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The Etruscans

Updated on August 28, 2010

Between the eighth and the fifth centuries B.C., an empire, whose people were known to the later Romans as the Etruscans, flourished on the Italian peninsula. The Greeks knew these people as the Tyrrhenians; their name for themselves was Rasenna.

The Etruscans were the most advanced civilization on the Italian peninsula before the rise of Rome. Scholars have debated the origin of the Etruscans, whose language and way of life were unlike those of their neighbors.

Some scholars agree with the Greek historian Herodotus, who believed that the Etruscans migrated to Italy from Lydia, in Asia Minor. Others believe that the Etruscans were of Italian origin. In any event, by about 800 B.C. they were well established in Etruria (now in Tuscany and Umbria), in western Italy, between the Arno and Tiber rivers.

The Etruscans' power reached its height in the mid-6th century BC, when they controlled an area from the Po Valley in the north to the region of Naples in the south. They had a great influence on the early development of Rome, especially in art and religion. Some of the kings of Rome were probably Etruscans.

A well known example of Etruscan art. The "Chimera of Arezzo" made of solid bronze. Photo by Lucarelli.
A well known example of Etruscan art. The "Chimera of Arezzo" made of solid bronze. Photo by Lucarelli.


Etruria, ancient part of Italy. Originally it probably occupied northern Italy between the Alps and the Tiber; later it was limited by the Aras, Apennines and the Tiber.

Etruscan settlement first occurred on the Tyrrhenian coast, and the first small towns rapidly expanded into major cities, the most important of these were Caere, Tarquinia, Vulchi, Vetulonia, Rusellae, Populonia and Volterra. Although they were not large (Caere, for instance, never covered more than 28 ha), they featured advanced architectural techniques and detailed decoration of houses. Stone walls surrounded the cities, and vast networks of canals were constructed to drain the marshy coastal land.

At its height, Etruria, the land of the Etruscans, extended from Paestum in the south to the Alps in the north and included the Po river valley, the island of Elba and the eastern part of Corsica.


Like the ancient Greeks, the Etruscans were organized into large city-states, including Veii, Tarquinii, Caere, and Felsina. Twelve or more city-states were linked in a loose confederation. Although representatives met annually at a shrine near Volsinii to elect a common ruler, the city-states had no real political or military unity. Each was independently governed, first by a lucumon, or king, and after the 6th century B.C. by an elected board of magistrates.

Some scholars believe that the Etruscan judicial system and symbols of authority, such as the purple toga and double-headed ax with fasces, or rods, were later taken over by Roman rulers.

Etruscan rulers and magistrates came from the noble class, which included priests, landowners, merchants, and military leaders. Below the nobles were peasants and craftsmen, who might be Etruscans, subjugated Italians, or foreigners. At the bottom of the social order were Italian serfs and slaves.

Technology and Economy

The Etruscans built their cities on hills and fortified them with stone walls. The cities were connected by a network of paved roads and bridges. Some cities had paved streets laid out in a gridiron pattern, with a sacred well at the central intersection. Many cities had aqueducts and covered drains. Etruscan nobles lived in rectangular houses, which consisted of an open court and pool surrounded by pillars and painted rooms. On nearby hilltops were temples and tombs. The temples were made of wood and brick and had deep porches under gables decorated with statues. The tombs were elaborately carved in rock or were built of stone under mounds. The tombs resembled underground houses, and they had arches similar to those of the Middle East.

Outside the cities, Etruscan farmers drained and irrigated the rich coastal plains of western Italy. They also herded cattle on the slopes of the Apennines, and they mined copper on the mainland and iron on the nearby island of Elba. Etruscan goldsmiths possessed great skills in working bronze and precious metals, and their products were in great demand. Etruscan merchants traded handicrafts, such as embossed bronze vessels and weapons, fine gold jewelry, terra-cotta pottery, and black bucchero vases, with Greek cities in southern Italy and with Spain, Carthage, Athens, Egypt, and Phoenicia.

The Etruscans were skilled sailors and traded throughout the Mediterranean. For a time, before the rise of Carthage, Etruscan ships controlled the western Mediterranean. The Tyrrhenian Sea derives its name from the Greek word for Etruscan.


A Latin translation of a set of Etruscan religious codes, Etrusca disciplina, contains the religious rules and ceremonies that dominated Etruscan life. The Etruscans believed that their welfare depended on three major gods, Tinia, Uni, and Menerva, who corresponded in function to the Roman gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.

Etruscan priests made sacrifices to the gods and practiced haruspicy, 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.

The most notable feature of the Etruscan civilisation was the cult of the dead. To ensure themselves a comfortable life after death, the Etruscans filled their tombs not only with food and clothes but also with sculptured coffins, jewelry, furniture, and wall paintings. The dancing scenes in the tomb of Francesca Giustiniani illustrate the early vitality of Etruscan painting.

