The History of the Etruscans: The Rise and Fall of a Pre Roman Italian Culture

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A map showing the extent of Etruria and the Etruscan civilization; the map includes the 12 cities of the Etruscan League and notable cities founded by the Etruscans.

Although its origins are debated, Etruscan culture greatly influenced the culture of Rome. They were eventually replaced by the Romans as the dominant power in Italy

The Etruscans originally occupied the area of western central Italy between the Tiber and the River Arno which covers modern Tuscany and Umbria.

The Land of the Etruscans

The land of the Etruscans was resource rich. It was a fertile land of rich volcanic soil as well as wooded hillsides and well stocked lakes. It was also the source of travertine stone for building and deposits of copper and iron, all resources essential to the development of sophisticated Iron Age civilisation.

Who were the Etruscans?

Etruscan language has been used to identify the Etruscans as Immigrants , containing as it does many non Indo European elements that suggest an eastern origin. It was the ancient writer Herodotus who first claimed that the Etruscans were actually native to Asia Minor and who settled in Italy after a mass migration.

The language however, also bears a resemblance to the form of Greek in use in the Hellenistic colonies of southern Italy.

The modern interpretation is that the Etruscans were native Italic people of the area who developed a new culture due to contacts with trade. This is backed by the archaeological record which shows the gradual evolution of the Etruscan culture, rather than any evidence of the sudden cultural change that would accompany the influx of a new group of people.

From Villanovan to Etruscan

It is believed that the predecessor of Etruscan culture was the Iron Age Villanovan culture. The population of Etruria at this time was dispersed in small settlements with main centres of population concentrated at defensively sited hill towns such as Veii and Tarquinia.

Archaeology indicates a change in the culture of these settlements from early 8th century BC. Graves began to change from cremations to inhumations and grave goods became richer, including items of eastern Mediterranean origins. By the end of the 8th century, what can be defined as an Etruscan culture had emerged.

In the century that followed, towns became more monumental with public buildings and elaborate houses. Chamber tombs began to appear with opulent grave goods. A defined class structure becomes clear in the burial record, with necropolii such as that at Cerveteri showing evidence of an aristocracy.

The source of this cultural change was probably Greeks for the Aegean and southern Campania and the east who would have been attracted to resource rich Etruria for trade purposes and in their turn passed on metal working skills, and the oriental styles that epitomize their culture. This would explain the distinct Etruscan styles of art which resemble Archaic Greek and oriental fashions.

The Rise of the Etruscans

By the 6th century BC, Etruscan culture was at its peak. The Etruscans themselves become active in trade with Greece and Asia minor, as is indicated by the rise of a middle class of craftsmen and traders. As a result, Etruscan interests began to spread throughout Italy and they themselves began to colonise outside of their home lands, reaching as far south as Campania where they founded the city of Capua, and trading beyond the Apennines. They were now the dominant italic culture.

The Etruscans and Rome

According to legend, the Etruscans ruled Rome from 616 to 509BC when they founded the Tarquin dynasty. They left other cultural legacies. The principle gods of the Etruscans were Tinia, Uni and Menrva. They were adopted by the romans in the form of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, the principle deities of the roman Capitoline triad.

Etruscan Decline and the Rise of Rome

The Tarquins were expelled from Rome in 509BC and Rome became a republic. The decline of Etruscan culture began soon after this, due to the growth of Rome and a decline in Etruscan maritime trade due to loss of Cumae in 474BC.

Etruria shrank back to its original territory. Rome however was encroaching. The Etruscan city of Veii fell to the Romans in 396BC and many Etruscan cities such as Caere, Tarquinia, Volterra and Perugia had made alliances with Rome by first half of the third century, paying tributes such as wood and agricultural products. By 90BC, Etruria had become absorbed by the Roman republic when the Etruscans formerly became Roman citizens.