Why the Romans Don’t Want You to Know About the Etruscans
They’re the influential civilization hardly anyone’s heard of. Time to redress the balance.
The Romans. Famous for their straight roads, underfloor central heating, emperors, gladiators, cities, togas… Ask who invented something ancient and clever, and a spectral Roman arm will rise up from the annals of history and stake claim.
But none of the above ideas are Roman, even though they want us to believe they are. They have tried to erase the real founding civilization from getting the credit they deserve.
Well, enough is enough.
Step forward Etruscans. It’s your well-deserved turn in the spotlight.
The Etruscans were an ancient and powerful pre-Roman civilization who lived in Etruria. If Italy is a thigh-high boot, then Etruria is an inverted triangle which begins just above the front of the ankle and swoops upwards and across the thigh to the Veneto. Although there is evidence of Etruscan inhabitation at either end of Italy, the real focus is in north Lazio, Tuscany and western Umbria.
“They are the teachers of our teachers”
I have lived in Etruria for over 25 years. My house is a few hundred yards from an Etruscan temple and altar. I have found an Etruscan coin in my garden, a little bronze fragment with tiny Etruscan hands and sherds of their black pottery in the nearby field. I have learned as much as I can about the Etruscans. The more I discover, the more I am convinced that the Romans did a pretty good job of whitewashing these clever, literate, fun-loving people from history.
Some historians believe Rome was originally an Etruscan city and that Rome’s first kings were actually Etruscans. Unquestionably, the civilization shaped the way the Romans thought, their numerals, alphabet and their religion. The architectural features many people associate with Rome: roads, dikes, sewage and drainage systems, bridges and water diversion channels were designed by the Etruscans.
University of Chicago linguistics professor Yaroslav Gorbachov has said that “A lot of what the Romans did, a lot of their beliefs, came from the Etruscans. So they are the teachers of our teachers.”
The Etruscan civilisation was really a collection of independent city states that shared a common culture and language. Although the Etruscan golden period was between the fourth and sixth centuries BC, they were subsumed into the Roman civilization by the 1st century BC.
There are a number of theories about where Etruscans came from and speculation has been going on a long time. The historian Herodotus says they originated from Lydia, Turkey. Famine hit the land and the people drew lots to stay or go. The Etruscans were the “go” group according to the ancient historian.
His contemporary Hellanicus was of the belief that they were Pelasgians from the Aegean.
Meanwhile Greek historian Dionysus believed the Etruscans were “home-grown” and had their origins in the prehistoric Iron Age period known as the Villanovan in the 10th century BC.
Modern theories are helped by DNA analysis and advanced techniques. There are basically three, which rather pleasingly coincide strongly with the ancient theories:
1. They came as a group from the near East, perhaps Lydia in Asia Minor. In 2007, Italian geneticist Alberto Piazza announced the results of analysis he had carried out on paternal DNA from three groups of people in Etruscan areas: Murlo, Volterra and my own adopted Tuscan valley, the Casentino. The groups were chosen because they were already known to be genetically different from other Italians and they had strong family links going back at least three generations. The scientists claimed there was overwhelming genetic evidence that the Etruscans originated in old Anatolia, now southern Turkey. However, a subsequent study of maternal DNA in 2013 found no links to Turkey.
2. They were descendants of the Pelasgians, with a bit of Eastern influence.
3. They were descendants of the Raeti people, a group of Alpine tribes from areas corresponding to present-day central Switzerland, the Tyrol in Austria, northeast Italy, and Germany, south of the river Danube.
Everyone wants to lay claim to the Etruscans. I read a long comment thread on a linguistics site recently where someone was making a passionate case for the Etruscans having originated in Serbia. There is a very intriguing connection between Serbian and Etruscan. The Etruscans called themselves “Rasna” or “Rasenna” which may have been a reference to their roots or could just mean “the people”. The name for ancient Serbia is Rasena and many Slavic speakers claim that it is easy for them to read Etruscan.
Others claim they have Semitic origins and are descended from one of the 12 tribes of Israel.
I have also read that the Etruscans were part of a group of people who had to flee the legendary island of Atlantis when it was flooded. Were the Etruscans Atlanteans? Now there’s a thought!
