Etruscan civilization

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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 TuscanyTuscany
, Ital. Toscana, region (1991 pop. 3,538,619), 8,876 sq mi (22,989 sq km), N central Italy, bordering on the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west and including the Tuscan Archipelago.
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 and part of UmbriaUmbria
, region (1991 pop. 811,831), 3,265 sq mi (8,456 sq km), central Italy. Perugia is the capital of the landlocked region, which is divided into the provinces of Perugia and Terni (named for their capitals).
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. 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 HerodotusHerodotus
, 484?–425? B.C., Greek historian, called the Father of History, b. Halicarnassus, Asia Minor. Only scant knowledge of his life can be gleaned from his writings and from references to him by later writings, notably the Suda.
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 that the Etruscans migrated to Italy from LydiaLydia,
ancient country, W Asia Minor, N of Caria and S of Mysia (now NW Turkey). The tyrant Gyges was the founder of the Mermnadae dynasty, which lasted from c.700 B.C. to 550 B.C.
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 in the 12th cent. B.C. 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. B.C., 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 B.C., 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 B.C., 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 TarquinTarquin
[Etruscan,=lord], in Roman tradition, an Etruscan family that ruled Rome. According to the historian Livy, when the rule of the Bacchiadae in Corinth was overthrown (c.657 B.C.
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 rulers of Rome were Etruscans), were distrustful of Etruscan power. The Etruscans had occuped Rome itself from c.616 B.C., but in c.510 B.C. 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 B.C.) 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 B.C.) of SullaSulla, Lucius Cornelius
, 138 B.C.–78 B.C., Roman general. At the height of his career he assumed the name Felix. He served under Marius in Africa and became consul in 88 B.C., when Mithradates VI of Pontus was overrunning Roman territory in the east.
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 and MariusMarius, Caius
, c.157 B.C.–86 B.C., Roman general. A plebeian, he became tribune (119 B.C.) and praetor (115 B.C.) and was seven times consul. He served under Scipio Africanus Minor at Numantia and under Quintus Metellus against Jugurtha.
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 the remaining Etruscan families allied themselves with Marius, and in 88 B.C. 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 artEtruscan art
, the art of the inhabitants of ancient Etruria, which, by the 8th cent. B.C., incorporated the area in Italy from Salerno to the Tiber River (see Etruscan civilization). Archaeologists have been unable to trace the precise development of Etruscan art.
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, 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. B.C. to the 1st cent. A.D.; 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).

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References in periodicals archive ?
The existence of an Etruscan civilization on Italian soil had in reality already been known since Roman times, but at this time the material rediscovery of Etruscan artistic wealth on Italian soil not only reopened the question of Etruscan origins, it gave confidence to Italian scholars to promote an entirely Italian cultural and artistic expression predating the Romans, one that developed solely on Italian land.
The material discovery of Etruscan civilization and its distinguishing characteristics gave birth to Etruscology, a branch of archaeology devoted completely to the study, preservation and promotion of Etruscan civilization in the world.
Founded in 1726, the Cortona Etruscan Academy was a local society developed to investigate and promote Etruscan civilization as a unique expression on Tuscan soil.
(19) Piranesi's theory of Etruscan origins promoted a very nationalistic message about the birth of Etruscan civilization on the Italian peninsula.
Once again the hypothesis of a non-indigenous origin of Etruscan civilization became a matter of disagreement between Italian and nonItalian archaeologists.
(27) Barker and Rasmussen explore the question of origins following Pallottino's theory that the formation of the Etruscan civilization should be investigated rather than their origins.
The results of these genetic tests have been received with great enthusiasm by the Turkish community, which proudly promotes the theory that the advanced and sophisticated Etruscan civilization was the historical product of Asia Minor and therefore a prominent part of Turkish historical tradition.