origins of the Etruscans - indeed almost everything about them -
remains mysterious. It is even unclear when they first arrived in
the Italian peninsula and whether an entire people migrated or
only what became a ruling caste. Recent genetic studies of both
Etruscan human remains and local oxen provides evidence that a
connection with eastern Anatolia is not purely cultural and that
Herodotus was right when he stated that the Etruscans originated
in Lydia, southern Anatolia. DNA samples were obtained from three present-day Italian populations living in
Volterra, and the
Casentino in Tuscany. The sampled individuals were from families that had lived in these areas for at least three generations and had surnames limited to these areas. The results showed that all three groups, but especially those from Murlo, were more closely related to the samples from the near East than from other parts of Italy. The Murlo samples contained a genetic variant found only in the samples from Turkey and Lemnos, the island where a stele was discovered in 1885 inscribed in a pre-Greek language that is related to
Etruscan, and dating to the 6th century BC. Lydia is inland from
the island of Lemnos, and Smyrna (Izmir) from which Herodotus says
the Etruscan set out for Umbria and Tuscany, lies between the two.
Roman authors record that the Etruscans had a rich literature, but
only one book (now unreadable) has survived. By AD 100, Etruscan had been replaced by Latin.
Only a few scholarly Romans with antiquarian interests, such as Varro, could read
Etruscan and last person known to have been able to read it was the Roman emperor Claudius (10 BC – AD 54), who
is said to have compiled an Etruscan dictionary by interviewing the last few elderly rustics who still spoke the language.
Thus the Etruscan language is now known almost solely from some
13,000 mainly brief inscriptions and has yet to be fully
interpreted. It was evidently a language isolate that can be grouped with
Raetic, a language spoken in antiquity in the province of Raetia, in the Eastern Alps, to the north and west of Venetic.
Etruscan and Raetic are grouped with Lemnian, an extinct Aegean
language, to form the Tyrsenian language family which is an isolate family not demonstrably related to any other known language family.
In other words, Etruscan was not an Indo-European language. It is
also very likely that the Etruscans learned to write from their
Greek neighbours so that, while Etruscan inscriptions appear quite
suddenly in the historical record, the Etruscans themselves had been developing their culture and language
in situ on the Italian peninsula before the first historical record of their existence.
The Romans owed a great deal to the Etruscans, their accomplished predecessors and former enemies on the Italian
peninsula. They were known as Rasenna, and Tusci or Etrusci by Romans, whose historians
did not give their accomplishments due credit. However, over the
past two hundred years, archaeologists and art historians have
shown that the Etruscans occupied much of north-central Italy in the first millennium B.C.
and traded widely in the Mediterranean. Their prosperity and taste for luxury
connected them to trade routes that extended as far north as the Baltic Sea
from which they imported amber. Even now, much of what we know of
the Etruscans is derived from their rich tomb furnishings which
fill museums world-wide. One of the most comprehensive and best
organised Etruscan collections is in the Guarnacci Museum in Volterra
and Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca di
The Etruscans were second only to the Greeks themselves as a
medium for the introduction of Greek culture and its Pantheon of Gods to the Romans. The Etruscans
also developed a version of the Greek alphabet, that influenced Roman
script. They built the first cities in Italy and their influence shows up in
the later Roman architecture and engineering. The ruins of settlements and cities, especially in the
Maremma have revealed a great deal about Etruscan material culture, from huts
through houses to palaces. At locations around Grosseto,
Populonia etc. excavators
have uncovered remains of fortification walls, artisans' workshops and kilns, temples and grids of streets. Some cities were laid out
with separate zones for residences, industry and public buildings. Roads had ruts paved with stone, like
tram tracks, to provide a smoother ride in springless carriages and chariots. Etruscan settlements began evolving from collections of thatched huts to
tiled-roof, rectangular houses on stone foundations, then to real cities as early as the seventh century B.C. in which an Etruscan society, with wealthy elite, controlled a large population of slaves and serfs.
Remains of Etruscan tombs are also to be seen on the outskirts of Castellina in Chianti and Cortona.
Etruscan power and grip on the Italian peninsula began to decline in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.
about the History of Tuscany and Tuscan Culture.