This week is Etruscan week here at Ferrebeekeeper—a week dedicated to blogging about the ancient people who lived in Tuscany, Umbria, and Latium from 800 BC until the rise of the Romans in 300 BC (indeed, the Romans may have been Etruscan descendants). Happy Etruscan Week! The Etruscans were known for their sophisticated civilization which produced advanced art, architecture, and engineering. In an age of war and empires, they were, by necessity, gifted warriors who fought with the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Gauls. They won wars, captured slaves, and built important fortified cities on top of hills. The Etruscan league burgeoned for a while until Etruria was weakened by a series of setbacks in warfare which occurred from the fifth century BC onward until eventually the entire society was swallowed by Rome.
Despite the fact that the Etruscans were the most important pre-Roman civilization of Italy (which left a cultural stamp on almost all Roman institutions) they remain surprisingly enigmatic. Although Greek and Roman authors speculated about the Etruscans, such writings tend to be…fanciful. The Greek historian Herodotus (alternately known as “the father of history” or “the father of lies” wrote that the Etruscans originated from Lydia (which was on the Western coast of Anatolia), but he certainly provides no evidence. Etruscan government was initially based around tribal units but the Etruscan states eventually evolved into theocratic republics–much like the later Roman Republic. The Etruscans worshipped a large pantheon of strange pantheistic gods. The Etruscans produced extremely magnificent tombs which were used by seceding generations of families.
It is through their tombs that we have truly come to know about the real Etruscans. The burial complexes are repositories of art and artifacts which reveal the day-to-day life of the people (well, at least the noble ones who could afford sumptuous tombs). Perhaps, more importantly, the actual Etruscans are also there, albeit in a somewhat deteriorated and passive state. With the advent of advanced genetic knowledge and tests, scientists and anthropologists have been able to conduct mitochondrial DNA studies on Etruscan remains. Such studies suggest that the Etruscans were from…Tuscany, Umbria, and Latium. They were most likely descendents of the Villanovan people—an early Iron Age people of Italy who in turn descended from the Urnfield culture.
This idea tends to conform with what linguists believe concerning the language of the Etruscans—which turns out to be a non-Indo-European isolate with no close language relations. Etruscan was initially an oral language only and it was only after cultural interchange with the Greeks that it acquired a written form (based around a derivation of the Greek alphabet). A few Roman scholars knew Etruscan (among them the emperor Claudius) but knowledge of the language was lost during the early days of the Empire. Today only a handful of inscriptions, epitaphs, and one untranslated book survive. We are left with a people who had unparalleled influence on Rome, yet are only known through inconclusive Greco-Roman accounts and through a tremendous heritage of art and artifacts. These latter are immensely beautiful and precious and form the basis of our knowledge of these mysterious early Italians.