Who Were the Etruscans?

Etruscan civilization is a civilization of ancient Italy (from the 8th century BC onwards) in the area corresponding roughly to central Italy.
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The Etruscans, people from the Etrurian region of the Italian peninsula, were known as the Tyrrhenians to the Greeks. They were at their height in Italy from the 8th to the 5th century BCE, and they were rivals and to a degree precursors to the Greeks. Their language was not Indo-European, like Greek and other Mediterranean languages were, and they had other characteristics that led the Greeks to much speculation about where they originated.

Etruria was located in what is modern Tuscany, in the area bounded by the Tiber and Arno rivers, the Apennines and the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Etruscan economy was based on agriculture, trade (especially with the Greeks and Carthage), and mineral resources.

Origins of the Etruscans

Herodotus (mid-5th century CE) believed that the Etruscans came from Lydia, in Asia Minor, as the result of a famine around 1200 BCE, just as the Irish came to the U.S. as a result of a potato famine in the 19th century. The name of the Etruscans, which was Tyrrhenian or Tyrsenian, according to the Greeks, came from the leader of the Lydian émigrés, King Tyrsenos. The Hellenistic scholar Dionysius of Halicarnassus (c. 30 BCE) quotes an earlier historian, Hellanicus (contemporary of Herodotus), who objected to the Lydian origin theory on the basis of differences between Lydian and Etruscan languages and institutions.

For Hellanicus, the Etruscans were Pelasgians from the Aegean. A stele from Lemnos, an island in the Aegean, shows writing that appears similar to Etruscan, a language that remains a puzzle for historical linguists. Dionysius' own opinion on the Etruscans' origins is that they were home-grown residents of Italy. He also says the Etruscans called themselves Rasenna.

Modern Theories

Twenty-first century scholars have access to archaeology and DNA, and one 2007 study suggested that at least some of the Etruscan ancestors came into Italy during the late Bronze Age, ca. 12th–10th century BCE, along with domesticated cows. Combined with the Greek histories, there are still three current origin theories:

  • they migrated as a group from an Eastern Mediterranean province, perhaps Lydia in Asia Minor;
  • they migrated from over the Alps from the north, in the region known as the Rhaetians'; or
  • they evolved locally as descendants from the Pelasgians, but had some eastern cultural contacts and an influx of population.

Etruscans and Early Rome

Successors of the early Iron Age Villanovans (900–700 BCE), Etruscans built such cities as Tarquinii, Vulci, Caere, and Veii. Each autonomous city, originally ruled by a powerful, wealthy king, had a sacred boundary or pomerium. Etruscan homes were mud-brick, with timber on stone foundations, some with upper stories. In southern Etruria, the bodies of the dead were buried, but in the north, the Etruscans cremated their dead. Much evidence about the early inhabitants of Italy comes from Etruscan funereal remains.

The Etruscans exerted a heavy influence on early Rome, contributing to the line of Roman kings with the Tarquins. The possible, but debated dominance of the Etruscans ended with the Roman sack of Veii, in 396 BCE. The final stage in the Roman conquest of the Etruscans was when the Volsinii were destroyed in 264 BCE, although the Etruscans maintained their own language until about the first century BCE. By the first century CE the language was already a concern for scholars, like Emperor Claudius.

Sources

  • Cornell, T. J. "The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c.1000–264 BC)." London: Routledge, 1995. 
  • Pellecchia, Marco, et al. "The Mystery of Etruscan Origins: Novel Clues from ." Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 274.1614 (2007): 1175–79. Bos taurus Mitochondrial DNA
  • Perkins, Philip. "DNA and Etruscan Identity." Etruscology. Ed. Naso, Alessandro. Vol. 1. Boston MA: Walter de DeGruyter Inc., 2017. 109–20.
  • Torelli, Mario. "History: Land and People." In Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies. (ed)
  • Ulf, Christoph. "An Ancient Question: The Origin of the Etruscans." Etruscology. Ed. Naso, Alessandro. Vol. 1. Boston MA: Walter de DeGruyter Inc., 2017. 11–34.
  • Villin, E. "Prof. G. Nicolucci's Anthropology of Etruria." The Journal of Anthropology 1.1 (1870): 79-89.