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The Etruscans: Greater than Rome

Updated on June 14, 2014
Map of Etruria
Map of Etruria | Source

Who Were the Etruscans?

Because of their own written and spoken language, we have proof of the Etruscans existence as far back as 900 BC. By the 800s, however, all of the Mediterranean knew who they were, and their own culture was being influenced by that of their seafaring neighbors.

Located in modern day Tuscany, in west central Italy, the Etrusci dominated the developing civilizations on the Italian peninsula, but historians have no concrete evidence of where they came from.

Greek historian, Herodotus recorded that they were originally from Lydia, a Greek colony in Anatolia, modern day Turkey. Modern day DNA testing shows that the Etruscans share a few markers with people from Anatolia, but they had been in Italy for so long that they were more native to Europe.

Heracles with his son Telephus father of Tarchon and Tyrrhenus
Heracles with his son Telephus father of Tarchon and Tyrrhenus | Source

The story told by the ancient Greeks lends itself to both possibilities. Two young men from Lydia weigh heavily in the creation story, but they might have been ruling over native prehistory peoples. There were numerous small cities dotting the landscape when two brothers, Tarchon and Tyrrhenus, lead a campaign to join twelve of these cities in order to work together economically thus creating the Etruscan League. These men were considered, in mythology, to be the founders of the Etruscans and the sons of a famous father, Telephus, King of Mysia.

Telephus's fame comes from the Trojan War, or at least pre-war activities. When the Greeks first set out for Troy, they landed in Mysia by mistake and started fighting against the locals. As per my own article on the Trojan War, Telephus was one of the many sons of Heracles, and he was doing a pretty decent job holding off the invaders until Dionysus, god of wine, caused him to trip over a grapevine giving Achilles a chance to wound him with his spear. This wound ended up being particularly nasty though not fatal. After some time, when the wound had not healed, he sought advice from an oracle, someone who tells prophecies. The oracle said that the wound could only be healed by the person who caused it, which was Achilles. Achilles, however, claimed he had no medical training and would not try. This is just one sign of Achilles famous temper showing, as Achilles had been raised by Chiron who was not only a well-known healer himself but also the teacher of Asclepius, the mortal son of Apollo who would become the god of medicine. When Achilles would not change his mind, Odysseus took matters into his own hands. Odysseus decided that the spear must be the key and flaked rust from Achilles's spear into the wound. Miraculously, the wound healed, and Telephus told the men the route to Troy.

Etruscan city of Civita
Etruscan city of Civita | Source
Etruscan arches at the Perugia gate
Etruscan arches at the Perugia gate | Source

Etruscan Cities

The cities in Etruria were usually built on the top of hills then walled off creating a great level of protection. This practice would be copied by Romulus when founding nearby Rome. These cities began as tribes of people governed by a chief before becoming kingdoms.

One key feature in the building of these cities is the arch. While many credit the Roman's for their creation, they were actually a building component borrowed from the Etruscans. An arch is a support for an opening that is set on pillars down each side with bricks placed along the top in a circular fashion. The center of each arch includes a larger, wedge-shaped, brick that pushes against the other bricks holding them in place. These arches proved so sturdy that many are still in existence.

The Etruscans also created underground channels for water called cuniculus. These cuniculi could be as simple as trenches bringing water into a town or vast underground tunnels providing water to the city's inhabitants. For a nice site on Etruscan cuniculus see

Both of these building developments would play crucial roles in the foundations of their future Roman neighbors.

Etruscan Couple
Etruscan Couple | Source

Etruscan Way of Life

Each city-state within Etruria maintained their own governments with a classic hierarchy. The aristocrats were on top followed by the warriors, landowners, merchants, artisans, pheasants and slaves. Unlike many other slave-holding civilizations, however, Etruscan slaves had the ability to earn their way out of slavery.

The women in Etruria were more social than those of Greece, and they were better educated, as many Etruscan woman were literate. The Etruscan women were so visible in society that visiting Greeks, thought them to be loose and wild, but in fact mothers were a vital part of the Etruscan family, and the society was monogamous with couples appearing in much of their artwork.

Etruria, known for its rich soil, traded items associated with farming such as timber, olives and grapes. In addition to grapes, it was the Etruscans that introduced wine to the neighboring Gauls, who would go on to become the French. They were also known for their pottery, some of which had a decidedly Greek appearance.

Etruscan Pottery
Etruscan Pottery
Etruscan Tomb painting
Etruscan Tomb painting | Source

Music was also an essential element of Etruscan life. They played a variety of pipes, including the pan, percussion instruments like timpani drums, crotales (a xylophone type instrument) and an erotic set of bells called tintinnabulum. They are also known to have played the lyre. Tomb art shows the Etruscans playing music while carrying out even the most ordinary parts of their lives.

