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       The Etruscans: (Tyrrhenians)

The Etruscan civilization is the modern English name given to the ancient Italian civilisation in the area corresponding roughly to Tuscany (Apparently composed of 12 cities). The ancient Romans who followed them historically, called its creators the Tusci or Etrusci.

The Etruscan civilisation, as distinguished by its unique language, endured at least from the time of the earliest Etruscan inscriptions (c. 700 BC) until its assimilation into the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC (1)



   The Origin of the Etruscans:

The origin of the Etruscans has been a subject of debate since antiquity. Herodotus (c. 430 BC) said for example that the Etruscans came from Lydia, in Asia Minor, as the result of a famine around 1,200 B.C, establishing themselves over the native inhabitants of the region (Histories 1.94), whereas Dionysius of Halicarnassus (c. 30 B.C.) quoted an earlier historian, Hellanicus (contemporary of Herodotus), who objected to the Lydian origin theory on the basis of differences between Lydian and Etruscan languages and institutions. For Hellanicus, the Etruscans were Pelasgian's from the Aegean. Dionysius (Roman antiquities 1.30.2) himself believed that the Etruscans were of local Italian origin. Recent DNA research appears to show that at least part of the Etruscan population was related to people in Asia Minor (4), similar DNA tests on goats and cattle suggest Herodotus may have been the more correct of the three. (3)

Herodotus: 'Histories', 1.94: 'The Lydians have very nearly the same customs as the Hellenes, with the exception that these last do not bring up their girls the same way. So far as we have any knowledge, the Lydians were the first to introduce the use of gold and silver coin, and the first who sold good retail. They claim also the invention of all the games which are common to them with the Hellenes. These they declare that they invented about the time when they colonized Tyrrhenia [i.e., Etruria], an event of which they give the following account. In the days of Atys the son of Manes, there was great scarcity through the whole land of Lydia. For some time the Lydians bore the affliction patiently, but finding that it did not pass away, they set to work to devise remedies for the evil. Various expedients were discovered by various persons: dice, knuckle-bones, and ball, and all such games were invented, except checkers, the invention of which they do not claim as theirs. The plan adopted against the famine was to engage in games one day so entirely as not to feel any craving for food, and the next day to eat and abstain from games. In this way they passed eighteen years.

Still the affliction continued, and even became worse. So the king determined to divide the nation in half, and to make the two portions draw lots, the one to stay, the other to leave the land. He would continue to reign over those whose lot it should be to remain behind; the emigrants should have his son Tyrrhenus for their leader. The lot was cast, and they who had to emigrate went down to Smyrna, and built themselves ships, in which, after they had put on board all needful stores, they sailed away in search of new homes and better sustenance. After sailing past many countries, they came to Umbria, where they built cities for themselves, and fixed their residence. Their former name of Lydians they laid aside, and called themselves after the name of the king's son, who led the colony, Tyrrhenians'.

(Article: Feb, 2007. The Telegraph: Genes Prove Herodotus Right)


The Decline of the Etruscans

By around 500 BC, Rome had become the most important city on the central Italian mainland. This allowed it to shrug off its masters, the Etruscans, who worked for so long to make Rome what it was. After losing control of Rome to the south, they strengthened their naval power through an alliance with Carthage against Greece. In 474 BC their fleet was destroyed by the Greeks of Syracuse. From that time their power rapidly declined. The Gauls' overran the country from the north, and the Etruscans' strong southern fortress of Veii fell to Rome after a ten-year siege (396 BC), following which the Etruscans were absorbed by the Romans, who adopted many of their advanced arts, their customs, and their institutions.

The end of the Etruscan civilisation is dated at 54 AD. The same year that Emperor Claudius, the great lover of the Etruscan civilisation and husband of the Etruscan princess Urgulanilla died. Claudius was supposedly the last speaker of the ancient language and used his access to the private libraries to write 20 books entitled "Tyrrhenika" on the history of the Etruscan people (now lost).


   The Etruscan Language:

Contemporary reports from Greeks and Romans tell us that the Etruscans were an educated people with a range of literature, including religious and historic texts. Sadly, as was the case with the Mayan codices, almost all the literature was burnt by the Romans.

