Etruscan Civilization

Etruscan Civilization, culture created and developed on the Italian Peninsula by the ancient people of Etruria during the 1st millennium BC.

At the time of its greatest power, between the 7th and 5th centuries BC, Etruria probably embraced all Italy from the Alps to the Tiber River. Its name is the Latin version of the Greek name Tyrrhenia or Tyrsenia; the ancient Romans called the people of the country Etrusci or Tusci, from which is derived the name of the modern Italian region of Tuscany.

Attempts to identify the origins of the Etruscans have been inconclusive, because the ancient traditions do not agree on this point. No lack of speculation exists on the subject, from antiquity to the present. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus maintained that the Etruscans came from Lydia, an ancient country in western Asia Minor. The Roman historian Livy and the Greek historian Polybius agreed with Herodotus, as did the Roman poets Publius Papinius Statius and Tiberius Catius Silius Italicus. A dissenting opinion was registered by another ancient Greek historian of the Augustan period, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who held that the Etruscans were an indigenous Italian race.

Archaeological discoveries have shed much light on early Etruscan history. Authorities are now generally agreed that the earliest settlements of Etruria were along the low, marshy coastal land of Tuscany. The first permanent settlements, Vetulonia and Tarquinii (now Tarquinia), probably date to about the end of the 9th century BC. At that level of the excavations, new types of sepulchers were found, differing greatly from earlier burial structures of the region and containing quantities of articles from other regions (amber, silver, gold, and Egyptian gemwork) not found in any of the older tombs. The character of their art and many distinctive features of their religion make it clear that the original Etruscans were an Oriental or Middle Eastern people. The conclusion of most archaeologists, therefore, is that the Etruscans did emigrate from a region in Asia Minor, if not precisely from Lydia, as Herodotus supposed. The original homeland of the Etruscans was probably somewhere between Syria and the Hellespont (Dardanelles).


From very early times Etruscan society was dominated by a firmly entrenched aristocracy that exercised strict control over the political, military, economic, and religious aspects of the peoples' lives. By the 6th century BC several city-states, including Tarquinii and Veii, dominated their respective geographic regions and dispatched colonists to adjacent areas. Some of their leaders, including the semilegendary Etruscan kings of Rome such as the Tarquins—Lucius Priscus and Lucius Superbus—may have achieved their positions because they were accomplished warriors. They continually aligned their independent cities with one another for economic and political gain. Warrior-kings also forged economic ties through marriage.

In response to the threat that these alliances posed to their own interests, the Romans, Greeks, and Carthaginians might also unite against the Etruscans. By the 5th century BC, Etruscan power was challenged and severely curtailed. The navy from the city of Syracuse soundly defeated an allied Etruscan fleet in a sea battle off the coast of Cumae in 474 BC. In an effort to regain the seas, an Etruscan federation aligned itself with Athens in the ill-fated assault on Syracuse in 413 BC. After a siege of some ten years, the city of Veii was defeated (396 BC) by Rome in its struggle to control the overland routes north. This victory marked the beginning of Rome's gradual conquest of Etruria, which was not completed until 283 BC.

The 3rd century BC was a particularly dark period for the Etruscans, as the Romans, having subdued most of the central and southern peninsula of Italy, turned their major attention northward. In turn, the Etruscan cities of Caere, Tarquinia, and Vulci were forced to pay tribute and to cede some of their territories to Rome. Dissension among the aristocracy and insurrections by the lower classes followed, resulting in the total collapse of the social structure of cities such as Volsinii. Realizing their plight, several Etruscan cities then entered into alliances with Rome.

Such alliances linked many Etruscan cities with Rome in such a way that Roman laws often had an impact on the Etruscan people. Attempts to rebel against Roman rule, at one point in alliance with the Umbrians and the Gauls, were defeated. The ties between Rome and Etruria were strengthened in the 1st century BC, when the Etruscans accepted the offer of Roman citizenship. Their newly gained status was soon eroded, however, when they supported the losing side in the Roman civil wars (88-86 BC; 83 BC). The victor, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, took extreme vengeance, razing cities, seizing land, and imposing restrictions on Etruscan civil rights.

The brutality of Sulla so devastated the Etruscans that their subsequent attempts at revolt were inconsequential. Over a century later, Augustus sent new colonists to Etruria. These people worked with, not against, the Etruscans, and succeeded in accelerating the Romanization of the region.

Political and Military Structure

Because the origins of the Etruscans are moot, one can only suggest that the warrior heads of aristocratic families conquered those areas that were eventually to become independent Etruscan cities, each ruled over by its own king. As a result, the Etruscans never achieved a true national unity, although individual cities sent out colonies to neighboring regions and often entered into diplomatic alliances not only with each other but also with foreign states. It is apparent from the course of the history of the region that each Etruscan city responded to crises in terms that were deemed beneficial for its own survival without regard for the interests of its neighbors.

The characteristic form of governmental organization in Etruria was the confederacy of cities. At one time there appear to have been three separate Etruscan confederacies—the northern, the southern, and the central—each made up of 12 cities. The only confederacy of historical significance was the central confederacy, a loose political and religious organization that convened annually at the shrine of the deity Voltumna, overlooking Lacus Volsiniensis (now Lake Bolsena) in Latium. Its accomplishments were meager, however, as it was probably preoccupied with religious rather than political matters.

