The Etruscan civilization: History, Facts and Art

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Discovering the Fascinating Culture of the Etrurian Civilization

The Etrurians were an ancient civilization that lived in the central part of Italy, in a region known as Etruria with a common language and culture, and formed a federation of city-states. They are believed to have originated from the Villanovan culture, which developed in the area during the Bronze Age. Around 900 BC marks the beginning of a civilization that may be identified as Etruscan. The Etrurians are known for their highly sophisticated society and their impressive cultural achievements.

The Roman-Etruscan Wars caused assimilation to start in the late 4th century BC; it accelerated with the granting of Roman citizenship in 90 BC; and it was finished in 27 BC when the area of the Etruscans was included in the newly founded Roman Empire.

Etruscan civilization map
Etruscan civilization map

One of the most distinctive features of Etrurian culture was their religion. The Etrurians believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses, later partly assimilated by the Roman pantheon, each of whom was responsible for a particular aspect of life or nature. They also believed in an afterlife and built elaborate tombs for their deceased loved ones, many of which have been discovered by archaeologists.

In addition to their cultural achievements, the Etrurians made important contributions to the development of the Roman Republic. They were one of the first civilizations to come into contact with the Romans, and they influenced Roman culture in a number of ways. For example, the Romans adopted many Etrurian customs, including their system of government, which was based on a federation of city-states.

When the Roman Kingdom was only getting started, approximately 750 BC, the Etruscan civilization’s geographic reach peaked. Its culture thrived in three city confederacies: Campania, the Po Valley with the eastern Alps, and Etruria (Tuscany, Latium, and Umbria).

Origin of the Etrurian People

Related articles: The genetic profile of the ancient Romans

According to genetic studies by the Universities of Ferrara and Florence, published in 2013 and 2018, on the mitochondrial DNA of some 30 Etruscan samples that lived between the 8th century B.C. and the 3rd century B.C., conducted using next-generation DNA sequencing technologies, the Etruscans were indigenous. The autosomal DNA of 48 Iron Age individuals from Tuscany and Lazio, dating from 800 to 1 BC, was examined in a 2021 genetic study that was published in the journal Science Advances. This study confirmed that the ancestral component Steppe was present in the Etruscan individuals in the same percentages found in the previously examined Iron Age Latins, and that there was no sign of recent admixture with Anatolia and the Eastern Mediterranean. West of the current Italians, the Etruscans and the Latins also joined the European cluster solidly.

The Etruscans called themselves Rasenna, the Greeks knew them as Tyrrhenians, and the ancient Romans referred to them as the Tuscī or Etruscī.

Etruscan tomb Cuccumella - Marturanum Natural Park Italy
Etruscan tomb Cuccumella – Marturanum Natural Park Italy (source)


Beyond the Apennine Mountains and into Campania were two areas where Etruscan growth was concentrated. During this time, several tiny towns in the sixth century BC vanished, purportedly absorbed by larger, more powerful neighbors. The governmental system of the Etruscan civilization was undoubtedly more aristocratic than Magna Graecia in the south, but it was nonetheless comparable to it. The mining and trade of metals, particularly copper and iron, helped the Etruscans prosper and spread their dominance over the Italian peninsula and the western Mediterranean Sea.

Particularly in the sixth century BC, when Phocaeans of Italy established colonies along the coasts of Sardinia, Spain, and Corsica, their interests clashed with those of the Greeks. As a result, the Etruscans formed an alliance with Carthage, whose goals and those of the Greeks conflicted. The Battle of Alalia, which took place in 540 BC, changed the balance of power in the western Mediterranean. Carthage expanded its area of influence at the cost of the Greeks, while Etruria found itself pushed to the northern Tyrrhenian Sea with complete control of Corsica, despite the fact that the conflict had no clear winner. The Etruscan fall after losing their southern provinces began in the first half of the 5th century BC as a result of the changing political climate.

Carthage, an ally of Etruria, was vanquished in 480 BC by a confederation of Magna Graecian states commanded by Syracuse, Sicily. At the Battle of Cumae a few years later, in 474 BC, Syracuse’s despot Hiero beat the Etruscans. Etruria’s hold over the towns of Latium and Campania began to wane, and Romans and Samnites eventually conquered the region.

A Gallic invasion in the fourth century BC caused Etruria to lose control of the Po Valley and the Adriatic coast. Rome had begun annexing Etruscan towns in the meantime. The northern Etruscan provinces were lost as a result of this. In the third century BC, during the Roman-Etruscan Wars, Rome conquered Etruria.

