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ETRUSCANS

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

By: Robert Guisepi

2002

 

Long before the days of Rome's greatness, Italy was the home of a people far advanced in civilization--the Etruscans, or Tyrrhenians. These people rose to prosperity and power, then almost vanished from recorded history, leaving unsolved many questions about their origin and culture.

Scholars think that the Etruscans were a seafaring people from Asia Minor. As early as 1000 BC they were living in Italy in an area that was roughly equivalent to modern Tuscany, from the Tiber River north almost to the Arno River. Later their rule embraced a large part of western Italy, including Rome. When the Tarquin Dynasty was expelled from Rome about 500 BC, Lars Porsena, king of Etruria and Clusium, sought to reestablish his influence over Rome.

The Etruscans already controlled the commerce of the Tyrrhenian Sea on their western border. After losing control of Rome, they strengthened their naval power through an alliance with Carthage against Greece. In 474 BCtheir fleet was destroyed by the Greeks of Syracuse. From that time their power rapidly declined. The Gauls overran the country from the north, and the Etruscans' strong southern fortress of Veii fell to Rome after a ten-year seige (396 BC). The Etruscans were absorbed by the Romans, who adopted many of their advanced arts, their customs, and their institutions.

Because little Etruscan literature remains and the language of inscriptions on their monuments has been only partially deciphered, scholars have gained most of their knowledge of the Etruscans from studying the remains of their city walls, houses, monuments, and tombs. Weapons and other implements, exquisite jewelry, coins, statues of stone, bronze, and terra-cotta, and black pottery (called bucchero) have been found. Grecian and Oriental influences are seen in this art.

The origin of the Etruscans has been a subject of debate since antiquity. Herodotus, for example, argued that the Etruscans descended from a people who invaded Etruria from Anatolia before 800 BC and established themselves over the native Iron Age inhabitants of the region, whereas Dionysius of Halicarnassus believed that the Etruscans were of local Italian origin. Both theories, as well as a third 19th-century theory, have turned out to be problematic, and today scholarly discussion has shifted its focus from the discussion of provenance to that of the formation of the Etruscan people.

In any event, by the middle of the 7th century BC the chief Etruscan towns had been founded. Before reaching the Arno River in the north and incorporating all Tuscany in their dominion, the Etruscans embarked upon a series of conquests initially probably not coordinated but undertaken by individual cities. The pressing motive for expansion was that by the middle of this century the Greeks not only had obtained a grip on Corsica and expanded their hold on Sicily and southern Italy but also had settled on the Ligurian coast (northwestern Italy) and in southern France.

Etruscan expansion to the south and east was confined at the line of the Tiber River by the strong Italic Umbrian people settled beyond it on the south and the Picenes on the east. To the northeast no such united power opposed their expansion, since the Apennine mountains in Aemilia (modern Emilia) and Tuscany were held by scattered Italic tribes. Through these the Etruscans were able, in the middle of the 6th century, to push into the Po River valley.

As capital of this northward region they established the old Villanovan center at Bologna (the Etruscan city of Felsina) and on the banks of the Reno founded Marzabotto. On the Adriatic coast to the east, Ravenna, Rimini (ancient Ariminum), and Spina traded with Istria (ancient Istra) and the Greek Dalmatian colonies. From the Po valley, contacts were made with the central European La Tène cultures. Etruscan conquests in the northeast extended to include what are now the modern cities of Piacenza, Modena, Parma, and Mantua. To the south they were drawn into Latium and Campania from the end of the 7th century, and in the 6th century they had a decisive impact on the history of Rome, where the Etruscan dynasty of the Tarquins is said to have ruled from 616 to 510/509 BC. It is possible that the Roman Tarquins were connected with a family called Tarchu, which is known from inscriptions.

Rome before the Etruscan advent was a small conglomeration of villages. It was under the new masters that, according to tradition, the first public works such as the walls of the Capitoline hill and the Cloaca Maxima (a sewer) were constructed. Considerable evidence of the Etruscan period in Rome's history has come to light in the region of the Capitol. That there were rich tombs in Rome itself cannot be doubted--tombs similar to those in the Latin town of Praeneste (modern Palestrina).

Meanwhile, by the beginning of the 6th century the Etruscans had included Fiesole (ancient Faesulae) and Volterra (ancient Volaterrae) in their northern limits and at the same time began to push southward into Campania. Capua became the chief Etruscan foundation in this region and Nola a second; a necropolis has been found in the Salerno region and Etruscan objects in low levels at Herculaneum and Pompeii. The coastal region was still, however, in Greek hands. When the Etruscans attacked the Greek foundation of Cumae in 524 BC, their advance was finally checked by their defeat at the hands of Aristodemus of that city.

The rivalry between Greek trade in the western Mediterranean and that carried on between the Etruscans and Carthage had already come to a head at the battle of Alalia in 535 BC, a battle which the Greeks claimed to have won but which so upset them that they determined to abandon Corsica to Etruscan and Carthaginian influence.

In the last quarter of the 6th century, when Etruscan power was at its height from the Po to Salerno, small settlements of Etruscans might have been planted beyond these limits. At Spoleto (ancient Spoletium) in the north and Fossombrone in Liguria their power was not, however, to last long; Cumae felt the first of sharp waves of resistance coming from Greeks, Samnites, Romans, and Gauls. In 509 BC the Etruscans were chased from Rome, as reflected in the story of the expulsion of Tarquinius Superbus, the intervention of Lars Porsena of Clusium, and the Latin victory over Aruns Porsena's son at Aricia. When Latium was lost, relations between Etruria and its Campanian possessions were broken with disastrous effect. A series of piecemeal feuds between Etruscan cities and Rome led to the incorporation of the former into the Roman sphere--first the nearby town of Veii in 396 BC, after which Capena, Sutri, and Nepet (modern Nepi) fell in turn, thus beginning the end of the first of many unsuccessful attempts at unifying Italy.

Nevertheless, the Etruscans had established a thriving commercial and agricultural civilization. Characteristic of their artistic achievements are the wall frescoes and realistic terra-cotta portraits found in their tombs. Their religion employed elaborately organized cults and rituals, including the extensive practice of divination.

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