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The Etruscans, an introduction

Before the small village of Rome became “Rome” with a capital R (to paraphrase D.H. Lawrence), a brilliant civilization once controlled almost the entire peninsula we now call Italy. This was the Etruscan civilization, a vanished culture whose achievements set the stage not only for the development of ancient Roman art and culture but for the Italian Renaissance as well.
Etruscan civilization map (CC BY-SA 3.0), NormanEinstein - Based on a map from The National Geographic Magazine Vol.173 No.6 June 1988.
Etruscan civilization, 750-500 B.C.E. (CC BY-SA 3.0), NormanEinstein - based on a map from The National Geographic Magazine Vol.173 No.6 (June 1988)
Though you may not have heard of them, the Etruscans were the first "superpower" of the Western Mediterranean who, alongside the Greeks, developed the earliest true cities in Europe. They were so successful, in fact, that the most important cities in modern Tuscany (Florence, Pisa, and Siena to name a few) were first established by the Etruscans and have been continuously inhabited since then.
Yet the labels ‘mysterious’ or ‘enigmatic’ are often attached to the Etruscans since none of their own histories or literature survives. This is particularly ironic as it was the Etruscans who were responsible for teaching the Romans the alphabet and for spreading literacy throughout the Italian peninsula.

The influence on ancient Rome

Etruscan influence on ancient Roman culture was profound and it was from the Etruscans that the Romans inherited many of their own cultural and artistic traditions, from the spectacle of gladiatorial combat, to hydraulic engineering, temple design, and religious ritual, among many other things. In fact, hundreds of years after the Etruscans had been conquered by the Romans and absorbed into their empire, the Romans still maintained an Etruscan priesthood in Rome (which they thought necessary to consult when under attack from invading ‘barbarians’).
We even derive our very common word ‘person’ from the Etruscan mythological figure ‘Phersu’-- the frightful, masked figure you see in this Early Etruscan tomb painting who would engage his victims in a dreadful ‘game’ of blood letting in order to appease the soul of the deceased (the original gladiatorial games, according to the Romans!).
Phersu and his victim, Tomb of the Augurs, late 6th century B.C.E., Tarquinia
Phersu and his victim, Tomb of the Augurs, late 6th century B.C.E., Tarquinia
Early on the Etruscans developed a vibrant artistic and architectural culture, one that was often in dialogue with other Mediterranean civilizations. Trading of the many natural mineral resources found in Tuscany, the center of ancient Etruria, caused them to bump up against Greeks, Phoenicians and Egyptians in the Mediterranean. With these other Mediterranean cultures, they exchanged goods, ideas and, often, a shared artistic vocabulary.
Etruscan hut urn (c. 800 B.C.E.), impasto (Vatican Museums)
Etruscan hut urn (c. 800 B.C.E.), impasto (Vatican Museums)

Etruscan art and the afterlife

Unlike with the Greeks, however, the majority of our knowledge about Etruscan art comes largely from their burials. (Since most Etruscan cities are still inhabited, they hide their Etruscan art and architecture under Roman, Medieval and Renaissance layers). Fortunately, though, the Etruscans cared very much about equipping their dead with everything necessary for the afterlife—from lively tomb paintings to sculpture to pottery that they could use in the next world.
From their extensive cemeteries, we can look at the "world of the dead" and begin to understand some about the "world of the living." During the early phases of Etruscan civilization, they conceived of the afterlife in terms of life as they knew it. When someone died, he or she would be cremated and provided with another ‘home’ for the afterlife. ​
This type of hut urn, made of an unrefined clay known as impasto, would be used to house the cremated remains of the deceased. Not coincidentally, it shows us in miniature form what a typical Etruscan house would have looked like in Iron Age Etruria (900-750 B.C.E.)—oval with a timber roof and a smoke hole for an internal hearth.

