The Etruscans: One of Three Great Civilizations in Italy – Part 1

By Francesco Bonavita, Ph. D.

This week we begin a three part series on the Etruscans, one of three great civilizations of Italy.


An ancient Etruscan amphora.

Although I am an assiduous traveler, my exposure to Etruscan Civilization was relegated to the very rich collection exhibited at the Vatican Museum, which displays a vast array of vases, golden artifacts, and the classical sarcophagi with its reclining figures. There was also an encounter with the early Villanovan artifacts I had seen several years ago in Perugia. And with the exception of two other major exhibits I had seen at the Louvre in Paris, as well as the well-curated Etruscan art collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I had always wanted to visit the region known as Etruria, an area known primarily for Etruscan ancient burial sites, referred to as necropolises, which is situated largely between two rivers, namely, the Tiber in Rome and the Arno in Florence. Recently, I was fortunate enough to make the trip to Etruria in an effort to delve deeper into a civilization that has been described as mysterious and elusive. I set out for the town of Tarquinia, approximately sixty miles northwest of Rome, which almost three thousand years ago, together with several other cities in Etruria, had been, the hub of the Etruscan Civilization. Upon arriving in Tarquinia, one cannot help to observe the relative peaceful and countrified atmosphere of the necropolis area. It is as if the entire area is undergoing a perennial slumber, deeply evocative of an illustrious bygone past. As I entered the premises, I was surprised to see only one tourist bus, occupied by mostly French, German, English and some American visitors. This is clearly not the typical tourist destination whereby long lines of eager visitors await patiently. The necropolis of Tarquinia is characterized by a vast burial ground, which contains approximately six thousand tombs in an area that is probably not much larger than Lower Manhattan. In addition, Tarquinia has some of the most beautiful Etruscan paintings than any other area in Etruria. As I descended tomb after tomb and absorbed by the colorful frescoes with numerous scenes, depicting festivals, hunting feats, celebrating life in its various forms, I could not but reflect on the Etruscans with awe and admiration.

Etruscans wore jewelry that ranged from pins, earrings, necklaces, hairpins and bracelets.

Etruscans wore jewelry that ranged from pins, earrings, necklaces, hairpins and bracelets.

So, just who are these Etruscans who are often labeled as enigmatic, gluttons, bon vivants, obscure but who, supposedly, gave us wine, the love for music and taught us to live life in style? In this essay, I would like to explore several questions. Is it possible that three major civilizations could flourish in the same area, during the course of twenty five hundred years? In a small geographical area, such as Tarquinia, the Etruscans left behind a vastly and highly decorated necropolis to honor their loved ones. Although there is no question that the Etruscan society was clearly defined in terms aristocratic lines, vis-a-vis a much larger servant population, one has to assume that such a vast necropolis could not have been intended just for the upper echelon. Rather, might we presuppose a more egalitarian posture toward the lower classes? Might this attitude constitute a more benevolent disposition toward the working class at this early juncture of Western Civilization? Another question that is equally compelling is where do the Etruscans originate? Since their language is classified as non-Indo-European, many historians have been intrigued by their origins. And last, but not least, we need to examine the legacy of the Etruscans and the degree to which studying these ancient people might give us a better appreciation of who we are.

The Etruscan presence in Italy goes as far back as 1200 BC. This is the period of the Bronze Age, which in the Etruria area is commonly referred to as the Villanova era by archaeologists. There are essentially two schools of thought regarding the origin of the Etruscans, namely, the Greek’s and the Roman’s, whose positions have not, to this day, resolved the issue. Historical accounts of ancient Greece seek to explain the origin of the Etruscan people, as having migrated from Asia Minor, primarily from Lydia, which today is known as Turkey. Herodotus, the Greek historian, attributes the Etruscan migration to famine, which took place around 1200 BC. Among the Roman historians, notably Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a historian who wrote around the time of Caesar Augustus in the first century AD, lies the notion that Etruscans originated in Italy. Dionysius claims that the Etruscans were autochtonous, meaning that they originated in Etruria. Among scholars, it is generally agreed that the Etruscans originated in Italy, but the verdict is still out, mainly because of scant literary documents left behind, which lends the Etruscans an aura of mysterious origin.

The calamitous climatic changes that took place around 1200 BC, which affected major areas of Anatolia, Syria, Cyprus and Greece, resulted in a massive migration. From a geographical standpoint, however, Herodotus’ theory may not be plausible simply because the migrants who sought to alleviate their miseries from hunger would have chosen a shorter path, closer to the Adriatic Sea, in order to reach Italy. They would have settled along the Adriatic Coast and not, as it is, the Tyrrhenian Sea Coast, where Etruria is located.

