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A History of the Etruscan people including their cities, art, society, rulers and contributions to civilization

By: Robert Guisepi


Crisis and Decline

The end of the 6th century and the beginning of the 5th was a turning point for Etruscan civilization. Several crises occurred at this time, from which the Etruscans never fully recovered and which in fact turned out to be only the first of numerous reverses they were to suffer in the ensuing centuries. The expulsion of the Tarquins from Rome (509 BC) deprived them of control over this strategic spot on the Tiber and also cut off their land route to Campania. Soon afterward, their naval supremacy also collapsed when the ships of the ambitious Hieron I of Syracuse inflicted a devastating loss on their fleet off Cumae in 474 BC. Completely out of touch with the Etruscan cities of Campania, they were unable to prevent a takeover of this area by restless Umbro-Sabellian tribes moving from the interior toward the coast.

All these reverses led to economic depression and a sharp interruption of trade for the cities on the coast and in the south and caused a redirection of commerce toward the Adriatic harbor of Spina. The situation in the south deteriorated even further as Veii experienced periodic conflict with Rome, its close neighbor, and became the first Etruscan state to fall to this growing power in central Italy (396 BC).

A measure of prosperity had come to the Po valley and the Adriatic towns, but even this Etruscan vitality in the north was short-lived. The progressive infiltration and pressure of the Celts, who had penetrated and settled in the plain of the Po, eventually suffocated and overpowered the flourishing Etruscan urban communities, almost completely destroying their civilization by the mid-4th century BC and thus returning a large part of northern Italy to a protohistoric stage of culture. Meanwhile, the Gallic Senones firmly occupied the Picenum district on the Adriatic Sea, and Celtic incursions reached on the one hand Tyrrhenian Etruria and Rome (captured and burned about 390 BC) and on the other as far as Puglia.

In the 4th century BC ancient Italy had become profoundly transformed. The eastern Italic people of Umbro-Sabellian stock diffused over most of the peninsula; the Syracusan empire and lastly the growing power of Rome had replaced the Etruscans (and the Greek colonies of southern Italy) as the dominant force. The Etruscan world had been reduced to a circumscribed, regional sphere, secluded in its traditional values; this situation determined its progressive passage into the political system of Rome.

Within this context, Etruria experienced an economic recovery and a rebounding of the aristocracy. Tomb groups once again contain riches, and the sequence of painted tombs at Tarquinii, interrupted during the 5th century, resumes. All the same, there is a new atmosphere in these tombs; now one finds images of a grim afterlife, represented as an underworld replete with demons and overhung by dark clouds.

Renewed resistance to the power on the Tiber proved futile. Roman history is filled with records of victories and triumphs over Etruscan cities, especially in the south. Tarquinii sued for peace in 351 BC, and Caere was granted a truce in 353; there were triumphs over Rusellae in 302 and over Volaterrae in 298, with the final defeat of Rusellae coming in 294. Volsinii also was attacked in this year, and its fields devastated. During this same bleak period, Etruscan society was wracked with class struggles that eventually led to the development of a substantial freedman class, especially in northern Etruria, where numerous small rural settlements sprang up in the hills. In some cities, the aristocracy looked to Rome for assistance against the restless slave class. The noble Cilnii family at Arretium called for help with a revolt of the lower classes in 302 BC, while at Volsinii the situation deteriorated so badly that the Romans marched in and razed the city (265 BC), resettling its inhabitants in Volsinii Novi (probably Bolsena).By the mid-3rd century all Etruria appears to have been pacified and firmly subjected to Roman hegemony. In most cases, the Etruscan cities and their territories preserved a formal autonomy as independent states with their own magistrates, thus passing an uneventful period in the 2nd century BC, when the sources are largely silent about Etruria.

But the saddest chapter of all remained to be written in the 1st century BC. In 90 BC Rome granted citizenship to all Italic peoples, an act that in effect created total political unification of the Italic-Roman state and eliminated the last pretenses of autonomy in the Etruscan city-states. Northern Etruria, in addition, underwent a final devastation as it became the battleground for the opposing forces of the civil war of Marius and Sulla. Many Etruscan cities sided with Marius and were sacked and punished with all the vengeance the victorious Sulla could muster (80-79 BC). At Faesulae, Arretium, Volaterrae, and Clusium, the dictator confiscated and distributed territorial lands to soldiers from his 23 victorious legions. The new colonists brutally abused the old inhabitants and at the same time squandered their military rewards, sinking hopelessly into debt. Revolts and reprisals followed, but the agonizing process of Romanization was not actually completed until the reign of Augustus (31 BC-AD 14) brought new economic stability and reconciliation. By this time Latin had almost completely replaced the Etruscan language.

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