a drainage and canal system. Hellenistic period Volterrans created lavish tombs for their dead in the cemeteries surrounding the city. The Inghirami Tomb from the Ulimeto necropolis, in use from the early second century to the mid-first century b.c., includes several elaborately carved alabaster ash urns, a local artisanal product. The tomb is reproduced in the garden of the Archaeological Museum in Florence.

Etruscan Legacy. Although the Etruscans ceased to exist as a distinct culture in the first century b.c., their people and ideas remained essential to life in central Italy. Etruscans—now Roman citizens—were integrated into the politics, economics, culture, and society of Rome. A few specifically Etruscan contributions to Roman institutions remind us of their presence in later times. The symbols of Roman office—the fasces (bundled and tied rods with a projecting axe) and the curule (a folding chair)—are derived from Etruscan examples. The Romans adopted rituals of military triumph from the Etruscans. The Roman toga originated as the Etruscan mantle. And many of the most famous architectural and engineering feats of the Romans—houses, temples, tombs, roads, bridges, and sewers—were first achieved in Italy by the Etruscans.

See alsoThe Italian Bronze Age (vol. 2, part 5); Iron Age Germany (vol. 2, part 6).


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Rae Ostman