Etruria, a lost civilisation
by: Gn. Dionysius Draco Invictus
A. Origins, early history and foreign relations


Etruria, a loose bond of city-states during its height, was located in the northern parts of Italy, its actual territory stretching from the Alps, over the Po valley to the Tiber. Its influence reached way past the borders of the Italic peninsula.

Relation with Hellas

Any and all information that comes to us about the origins of the Etruscan people is second-hand at best, and fragmentary of nature. Added to that, neither the Romans, nor the Greeks, the only two other civilisations in the area with detailed written recordings, were particulary objective in writing about their rivals. Both of them refer to the Etruscans, or, as the Greeks called them, Turoi (Turoi) as being promiscuous, depraved and extremely superstituous. They are also accused of piracy.

As for their origins, even in antiquity there are two opposing theories: Herodotos, the 5th-century historian in ancient Greece, writes that the Etruscans were actually Lydians. There was famine in Lydia, and when this problem appeared to be persistent, half the population, after drawing lots, emigrated to northern Italy under the command of one Tur=hnow (Tyrrhenos), son of the Lydian king. In favour of this hypothesis, is the fact that the Etruscans used an alphabet that was largely based on the Greek one. Their system, of semi-independent city states ruled by kings seems rather Greek as well. Also, several linguists have related the Etruscan language, which is non-Indo-European to still existing language minorities in the Black Sea area.

However, the hypothetical ties between the languages are very thin, and what Herodotos presents to us is probably more fiction than fact. Also, Greek colonists had the habit to found their cities close to the shoreline, and not as far inland as the Etruscans did. Of course, this argument can be denied on basis of the supposition that the ancient Lydians were simply no Greeks. But then again, the early Etruscan culture, despite showing influences of hellenic (and Egyptian) directions, is clearly genuine.

Nowadays, the hypothesis of the historian Dionysius of Halikarnassos, is more widely accepted, namely that the Etruscans were indeginous to Italia, and lived their ever since their civilisation began. The question then remains, of course, what a non-Indo-European people was doing in an area mainly populated by Italic tribes and Greek colonists. Most Roman historians, such as Livius, seem to support this hypothesis as well. However, archeological findings in the Aegean area show that at least a people on the isle of Lemnos was also using the Etruscan alphabet and language, and showed remarkable similarities in burial architecture with Etruria as well as Asia Minor (Lydia). Thus, the issue remains as of yet unrevealed, and few doubt that this debate will be perpetuated in the 21st century.

Relation with Rome

The relation of the Romans with the Etruscans is even more ambiguous. While it is certain that they had a significant impact on Rome and its development, the question is: to what extent? As many Etruscan buildings and cities were destroyed or replaced by Roman ones, it's hard to get archeological support in this area. Roman legends claim that Rome was ruled by the Etruscans after having had four autochtone kings, and that the Etruscans were then chased away at around 509 BC. While latter fact is most likely true, there is still debate on former issue.

Pro-Etruscans claim that Rome was actually founded by the Etruscans, and that the word "Rome" itself stems from the word Romlua. Other words that allegedly come from the Etruscan language are populus (people), triumphare (to triumph), the suffix -que (and) and the word satellis (guard). It is known that, during the Imperial period and the late Republic, Etruscan teachers were highly regarded, and that young noblemen were sent to Etruscan schools deep into the 4th century. The famous orator, philosopher and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero claimed to descend from Etruscans, and was clearly proud of this fact. Emperor Claudius wrote a history of Etruria, but unfortunately this work did not survive the test of time.

Because Etruria was absorbed by the Romans, it remains hard to tell how profound the impact was of the Etruscans on Roman culture. According to some, it went as far as influencing their temple architecture, religion organisation and military structure. Others say this is exaggerated. The real truth will probably never be known.

Villanova and Orientalisation

In the 10th century and onwards, there was the so-called Villanova-culture in northern Italy, marked by its small villages and cremation tombs. Whether this culture was assimilated with that of the Lydian Etruscans, or if it gradually evolved into the Etruscan culture, certain is that pretty soon, in the 8th century, cities began to develop, and the soil, which was rich in minerals and ore, was exploited to trade with the Aegean area and other important neighbours. The cremation method was slowly abandoned in favour of a normal burial.

In the 7th century, through trade influences, there was a significant influence of the east on Etruscan architecture, which can be seen in various tombs: scarabs, sphinxes and other Egyptian or Assyrian-like objects are found, and large vessels were constructed, mainly Greek in design, to carry large shipments of products across the Tyrrhenian (!) Sea.

B. Apex and heyday

Rise and Opposition

The Etruscans reached the height of their power at around the 6th century BC. In most ports and parts of the Mediterranean, they were rivals with the Phoenicians and the Greeks. In northern Italia, they were met with little opposition of any significance. They were the undisputed masters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and according to Stephanos of Byzantium, had colonised parts of Corsica and the Balearic isles. Diodorus Siculus claims that there was also a struggle with the Phoenicians for an isle in the Atlantic Ocean, that was probably Madeira.

