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Etruscans are an enigma wrapped in a mystery because unlike other vanished peoples, they do not speak to us through their writings.

Etruscan men and women were equal.
Women enjoyed high status in Etruria and paintings show them prominently in every aspect of life.

The Etruscans, the highest civilization in Italy before the Romans, are thought to have come from the eastern part of the Mediterranean. Greek and Roman historians believed the Etruscans originated in Asia Minor. Others suggest they came from nowhere in particular but were as aboriginal as any European people.

Just across the Tiber River to the north of Rome lived the Etruscans. The earliest Etruscans must have arrived in the first half of the 12th Century B.C. Egyptian monuments of this period contain information about sea-wandering invaders whose pirate ships scoured the sea., whole their merchants did business with the Greeks of Sicily. With their systematic sea piracy, they held almost the whole of the western coast of Italy in subjection . These "sea-peoples" as the Egyptians called them, formed part of a migrating horde on the prowl that attacked Egypt by sea. They received a rough reception and were routed by Egypt's defenders led by Ramses III. Driven back by Ramses and having lost their old northern homes, these rootless raiders were obliged to find new homes elsewhere. Taking to their ships, the Etruscans fled westward around the heel of Italy.

It is now known where they landed, but they replaced the villages of mud and straw they encountered with cities, walled towns with well-constructed streets and houses of beaten earth and baked brick or stone. From all accounts these Etruscans were a superstitious and cruel race. The Romans learnedthe bloody craft of divination by the inspection of the entrails of newly slain individuals and the victims were not always the lower mammals.

Etruria, the name of their new homeland, was in west-central Italy between the Tiber and the Arno where the Etruscans introduced the first civilization into the western Mediterranean. Today it is known as Tuscany. The Greeks called the Etruscans Tyrrhenoi; the Romans called them Tusci. Both names are perpetuated in the Tyrrhenian Sea and the province of Tuscany.


The Etruscans formed a feudal society that rejoiced in the luxury of labour of serfs and slaves. They lived in walled towns each of which was governed by a powerful Etruscan merchant-lord who with wealthy kindred formed the aristocracy. Eventually twelve of these towns formed a loose federation. They were individualistic and autonomous and never became a united nation. Thick forests and mountainous terrain bolstered by a belligerent nature and independent spirit nurtured an isolationist attitude which extended even to their own kind. If one town was under attack by a common enemy, it could not necessarily expect support from its neighbours. This lack of a common cohesion ultimately led to their downfall as one after another they eventually succumbed to Rome.

The Etruscan language which is often referred to as the "Etruscan mystery," is only partially understood. This does not mean their inscriptions are illegible. In most cases they are understandable, but they are not available to us in the manuscript tradition. They are known almost completely from epigraphs, most of which are funerary inscriptions that provide limited and repetitive information.

Etruscans left lamentably little in the way of written history. Only a few, unrevealing words of the language have been deciphered. However, they did deposit for the use of their dead, paintings, statues and other artifacts in their subterranean necropolises which provide a rich record of their vibrant civilization. Eight thousand inscriptions as well as many works of art, mingle with their remains. They show us how the Etruscans looked, the clothing they wore and the weapons they carried. The sex of the interred individual was known by the paraphernalia buried with the body. The presence of shield and razors indicated a male. Vases, metal mirrors and jewellery indicated a female. Only the very wealthy had decorated tombs. Those dating from the earlier period had uncoloured drawings. For those who died later - the sixth and fifth centuries colour was added.

Paved streets were arranged as in a real city with tombs in rows on either side concealed under a conical mound of earth. Entry is through an opening at street level from where one descends by a sloping passage down into galleries that open into a series of large chambers.

Entrance to a Tuscan Tomb
photo by
B. Wilson

The pillars and walls are decorated with representations of household utensils, armour, weapons and other daily life accessories. The bodies were placed in niches in the walls.

Ascending from an Etuscan Tomb
photo by
G. Wilson

Etruscan Tomb
photo by
G. Wilson

Etruscan Tomb: Taunting Tigers
photo by

Etruscan Tomb Decoration: Roman Devil on the Left;
Etruscan Angel on the Right
photo by

Etruscan Tomb Wall painting
photo by
G. Wilson

Etruscan sepulchers show both sexes richly dressed, often reclining in pairs on elegant couches, eating and drinking as they are waited on by slaves and entertained by dancers and musicians. Dance was a popular pastime with music provided by pipes, lyres and trumpets that were essential to every banquet, wedding and funeral.

Depiction in a tomb of a banquet scene from the 1st half of the 5th century B.C.

Dancers Entertain

Etruscan Flutist Entertains

Bronze products produced for export included statuettes, swords, helmets, cuirasses, spears, shields, utensils, urns, coins locks, chains, fans, mirrors, lamps and candelabra. Even the chariot, which was introduced to Italy by the Etruscans, was produced by expert bronze craftsmen.

Etruscan Bronze Statue of an Orator
Dated around 300 B.C., it is considered to be the finest masterpiece of Etruscan Art.

Etruscan Chariot of Bronze
Found in an Etruscan tomb, it probably dates from Sixth Century B.C.

Etruscan Horses's Heads

Two Terracotta Winged horses
2nd half of the 4th century

Etruscan Horses
photo by
G. Wilson

Etruscan golden jewellery
photo by
G. Wilson

Etruscan Jewellery
photo by

The Etruscans' most renowned product was pottery whose early forms are mostly copies of Greek decorative paintings on pottery which Etruscans quickly learned to duplicate. These ceramic Greek imitations contained Greek shapes, names and decorations. Urns with red figures on black ground are elegant and evidently also of Greek conception.

Etruscan 'Greek'Pottery

Etruscan Pottery
photo by
G. Wilson

After the 3rd century, Etruscans developed their own decorative ceramic styles which were produced in the homes by women or on a large scale for trade in organized workshops.

Etruscan Bucket with relief decorations

Etruscan Tomb

Fortunately for the Romans, within a generation after the foundation of the Roman republic (474 B.C.), the fleet of Syracuse utterly destroyed the Etruscan fleet. Later the Etruscans were besieged in the rear by the Gauls who poured over the Alpine passes into the Po valley and laid waste to the Etruscan cities of the north. Weakened at the hands of their enemies on both their north and the south borders, the Etruscans fell victim to the vengeance of the Romans who began the systematic conquest of Etruria in the 4th century. Despite some initial setbacks, the Romans prevailed and by early in the 1st century B.C. the Etruscans had collapsed but their influence and relics survived in Roman civilization to its end. The first actors named histriones came to Rome from Etruria. Etruscans gave Rome brutal gladiatorial contests but they raised the status of women. They gave Rome its religious rituals and their engineers built walls and sewers and converted the city from a swamp into a civilized capital.

Etruscans were granted Roman citizenship. The Roman policy was in striking contrast to the Greek republics, which like the Etruscans, jealously prevented outsiders from gaining citizenship. The steady expansion of Rome under its policy of open citizenship made the little republic on the Tiber mistress over all of Italy. Despite capitulating and being conquered, the Etruscans left upon the Romans such a varied influence that Rome can hardly be understood without them. Not the least of the things borrowed from the Etruscans by the Romans, were the sceptre of ivory and the insignia of royalty in Rome, the toga with scarlet or purple stripes.

Roman Toga


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