Etruscan painting
Etruscan painting

The Etruscans left no historical or written records other than tomb inscriptions with brief family histories. Other than this burial genealogy, most writing about the Etruscans is from later sources, including the Romans. Only recently has archaeology begun to unravel the mystery of the Etruscans.

During the Renaissance, in 1553 and 1556 two Etruscan bronzes were discovered, but excavation of Etruscan sites did not begin in earnest until the 18th century. After the Etruscan cities of Tarquinia, Cervetri, and Vulci were excavated in the 19th century, museums began collecting objects from the digs. More than 6,000 Etruscan sites have been examined.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the first century b.c.e. thought the Etruscans were Pelasgians who settled in modern-day Tuscany and were absorbed by the native Tyrrhenians. Livy and Virgil in the first century c.e. thought the Etruscans came after the fall of Troy and the flight of Aeneas.

Herodotus, in the fifth century c.e., claimed a Lydian origin, with the Tyrrhenians being named for the Lydian leader Tyrrhenos. Until recently scholars agreed with Herodotus and Dionysius that the Etruscans were migrants from Asia Minor between 900 and 800 b.c.e.

Modern scholars believe that the Etruscans descended from the Villanovans, whose peak was in the ninth and eighth centuries b.c.e. In the seventh century b.c.e. Etruscan villages supposedly took the place of Villanovan villages.

The Etruscans were neighbors to a small village of Latins in northern Latium. The Etruscan city-states were located in the marshy coastal areas of west-central Italy, that is, modern Tuscany. Permanent settlement dates from the end of the ninth century b.c.e., including Vetulonia and Tarquinii (now Tarquinia).

Etruscan fresco
Etruscan fresco

Burial chambers of that era differ from those of earlier eras and contain amber, silver, gold, and gems from Egypt, Asia Minor, and other parts of the world. The Etruscans were sea people as well as miners of copper, tin, lead, silver, and iron. The Etruscan alphabet was based on the Greek but with a distinctively Etruscan grammar.

The Etruscan language is similar to a sixth-century b.c.e. Greek dialect common to Lemnos but differs from other Mediterranean languages. Inscriptions are in the Greek alphabet but written from right to left. Precise definitions of some words are still not known.

By the seventh and sixth centuries b.c.e. the Etruscans had conquered Rome, much of Italy, and non-Italian areas such as Corsica. This success brought their political and cultural peak in the sixth century b.c.e.

Etruscans were largely agrarian, as were the surrounding peoples, but they had a powerful military that allowed them to dominate their neighbors, using them as labor on their farms, and devote their own time to commerce and industry.

Greek influence was strong in Etruscan religion, with human-type gods and highly sophisticated rituals for divination, but Etruscan mythology also included some unique elements. Etruscan religion clearly separated the human and divine, and it established exact procedures for keeping the goodwill of the gods.

Religion mattered greatly to the Etruscans. They built tombs resembling their houses and gave the deceased household objects for use in the afterlife. Rome inherited Etruscan religion, including books of divination and the Lares, their household gods.

Scholars of the 19th and 20th century assessed Etruscan painting and sculpture as original and creative but not nearly as great as the art of the Greeks. The preference at that time was for the Greek mathematical ideal of beauty. Etruscan art is better able to capture feeling and the essence of the subject.

Much of the remaining examples of Etruscan art are funerary, but there is evidence from existing frescoes and other works of art that Etruscans used color liberally. Etruscan art was a major stylistic influence on Renaissance artists who lived in the area of the old Etruria.

Etruscan jewelry, pottery, and portable art was so prized during the Renaissance and after that collectors destroyed many Etruscan sites to attain it, making periodization of Etruscan styles difficult.

Etruscan cities were fortified and ruled by a king. An aristocracy ruled Etruscan society and controlled the government, military, economy, and religion. Cities such as Tarquinii and Veii dominated their regions and began colonizing adjacent areas. Independent city-states entangled themselves in economic and political alliances.

Rule by kings gave way to rule by oligarchs. In some cases the kings or oligarchs allowed governance by council or by elected officials. The Etruscan city alliances provoked responses from Romans, Greeks, and Carthaginians who regarded the Etruscans as a threat.

Etruscan technology, such as the engineering that allowed water to move via canals and irrigation channels, long predated the Roman aqueducts. The Etruscans built much of Rome, including the Cloaca Maxima, the walls around the town, and the Temple of Jupiter. Etruscans implemented an efficient administrative system for Rome.

Legendary Etruscan kings of Rome may have used warrior status to gain their crowns. Among these were the Tarquins Lucius Priscus and Lucius Superbus. The last of Rome’s seven kings was the Etruscan Tarquin the Proud (Tarquinius Superbus), replaced in 510 b.c.e. when Rome chose a republic.

In 504 b.c.e. the Etruscans were expelled from Latium, beginning the end of Etruscan power and the rise of Roman culture. The Etruscans kept north of the Tiber, and their influence on Rome diminished. Etruscan power was further weakened in the fifth century b.c.e. when the navy of Syracuse defeated the Etruscan coalition fleet off Cumae in 474 b.c.e.

The Etruscan confederation allied with Athens in a futile attack on Syracuse in 413 b.c.e. Rome besieged Veii and, after 10 years, defeated the city in 396 b.c.e. In 386 b.c.e. the Etruscans lost their trading routes over the Alps after the Gauls conquered Rome and the Po valley.

Rome’s century-long conquest of Etruria was finished in 283 b.c.e., and in 282 b.c.e. Rome defeated the Etruscans a final time. The Etruscans accepted a peace treaty. Increasing control by Rome cost the Etruscans their cultural identity.

Cities such as Caere, Tarquinia, and Vulci ceded territory and paid tribute to Rome. Decline fueled dissension among the aristocracy, and the lower classes rose in protest. Cities such as Volsinii lost their social structure.

Some Etruscan cities allied with Rome and came under Roman law. Rome helped the Etruscan cities to defeat their rebellions, even when the Etruscans had help from the Gauls, Samnites, Lucancians, and Umbrians.

In the first century b.c.e. Etruscans accepted the offer of Roman citizenship, but their new status was lowered when they supported the losing side in the Roman civil wars of 88–86 b.c.e. and 83 b.c.e. Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the winner, razed cities, seized land, and limited Etruscan civil rights.

Subsequent Etruscan rebellions failed, and Romans colonized Etruria in the next century, furthering the Romanization of Etruria. Rome absorbed every Etruscan city, and Etruria was no more. The Etruscan culture and society dominated the Italian Peninsula in the eighth through fourth centuries b.c.e.

They were a strong influence on Roman culture and society, however, they fell to Roman dominance in the fourth century b.c.e., and shortly after that their language and writings disappeared, only to be recovered in the 20th century.