Etruscan Chimera
Etruscan Chimera | Source

Etruscan art was very religious in nature and shows the connection the people of Etrusci had with the beliefs of the ancient Greeks. This adds to the theory that Greeks played a major role in the early development of Etruscan life. The artwork that remains is funerary but includes several forms from wall paintings, similar to that of the Egyptians, life sized sculptures adorning the tops of sarcophagi, terracotta and bronze sculpture, as well as painted pottery.

Etruscan sarcophagi
Etruscan sarcophagi | Source
Liver diagram for use in haruspex
Liver diagram for use in haruspex | Source
Etruscan Alphabet and Numbers
Etruscan Alphabet and Numbers
The Etruscan god Tinia (Zeus/Jupiter)
The Etruscan god Tinia (Zeus/Jupiter) | Source
The Roman Senate floor on the Ides of March 44 BC
The Roman Senate floor on the Ides of March 44 BC | Source

Etruscan Religion

While the Etruscan religion incorporated many of the stories and beliefs the sons of Telephus brought with them from Greece, there are some noted additions. The Etruscans told of an original prophet named Tages. Tages first appeared after the fields were plowed for planting. Like many other religious stories, there are differing tales of his parentage. Some say he was born from the plowed earth, while others claim he was the grandson of Tinia, the Etruscan form of Zeus/Jupiter. According to the Roman orator Cicero, young Tages appeared in the middle of a fresh plowed field. Though he looked like a very young child, his words of wisdom showed years of knowledge. He instantly began telling those around him all about the wonders of prophecy. Tages is credited with creation of the practice of haruspex, reading the entrails of sacrificed animals to predict the future, which was widely practiced by the Romans.

Another important Etruscan religious figure was Vegoia. The closest representation of her would be something an oracle. She, along with Tages, was considered responsible for writing the sacred texts. Vegoia obtained knowledge of future events by reading lighting strikes in the sky. The texts ascribed to Vergoia contain many of the laws observed by the Etruscans in addition to their alphabet, which came from the Greek alphabet and was the basis for the Roman alphabet. The Etruscan numbering system was also the precursor to Roman numerals, and their calendar was the basis for that developed by the Romans, with calendae being the first day of a new month and ides being the middle.

One interesting note on Etruscan religion is that it was an Etruscan seer that warned Julius Caesar to "Beware the Ides of March" which was the day he was murdered on the Senate floor in 44 BC.

Etruscan war ship
Etruscan war ship | Source
Etruscan warrior
Etruscan warrior | Source

Etruscan Military

While each Etruscan city had its own military and was responsible for its own protection, very little is known of their battles. They had a naval presence, though; theirs was a loss in the Battle of Cumae in 474 BC. This confrontation resulted when the Etruscans attempted to extend their borders to the south. The Etruscan allies, the Carthaginians, had been defeated by Syracuse allowing Cumae and Syracuse and put down the Etruscans. This was considered the beginning of the end, as the Gauls and Romans would start encroaching on the Etruscan territory, but the Etruscans would not be easy to conquer.

The result of the Battle of Cumae should not be looked at as a sign of weakness in the Etruscan military. Roman records indicate that their attempt to take the Etruscan city of Veii resulted in a nine-year standoff. Eventually, the Roman's only choice was to tunnel under the city walls.

The Romans, under General Sulla, began the earnest campaign to overtake and incorporate the Etruscan cities into Roman territory early in the 1st century BC. By the time Augustus assumed power as the first Roman emperor in 27 BC, Eturia was a full part of the Roman Empire.

The Etruscan military equipment included shields, body armor, helmets as well as swords and spears. Examples of these have been found in Etruscan tombs.


Etruscan Tombs

Almost all of the information we have regarding the Etruscan way of life, comes not from their written records but from their tombs found all over Tuscany. Etruscans were buried in family tombs, and as previously mentioned, included sarcophagi with engraved statues of the deceased. The walls of many tombs were painted with scenes from their lives and filled with personal belongings much like those of the Egyptians. The similarity to Egyptian burial seems to indicate that the Etruscans may have had similar beliefs regarding the afterlife at least as far the need to preserve the body and personal belongings for the next life.


From their prehistory origins to their influence over the greatest empire ever known, the Etruscans have all but been forgotten, a footnote in the history of the world. Many of their greatest achievements were adopted by the Romans who took credit for them, but through their tombs and the remains of their cities, we have learned what a significant role they played in the development of what we call Western Civilization.


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