The writing and the language
The question mark over their origins is just one of the reasons the Etruscans are often described as “mysterious”. This is alluring and romantic but not exactly true. If you are interested then there is a lot to discover, from physical evidence in the form of cities, tombs, artifacts and museum exhibits, to books and research online in Italian and English.
The epithet arose in part because of the lack of written literature. We have no Etruscan poems, stories or historical accounts, although there are tantalising references to the fact these works existed. Their art depicts books and scrolls. Roman historian Varro refer to the Tuscae historiae (Etruscan histories) and the Emperor Claudius wrote a 20-volume history of the Etruscans called Tyrrenika. These works have been lost.
If you imagine trying to construct a history of our own civilization based solely on what you find written in cemeteries, then you will have a fair idea of the problem.
It could be chance, of course. Or the fact that they mainly wrote on linen cloth and wax tablets, so nothing remains. But a more sinister and more likely explanation is that this was a calculated, systematic elimination of the history of a pagan people, perhaps as a result of the spread of Christianity.
The Etruscans did leave something for us, though. There is one text of about 1200 words taken from a book written in ink on linen and dating back to the first century BC. It was only preserved because the strips of linen were subsequently used to wrap an Egyptian mummy, now in Zagreb museum. It contains a calendar and instructions for sacrifice and is the longest piece of Etruscan text to date.
There are also over 10,000 fragments of writing, mostly taken from tombs. This inevitably leads to an incomplete picture. If you imagine trying to construct a history of our own civilization based solely on what you find written in cemeteries, then you will have a fair idea of the problem.
Their writing, which starts to appear in the 7th century BC after contact with Greek traders, is unlike any other in the world, yet to me is reminiscent of runic script. It takes some letters from the Greek alphabet and often reads from right to left, although sometimes it has been found with alternate lines reading left to right then right to left.
There is little problem in interpreting the individual letters of their alphabet, in fact abecedaria have been discovered, including the earliest near Grossetto in Tuscany, a wax tablet with 26 letters. The alphabet was later adapted to 20 letters and used extensively in Etruria and more widely.
The problem lies not with the alphabet, but with the meaning of the words. Some breakthroughs have been made. The Pyrgi tablets, three golden pages, two in Etruscan, one in Phoenician, were discovered in 1964 in the old city of Pyrgi, now Santa Severa, on Italy’s Tyrrhenian coast. They are a kind of mini Rosetta stone, the first bilingual text to be found. They are a dedication to the Phoenician goddess Astart, but the rest is not totally clear. They may refer to some kind of contract, but whatever, it helps move our understanding forward.
There have been attempts to find out what Etruscan sounded like. This short video on YouTube gives you some idea.
Etruria was a very rich natural environment, which helped Etruscan society flourish. They proved themselves experts in hydraulics, regulating water courses and draining marshland and lagoons. This meant they could cultivate the land and grow food. They created enclosed fields and grew vines, fruit trees, grain and fibres for textiles using advanced agricultural techniques. (It wasn’t the Romans who “invented” square fields.)
They used the abundant forests of the region to build ships and houses and to fuel the burgeoning metalwork industry made possible because of the area’s mineral resources including silver, copper, tin, and lead.
Their successful exploitation of natural resources led to increased international trade with many maritime nations including the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Near East. The Etruscans exported wine, olive oil, iron and bucchero pottery and imported raw materials and ceramics, particularly Greek pottery. Inevitably this trade also led to interchange of ideas, technology, culture and art.
Their metalwork is stupendous, particularly their jewellery. Their belief in the afterlife meant that they left glorious, colourful pieces in tombs. They used gemstones, glass beads and gold, often depicting the natural world.
It’s hard to believe these exquisite items — earrings, brooches, necklaces — were made 2500 years ago. The Etruscans took existing techniques known in Egypt and Mesopotamia to a whole new level, using filigree, embossing and granulation. Granulation is where tiny beads of gold are fixed to a base through heat only, no solder. Their craftsmanship was so impressive that there was an Etruscan revival in the nineteenth century, notably led by Italian jeweller Fortunato Pio Castellani.
Growing power, fading power
The Etruscan civilization was in essence a collection of powerful and independent cities, each with its own way of doing things, which was not always the best tactic and which would ultimately head to their defeat by the Roman empire.