The Mars of Todi, an Etruscan bronze sculpture, c. 400 BC
The Mars of Todi, an Etruscan bronze sculpture, c. 400 BC (source)

Etruscan League

The twelve Etruscan villages that make up the Etruscan League, Etruscan Federation, or Dodecapolis established an alliance between 600 and 500 BC, according to mythology. According to a myth, Tarchon and his brother Tyrrhenus established the Etruscan League of twelve towns. The city of Tarchna, or Tarquinnii as it was known to the Romans, bears Tarchon’s name. The Tyrrhenians, another name for the Etruscans, were given their name by Tyrrhenus. Arretium, Caisra, Clevsin, Curtun, Perusna, Pupluna, Veii, Tarchna, Vetluna, Volterra, Velzna, and Velch may be near to the target even if there is no agreement on which cities were members of the league. Rusellae is one of the more recent writers. The league, which was loosely organized like the Greek states, was primarily an economic and religious association. Three more cities joined the league during the later imperial era, when Etruria was only one of several areas under Rome’s rule. Many subsequent gravestones from the second century BC forward mention this. The twelve city-states allegedly convened once a year in Volsinii’s Fanum Voltumnae, when a leader was chosen to speak on behalf of the league.

The prevalent theory holds that Latins, who subsequently combined with Etruscans, created Rome. Prior to the advent of the Etruscans, who built the earliest components of Rome’s municipal infrastructure, such as the drainage system, it was presumably a tiny village. The steeper the slope, the better, for the construction of Etruscan villages, which were also encircled by high walls. Roman legend states that Romulus and Remus established Rome atop the Palatine Hill in accordance with Etruscan custom.

Society and Culture

Influences of the Greek civilization 

The influence of the ancient Greeks on the Etruscans resulted in a historical-cultural phase known as the “Orientalizing” period (8th century BC), followed by those referred to – in analogy with the phases of Greek history – as “Archaic”, “Classical”, and “Hellenistic”. Contacts occurred mainly through Magna Graecia and Sicily, that is, the Greek colonies in modern-day southern Italy and Sicily, but there were also direct contacts between Etruria and Greece. Ceramics were the subject of both direct exchanges of pottery between Etruscans and Greeks, and exports of productive and artistic techniques, with an improvement in Etruscan technology in turning and firing. Cultural exchanges also affected religion, with forms of reinterpretation of traditional Etruscan deities to correspond to supposed Greek equivalents (Tinia/Zeus, Uni/Hera, Aita/Hades, etc.).

Houses of the Etruscans

The first houses of the Etruscans were made of wood and mud, so there are not many remains of their Villanovan and Orientalizing period cities. Most of the information about this people comes from stone tombs, which contained many objects and often had scenes of everyday life painted on their walls. These artifacts tell us that Etruscan civilization was rich and refined.

Houses were generally rectangular, divided into multiple rooms by load-bearing walls resting on dry foundations made of tuff, alberese or galestro depending on local availability. Floors were generally made of beaten earth and walls were made of wattle and daub or bricks, with load-bearing wooden beams and pillars. Roofs, supported by wooden beams, were covered with terracotta tiles or the technique of pisé was used by pressing clay into molds. These walls were stronger and could be load-bearing without the need for additional beams and pillars.

During the archaic period, more stable residential foundations emerged, leaving a visible trace in the cities of Kainua in Marzabotto and Gonfienti in Prato. These were central-plan buildings, structured around an open portico with an impluvium and rooms that often faced the main street and were used for shops or commercial activities. The model on which they were structured was what is now defined as the “Pompeian house”, not only in its layout but also in its actual functioning: rainwater was channeled towards a well in the central courtyard or through channels to areas outside the building. Roofs were made of tiles and coppi, in a very similar way to how they can be found today in Tuscany, and were painted and decorated with masks with “palmette” and antefix motifs. Statues were also placed on the top. A group of archaic buildings that has returned similar architectural decoration is visible in the locality of Poggio Civitate (Murlo) and dates back to the mid-7th century BCE. In it, we can notice a very long terracotta frieze and high-quality acroterial sculptures.

Etrurian religion

Related articles: The Religion of the Etruscan People

The religious system of the Etruscans was an immanent polytheism, wherein all visible events were seen to be expressions of divine power, which was divided among gods who continually interfered in human affairs and might be persuaded to do so. Two initiates, Tages, a childish figure born from tilled ground and instantly endowed with prescience, and Vegoia, a female figure, had revealed to the Etruscans how to comprehend the will of deities and how to act. A number of holy texts were used to preserve their teachings. The numerous Etruscan art themes reveal three tiers of deities. Catha and Usil, the sun and moon, Tivr, the moon, Selvans, a civil god, Turan, the goddess of love, Laran, the god of war, Leinth, the goddess of death, MarisThalnaTurms, and the ever-popular Fufluns, whose name is connected in some way to the city of Populonia and the populus Romanus, perhaps the god of the people. Higher gods who appear to mirror the Indo-European belief system ruled over this pantheon of lesser beings: Tin or Tinia, the sky, Uni  his wife (Maia, Juno), and Cel (Tellus), the soil goddess. A few more Greek and Roman deities, such as Aritimi (Artemis), Menrva (Minerva), and Pacha, were included into the Etruscan pantheon (Dionysus). The Homeric Greek heroes are frequently used as art themes.

