A Brief History
On January 22, 2022, we take a look at an early influential European civilization headquartered on the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans. Etruria, a region on the Central Western side of the Italian peninsula, that area covered by modern Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria, was once home to a people and civilization called Etruscans. The Etruscan culture, having arisen around the 9th Century BC, flourished to become the dominant culture in Italy by 650 BC. How the origin of the Etruscans came about, and how their culture grew to out-compete other cultures on the Italian peninsula, including the Ligures and North Picenes in Northern Italy, the Rutulians Southeast of Rome, and the Sicanians of Sicily, will be discussed here.
The Italian peninsula has been the home of human ancestors perhaps as far back as 850,000 years ago, and about 200,000 years ago the Neanderthals left evidence of their presence in Italy and were at that time the most advanced humans in Europe. Modern humans first entered the archaeological record in Italy around 40,000 years ago, and eventually gave rise to the earliest identifiable ancient civilizations of Italy.
The historical record of ancient Italy begins with the legendary origins of Rome around 750 BC and the more or less concurrent beginnings of the Etruscan culture. The earliest people of Italy spoke a variety of languages, including Indo-European languages, and others, including the earliest Etruscans, spoke a language of non-Indo-European origin, leaving ancient Italy with no universal “Italian” language. Another linguistic influence on the people of the Italian peninsula came from Semitic Phoenicians and Carthaginians that brought Afro-Asiatic languages to Italy. The language of the most ancient Etruscans was based on the Tyrrhenian linguistic family, neither Indo-European nor of Greek origin, and stemmed from a Paleolithic Southern European linguistic heritage that pre-dated the Indo-European influence.
The Iron Age in Italy (circa 1100 to 700 BC) coincided with the establishment of recognized cultural civilizations. The establishment of the Etruscan language around 900 BC may serve as a benchmark in determining the origin of the Etruscan culture during the seminal advent of the Iron Age. The oldest known written records from the Etruscan language date from the 8th Century BC, and written samples of the Etruscan language persist to the 1st Century AD.
Around 900 BC, the Villanovan culture based on early Greek colonization of Italy was the beginning of what became the Etruscan Civilization in the area of what is now modern Bologna. The Villanovan culture constituted the first Iron Age presence on the Italian peninsula. Located on the West coast of Italy on the Central to Northern portion of the peninsula, the fledgling Etruscan culture covered the area that includes Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Lazio, and Campania and bordered the Tyrrhenian Sea, with enclaves in the East that bordered the Adriatic Sea.
While the cultural basis for the Etruscan Civilization stemmed from the Ancient Greeks, DNA research indicates that the Etruscan people were comprised of various European origins, with some genetic influence from the Anatolian region, probably dating back to around 5000 BC. According to the Greek historian Hellanicus of Lesbos, the Etruscans descended from Greek Thessalonians, while Pliny the Elder surmised that the Etruscans had come from Rhaetian people of Alpine origin. The esteemed Greek historian Herodotus opined that the Etruscans had come from Lydia and Anatolia. Other ancient historians assumed the Etruscans “had always been there.” Additional genetic testing has indicated Etruscan heritage included influence from the people of the Steppes that migrated from what is now modern Southern Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Genetically speaking, the Etruscans were largely the same people as those that founded the Roman civilization.
The Etruscan people transitioned from hunting and gathering origins to becoming farmers that engaged in a division of labor, allowing for efficient use of individual skills for the mutual benefit of the society. Villages and towns were established, with expansion of the Etruscan zone to include the regions we know as Tuscany, Northern Lazio, Western Umbria, the Po Valley, South-Eastern Lombardy, Southern Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Western Campania. Important Etruscan cities were eventually established at 12 locations and formed the Etruscan League (circa 600 to 500 BC), the beginnings of Etruscan statehood that evolved from a system of government by local chieftains to a confederation run by a monarchy and/or oligarchy, with a theocratic central basis for authority based on Ancient Greek myths, as evidenced by the use of the Gorgon as a symbol of government.
Please note that the 12 cities that formed the Etruscan League included Arretium, Caisra, Clevsin, Curtun, Perusna, Pupluna, Veii, and Tarchna. Spellings vary by source and era, and the modern cities at the same locations are known by different names. The 12 cities of the Etruscan League gives rise to the name “Dodecapoli” from the Greek for “12 Cities.” Etruscan cities and towns were usually built on highly defensible hills accompanied by earthen walls and sometimes ditches as well. The wisdom of such preventative defensive measures was not lost on other cultures, such as the Romans, that mirrored this Etruscan preoccupation with security.
As the Etruscan civilization grew and prospered, reaching its territorial maximum area around 750 BC, it became the preeminent culture of ancient Italy, without serious rival until the Roman civilization later began to draw even with the Etruscans to compete directly for the leading role of Italian civilization. In fact, Rome had been invaded by Etruscans just prior to about 600 BC, leaving a lasting Etruscan influence on the development of the Roman culture. These Etruscan invaders drained Roman marshes and made numerous civic improvements in the city, as well as establishing contact with other Latin settlements.
Having established domination over Italy, the Etruscans became a major trading society, developing trade relationships with the Celts to the North and the Greeks to the South, as well as with other areas of Italy. Leading Etruscan families amassed great wealth from their trading activities and lived in luxury commensurate with their times.
The Latin Romans suffered nearly a century of Etruscan domination, until evicting the Etruscan princes and kings from Rome in 509 BC. The experience of living under an Etruscan king is believed to have provided the impetus for Rome to develop a republic while shunning a monarchy. Not surprisingly, the Etruscans, dissatisfied with their eviction from Rome, made numerous efforts to reinsert Etruscan rule over the Eternal City. The Etruscans suffered a major military setback when their fleet was destroyed by a Greek fleet from Syracuse in 474 BC.
Losing hegemony over Rome and the defeat at Syracuse marked a gradual decline in the influence and power of the Etruscans, starting around 500 BC. Concurrently, Rome was on the rise, gaining power and influence while superseding the Etruscans as the premier Italian civilization. Over the course of the next few centuries, the Romans basically absorbed the Etruscan culture, incorporating the Etruscans into the Roman fold entirely. During this transitional time, Etruscan influence remained strong, with prominent “Roman” families having Etruscan origins and formerly Etruscan cities becoming prominent “Roman” settlements.
From the earliest proto-human hunter/gatherers to modern humans that first tilled the soil and created permanent settlements, the Etruscans drew on a rich and varied ethnic background to develop a major early civilization on the Italian peninsula, until eventually eclipsed by and absorbed by Rome. The descendants of these industrious and ambitious people of murky origin live today in Central Italy, carrying the genes and the legacy of their ancestors.
Question for students (and subscribers): Are you or any of your acquaintances descended from people from Central or Northern Italy? If so, you or they may be Etruscan! Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Captivating History. The Etruscans: A Captivating Guide to the Etruscan Civilization of Ancient Italy That Preceded the Roman Republic. Independently published, 2019.
Smith, Christopher. The Etruscans: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2014.
The featured image in this article, a map by 0 Noctis 0 of Europe with indication of the directions of the traffic of Etruscan and Greek products, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
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