Etruscan Crisis and Conflict: Predecessors of the Romans

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At the beginning of the 6th century B.C. large, wealthy population centers were sprinkled throughout Etruria, particularly in southern Italy. Some of these city-states, such as Chiusi, Veii, and especially Tarquinia grew quite powerful. It was during this time that the Tarquinian kings (more like generals than actually monarchs) took over the city-state of Rome, in an effort to control the southern regions for its resources and for political power. This is the beginning of a series of internal conflicts among the Etruscans that would completely change its path in the annals of ancient history.

The exact details of Etruscan political and military life of this period are sketchy at best, due to the lack of specific evidence in the archeological record. What evidence there is allows scholars to trace general trends of the period, and outline historical events. Thanks to some wall paintings and inscriptions found at various Etruscan sites, archaeologists are able to piece together the events of this historically significant time. These artistic renderings depict certain political and military alliances between the Etruscan city-states, and with other foreign civilizations, as well as hostility among some of the Etruscan groups.

The amenable social climate of the Etruscans began to shift at this point, as they began to reduce their acceptance of foreigners, and were restrictive in granting Etruscan citizenship, a stark contrast from earlier, more prosperous times. And because of the importance of trade and craftsmanship to the livelihood of the Etruscans, those who were not involved in those spheres began to be seen as a lower class of citizens, and the once peaceful Etruscan social existence soon began to give way to obvious social division and internal social conflicts, which added fuel to the growing fire.

Evidence of this increasing internal social division can be found in the remains of Etruscan cemeteries from this period, where there is obvious disparity between the classes in terms of both the quality of the graves and the goods included within them.

Crisis in the 5th Century

During the 5th century B.C., not only were the Etruscan regions dealing with their own domestic strife, but at this time external, non-Etruscan tribes began to move in and attempt to take over many vital Etruscan economic and political centers, such as Campania (424 B.C.) and Cumae (420 B.C.). On top of that, the Etruscans also lost control of their prime dominion, the sea, when the Greeks raided their fleets. The final blow to the Etruscan navy came when the fleet from Syracuse destroyed it in 474 B.C. This, of course, led to the demise of the fundamental trade with the Greeks. This commerce, which had brought so much culture and influence to the Etruscans, was virtually gone by 450 B.C.

The loss of external influence and the lack of internal strength among the Etruscan city-states led to a decrease in the quality of craftsmanship, as well as the quantity of production. And with trade all but gone, there was probably little effort made to make things better. There was a general economic hardship throughout Etruria. All was not lost, though. Certain cities began to strengthen their alliances with one another, which started a trend toward cohesion and renewed internal strength in Etruria. This led to a partial, but not full, recovery of the political and economic existence of the Etruscans.