The Etruscans – who were they and where did they come from?

The 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 Murlo, 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.

Etruscan

Etruscan terracotta statue

Etruscan musician

Tomb wall painting of an Etruscan musician

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 By AD 100, Etruscan had been replaced by Latin.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 Cortona.

Etruscan krater

An Etruscan krater

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, Roselle, Pitigliano, Vetulonia, 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.

More about the History of Tuscany and Tuscan Culture.

Etruscan Dodecapoli league of twelve cities

Etruscan civilisation map

Map showing the principal cities and towns of the Etruscans

The Etruscan cities most often included (with their more familiar Latin and Italian equivalents) are:

• Arretium (modern Arezzo)
• Caisra, Cisra (Caere or modern Cerveteri, and its frazione Ceri)
• Clevsin, (Clusium or modern Chiusi)
• Curtun (modern Cortona)
• Perusna (Perugia)
• Pupluna, Fufluna (Populonia)
• Veia (Veii or modern Veio)
• Tarch(u)na (Tarquinii or modern Tarquinia-Corneto)
• Vetluna, Vetluna (Vetulonia)
• Felathri (Volaterrae or modern Volterra)
• Velzna (Volsinii, presumed modern Orvieto)
• Velch, Velc(a)l (Vulci or modern Volci).

Other Etruscan cities, not members of the Dodecapoli:

• Vi(p)sul (Faesulae or modern Fiesole).
• Adria.
• Spina.
• Felsina (Bononia, modern Bologna).
• Mutna (Mutina, modern Modena).
• Parma.
• Rusellae, near modern Roselle Terme.
• Alalia in Corsica (Roman and modern Aleria).
• Capeva (Capua).
• Manthva (Mantua).
• Inarime(?) (Pitecusa (Greek Pithekoussai) or modern Ischia).

Click here for a list of Etruscan gods, goddesses and mythological figures.

Elena Spolaor

Elena Spolaor

About Elena Spolaor

Although Elena was born in Venice, she was brought up in Tuscany and is a historian and frequent contributor to online articles about life in Tuscany and Umbria. Her specialities are Tuscan and Umbrian local history and folklore.

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