Every tourist and Expat in Italy will hear about the Etruscans and Romans. In places like Volterra where I live, and Tuscany in general, the local Italian likes to talk more about the Etruscans than about the Romans. The ancient history of Italy is a fascinating patchwork of different cultures and peoples coming together at times and fighting bloody battles at other times; all in the pursuit of domination of the valuable farm lands of the central plains and the strategic military and commercial position on the Southern coast of the European continent.
After many centuries of conflict the Romans, or the people from the city of Rome, emerged as the dominant force after assimilating the Etruscans and other clans into their mighty Empire. Following these victories in their own territory, the Roman Empire went on to dominate and shape the culture, society and governmental systems of the whole European continent!
Learning about the history of Italy is not only interesting but it also gives you a deeper understanding of how the past influenced the present world. Finding out how Italy came into being furthers your understanding of the art, architecture, culture and traditions of Italy; an incredibly engaging field of pursuit for Expats, tourists and amateur historians alike.
Who Were The Etruscans And Where Did They Come From?
Until recently very little was known about the Etruscan civilization which thrived in Italy between about 1000 BC until around 50-25 BC when they were assimilated into the Roman Empire.
This great civilization was largely forgotten by history until some major archaeological discoveries began to unearth the incredible sophistication, power and development of the Etruscans.
The Etruscan’s main territories stretched from between modern day Tuscany and Northern Lazio; and they were not only fierce warriors but highly advanced craftsmen, farmers and traders. From what we currently know, it appears that the Etruscan societies were ruled by a warrior elite who oversaw large rural areas and the farming populations who lived there. However, this did change as the Etruscans became more urbanized and a merchant oligarchical class took over the rulership of the civilization.
The vast wealth of the Etruscans was primarily derived from the deposits of gold, copper and other natural resources on their territories, which were collectively known as Etruria. The Etruscans managed a large number of mines, for extracting the rare earth minerals, and large areas of farmland.
Etruscans were skilled craftsmen and became famous in their own time for their mastery at metalwork and pottery. They were also excellent artists, producing sculptures, mosaics and frescoes which decorated private residences, public spaces and the tombs of important members of society.
As well as their skills on land, the Etruscans were also great sailors, travelling all over the Mediterranean. During the 7th Century BC, their explorers met with the Ancient Greeks, who were so impressed by their civilization that many even moved to settle in Etruria!
However, despite their advanced society, the greatest contribution to history might have been the influence that the Etruscans had on the emerging Roman Empire; which itself would shape much of the modern Western world’s languages, legal systems and shared culture.
In fact, many of the most profound features of the Roman Empire were taken directly from the Etruscan civilization! This includes the religions of the Early Roman Empire, the urban planning techniques, culture and even the knowledge of engineering that allowed Rome to build aqueducts and roads throughout its growing Empire. As a result, one cannot truly understand Rome, and therefore Italy, without knowing about the Etruscans as well!
Who Were The Romans?
The Romans are a group of Italian people who originated in the city of Rome, and hence their name! In the ancient world most people were more closely associated and allied with a major city or clan, as opposed to a country; prior to the birth of the concept of a nation state.
Following several centuries of battling the surrounding peoples, the Romans came to dominate the region and founded their own Empire which lasted more than 1000 years. At the height of the Roman Empire it controlled vast territories including Gaul, Greece, Spain and large parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
The history of the Roman Empire can be understood as taking place over three distinct periods; each marked by its own type of governance and rulership.
The beginning of the Roman Empire is referred to as the Period of Kings which spanned the years of 625-510 BC. This was followed by the founding of the Republican Rome and the Senate, which lasted between 510-31 BC. Lastly, the age of Imperial Rome survived from 31 BC until around 476 AD. It was during this last, Imperial age of Rome that the Catholic Church was founded by Constantine the Great at the Councils of Nicea, between 321 and 327 AD. These laid down the basic foundations of the Universal Catholic Church; and it is partly because of this that Catholicism is often referred to as the Roman Catholic Church.
The Roman And Etruscan Wars.
In the Ancient World, war was often the final way in which competing, or neighboring, civilizations settled their disputes and asserted their regional dominance. Although little is still known about the wars between the Romans and the Etruscans the general outlines are fairly well established now.
The Etruscans were regularly attacked by raiding bands of Celts from the North while remaining under constant pressure from the Romans to the South. For hundreds of years the Romans and the Etruscans fought frequent battles and wars.
During this time, the Romans significantly developed their military capabilities and strategic tactics, and were eventually more and more able to defeat the Etruscans in battle.
In 406 BC, the Romans won a major victory against the Etruscans, capturing the city of Veii after a long siege. This saw the Romans expand their territories into Etruria. Although there were many years of intermittent peace between the Romans and the Etruscans, the Romans once again defeated the Etruscans in 295 BC at the legendary Battle of Sentinum; after which the Romans continued their push into their territory, capturing 3 more major Etruscan city states.
Finally, in 273 BC, the Etruscan city of Cerveteri, the last great remaining city state of Etruria, fell to the Romans. Following this decisive victory, the Romans established military bases and colonies throughout Etruria. This began the slow process of the disappearance of the unique Etruscan culture and the Romanization of its population.
By 50 BC, the Etruscans had all but disappeared and were largely forgotten by history until recent archeological finds unearthed the ruins of their civilization. Most of the Etruscans were Romanized rather than killed, and brought their skills, knowledge and the best elements of their culture into the expanding Roman Empire.
The Domination Of Tuscany By The Etruscans.
The Etruscan civilization was based over the territories that cover modern day Tuscany, parts of Northern Lazio and Western Umbria. At the height of Etruscan power, their civilization also controlled parts of the Po Valley, South Eastern Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and sections of Campania.