There is evidence that a significant portion of Etruscan literature was systematically destroyed following the Theodosian code, since it represented the Old Religion and was considered as idolatry and the work of the devil. (It is recorded that Flavius Stilicho, a regent for the Emperor Honorius between 394 and 408 CE, burnt a number of "Pagan volumes" which included the Tagetic books, which had been stored in the Temple of Apollo in Rome.) However there are other probable reasons that led to the demise of Etruscan literature. The question of the scope of Etruscan literature remains unanswered, but it is quite clear from other sources that it must have been quite substantial. Censorinus refers to the Annals of Etruria, and during the late Roman Republic and Early Imperial years it was considered quite fashionable for Roman Patricians to send their boys to Etruscan schools to further their education. Some of this would no doubt have been a grounding in the disciplina etrusca, but it seems unlikely that that was all that they learned. We also know that enough of the history of Etruria survived in written form even up to late Imperial times for the emperor Claudius to write his twenty volume history of Etruria. (2)

Regardless of this, a corpus of over 10,000 known Etruscan inscriptions remain, with new ones being discovered each year. These are mainly short funerary or dedicatory inscriptions, found on funerary urns, in tombs or on objects dedicated in sanctuaries. Others are found on engraved bronze Etruscan mirrors, where they label mythological figures or give the name of the owner, and on coins, dice, and pottery. Finally, there are graffiti scratched on pottery; though their function is little understood, they seem to include owners' names as well as numbers, abbreviations, and non alphabetic signs.

Although we know the sounds of the letters, we do not understand the words.

Archaic Etruscan: (7th - 5th centuries BC)


Neo-Etruscan: (4th-3rd centuries BC).


Examples of Etruscan Texts.

The longest surviving Etruscan text today: The 'Liber Linteus'

In 1848 or 1849, a nobleman from Slovenia, Mihail de Baric, bought a mummy in Egypt, which found its way into the National Museum of Zagreb in 1862. Where the mummy had been found and sold is unknown. The mummy consisted of the remains of a child. It was wrapped in a piece of linen cloth, which had been torn into wrapping binds. The linen cloth had been written on with texts in ink, apparently before it was torn into pieces and used as mummy wrapping. At first it was thought that the texts were a literal transcription from a text in Egyptian. In 1891, the Austrian Egyptologist J. Krall discovered that the linen consisted of Etruscan text.


These Gold plates (The Pyrgi Lamellae) were written in both Etruscan and Phoenician. They record a dedication to the Goddess called Astarte.


Etruscan Metallurgy.

Etruscan metalwork was highly regarded and imported by the Greeks and north Europeans. Several elaborate bronze pieces (tripods, bronze mirrors, cauldrons, pails and wine jugs), dating from the seventh to fifth centuries BC, have been found in many locations, including England and Scandinavia.

The Chimaera from Arezzo (C. 500 BC).

Other surviving examples of Etruscan metal sculpture include a sheet-hammered bust of a woman from Vulci (circa 600 BC), a charioteer from Monteleone (circa 540 BC),  the Apollo of Veii (circa 600 BC), a war god (circa 450 BC) and the Warrior (circa 350 BC). The Capitpline Wolf, the symbol of Rome, is also believed to be Etruscan, dating from about 500 BC. 

(More examples of Prehistoric Metallurgy)


   Religion and Mythology:

The Afterlife: Tomb Building.

The importance of the afterlife to the Etruscans is best illustrated in the valley of Cervtari, Etruscan tombs can be found. Within it lies  the Necropolis Della Banditacca, The necropolis is a city of the dead. On either side of a "main street" some 2km/1.5miles long, with a number of side streets, lie hundreds of tombs, including huge tumuli up to 30m/99ft in diameter and many tomb chambers hewn from the rock in the form of dwelling-houses, often with several rooms, with frescoes like the Tomb of Rilievi decorated with plaster relief's of mythological figures.

The tombs at Tarquinia and Cerveteri are particularly interesting because they are of the chamber type: a large mound would be piled on top of a circular wall with an entrance to it. The entrance would often lead downwards into a passageway and into a number of chambers, rather like a house. The one in the image below is particularly well known for the large number of relief sculptures showing the different types of implements and tools one would have had in one's own home at the time. This tomb is also interesting for the ceiling, which has obviously been sculpted to mimic the ceiling of housing of the time.