More opulent tombs

Later on, houses for the dead became much more elaborate. During the Orientalizing period (750-575 BCE), when the Etruscans began to trade their natural resources with other Mediterranean cultures and became staggeringly wealthy as a result, their tombs became more and more opulent.
Fibula from Regolini Galassi tomb in Cerveteri, gold, mid-seventh century B.C.E. (Vatican Museums)
Fibula from Regolini Galassi tomb in Cerveteri, gold, mid-seventh century B.C.E. (Vatican Museums)
The well-known Regolini-Galassi tomb from the city of Cerveteri shows how this new wealth transformed the modest hut to an extravagant house for the dead. Built for a woman clearly of high rank, the massive stone tomb contains a long corridor with lateral, oval rooms leading to a main chamber.
​A stroll through the Etruscan rooms in the Vatican museum where the tomb artifacts are now housed presents a mind boggling view of the enormous wealth of the period.
Found near the woman were objects of various precious materials intended for personal adornment in the afterlife—a gold pectoral, gold bracelets, a gold brooch (or fibula) of outsized proportions, among other objects—as well as silver and bronze vessels and numerous other grave goods and furniture.
Bronze bed and carriage, Regolini-Galassi Tomb, (c. 650 B.C.E.), Cerveteri (Vatican Museums)
Bronze bed and carriage, Regolini-Galassi Tomb, (c. 650 B.C.E.), Cerveteri (Vatican Museums)

A bronze bed​

Of course, this important woman might also need her four-wheeled bronze-sheathed carriage in the afterlife as well as an incense burner, jewelry of amber and ivory, and, touchingly, her bronze bed around which thirty-three figurines, all in various gestures of mourning, were arranged.
Though later periods in Etruscan history are not characterized by such wealth, the Etruscans were, nevertheless, extremely powerful and influential and left a lasting imprint on the city of Rome and other parts of Italy.
Essay by Dr. Laurel Taylor

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  • piceratops tree style avatar for user linlim
    Are the Etruscan burial chamber similar to the Egyptian burial chamber, if so what part, objects, or beliefs are similar?
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user thirstyhearts
    When did Rome overthrow the Etruscans?
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Kellee
    hello i have a question i have a project on greek and roman art my piece is a amphora with spiked handles it was made around 700-675 BC I need information on this piece but I am unable to find anything
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user ttiensin29
    Why are the Etruscans called etruscans?
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user Daniel Evensen
    Unless I am mistaken, did you mention whether or not the Etruscan s were in the B.C. (Before Chirst) or A.D. (After Death) times.
    (0 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Prof.Pseudo
      The article provides a date of 900-750 BCE for their Iron Age. Additionally, each picture used include a date range. All of them fall in BCE (Before the Common Era). Note: BCE is used in place of BC so historians can avoid mentioning Jesus Christ. BCE ends at the birth of Christ just as BC does. So 100BCE = 100BC. CE (Common Era or Current Era) replaces AD, likewise to avoid any reference to Christ. Also note: AD is an abbreviation for "Anno Domini" which in Latin means "In the year of our Lord", not "After Death". AD begins at His brith and continues throughout His life and death, so AD is not just "after" His death.
      (4 votes)
  • mr pants orange style avatar for user sutton strikers
    nice thanks this was helpful for school.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Kathy O'Rourke Gagnier
    Do you have any info on an Etruscan Key? I am planning to mosaic it on the front of my home, and I want to make sure I wasn't casting a spell on my family (haha) or something! Seriously, if the key means something, I'd like to know it. If there is more than one, I'm interested in the one that looks like a diamond pattern if you look closely.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Elizabeth Golden
    Ok so this is prety cool and I didn't get half of this?
    (2 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Claudette Delphis
    Thank you so much for your most informative segment on THE ETRUSCANS ~.~
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      One of the great things about Khan Academy is the "Tips and Thanks" tab, where comments like yours, when posted there, are seen by the authorities at Khan Academy, who have the job of rewarding people whose work is appreciated by students with things like pay raises and promotions. Help our teachers by posting your thanks there.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user theodoregolbez
    Where did they go? As far as I know, they weren't destroyed or anything by Roman. In fact, the complete opposite actually happened meaning Romans learned Etruscan as it was considered a classical language for them. Even emperors bothered to learn Etruscan... it was THAT honorable.

    Suddenly... the language died and so did they for no specific reason.
    (0 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Jeffrey A. Becker
      For the most part, Romans were not commonly learning to speak the Etruscan language. We know that the Roman emperor Claudius did know Etruscan and wrote a now-lost history of the Etruscans. The Etruscan language, along with its distinct culture, is gradually subsumed into the growing Roman empire and the inhabitants of Etruria become less culturally distinct, at least on a superficial level. This was happening all around the Mediterranean - from the fourth century BCE, many people were adopting a "Hellenisitc" style of living, such that lifeways at the local level become more homogeneous in terms to material culture (objects made and used in daily life). The persistence of local languages is not uncommon, but in the case of the Etruscan language, it gradually died out. The fact that Etruscan is a not an Indo-European language contributed to its decline.
      (5 votes)