The early and middle years were good though. By the fifth century, the Etruscans dominated the Italian coast and its seas. Thanks to lots of forests, they had amazing wooden ships powered by oars and used them to great advantage. This power did not go unchallenged, there were many battles with the Greeks and the trading rival Syracuse. It was after being heavily defeated by Donysius I of Syracuse, who basically attacked everything the Etruscans owned along the coastline, that they lost their control of the ports and seas and by the third century BC their maritime dominance had gone.
The Etruscans were warriors as evidenced by their grave goods: spears, shields, bronze breastplates and helmets, despite historians describing them as rather girly cowards. (Never believe history written by the winning side). They loved horses and were skilled riders, although the ornate chariots found in their tombs may not have been used in battle. They had a lot to defend and a lot of people to defend it from: the Celts from the north, the increasingly powerful Rome from the south, each other (sometimes city fought city) — there were wars, treaties, truces, sieges (like the 10-year siege of Veii by the Romans) alliances, more wars…
The end was inevitable as Rome’s power grew and the Etruscan cities failed to unite against the common enemy. Cities fell like ninepins: Chiusi, Perugia, Tarquinia, Orvieto and Troilum. When Cerveteri fell in 273 BC it was pretty much the last straw and Rome became the dominant force in Italy. The Etruscans still had to fight both alongside and against their Roman counterparts over the next couple of centuries, but really their days as the master civilization and superpower were over.
Gods and divination
Religion played a big part in Etruscan society. They believed that the universe was ruled by gods and that humans had only a small, albeit meaningful, part to play in the cosmos. They thought that the gods’ intentions could be seen in almost every aspect of the natural world, from the vagaries of the weather to how wild fruits grew.
Although we don’t have the original Etruscan texts (if only!) Roman historians relate the story of how these beliefs, which they call the Etrusca disciplina, were delivered to the people by a founding prophet called Tages, a strange mix of boy and wise old man. The myth says that a man was ploughing his field when suddenly Tages emerged from an especially deep furrow and started talking to him. A crowd gathered, as they do, and Tages told them how to tell the future using signs, and other magical things. It was probably quite hard to go back to ploughing after that, I imagine.
Interpreting lightning was one Etruscan divination discipline, while another involved the flight of birds. The third common method of prediction was haruspicy — examining the liver of a sacrificed sheep or chicken for particular features which the “haruspex” (priest specialising in liver reading) would then interpret. This may sound far-fetched, but the practice was practised by the Babylonians and has also been depicted on Greek vases.
A 2000-year-old bronze model of the liver divided into 40 sections inscribed with the names of 24 gods was found in Piacenza and is now on display in the Etruscan Museum in Rome.
Talking of Rome, our copycat friends the Romans relied heavily on Etruscan methods when predicting the future. Remember the famous soothsayer’s line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Beware the Ides of March?” This comes from an incident related by Roman historian Suetonius where Spurinna, an Etruscan haruspex, used those very words to warn Emperor Caesar of the date of his assassination.
One of the most attractive aspects of Etruscan culture is their equal treatment of women. They dined and reclined with their men and, married or single, were allowed to go out freely in public, dressed up to the nines. They liked to sing, dance and drink, rode horses astride, raised children and had their own names, rank and legal rights. As you might imagine, this pissed off the Romans big time. They liked their women barefoot and pregnant, seen but not heard, possessions not individuals. The Romans (and Greeks) were horrified at Etruscan women’s behaviour, distorting history to portray them as sex-mad, debauched, out-of-control prostitutes.
This rewriting of history is not unusual. It was common practice for Greek and Roman historians and poets to present a somewhat skewed portrayal of the Etruscan persona (by the way ‘persona’ probably originated from the Etruscan word φersu meaning a mask worn in a play.) In Maria Beatrice Bittarello’s paper, The Construction of Etruscan ‘Otherness’ in Latin Literature she points out that Virgil, Livy and Silius talk of the Etruscans cowardice, effeminacy, pride, obsession with divination and love of luxury. She quotes a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid, stating Etruscans are only interested in “serving Venus and Bacchus in sacred banquets where they drink, eat, make love and dance.”.
In the paper’s introduction Bittarello puts it rather well when she says: “…the stereotypical descriptions of the ancient Etruscans in the works of Roman historians originate in a carefully calculated and consciously realised attempt to marginalize a prestigious civilization, whether Rome had an Etruscan past (or a cultural debt towards Etruria) or not.”
