Birth of the Etruscans: Ancestors of the Romans


The boundaries of Etruria were formed by the Tiber and Arno rivers, the Apennine Mountains, and the Tyrrhenian Sea. Diverse physical landscapes provided bountiful opportunities for the earliest Etruscans: multiple crops (grapes, olives, and grains), livestock, wood-rich forests, quarries, and mineral deposits (such as Iron).

Most of the major Etruscan cities were not directly located on the water. They were 5 or more miles inland, and serviced by several coastal ports, such as Pyrgi, Punicum, and Graviscae. As noted pirates, the Etruscans would have known better than to sit their wealthiest centers near the water where they would be vulnerable to sea attacks.

The Etruscan civilization was based on agriculture, mining, and trade. They achieved a remarkable level of culture very quickly, which piqued the interest of scholars even from antiquity. Their exact origins are debated even today. They could have come from the East, likely Asia Minor; they might have migrated from the Northern regions of Italy; or they might have always been in the region. Whatever their origins, they evolved into a highly cultured society that flourished from around the end of the Bronze Age (approximately 1200 B.C.) through the Iron Age (around 260 B.C.), and their importance should not be discounted or forgotten.

The Early Etruscans

The early Etruscan settlements during the Bronze Age would have been fairly small in size, likely close to a water source, and without any sort of fortifications. They subsisted on an economy of livestock and agriculture, and were in contact and likely traded with the Mycenaeans.

Toward the late Bronze Age (12th to 11th centuries B.C.), known as the Sub-Apenninic period, Etruscan settlements grew larger and were located on hills to aid in defense. Thanks to trade and commerce, the world was growing larger and smaller at the same time, and an inevitable proliferation in cultural development occurred at a rapid pace for the Etruscans.

During the late 11th and 10th centuries B.C, a new Etruscan culture began to evolve, known as the proto-Villanovan period. While still very similar to the previous cultural period, this new phase in Etruscan development ushered in a whole new set of societal and intellectual developments, including larger fortifications, the appearance of cremation burials under large mounds, bronze working, and the appearance of pottery with highly stylized Oriental designs. It was obvious that there were other influences from outside cultures, due to the exchange of goods through sea trade.

During the proto-Villanovan period, Etruscan settlements were spread over nearly the entire Italian peninsula. That would change as the Etruscans move into the next phase of development, the significant Villanovan period.

In part 2, we will look at the Villanovan period, where Etruscan culture and economics become further refined, as we see wealth explode in Etruria.