The Etruscans: Building the Foundations of Rome

Roman history is something I’ve been very interested in for the better part of a decade now, and one of the reasons I launched this site. The trouble with it is that it’s just so vast that finding a starting and stopping point can prove a bit difficult with about 2000 years of history to sift through. I had initially decided to break my Rome articles up into 3 distinct parts, the Roman Kingdom, Republic, and Empire. I could even split the Empire section up into the fall of Western Rome and the continuation in the East that came to be known as the Byzantine Empire. I can’t wait to get into the history of Rome proper with you all, but there’s another story that must be told first. The story of the major power in Italy before the Romans reigned supreme. The story of the Etruscans, our Roman Kingdom prequel.

The Etruscans were a prosperous and advanced civilization that was located in the Tuscany region of Italy. They are believed to have migrated to Italy from the Greek island of Lemnos sometime before the year 800 BCE. However, archaeological evidence doesn’t begin to show evidence of the culture we identify as Etruscan until around 800 BCE. Their land came to be known as Etruria, and it was from here that the Etruscans grew wealthy by trading with the Celtic tribes to the North as well as the Greek city-states to the South. Etruscans were also a large manufacturer of iron in the Aegean region during their time. They lived in fortified cities that normally had little affiliation with one another much like the Greek city-state system.

Etruria
Etruria

They developed several sophisticated and innovative things for the age including roof tiles for protecting vulnerable wooden roofs, a subterranean trenching system known as a cuniculus used for draining marshes and providing clean water to cities and irrigation for farming, and stone roads and wooden bridges for faster travel over land. Etruscan armies were outfitted with bronze weapons and armor at a time when most peoples of Italy were still using leather armor and lucky to own a bronze weapon. Etruscans are noted as being great seafaring traders as well building several port cities and trading up and down the coasts of the Mediterranean. Etruria was a hub of trade and a great place to get rich if you were in the import / export business. Etruscans were even known to travel by sea as far North as the Baltic sea where they would eagerly engage in trade with the Baltic Tribes mentioned in our last post. What was it that drove the Etruscans so far North? Only the most precious luxury good of the age, amber, which they used in jewelry and religious ceremonies.

Very few writings from Etruscans have survived the ages, and most of what we have has yet to be deciphered so we must rely on outside sources for information regarding these people. Most sources we do have on the Etruscans come from either Greek or Roman sources who were both a bit biased towards the Etruscans so their accounts must be taken with a grain of salt. Many of these accounts portray the Etruscans as arrogant, debaucherous, and promiscuous. They were often being accused of having frequent orgies. Many Greek accounts even refer to them as pirates, however, there has been no evidence to prove that Etruscans were any more prone to promiscuity or piracy than any other group of people.

A lot of these misunderstandings likely came from the misunderstanding the Greeks had when it came to the importance of women in Etruscan society which was rather foreign to them at the time. Women in Etruria were given more importance than other cultures in the region. Excavated Etruscan sites have  shown us elaborately painted homes, paintings, pottery, sculptures, and family tombs. It was from an excavated Etruscan home that archaeologists have discovered the earliest known painting featuring a depiction of a table. It is from some of the art and the family tombs that we can get a glimpse of the importance women held to them. For example, in these elaborate family tombs, there would be lists of both maternal and paternal lineage which were very uncommon for the time.

Tomb of Leapards
Etruscan Tomb of Leopards

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On the outskirts of Etruria around the year 750 BCE, a small rustic village was founded. It would have been a simple place featuring crude wooden huts with straw and reed roofs. It was built on a hill overlooking the surrounding farm and marshlands, it was the fledgling kingdom of Rome. The humble village of Rome grew up in the shadow of the more advanced Etruscans, trading with them, learning from them, and maybe even envying their success. Through Etruscan expansion, the young Romans would have found themselves living in Etruscan-ruled land by about the year 610 BCE. It was during the late 7th century BCE that Etruscan immigrants began moving into Rome and by the year of 616 BCE Rome would have its first ethnically Etruscan king rise to power.

Under the rule of its Etruscan kings, many great new things happened to Rome. They grew the senate from 100 to 200 members, developed coinage, built roads, drained the surrounding marshes providing more land for Rome to be expanded upon, and conducted Rome’s first census. Apart from those great achievements they also held Rome’s first Triumph which is a great celebration held in honor of the King / Consul / General for a great victory in battle. Some of the most iconic Roman architecture even came from these kings such as Rome’s first public waste water drainage system, the Cloaca Maxima, as well as the Roman Forum and even the Circus Maximus. These Etruscan kings of Rome even went to war against other Etruscan rulers and claimed victory and more territory for Rome. For just over 100 years Rome was ruled by 3 consecutive Etruscan kings until the Romans rebelled and overthrew the last king in the year 509 BCE and then reorganized into the Roman Republic.

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The 6th century BCE, in general, was a very turbulent time from Etruria. The Etruscans came into conflict with Greek settlers looking to colonize land in Etruria. During this time the Etruscans allied with another Mediterranean superpower and rival nation that I will definitely be covering in the future, Carthage, which is located in Northern Africa. The Etruscan / Carthaginian alliance was fragile at best, only held together by the imminent threat of Greece which sat between Etruria and Carthage. It was during the 6th century that several Etruscan city-states, including Rome, switched from a monarchy to a republic system of government as well.

By the end of the 6th century BCE, the Etruscans began to be overshadowed by the Roman Republic as the dominant power in Italy. Over the course of the next several centuries, Etruscan cities began to be slowly conquered and annexed by Rome in the East and invasions of Celtic tribes to the North, Celtic invasions were particularly bad in the 4th century BCE. By the year 265 BCE, the last independent Etruscan city was conquered by Rome. Over the course of the next century, the Etruscans were slowly assimilated into the Roman Republic. By the year 100 BCE, the last traces of Etruscan heritage become fully Romanized. This is the way the Etruscans end, not with a bang but a whimper.

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