There’s little doubt that Etruscan artifacts have been found for many hundreds, if not thousands of years. But it was really only during the Renaissance that people started to recognise the importance of this civilization, thanks to collectors like Medici Pope Leo X and the first Archduke of Tuscany Cosimo I de Medici. Cosimo is rumoured to have been so enthusiastic about Etruscan finds that he is said to have personally helped with the restoration of the famous chimera of Arezzo. His collection forms the foundation of the Archaeological Museum in Florence (which by the way, is absolutely wonderful and never crowded even if the lighting is a bit dodgy.)
Even then it would be a few centuries before real Etruscan excavations began, and the first major archaeological evidence in Tarquinia, Cerveteri, and Vulci was only found in the nineteenth century. That was when the passion for Etruscheria really took off, so to speak. Museums began to add the objects unearthed in various digs to their collections, as did the aristocracy of Europe. Goodness knows how many precious relics lurk in the attics and cellars of assorted castles and stately homes across the continent.
New information surfaces all the time which confirms how advanced these people were and how brilliantly they worked with nature and the resources around them.
In 2000, divers searching for a Second World War plane 60 metres down off the southern coast of France found something completely unexpected — about 60 Etruscan amphorae of the same design, scattered along the ocean bed. Subsequent investigation discovered the intact lower hull of the ship lying under hundreds of amphorae, the best-preserved Etruscan shipwreck ever found. State-of-the-art tests on several of the unbroken amphorae have shown that they contained tartaric acid — a biochemical marker of wine, as well as pine resin, rosemary and thyme. In other words, the Etruscans were exporting wine to France, possibly for medicinal reasons, given the addition of herbs. The amphorae were from Cisra now Cerveteri, in central Italy. So, the French wine-making tradition had its origins in Etruria.
In 2010 the first ever intact Etruscan house was discovered by archaeologists in Vetulonia about 120 miles north of Rome. Dating back 2400 years it still had terracotta tiles, brickwork, ceramics and household furniture, there were even 100 iron nails which had held the wooden beams in place and two bronze door handles. Having lived in central Italy for over 25 years I can tell you that the bricks and tiles could have come from my house! Local architecture has changed very little and the digital reconstruction of this Etruscan home looks exactly like many of the farmhouses you see all around the area. The house had been destroyed by fire in around 79 AD and the chief archaeologist described it as “a kind of little Pompeii”.
A rare discovery was made in Forcello, Mantua, in 2017. The charred remains of bees, honeycomb and honey found in a workshop dating back to 510–495 BC were analysed and showed that the bees fed on aquatic plants as well as grapevines, both surprising revelations, pointing to a practice of beekeeping on boats along rivers. This was described a few centuries later by Pliny the Elder.
In 2016, there was an incredible find at Poggio Colla, near Vicchio in Tuscany. During the annual excavations of the Mugello Archaeological Project, sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania and the Southern Methodist University, archaeologists found an ancient Etruscan stone stele which had been used in the foundations of a temple wall. The 500-pound slab had been buried there for over 2500 years and subsequent examination showed that it contained over 120 Etruscan characters along its sides, making this the longest Etruscan inscription ever found. It is still being translated but was a dedication to the fertility goddess Uni and may possibly also contain instructions for worship. It is incredibly rare to find a non-funerary inscription and scholars are wildly excited about the new words they are likely to find.
The site also yielded a shard of bucchero pottery depicting the earliest scene of childbirth in European art, which together with the Uni stele, lends credence to the idea of some kind of fertility cult at Poggio Colla..
Gone but not forgotten
The Etruscan civilization reached its zenith in the sixth century BC, but by the second century they had all but disappeared or been subsumed into Roman culture, their weakening power evidenced in archaeological terms by increasingly modest tombs, a decline in imported pottery and no more public building.
I hope I have given you some insight into these magnificent and overlooked people. To perhaps give you the motivation to delve a little deeper, to seek them out when you visit Italy again. If their tomb art is anything to go by they lived life to the max, enjoying the outdoors, dancing, singing, carousing and playing music, including the double flute. They sound an absolute riot. I would love to have gone to one of their banquets.
I don’t think it is putting it too strongly to say that without the Etruscans, the Romans would not have been the culture and superpower the world remembers and reveres. They had great teachers.
Please give them the credit they deserve.
If you enjoyed this you might like The Secrets Hidden in Achilles’ Shield about the real motive for the Trojan war!