The Etruscans

Deb Mak, Dickson College 2009

printThe Etruscans were a strong, cultured race with influences that changed Rome, increasing its power and territory. Their religious, architectural, political and cultural customs were absorbed into Rome’s culture over the centuries after their decline. The Etruscans ruled Rome for a short period of time, with the last three kings of Rome being Etruscan. The Etruscans were called Etrusci by the Romans and Tyrsenoi or Tyrrhenoi by the Greeks. They called themselves the Rasenna. Etruscan presence in Italy can be traced back to 1000 BC in modern day Tuscany. However, it is still unknown as to exactly how they came to be there.

There are two main accounts on the origins of the Etruscans according to various Greek writers. However, the credibility of all sources has been questioned. Herodotus claimed that the Etruscans were originally from Lydia and that they migrated to Italy after a famine, led by the Lydian king’s son, Tyrsenos. Herodotus’ theory would support why the Greeks called the Etruscans Tyrsenoi or Tyrrhenoi.[1]

Dionysius lived centuries after the Etruscans and their dominance in Italy. He was of the opinion that the Etruscans were native Italians. He supported his theory by saying that the Lydians of his time had little in common with the Etruscans who had had such a powerful influence over Rome. He also referred to texts written by Xanthus of Lydia. Xanthus wrote a history of Lydian culture, and was alive at the same time as Herodotus, but mentioned nothing of the migration of any of his peoples to other lands due to famine .[2]

Although little is known of their origin, artefacts left behind by the Etruscans give insight to their culture and lifestyle. A sculpture (Attachment 1) of an Etruscan man and woman dining together shows that Etruscans believed in more gender equality than most cultures of that time, as women were not allowed to dine with their husbands in most other cultures. Romans were shocked by the fact that Etruscan women were respected, and described this behaviour as barbaric.

The Etruscan language had a Greek influence. Although many whole words cannot be translated, even to this day, the Etruscan alphabet has a resemblance to the Greek one. A tombstone (Attachment 2) was found in Lemnos which depicted carvings of a warriors head. There was an inscription in the tombstone in the Etruscan language, also with Asia Minor influences, which defined a link between the two cultures.[3]

Over time, the rich Etruscan culture became incorporated into the culture of the Romans, altering their early history and their future traditions. The Romans started out as groups of small villages. When the Etruscans took over the Roman villages, they transformed them into the city that Rome is today. They expanded the villages, establishing marketplaces and drainage systems.[4]

Rome was ruled by seven kings before it became a Republic, the last three of those kings being Etruscan of origin. The Etruscan kings are said to have been more powerful and influential than the previous Roman kings. During their rule, they increased Rome’s allies, expanded Rome’s territory and improved the city in many ways, with developments that continued on in Roman culture even after the decline of the Etruscans.

The three Etruscan kings were Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullus and Tarquinius Superbus respectively. Between the three of them, they greatly influenced Rome’s development and history. Tarquinius Priscus was the first of the Etruscan kings. During his reign, he fought many wars with neighbouring regions, such as the Latins and the Sabines. By being victorious in these battles, Rome’s influence on the surrounding areas increased. The second king, Servius Tullus, also succeeded in political advances, by establishing a treaty with the Latin League, making Rome more powerful, with guaranteed military support for the following 150 years.[5] The last king, Tarquinius Superbus, brought about a change of government for Rome. He was not just as his predecessors were, and after his reign, Rome became a republic. An example of discontent at Superbus’ succession of the throne following Tullus is shown in Livy’s book 1.48:

Servius Tullius reigned forty-four years, and even a wise and good successor would have found it difficult to fill the throne as he had done. The glory of his reign was all the greater because with him perished all just and lawful kingship in Rome.[6]

The Etruscan kings had shared the early history of Rome and the Etruscan influences in Rome are still felt in the modern day. The Etruscans had a diversely different culture to the Romans, and so their inhabitancy in Rome significantly influenced and inspired many aspects of Roman culture. Etruscan influences in Rome included engineering, customs and religion.[7]

Examples of the Etruscans’ building influences are the installation of bridges, the Cloaca Maxima (a drain built to drain one of the main public areas in Rome), sewers and paved streets. The Etruscans also introduced planned streets to the Romans, and from thereon, the Roman military camps were set up and planned similarly to the Etruscan cities. The use of the arch was also a trademark of the Etruscans; it was used extensively in both their cities and the cities of the Romans.[8]

The early Etruscan houses were also similar to the Roman houses of the time. The houses had slave quarters, an atrium, sleeping areas and a banqueting hall. The Etruscans did not build their houses out of materials such as wood, and so the houses can no longer be seen due to erosion. However, proof that the Etruscans built their houses similarly to the Romans lies in the well preserved Etruscan tombs. These were created to look like the houses of the deceased, and were underground or made of stone.[9]

Religion was a strong element of Etruscan culture. They relied on the art of divination, conducted by haruspices and depicted in art. The art of divination was the analysis of certain animals’ bodily organs, often the liver, in order to seek the Gods’ opinions on certain topics (Attachment 3). Divination was introduced to the Romans by the Etruscans, and was practiced beforehand for all public Roman events to ensure the Gods approved.

Etruscans believed highly in the afterlife and took care of the dead. They built elaborately designed necropolises (cities for the dead). Their necropolises had fountains, flowers and carvings. The individual tombs were designed to look like the house of the deceased, with writing to say when they had died, and who they were. The dead were either laid on a stone couch, or inside a sarcophagus. The Romans also used tomb chambers and sarcophagi for the dead, showing an Etruscan influence on their beliefs of the afterlife.

The introduction of the Etruscan culture and lifestyle revolutionised and transformed Rome. Without the Etruscan engineering, religious influences and powerful rule over Rome, the villages would not have become cities and the government may have not changed from a monarchy to a republic. Without the Etruscans, Rome would not have undergone such rapid expansion in territory and civilisation three thousand years ago.


RASNA Board, 2008. The History of Etruria. Retrieved 8th March, 2008.

RASNA Board, 2008. Etruscan Language. Retrieved 18th March, 2008.

Bradley, P., 1990. “Ancient Rome – Using Evidence” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom

Titus, L., electronic text available from 1996. The History of Rome, Vol. 1|Available from the University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia. Retrieved 22nd March, 2008.

Morey, W. C., 2008. Outlines of Roman History. Retrieved 8th March 2008

Scullard, H. H., 1967. “The Etruscan Cities And Rome”. The Camelot Press Ltd, Great Britain.

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, 2007. The Etruscan World: Etruscans & Religion, Retrieved 18th March, 2008.

Lendering, J., 1996 – 2008. Livy 1: Life. Retrieved 23rd March, 2008.

Attachment 1: Bradley, P., 1990. “Ancient Rome – Using Evidence”, p26. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Attachment 2: RASNA Board, 2008. The History of Etruria. Retrieved 16th March, 2008.

Attachment 3: Scullard, H. H., 1967. “Etruscan Cities And Rome”, p 115. The Camelot Press Ltd, Great Britain.


  1. ^ RASNA Board, 2008.
  2. ^ Scullard, 1967, pp 35.
  3. ^ Scullard, 1967, pp 39 & RASNA Board, 2008.
  4. ^ Bradley, 1990, pp 29 - 30.
  5. ^ Morey, 2008.
  6. ^ Titus Livius, 1.48
  7. ^ Bradley, 1990, pp 30.
  8. ^ Bradley, 1990, pp 29 – 30.
  9. ^ Bradley, 1990, pp 24 – 25.