No authoritative list of the 12 member cities of the central confederacy exists; their names, as deduced from allusions by Livy, by Dionysius, and also by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, were: Arretium (Arezzo), Caere (Cerveteri), Clusium, Cortona, Perusia (Perugia), Populonia, Rusellae, Tarquinii (Tarquinia), Veii (Veio), Vetulonia, Volaterrae (Volterra), and Vulci. Annually elected magistrates chosen from the nobility and apparently called lucumones governed each Etruscan city.

The Etruscans, at the height of their power, possessed imposing military strength, although it was probably not coordinated among the city-states. The infantry appears to have been the mainstay of the force. Principal weapons were the spear and the battle-ax, the latter being sometimes used for throwing as well as for striking. The bow and the javelin were also used; arrows and javelins are frequently found in excavated Etruscan tombs. Helmets and shields of various designs were adapted from those of the Greeks and of the tribes inhabiting the Eastern Alps. Swords were apparently rare and highly prized. It is considered likely that the cavalry formed an important part of the Etruscan army; chariots have been discovered in every large sepulcher. The navy was remarkably powerful and virtually dominated the Mediterranean for almost two centuries.


The Etruscans were influenced by the many traders from the eastern Mediterranean who came to the Italian Peninsula. Evidence indicates that the Phoenicians were the first to arrive, probably in the 8th century BC. They were in search of raw materials, such as unworked metals and perhaps wood and leather, which they exchanged for the finished products of the Middle East. In time Greek merchants, established at Pithekoussai, began to challenge Phoenician mercantile supremacy. By 625 BC vases manufactured in Corinth filled the Etruscan markets. In the late 6th and 5th centuries BC Attic vases eclipsed Corinth ware, and these, including acknowledged masterpieces of Greek vase painting, were probably exchanged for Etruscan utensils in bronze, which the Athenians were thought to prize.

In the 6th century BC the Etruscan mercantile network included exchanges of early Iron Age goods with princes of Gaul (France) and the peoples of Tartessos and Ampurias, near Barcelona, in Spain. Many of the wars fought, and alliances forged, by the Etruscan cities after the 5th century BC were driven by economic forces.


The lack of documents renders the study of Etruscan religion extremely difficult. The religious laws of the land, according to Livy and Cicero, seem to have been codified in three sets of books that bore the generic title of Etrusca Disciplina. The first, Libri Haruspicini, dealt with divination from the entrails of a freshly sacrificed animal. (The Etruscans were known for their skill not only in discerning divine will by examining entrails but also for interpreting omens of all kinds, particularly those based on the flight of birds entering and leaving certain sectors of the sky.) The second set of books, Libri Fulgurales, expounded the art of divination by lightning. The third set, Libri Rituales, was of wider scope; it concerned ritual practices as well as Etruscan standards of social and political life. A fourth set existed, according to the 4th-century Latin writer Servius, dealing with animal gods.

The names of several deities have survived, but the precise functions of these gods are unknown. According to certain late Roman writers, the deities Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva are represented in the Etruscan religion by Tinis, Uni, and Menrva, respectively. Sethlans was the Etruscan counterpart of Vulcan; Fuflans, of Bacchus; and Turms, of Mercury. Catha was the sun god; Tiv, the god of the moon; and Thesan, the god of the dawn. Turan was Venus; and Aplu, Apollo. Above these deities presided a group of nameless powers, personifications of Fate, and probably the original chthonian (underworld divinities of the early Greeks). Many elements of the Etruscan religion were embraced by Romans, including the concepts of the cyclic return of the golden age and the appropriation of the rite of human sacrifice, which may have given rise to the gladiatorial games.


After the Roman conquest of Etruria the Etruscan language fell into disuse. Writing in the 1st century BC, the Greek historian Dionysius called the language unlike any other, thus noting a difficulty that has since hindered attempts to translate its surviving fragments. Although knowledge of the Etruscan language is still very limited, scholars have identified it as not related to the Indo-European family of languages. Linguists have made some progress in deciphering the inscriptions on tombs, which represent most of the extant examples of Etruscan writing. Taking clues from the subject matter of sculptures and paintings that decorate the tombs, they have identified many proper names of historical and religious figures. They also have derived the probable meaning of many other words by using the cryptographer's method of testing the appropriateness of a particular interpretation of a word in all the places in which it appears. The Etruscan language is often cited as the classic illustration of certain decoding problems.

The Etruscan alphabet contained 26 letters in its earliest known form and 20 in its latest form. It somewhat resembles the Greek alphabet, but the vocabulary and grammar of the two languages differ. The Roman alphabet, with modifications, is derived from the Etruscans. Three of the earliest Etruscan inscriptions extant are those on two statues and a black earthenware cup dating from before 700 BC. Thousands of sepulchral inscriptions remain, but they consist largely of names. The only extant manuscript, now in the museum of Zagreb, Croatia, is a liturgical text written on 12 linen strips, that were found among the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy of Greco-Roman times. No Etruscan literary works or references thereof survive.