The Alliance

Around 545 BC, an alliance was made between Carthago and Etruria, in principle directed against the Greeks, who had come to settle themselves in what later would be referred to as Gallia Transalpina, what is now southern France. The presence of the Greek colonists was so threatening that Carthago and Etruria put aside their differences and worked together against their common foe.

The problem with the colony of Massilia was, that it shut of Carthago from some important trade routs that had previously been directly open to the Phoenicians, and the Etruscans did not really appreciate Greek presence in what practically was their backyard either. While their own territories were rich in metals and minerals, Massilia was built on an economically strategic point, and had a trade monopoly on various goods from the Celtic hinterlands of Gallia and even Britannia - especially tin, which was invaluable to make bronze with. Carthago, seeing its interests menaced, began to prepare for war.

What probably was the last straw for Etruria, was the fact that refugees from the city of Phokaia, besieged by the Persian armies, had settled on the west side of Corsica, which now meant a Greek threat on both sides of the Tyrrhenian: up in the north, Massilia, and down south, the Phocaean colonies. Sardinia was still occupied by the Carthaginians. The Etruscans and Phoenicians made an alliance, and began to prepare for war.

The War

Herodotos says that the Carthaginians and Etruscans had a combined fleet of about 120 vessels. The Phocaean ships, about 60 in number, also set out to encounter their enemy in the waters of Sardinia. Quite predictably, the Phocaeans suffered a crushing defeat: forty ships sank, and the remaining twenty were so damaged that they were burnt beyond repair. The Phocaeans fled with what was left of their possessions, and founded a new city in southern Italia, in the neighbourhood of Elea.

As a cruel celebration of their joint victory, the Carthaginians and Etruscans drew lots over the possessions of the captured crewmembers of the sunken ships. The Etruscans got the lion's share. They were stoned to death in the area of Agylla, and legend had that the spirits of the dead Phocaeans would forever haunt the inhabitants of the town. After having sought counsel in Delphi, the Oracle instructed them to hold commemorative ceremonies and games for the deceased in order to lift the curse. This became a custom ever since.

Carthago and Etruria renewed their alliance. Former power occupied the Strait of Gibraltar, and the Etruscans once again had control of the Tyrrhenian. However, they would soon find an enemy again in the Greeks of Cumae, who had allegedly been incited by the Phocaeans. They constructed a harbour of their own at Neapolis, which now formed a direct source of commercial concurrence with the Etruscans' ports, being so close to Campania.

War and Defeat

In 524 BC, Etruscan vessels attacked the Greek colony Cumae, but lost the battle. This would later make the Greeks join the Latins in their campaign against Lars Porsenna, who was defeated at Aricia in 502 BC. The Latins - from the city of Rome, of course - had, according to the legends, chased away the last Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus ("Tarquin the Proud") from their city, and installed the Republic. They then went on rampage against the weakened Etruscan confederation, that had problems maintaining ties with their Campanian colonies, and had lost control over the Tyrrhenian.

Added to the rise of the Romans, Samnites were occupying Campania, the Umbrians were invading the territories of Etruria and the Po plains from the north. The final straw, however, were the Celtic raids and continuous invasions in Italia, of which the Etruscan cities were the first victim. About a century later, Rome would be virtually destroyed by Celtic invaders, traditionally around 390 BC. From that point on, Rome would gradually conquer the Etruscan territories, sacking some cities, such as Veii, but treating others as allies. Their economic and military decline prevented them from acting as a united force, and made it possible for Rome to single out and occupy the symbolic twelve city states one by one.


Of course, the Etruscan people did not cease to exist after it came under Roman government, and did not fall into a vacuum. As mentioned before, some cities gained the status of ally (socius) although they were of course supervised by the Romans. However, the Etruscans would still have a renowned influence for centuries, especially as teachers and experts in divination. Etruscophiles suggest that most aspects of the religious life of the Romans, especially in the way of worshipping, and strictly following rituals, is actually Etruscan. While there may be some debate over the issue of mutual influence, it is known that the Etruscan language survived until the Augusteian Era.

Later, emperor Claudius wrote a history of Etruria. This work would probably have been of an enormous value, had it not been burnt by the christians, who would later claim the book was satanic, as it dealt with a pagan people, that additionally was morally depraved in their eyes. Indeed, Etruscans were known for their easy-going lifestyle, and they treated their women as equals in marriage. To the Romans and the Greeks, especially latter notion was rather alien, and the early christians, mainly influenced by ascetic philosophies, would join their forebears in that opinion, and thus systematically destroy "immoral" works.

It is generally assumed that the Etruscans slowly merged into the Romans, and that their language was dead in around the 2nd century BC. But of course, their legacy would live on, even after Rome, which actually preserved a lot of Etruscan culture, had fallen into the hands of the German warlord Odovacer. They would lend their name to the area of "Toscane", and the sea that had been theirs for centuries is now still known as the Tyrrhenian Sea. Even though their empire has crumbled long ago, they live on in the people of Italy that descend from them, and will of course never cease to attract people to the mysteries of their civilisation.
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