Who were the Etruscans?

Chimera of Arezzo

Sometime around 1968, in the south of France, I remember looking up a hill as someone pointed out to me the remains of a Roman aqueduct, still there after 2,000 years – a high wall with arched openings and a stone channel on the top where water used to run.  The Roman system of aqueducts carried water for irrigation and drinking across much of Europe, just as the Roman roads created a transportation web.  Many modern expressways in Europe follow these same ancient paved highways, built by the Roman legionnaires.

What is not so well known is that the Romans did not themselves invent either aqueducts or the system of paved roads.  It was actually the genius of the Etruscans that developed these and a number of other technical wonders.  Etruscans had a high degree of technical knowledge.  They developed the intricacies of water and sewage management, plumbing, irrigation, and architectural designs.  Big bridges were originally built by Etruscans.

The Romans were warlike – Latian, native people from the region of Latia, and, as we know, they eventually conquered northern Italy, and the rest of the Roman Empire.

The Etruscans had great riches, including stone carvings and paintings, and they were fond of jewelry.  Around 10,000 samples of their written language have been found on tablets. It is a script still not deciphered, though it is known to be non-Indo-European.

The Etruscan language 

The Indo-European language group which extends from the east in India, all the way across Europe, first swept through Europe around 8,500 years ago, leaving untouched a swath of northern Italy, where later on, in Tuscany, the Etruscan language emerged – and another swath in the mountains of northern Spain, where the Basque language grew into being. Etruscan died out long ago, but Basque is still a living language. It is thought that Etruscan and Basque may be remnants of an older, earlier European language group, predating the Indo-European group.  Also outside the Indo-European language group are around three dozen other European languages known as the Uralic languages, including Estonian and Finnish.

The alphabet of the Etruscan language evolved from an alphabet in use by the Greeks, and before that, it was used by the Phoenicians.  From the Etruscans, it was borrowed by the Romans and became the “Roman” alphabet that we know today, used in English and most European languages.  So, we have the Etruscans to thank for the letters we are reading.

Most authorities believe the Etruscans came by sea from West Turkey, North Africa, or Crete.  They came from an advanced civilization, but their origin is not known for sure.

An Etruscan walled town

Like the Etruscans, the Minoans on Crete knew how to melt iron ore and make tools –  but not weapons.  Etruscan artisans made hinges, doors, locks, keys, and utensils for daily life – carved with dancers and animals.  Much of their artwork is found in gravesites, depicting men and women dancing and eating at banquets together.  They seem to depict social equality since the seating at banquets is equal for men and women.

Visiting gravesites with bright walls

A friend of mine, who we’ll call Abbie, since she prefers to remain anonymous, in 2002 went to Tuscany in the north of Italy and to Umbria which lies beyond Tuscany to the northeast. She returned once a year for four or five successive years, visiting numerous fields and archeological sites.  She recalls that sometimes churches were built on what had once been sacred sites; sometimes there was a spring there.  Nearly every town in these provinces has a museum with Etruscan artifacts.

Near Florence, going down some stairs into an underground room, where the ceilings were around five and a half feet high, Abbie found herself in a burial chamber. The people when they died had been buried in sarcophagi, carved with scenes from their lives. After that, she visited many other tombs, outside Siena, and near Lucca and other towns in Tuscany.

A Tuscany landscape west of Siena

The Etruscans founded the city of Lucca, which in 180 BC became a colony of Rome.  Siena too was built on top of an Etruscan settlement.  The Etruscans inhabited twelve regions or city-states.  Apparently they did not have a single capital city; their governance was through a council of representatives.

As with gravesites all over the world, there was a lot of looting over the years.  During one period, they cremated their dead, placing the ashes in smaller sarcophagi.  Much of their lives was spent preparing for the after-life, and going by their paintings on the tomb walls, they must have envisioned the after-life as a joyous time, when they would be happy.

The underground tombs were square rooms, with stone benches along the side, originally lined with grave goods, such as jewelry, drinking vessels, and tools.

On the walls were painted friezes of very colorful, vibrant scenes, of banquets, dancing, and musicians. Down-to-earth people, they enjoyed hands-on work like metal-working.  They seem settled and contended with their lives.  The underground gravesites often opened out into several rooms.

There were no scenes of war or conflict, so they must have been a peaceful people until they were attacked by the advancing Romans.

Tarquinia, the Etruscan Tarchnal, was among the twelve Etruscan cities. In the sixth century, BC, the Tarquinians fought against the Romans, and though they are said to have fought well, the Romans won that battle.  The wars for supremacy lasted over several centuries, and by 181 BC Tarquinia had become a municipality of the Roman Empire. The Etruscans had lost their independence.

The original site of the city of Tarquinia lies to the north of the current town on a plateau.  The two towns co-existed through the Middle Ages, with the older town dwindling in size, and the newer town thriving and becoming a major city.  In the old site of Tarquinia are cemeteries from the even older Etruscan times, consisting of many round buildings, with round roofs; the buildings being connected by passageways.  They are large, with diameters of maybe 50 to 70 feet.  Used as gravesites, they are all built of beautiful, precisely cut and shaped stones, perfectly fitted together. Seen from the outside the stones are gray.  Inside, the brightly-painted walls were once lined with grave goods.

Where the people lived

When the Romans took over Etruscans lands and cities in the later centuries BC, they learned metalwork and weaponry from the people they had conquered.

As is generally the case for people whose lands are invaded, many of the people were killed, but not all, and for a few hundred years, they co-existed, while Latin gradually replaced the Etruscan language. The Romans also picked up many practical inventions like waterworks.

At Rosella, a site about an hour north of Rome, can be found the remains of an Etruscan settlement, where people lived in rectangular houses, with the individual houses all joined together, along narrow streets.  There were no strong defenses, so the Romans had no difficulty in overrunning them.  Artists  and craftspeople, their social system was egalitarian, and their form of governance was a council system.

They were Bronze Age people, with their civilization extending from around 1200 to perhaps 100 BC.

In museum exhibits, can be found lots of sarcophagi with beautiful, very endearing carvings of people on the lid, men and women, sometimes with dogs.  Their faces are realistically done, with some young and some old – “faces one can connect with,” as Abbie puts it.

An Etruscan pendant

Who were they?

Who were the Etruscans?  To this day no one really knows.  The two most accepted theories are either that they grew into a civilization exactly were they were – in the Tuscany region of northern Italy – or that they came from Asia Minor, perhaps from ancient Lydia.  Some feel that they may be the ancient Sea Peoples, the Hyksos, who invaded Egypt round the thirteenth century BC.

The Greeks called them Tyrrhenian pirates, and the sea to the west of Italy is known as the Tyrrhenian Sea.  Herodotus says the founder of their civilization was the son, Tyrrhenus, of a Lydian king.  Could there be a connection with Tyre, in Lebanon, once a Phoenician city? We do not know. Only that they seem an engaging, lively people, inventive, creative, and peaceful.

Top photo: Author: Lucarelli / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain / An Etruscan bronze in the Archaeological museum in Florence / Chimera of Arezzo


Second photo: Photographer: rdesai  / Wikimedia Commons / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. / An Etruscan walled town on what used to be the main road leading south to Rome / Civita di Bagnoregio


Third photo: Photographer: Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany / Wikimedia Commons / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. / Tuscany landscape west of Siena


Fourth photo: Artist: PHGCOM / Wikimedia Commons / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license / An Etruscan pendant dating from 700 to 650  BCE




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