Art and Architecture

Etruscan art reveals its relation to that of the Greeks, (in both Greece and southern Italy) and to that of Egypt and Asia Minor. It also exhibits Italian elements and reflects distinctively Etruscan religious beliefs. Etruscan art had great influence on subsequent Roman styles. Most present-day knowledge of it comes from Etruscan tombs.


Nothing remains of Etruscan palaces, public buildings, and early temples, all built of wood and brick. Votive ceramic models of temples, as well as traces of later stone structures, indicate that temples were built in enclosures and had tiled, gabled roofs supported on pillars, like their Greek counterparts. A Greek temple, however, was built on an east-west axis on a low terrace and could be entered from a colonnade on all four sides; an Etruscan temple, to meet religious requirements, was located on a north-south axis and stood on a high podium with a four-columned porch in front of three doors leading to three parallel rooms for the three chief Etruscan gods. The roof was decorated along the eaves and ridgepole and at the gable ends with brilliantly painted terra-cotta statuary, which also served the practical purpose of hiding tile joints and rafter ends. Plaques with low-relief figures adorned the entablature. Roman temples were patterned on the form developed by the Etruscans.

Most Etruscan cities were laid out in the form of a quadrangle, with fortifications and with encompassing walls enforced by double gates and towers. These building methods were also used outside Etruria. The wall surrounding the early city of Rome, reputedly built during the time of Servius Tullius, (reigned 578-534 BC), was of Etruscan construction.

No remains of Etruscan homes have been found, but the interiors of tombs and house-shaped funerary urns, suggest that they had flat or gabled roofs of tile and one to three rooms. Later examples had an atrium, with an open roof over a pool for rainwater, and a loggia—an Italian plan continued by the Romans. The Etruscans also built aqueducts, bridges, and sewers.

Outside the cities were cemeteries containing family tombs. They were built underground but had large vaults of overlapping stones covered by mounds of earth. Early tombs were simple structures, no more than a narrow passage partitioned into two rooms, with a small alcove on either side of the front room. Later tombs contained several rooms laid out to resemble a house. They held sarcophagi, funerary urns, and offerings.


The Etruscans, like most ancient peoples, did not regard art for its own sake but created objects for either utilitarian or religious purposes. As a result, virtually no artists are known by name and few examples of strictly public, civic art, or sculpture of size in durable stone exist. Moreover, Etruscan art, while sharing general characteristics, is clearly differentiated from one city to the next, reflecting the political independence of each.

The most famous Etruscan works are in terra-cotta, or baked clay, and these include not only sculptures on sarcophagi lids such as, for example, a reclining couple (late 6th century BC, Villa Giulia, Rome) from Caere, but also works from temples, such as revetments to protect the wood and both roof and pedimental sculptures. The artists from Vulci excelled in sculpting images from nenfro, a local limestone, of which the Sphinx and Winged Lion in Rome are representative. As expected, the Etruscans were exceptional bronze workers. The She-Wolf (circa 500 BC, Museo Capitolino, Rome) and the Chimaera (5th-4th century BC, Museo Archeologico, Florence) from Arretium are remarkable examples of bronze animal sculpture; the life-size statue of Aulus Metellus as an orator, known as Arringatore (1st century BC, Museo Archeologico), ranks as one of the finest bronze statues of its era.


Surviving Etruscan painting consists chiefly of murals on the stone or plastered stone walls and ceilings of tombs, especially those at Tarquinii (now Tarquinia) and around Clusium (now Chiusi). A few painted plaques are also extant. In murals of the early period (6th-5th cent. BC) the drawing is strong, the colors bright and flat. Figures are stylized, heavy, and often outlined in black. Some murals have subjects from religion, as on four slabs from Caere (c. 550 BC, British Museum, London), or from Greek literature, such as scenes from the life of Achilles in the Tomb of the Bulls (530-520 BC) at Tarquinii. Most murals from Tarquinii are lively depictions of the games, dancing, music, and banqueting that accompanied Etruscan funerals, as those from the Tomb of the Augurs (520-510 BC) and the Tomb of the Triclinium (480-470 BC).

Later tombs from the 4th century on, influenced by Hellenistic art and the decline of Etruscan power, were more realistic in style and strikingly gloomy in feeling. Prominent are bloody war scenes, as in the François Tomb (late 4th cent. BC) at Vulci (near Tarquinii), and frightening demons of the land of the dead, as in the Tomb of the Ogre (2nd cent. BC) at Tarquinii.

Decorative Arts

The Etruscans at first imported or copied painted Greek pottery. They also developed a distinctive polished black bucchero ware with incised or relief decoration suggesting metalwork. It was at its height in the late 7th and 6th centuries BC. Working in bronze, the Etruscans made chariots, bowls, candelabra, cylindrical coffers, and especially polished mirrors, all richly engraved with mythological motifs. They also crafted fine gold, silver, and ivory jewelry, using filigree and granulation.

The influence of Etruscan art on the Romans was supreme from the 6th century BC until the ascendancy of Greek styles in the 3rd century BC.

See also Greek Art and Architecture; Roman Art and Architecture.