Etruscan sarcophagus

The Enigmatic Etruscans

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The Etruscans emerged in what was Etruria (modern day Tuscany) in the Western and central regions of Italy, North of Latium. While their origins are continuously debated in the academic world, one thing is for certain, they emerged as a great power by the start of the 6th century BCE and their influence and art would be shared with the rest of the Mediterranean world.

A map showing the extent of Etruria and the Etruscan civilization

A map showing the extent of Etruria and the Etruscan civilization. The map includes the 12 cities of the Etruscan League and notable cities founded by the Etruscans. Image source: Wikipedia

The difficulty in understanding the Etruscan culture stems from the fact that not much of this culture survived. Despite deciphering the unique Etruscan language, very few inscriptions have been discovered, and of the few discovered, leaves us with more questions than answers to this enigmatic group of peoples. Besides, these inscription never give us insight into the culture itself, only their rituals which were even foreign to their neighbors of the time. What makes matters worse is that the Classical and biased writers had a tendency to portray the Etruscans in a negative light.

Pyrgi tablets - Etruscan language

"Pyrgi tablets". Laminated sheets of gold with a treatise both in Etruscan and Phoenician languages. From Etruscan Museum in Rome. Image source: Wikipedia

A lot of their architecture, mythologies, deities, and artistic style was adopted and adapted from the neighboring Greeks. From Homer’s greatest epics to the triumph of the gods over the Titans, the Etruscans were enjoying a lot of the same stories already spreading throughout the Mediterranean.

Etruscan mural of Typhon

Etruscan mural of Typhon. Image source: Wikipedia

During the 4th century BCE, Rome was expanding beyond Latium and started to annex Etruscan cities. By the 3rd century BCE, Rome completely conquered Etruria. During this entire process, the Romans adopted some of the Etruscan customs, mythologies, and art while leaving the rest to be forgotten to time. It has been a very difficult process for the modern scholar to identify what aspects of Roman culture, belief, and craft stem from the Etruscans. The only purely undisturbed window to this culture survives only in their lavish tombs.

Prior to their assimilation into Roman society and complete disappearance, Greek and Phoenician inscriptions record alliances and naval battles between the Etruscans and the Greeks of the Aegean and Magna Graecia (most Southern part of the Italian mainland below Latium). It was their established thalassocracy over the Tyrrhenian Sea that made the Etruscans a force to be contended with. Their mastering of the sea would inspire future Roman seafaring.

As mysterious as they were, again, it was through preserved Etruscan burials and tombs that the unbiased truth of these obscure peoples revealed itself; their sociopolitical organization, customs, and religion emerged; their views of the afterlife, the soul, and the spirituality within nature and the greater world; and more. Although, much like their inscriptions, many questions continue to remain unanswered.

Wall painting in a burial chamber called Tomb of the Leopards

Wall painting in a burial chamber called Tomb of the Leopards at the etruscan necropolis of Tarquinia in Lazio, Italy. Image source: Wikipedia

Sources

Pallottino, Massimo. The Etruscans . Bloomington: Indiana UP,1975. [Print]

Featured image: Etruscan sarcophagus from Cerveteri c. 520 BCE. Terra cotta, length 2 m. Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome. Image source: Wikipedia.

By Petros Koutoupis

Comments

They learned writing and the alphabet from the Greek colonists in Cuma, a frazione of the comune Bacoli in the Province of Naples, Campania, Italy.

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