The Etruscans usually built their houses, for themselves and their gods, of timber or unbaked clay but, for their dead, they carved magnificent stone tombs. The tumuli (mounds) containing the tombs dominated the landscape. For example, although (as already mentioned) Caere was never larger than 28 ha, its necropolis covered over 57 ha and contained thousands of tombs.

The larger tumuli often contained several tombs, each of which had its own entrance, a high, narrow slit, tapered at the top, which led down to a low doorway into the tomb. The tombs were modelled on the houses of the living. The tomb entrance opened into a large ante-room, surrounded by smaller rooms connected to the anteroom by small doors; these small rooms were lined with slabs, many shaped like beds. The elaborately dressed, embalmed bodies were laid on the beds and surrounded by other possessions. Married couples were placed in the small rooms, the woman always beingpositioned on her husband's left. Other members of the family were placed in the ante-room; children were never buried inside the tomb but in the stone in front of the tumuli. In front of the tomb entrance phallic symbols (symbolising manhood) and triangles (symbolising womanhood) carved from stone were placed to indicate the number and sex of the dead; the size of the symbols indicated the age of the dead.

The many everyday articles buried with the dead included bowls, jugs and urns, which contained food for the dead, and their weapons, armour and tools. It is from these grave artifacts that archaeologists have been able to discover the skill and style of Etruscan craftsmen. Tomb paintings depict everyday activities, utensils and domestic animals, from which much of the Etruscan lifestyle can be reconstructed.

Etruscan Art

Preceding the Roman civilisation, the sophisticated art of the Etruscans combined the influence of the Greeks and elements of original spontaneity. Fine examples of Etruscan tombs, metalwork, pottery, painting and sculpture have survived, although the civilisation itself had been absorbed by the Romans by about 281 BC. The Etruscans were a loose confederation of 12 city-based groups. However, little remains of their cities, as continuous habitation of their sites over the centuries has destroyed most Etruscan buildings. Remnants of Etruscan city walls and gates can be found at Falerii, Perugia and Tarquinia. The cities at these sites were laid out in a quadrangle and enclosed by walls and double gates.

Etruscan architecture was quite distinctive and of two types. The simpler types of house used wood and unbaked brick covered with terra cotta and had a large, square room containing an image of a god and a porch with two columns. The more complex type of architecture was used in temples, which had three rooms, one each for the three major Etruscan gods and a long porch with two rows of four columns. The Etruscans also built roads, bridges, sewers and irrigation canals.

Most examples of Etruscan art have been found in underground tombs, which virtually formed cities of the dead (necropolises). The Etruscans were preoccupied with the welfare of the dead, leaving precious objects, sculptures and fine frescoes on the walls to enable the dead person to participate forever in his previous activities. In around the fifth century, the fresco scenes were of banqueting and dancing but, by the fourth century, the underworld was portrayed in gloomy, monstrous scenes. Etruscan art was often very similar to Greek art, which the Etruscans ardently admired. However, their works were generally of an earthier style than the more intellectual Greek pieces. 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 Chimaera from Arezzo (circa 500 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. A number of Etruscan paintings have been unearthed in tombs at Cerveteri, Veii, Orvieto and Tarquinia. The earliest of these is from about 600 BC, and they are considered to be important as indications of what Greek paintings were probably like.

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.

Etruscan Language

Apart from the tomb inscriptions, very little written material remains from the Etruscan civilisation. The funerary inscriptions were short and almost always used the same words; longer texts were written on rolls of cloth, of which only one is known to have survived. This roll, found in Agram, was cut into strips and used to wrap a mummy. Scholars have spent years attempting to decipher the Etruscan language, but no bilingual inscription or document has been found, and only about 100 words have been given a probable meaning. It is known, however, that the Etruscan language, which was written in an archaic form of the Greek alphabet, was not part of the Indo-European or Semitic language groups. Most scholars believe it to have been a purely Mediterranean language.

End of an Era

Etruscan power declined in the 6th century BC under pressure from the Gauls in the north and the Greeks in the south. With the emergence of the Roman state, conflict occurred, and the Etruscans were gradually dominated and absorbed after a long series of wars perpetrated by the Romans. The Etruscan language disappeared, and their art and religion were absorbed by Roman art and religion.


  • New Knowledge Library - Universal Reference Encyclopedia, Volume 10, Bay Books, 1981. Page 916.
  • The New International Illustrated Encyclopaedia, Volume 3, 1954.
  • Library of Essential Knowledge, Volume 2, Readers Digest, 1980. Page 606.
  • Dictionary of World History, 1993, Helicon Publishing. Page 199.
  • Merit Students Encyclopedia, Volume 6, P.F. Collier Inc, 1979. Page 454.
  • New Age Encyclopaedia, Seventh Edition edited by D. A. Girling, Bay Books, 1983. Volume 28, Page 18.


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    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Cool stuff thanks it helped me prove a point

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      what material they used to make the urn and how?...

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      reminds me of my scholl days


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