The Etruscans were well known for their terracotta freestanding sculpture and architectural reliefs.

The Etruscans were well known for their terracotta freestanding sculpture and architectural reliefs.

Because only a large body of archaeological evidence remains in the form of necropolis, it is very difficult to establish a definitive claim on the origin of the Etruscans. What is clear, however, is that both Greek and Roman accounts created a biased view of the Etruscans, which prevails in the collective consciousness of the present. The negative posture adopted by both Greek and Roman historians are quite ample. Based on archaeological accounts, we know that the Etruscans lived well. They celebrated life and, most important, women were treated with equal privileges as men. Whereas Greeks tend to show men at the center of activities, when we examine vases, Etruscan art, in contrast, celebrate the presence of women in leadership positions. According to Greek symposia, this composition was traditionally reserved for men, whereas the Etruscans show women mingling with men, as they celebrated life, usually in the form of festive poses. Illustrations found in paintings, emphasize full participation of women not only at celebrations but at sporting events, as well. In their tombs, Etruscans took great care to exhibit marital love in sarcophagi, showing spouses in a reclining position. Inscriptions found at tombs indicate that women kept their identity, as it was customary to preserve patronymic as well as matronymic names. This practice is still being continued by the Hispanic culture. Women played a vital role in public life. This can be seen in the way women dressed. They often wore dresses similar to Roman togas and would suggest a symbol of citizenship among women.

Geographical Area
Although Etruria is essentially delineated between two rivers, the Arno and the Tiber, and demarcated in the east by the Apennine Mountains with a navigational opening alongside the Tyrrhenian Sea, to the west, the presence of Etruscans stretches all the way to the north of Italy and as far south as Campania. Historical records indicate that the Etruscans interacted on a worldly scale with the Gauls of ancient France. Indeed, archeological evidence suggests that the Etruscans conducted commerce with the Gauls just as they had done with the people of Magna Grecia in Syracuse, Carthage in northern Africa, the Phoenicians in Asia Minor and the Greeks. The Etruscan territory was blessed with rich iron deposits, most especially on the island of Elba where an active metallurgic center was created and which gave the Etruscans a competitive edge over other people in the Mediterranean area.  Although there are no physical evidences today that the island was a center of metallurgy in the past, the name of Portoferraio in Elba still exists today. The term porto, of course, denotes the harbor whereas ferraio refers to iron, of which there was plenty of in ancient times. The wealth of Etruria was not by all means relegated to rich deposits of minerals. The area was equally endowed with a fertile land, enriched by a vast network of brooks.  This is the area of Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany, Emilia Romagna and Liguria which even in present time is synonymous with the production of great wine, unique olive oil and delicious artichokes, among other things. Thus, given the inimitable territory, with its majestic topography, for which the Etruscans enjoyed, it was inescapable that the Etruscans were destined to be excellent navigators, good cultivators of the land and fine artisans.

Early Etruscan

An intricate Etruscan amphora found in Chiusi in the region of Tuscany, Italy.

An intricate Etruscan amphora found in Chiusi in the region of Tuscany, Italy.

The early Etruscans begin to surface in the Etruria region around 1200 BC. Traditional archaeology prefers to label these inhabitants who articulated the transition between the Bronze and the Iron Age, as those who characterized the so called Villanovan period. This period spans approximately four hundred years and it establishes the uncontested supremacy in much of the Mediterranean land. Modern archaeology, however, prefers not to dwell on the Villanovan designation simply because it may inadvertently create the notion of two distinct civilizations.   We do not have much structural evidence left behind by the Etruscans, as dwellings, seaports, temples, and storehouses have essentially disappeared. What we have, instead, is a vast array of burial sites that reveal the essence of Etruscan civilization on account of their art, artifacts and personal belongings of the families for whom these necropolis were created. Based on archaeological evidence, it is fair to say that these people had a fairly egalitarian social structure, with division of labor and a quality of life that was fairly accessible to everyone. In nearly four hundred years, the Etruscans of this period experienced prosperity, increased their navigational commerce, which allowed them to interact with a multitude of people, all over the Mediterranean area.

The funerary practices of the early Etruscans are rather remarkable in that they cremated their dead and placed the remains in an urn, which resembles the habitat of the time. The urn represents a rudimentary hut, made out of ceramics mixed with iron. This technique would suggest that the Etruscans were experimenting with minerals, as they entered a transformational phase from bronze to iron.

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