Etruscan priests made sacrifices to the gods and practiced haruspicy (hetacoscopy), or the art of divining the will of the gods by observing the livers of sacrificed animals, the patterns of lightning, and the flight of birds. All their methods of divination were carefully followed by the Romans for centuries after.


Chalchas the seer, divining a liver on a bronze (5th cent BC) Etruscan mirror. His wings and feet demonstrating the symbolic connection of seers between men and the gods.

(Vatican: Gregorian Museum, Rome, cat # 12240)

The Etruscan discipline of divining from liver inspection shows remarkably close correspondence to the form of divination developed in Mesopotamia and this can best be explained as the transmission of a �school� from Babylon to Etruria. The correspondence between Etruscan and Assyrian hepatoscopy is evident when one compares the Etruscan bronze liver found at Piacenza with the Mesopotamian clay models (see below). The system on the slaughter of sheep, the models of sheep livers from clay and metal and the custom of providing them with inscriptions for the sake of explanation, is something peculiar found precisely along the corridor from the Euphrates via Syria and Cyprus to Etruria. It can even be shown that both the Assyrian and the Etruscan models diverge from nature in a similar way; that is, they are derived not directly from observation but from common traditional lore. Models of livers are the concrete archaeological evidence for the diffusion of Mesopotamian hepatoscopy. Besides Mesopotamia such models have been found since the Bronze Age with the Hittites of Asia Minor; in Alalah, Tell el Hajj, and Ugarit in Syria; in Hazor and Megiddo in Palestine; and also on Cyprus. Assyrian hepatoscopy was practiced at Tarsus in Cilicia in the time of the Assyrians.


(Left) Etruscan bronze liver found at Piacenza. (Right) Babylonian 19th Cent. B.C. clay liver (British Museum)

(More about Divination)



Article: (Sept, 2012) NewsDiscovery.com:

'First Ever Etruscan Pyramids Found in Italy'.  (Quick-link)

Archaeologists have started clearing an underground pyramid-shaped vault, the top part of which has been used as a wine cellar in recent times. As they cleared away the top part, a series of tunnels, again of Etruscan construction, ran underneath the wine cellar hinting to the possibility of deeper undiscovered structures below. Beneath the cellar floor, they found 6th and 5th century B.C. Etruscan pottery with inscriptions as well as various objects that dated to before 1000 B.C. Digging through this layer, the archaeologists found 5 feet of gray sterile fill, which was intentionally deposited from a hole in the top of the structure.

"Below that material there was a brown layer that we are currently excavating. Intriguingly, the stone carved stairs run down the wall as we continue digging. We still don't know where they are going to take us," The material from the deepest level reached so far (the archaeologists have pushed down about 10 feet) dates to around the middle of the fifth century B.C. "At this level we found a tunnel running to another pyramidal structure and dating from before the 5th century B.C. which adds to the mystery,"

'The lead archaeologists are still perplexed as to the function of the structure though it is clearly not a cistern. Dr. Bizzarri notes that there is nothing like these structures on record anywhere in Italy or the Etruscan world. Dr. George, notes that it could be part of a sanctuary, and calls attention to the pyramid structures that were described in the literary sources as being part of Lars Porsena�s tomb [1]. Lars Porsena was an Etruscan king who ruled Chiusi and Orvieto at the end of the 6th century. Dr. Bizzarri is however cautious that even this parallel is not exactly what is beginning to appear here, but it does open up intriguing possibilities. Both agree that the answer waits at the base level which could be 4, 5 or more metres below the layer they have now reached'.

(Other Underground Structures)



(Prehistoric Italy Homepage)

(A-Z Pages)




1). Rix, Helmut. "Etruscan." In The Ancient Languages of Europe, ed. Roger D. Woodard. Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 141-164. 
2). http://www.mysteriousetruscans.com/
3). http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/etruscans/f/Etruscans.htm
4). http://ancienthistory.about.com/gi/o.htm
Further Research:
The mysterious Etruscans: http://www.mysteriousetruscans.com/
Etruscan Texts Project (ETP) - Online collection of Etruscan inscriptions: http://etp.classics.umass.
Etruscan Foundation - The study of the cultural and history of the Etruscans: http://www.etruscanfoundation.org


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