Etruscan civilization

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.

Etruscan Culture

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).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Etruscans: Selected full-text books and articles

The Etruscans By Raymond Bloch Praeger, 1958
The Etruscans in the Ancient World By Otto-Wilhelm Von Vacano; Sheila Ann Ogilvie St Martin's Press, 1960
The Etruscans By David Randall-MacIver Claredon Press, 1927
Etruscan Italy By Henry Harrel-Courtes; James Hogarth Orion Press, 1964
Etruria: Past and Present By M. A. Johnstone Methuen, 1930
Etruscan Places By D. H. Lawrence The Viking Press, 1957
Art of the Etruscans By Massimo Pallottino; Walter Dräyer; Martin Hurlimann Vanguard Press, 1955
The Foundations of Roman Italy By Joshua Whatmough Methuen, 1937
FREE! Ancient Legends of Roman History By Ettore Pais; Mario E. Cosenza Swan Sonnenschein, 1906
Librarian's tip: Chap. VII "The Legend of Servius Tullius; and the Supremacy of the Etruscans At Rome" and The Authenticity of the Etruscan Tile From Capua, and The Supremacy of the Etruscans in Campania begins on p. 250"
The Living Past By Ivar Lissner; J. Maxwell Brownjohn G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1957
Librarian's tip: "The Mysterious Etruscans" begins on p. 365
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