Etruscan Cuisine

For a long time, the base ingredient in Etruscan cuisine was spelt flour, a type of easily cultivable grain. Before being used as food, spelt grains had to be roasted to remove their chaff (a kind of skin that covers them) and eliminate moisture.

With spelt flour, porridges, and flatbreads were prepared, boiled with water and milk. In addition to cereals, Etruscan diet also included various types of legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, and fava beans. Even though a diet based on cereals and legumes provided all the main nutrients, it was supplemented with pork, game, wild boar, sheep meat, and all dairy products. Fish was also highly appreciated, especially in Populonia and Porto Ercole.

The Etruscans were also familiar with the fork: ones similar to those used today, with four curved tines, have been found. However, it is believed that its use was not individual but served to hold the meat while cutting it on the serving plate.


There are various Etruscan games and pastimes that have been documented, thanks in part to the paintings found in tombs. These include kottabos (Greek: κότταβος), a skill game with erotic connotations, played with an empty cup or goblet. It was a popular game in the ancient Greek world, one of the less intellectual entertainments at symposia. The objective of the game was to hit a target, a plate or a vase, with the wine remaining at the bottom of the cup. The prize for the winner was generally an apple, sweets, a cup, or a kiss from their beloved, to whom the throw was dedicated. Other games included a kind of bullfighting (attested in the Tomb of the Augurs in Tarquinia) and the pole game (similar to the greasy pole).

The Medicine of the Etruscans

The Etruscans had a good understanding of medicine, exemplified by their knowledge of anatomy and physiology, the practice of cranial trepanation, and the use of gold dental prostheses, as evidenced by human remains and terracotta artifacts. The anatomical sections of votive terracottas highlight many internal organs, such as the heart and lungs. Especially remarkable are the uteruses containing a small ball inside, which could represent the oldest representation of intrauterine life in history.


The Etruscan political structure was based on specific small communities and, most likely, prominent individual families. At the height of Etruscan supremacy, aristocratic Etruscan families were extremely wealthy via commerce with the Celtic civilization to the north and the Greeks to the south, and they lavished imported goods in their huge family tombs. The married pair, tusurthir, stood at the heart of the community. The monogamous culture of the Etruscans placed a strong emphasis on coupling.

Terracotta sarcophagus in shape of an etruscan woman
Terracotta sarcophagus in shape of an etruscan woman 150-120 B.C. (source)

Etrurian language

Inscriptions from approximately 700 BC that were discovered in southern Etruria are the oldest known instances of Etruscan writing. The Euboean alphabet, which was employed in the Magna Graecia, was utilized as the basis for the writing system the Etruscans created (coastal areas located in Southern Italy). Since the Etruscan language is still only partially known, our knowledge of their society and culture today is mostly based on texts from the generally unfavorable, far later civilizations of the Roman and Greek. Only a small fraction of the 13,000 inscriptions that the Etruscans left behind are particularly lengthy. The relationship of Etruscan to other languages has been the subject of extensive debate and research, with evidence dating from 700 BC to AD 50. The majority of experts agree that Etruscan is solely connected to other members of the Tyrsenian language family, which is an isolated family that is not directly related to other known language groups. The Etruscans are thought to have spoken a Pre-Indo-European and Paleo-European language.

Cippus Perusinus
Cippus Perusinus (source). There are 130 words in 46 lines of etched Etruscan lettering on the tablet. The cippus is said to be a legal document detailing an agreement between the Etruscan families of Velthina (from Perugia) and Afuna (from Chiusi) regarding the usage or sharing of a plot of land where the illustrious Velthinas’ tomb formerly stood.

Etrurian art

The Etrurians were skilled artisans and craftsmen, and they produced a wide range of high-quality goods, including pottery, metalwork, and textiles. They were also skilled farmers and traders, and their society was known for its wealth and prosperity. Between the ninth and the second century BC, the Etruscan civilisation was particularly prominent in metallurgy, wall painting, and life-size clay sculpture on sarcophagi or temples (especially engraved bronze mirrors). Cast bronze sculpture from the Etruscan period was well-known and exported, but very few big pieces have survived (the material was too valuable, and recycled later). Despite the fact that the Etruscans controlled quality marble supplies, such as Carrara marble, which doesn’t appear to have been used extensively until the Romans, there appears to have been little stone sculpture produced by the Etruscans in contrast to terracotta and copper. All of the fresco wall paintings, which make up the majority of the surviving Etruscan art, as well as the majority of the banquet scenes and a few narrative mythical topics, are found in graves.

Despite their many accomplishments, the Etrurian civilization eventually declined and was eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire. However, their legacy lives on in the many artifacts and works of art that have been discovered over the years, which provide us with a glimpse into the rich and sophisticated culture of this ancient civilization.

Head of an Etruscan God
Head of an Etruscan God (source)

Featured image: The sarcophagus of the Spouses in the exhibition A Dream of Italy from the Campana collection. Louvre museum (Paris, France, source)
Sources: 1, 2


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