Tuscany was one of the central power bases of the Etruscan civilization; in fact, Tuscany is actually named after its pre-Roman rulers, the Etruscans. Tuscany was ruled by the Etruscans for many generations from around 1000 BC until it was finally assimilated into the Roman Empire in around 50-25 BC.
The Etruscans were the first major, highly advanced civilization that lived in Tuscany. It is believed that the Etruscans lived in Tuscany since distant prehistoric times but little is known about the exact origins of their civilization. The ruling class of the city states were often known as cruel tyrants but they also built an extensive network of roads and travel infrastructure, large areas of productive agricultural land and many gold and copper mines. During this period Tuscany became a wealthy region and produced many great works of art, including impressive sculptures and frescoes.
The Influence Of The Etruscans On The Development Of Rome.
During the 7th Century BC the Etruscans took control of Rome, which was nothing but a small rural settlement at the time. The Etruscans built up Rome, under the leadership of the Etruscan Tarquinii Kings. The dynasty of Tarquinii, or Etruscan, Kings of Rome were renowned for their cruelty and tyrannical ruling style; although they did develop Rome and expand its influence throughout the surrounding territories. Finally expelled around 500 BC, the Tarquinii Kings left a lasting legacy on the Roman way of life.
Religion In Rome.
Very little solid information is known about the Etruscan religion but it is believed that several of their demons and deities were adopted by the Romans. It’s thought that some of these were even passed on to the Catholic Church in later centuries.
The Etruscans venerated prophecies and oracles and this practise was certainly adopted by the Roman Empire and played an important role in the rituals of the Empire.
One of the most surprising ways in which the Etruscan religion influenced Rome was through the adoption of fighting gladiators as a public spectacle. In the Etruscan civilization, gladiators would fight to the death at the funerals of kings or other important noblemen. This was a common practise in all the city states of Etruria and the blood of the dead fighters was presented to the deities of the underworld as an offering.
Rome adopted this custom; although it became a more secular event and would usually take place at festivals or other celebrations, including the famous Games at the Colosseum. Despite the more secular nature of the gladiator fighting in Rome, there were still attendants dressed as gods, such as Hermes, who oversaw the proceedings.
Architecture And Society In Rome.
The Etruscans were excellent architects and engineers and had a huge influence on the development of Rome and its society. The original sewers in Rome were built while the Tarquinii Kings ruled the city and it was this improvement in sanitation that allowed the city to grow without the attendant spread of disease.
These Etruscan kings also ordered the draining of the swamps that surrounded Rome, allowing more agricultural land to become available; thus helping to feed the growing Roman population.
Much of Rome’s essential architectural works were conducted by the Tarquinii kings, including the crucial Servian Walls that fortified the city from invaders. These walls were so perfectly constructed that they protected the city for centuries to come! As well as the fortifying walls, the Etruscan kings also oversaw the building of the famous Temple of Jupiter as well as the first Forum, the central public meeting place in the city. More generally, it is believed that the Etruscans introduced the arch and vault into Roman architecture; features which later defined the Roman architectural style!
Famous Etruscans Monuments In Italy Today.
Following the exciting archeological discoveries of the last century many important Etruscan monuments and sites have been unearthed. It was these discoveries that helped to illustrate the highly developed nature of the Etruscan civilization, as well as the exquisite art, pottery and sculptures that they left behind. These sites have become precious monuments to the ancient civilization that did so much to help create the Roman Empire and the modern Italian culture; and are also major attractions for the many tourists who visit each year.
The site of Orvieto is believed to have been first settled by the Etruscans in the 9th Century BC. It was a wealthy part of Etruria as a result of its bronze craftwork and ceramics and was known as Velzna in the ancient world. Orvieto has more than 1000 caves containing quarries, carved passageways and wells. These can be explored on a guided tour where you’ll see the wall paintings, deep mine shafts and the quarry itself. You’ll also be able to learn how the Etruscans made olive oil using traditional olive presses on the tour!
These Etruscan ruins are located just outside of Rome and are centered around an ancient necropolis. The Necropolis of Banditaccia was constructed over a 600 year period, between the 9th and 3rd Centuries BC; however despite public interest the ruins are not yet fully excavated and explored.
Amazingly, the Etruscans built their underground tombs in the same patterns as might be used to build a city. This huge site covers more than 6 miles and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Many of the tombs contain beautiful artworks that depict life in Etruscan society; including pictures of animals, events and everyday objects. Nearby, an old castle in the Piazza of Cerveteri has been renovated and turned into a Etruscan museum and with free entry it’s a must see for anyone interested in this fascinating ancient culture.
This stunning town, perched on a hillside above the beautiful Lake Trasimeno, is the site of extremely well preserved Etruscan ruins. In Cortona, the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca contains a huge host of artifacts including a bronze Etruscan chandelier, gold sculptures and ceremonial regalia. Outside of the town you can also explore the tombs of Grotta di Pitagora and Sergardi, as well as the ancient fortifying walls that once surrounded ancient Cortona.
Etruscans & Romans – Understanding Modern Italy.
Italy has an incredibly ancient history with more artifacts and sites being discovered every year; and the discovery of Etruscans ruins throughout the central plains of the country have helped to shed light on the early Roman period.
The amount of influence that the Etruscans had on the Roman Empire is quite remarkable; not only in terms of religion, society, the arts and crafts, but also in terms of some of the best known features of Roman architecture, including vaults and arches!
There’s also a strange irony in the relationship between the Romans and Etruscans. Initially, without the help and knowledge of the Etruscan Tarquinii Kings, Rome may never have developed to the point of being able to later conquer and assimilate the Etruscan civilization into its own!
History is full of mysteries and although much has been revealed about the Etruscans and their role in the development of Rome, no doubt there is still more waiting to be discovered and unearthed; to shed more light on the incredible ancient history of Italy.