Identifying the Etruscans

Jack Percival, Dickson College, 2008

The civilisation of ancient Rome was influenced by many cultures before and of its time. One of the most influential and crucial of these cultures to the success of Rome was the Etruscan civilisation. The Etruscans were a part of early Roman legend, but were also influential in its historical beginnings as well. The Etruscans took many aspects of their own way of life, and used them to better the city of Rome when it was just a small village. They advanced and changed Rome’s architecture, engineering and buildings and influenced Roman religion and their art. The Etruscan Kings influenced culture, which permeated the Roman way of life for centuries to come.

The Etruscans were an ancient civilisation that occupied Italy as far back as 1200 BC, although the evidence suggests that they only began to flourish around 900 BC (Bradley 1990). How they came to be in Italy is still a mystery, but there are two major theories concerning this origin. The first is that they were native to Italy, specifically the region of Tuscany, as it was named after the Etruscans (Mysterious Etruscans 2008). The second theory is that they migrated from northern ancient Asia Minor (Herodotus 5th century BC, Bradley 1990).

The first encounter between the Etruscans and the Romans is documented as legend. Livy, an ancient Roman historian, wrote that there was a territorial battle between the Etruscan king Mezentuis, and the leader of the Trojan ancestors of the Roman people Aeneas (Livy c. 26 BC). The Etruscans from then on had strong ties with the Romans, as they were situated geographically close to one another and would often fight for ownership of land. Because of this, the Etruscans took over Rome in the sixth century BC, and established a rule of the then monarchy (Bradley 1990).

There were three Etruscan kings of Rome, who are said to have started to transform Rome from a village into a city. In about the middle of the sixth century Etruscans took over the villages at the Tiber crossing and made them into a true urban community with a paved and drained forum (marketplace) and a temple on the Capitoline hill. (Bradley 1990:23) At first it was just a growing community, however this was just the start of the growth into a city. The first Etruscan king, Tarquinius Priscus, is thought to have ruled between 616 - 579 BC and was responsible for introducing games to Rome, which included gladiatorial fights and chariot races (UNRV 2008, Bradley 1990). The second king Servius Tullius, who had an estimated reign between 578 - 534 BC. He is credited to furthering the two citizen classes into what they would later become, being the patricians and the plebeians, as well as building the first Servian wall, a wall surrounding the city of Rome (UNRV 2008). The third and final king was Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, who reigned between 534 - 509 BC (Mysterious Etruscans 2008). It was his tyrannical rule that eventually led the Roman people to revolt, which then led to the formation of a republic instead of a monarchy.

Although the last of the Etruscan kings was driven out in 509 BC, it wasn’t until about the third century BC, that the Etruscans had finally been defeated and wholly become a part of Rome, disappearing as a singular culture (Valerius no date sighted). This is why it is difficult to ascertain exact knowledge on the Etruscans, because they had become a part of Rome. The fact that no one has been able to translate their language makes it even harder to gather primary source materials. The only primary source material that can be used from the Etruscans themselves is archaeological evidence. This mainly includes tombs and what they hold, as well as objects and bones found in ruined towns.

When looking at what these tombs hold, it is possible to understand how the Etruscans lived, and what they thought essential in life. A tomb in Cerveteri, a modern Italian city sitting on top of an ancient Etruscan city named Caere, held a sarcophagus with a terracotta sculpture of a couple on top of it. This artwork, along with many other similar sarcophagi and sculptures, suggests that having a partner was an important part of their culture and life. It also shows that they valued their art, through the numbers of sculptures found throughout many of these tombs.

From examining these tombs and sarcophagi, it is evident that the Etruscans found the afterlife important. So important, that they would make their tombs look almost identical to their houses (Bradley 1990). The walls of a typical Etruscan tomb would be covered in carvings of household items like vases and furniture. This was so that they could take all of these items into the afterlife with them, similar to many ancient cultures, and is no exception for this tomb. This is similar in a way to the Romans, who for a time used sarcophagi. However the Romans then changed to burning their dead, which shows us that the afterlife was not as important to the Romans as it was for the Etruscans (Smith 1875).

However, the Etruscans did pass on some aspects of their religion to the Romans. This is shown through the striking similarities of the two cultures gods. For example, the three main Roman gods; Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, were directly associated with the triad of Etruscan gods; Tini, Uni and Menrva. The names of both gods of wisdom, Minerva and Menvra, are extremely similar (Bradley 1990). Another aspect of religion that carried from Etruria to Rome was the use of divination. The Etruscans used the flights of birds and the organs of animals (Bradley 1990) to find out how the gods felt and to predict events. Arnorbis, a Christian living around AD 300, wrote that: Etruria is the originator and mother of all superstition (Arnorbis AD 300 sourced through Mysterious Etruscans 2008). Rome was influenced by this superstition in its own religion.

The similarities in religions were most likely adopted during the time of the Etruscan kings of Rome. It was also during this time that Etruscan architecture was introduced. The two main architectural legacies carried on from the Etruscans were the vault and the arch (Bradley 1990). All through Roman history the vault and the arch are used in its architecture. A famous example of ancient Roman use of the arch is in the colosseum. This structure uses many arches over many floors, and has withstood thousands of years of decay. The use of a vault is seen in the still used sewers of Rome, built by the first Etruscan king of Rome around 600 BC (UNRV 2008). This shows that the Romans used the architectural knowledge, and also the engineering knowledge of the ancient Etruscans in many of their buildings.

Roman engineering was also influenced by the Etruscans. It was the first Etruscan king who originally drained the valleys and marshy areas around Rome, leading to more farming areas and growth in population (UNRV 2008). It was also the Etruscan people that helped plan the original Roman city, the Romans even sticking to the Etruscan “pattern” (Bradley 1990). The Etruscans also gave the Romans paved roads and bridges, making it possible to create and connect such a massive empire in the future.

Rome was subject to many outside influences during it’s early history. One such influence was the civilisation of the Etruscans, who ruled Rome for three generations at the time of it’s monarchy. It was during this time that Rome became a city, and soon after it began to flourish. The Kings gave the Romans entertainment, advances in engineering and architecture, which led to a larger possible population. The Etruscans influenced roman religion, both having similar gods, deities and rituals. The Etruscan people greatly changed and developed the city of Rome, and in doing so, influencing much of the Roman civilisation from then on.

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