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Definition: Etruria from Britannica Concise Encyclopedia

Ancient country, central Italy. It covered the region that now comprises Tuscany and part of Umbria. Etruria was inhabited by the Etruscans, who established a civilization by the 7th century bc. Their chief confederation, traditionally including 12 cities, developed a culture that reached its height in the 6th century bc. Etruscan power extended into northern and southern Italy at its peak, but the cities of Etruria were gradually absorbed by Rome during the 3rd century bc.

Place: Etruria

Location: ancient country, Italy

Type: historic place

Related Place: Italy

Keywords: Etruscan art, Etruscan, Etruria, Italy

Summary Article: Etruria, Etruscans
from The Encyclopedia of Ancient History
Introduction, origins, history of the study

The Etruscans played a key role, not just in central Italy, but across much of the Mediterranean. Even now the Etruscans are famed for the material culture they produced themselves, and the material culture they collected from other contemporary cultures, particularly the Greeks.

There are countless Etruscan sites in Italy. Livy (5.1) spoke of the Etruscan dodecapoloi, consisting of three groups of twelve leading Etruscan cities. The oldest of these refers to Etruria proper (roughly modern northern Lazio, Tuscany, and western Umbria), followed by the creation of settlements in Campania, as well as a period of colonization or expansion across the peninsula in the Po Valley (Scullard 1967: 231–3). The organization of these towns as a league is often questioned now, and viewed as a possible Roman mislabeling or misunderstanding of a political system unlike their own. Others such as Bloch postulated that the Etruscans had immigrated to Italy from Lydia after the Trojan War, based on the account by the Greek historian Herodotus (I.94) mentioning a race called the "Tyrsenoi," who were believed to have made such a journey ca. 1300 BCE due to a famine (1956: 51–5). These ideas are symptomatic of the text-driven interpretations of later Latin and Greek sources. It seems likely that Etruscan towns were run as independent states, for the most part. Much early scholarship focused on the origin of the Etruscans, often attributing them to north of the Alps, central Europe, or the Balkans, based on elements shared with other cultures regarding language and metalwork.

However, the Greek historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1.30.2), argues that the Etruscans were indigenous to Italy. In fact, there is no direct archaeological evidence and little historical documentary evidence to support an invasion or immigration hypothesis. These views of the Etruscans originating from outside Italy gradually lost favor after numerous excavations indicated continuity between the "Villanovan" and Etruscan phases of sites. Pallottino initiated the idea by stating that the "civilization of ancient Etruria did not grow entirely from foreign seeds," in fact, the sites that become the great historical centers of Etruria develop from the early "Villanovan" times to historical times without break (Pallottino 1956: 70–1; see Villanovan culture).

The majority of research on the Etruscan culture centers around the necropoleis and temples, due to less available information concerning the habitation areas at most of the sites. One of the most striking elements about the Etruscan culture is the degree of variability in certain aspects, such as the forms of burials and ritual spaces. These differences give an important insight into the varying forms of organization for Etruscan familial, political, and religious practices, and may help us understand the amount of independence over time and between the settlements, rather than viewing the Etruscan culture as a homogeneous regional entity (Barker and Rasmussen 1998; Haynes 2005; Roth-Murray 2007).


Despite the survival of roughly thirteen thousand inscriptions in Etruscan, the language is still not fully understood. The majority of inscriptions are short dedications, or declarations of possession and identity on grave goods and sarcophagi, and are largely based around proper names. None of the inscriptions is entirely secular, but they rather appear to be ritual in some way. The language is unrelated to the Indo-European languages of the Italian peninsula (Agostiniani 2001). Etruscan utilises a western Greek script, and was probably adopted as contact increased with Greeks in the Bay of Naples (see Alphabets, Italy). Lengthy bilingual inscriptions have helped increase knowledge of the language. The Pyrgi tablets, from the sanctuary of the port site of Cerveteri, although not strictly bilingual, are gold laminae inscribed in both Etruscan and Punic, describing the dedication of a temple.

Trade and exchange around the Mediterranean

Intense contacts existed between the Etruscans and other cultures across the Mediterranean, owing to sailing and trading. Trade connections between Etruscans, Greeks, and Phoenicians were well-established at least by the eighth century BCE. Rumors of piracy suggest that Etruscans patrolled the Tyrrhenian waters (see Homeric Hymn 7 to Dionysos). However, what is clear is that the overwhelming number of Greek vases, on display in museums around the world, survive because of their use as grave goods in Etruscan burials. The influx of imported goods demonstrates the rise and fall of the changing producers and traders of the Mediterranean world throughout this time.

As opposed to the views that the Etruscans indiscriminately accepted any material culture brought to the region by Greek traders (Boardman 1980: 200), the Etruscans are now believed to have been active participants and instigators of these exchange relationships. The distribution of Etruscan bucchero (see below), especially along the southern coast of France and the northwestern coast of Spain, indicate that this ceramic style was highly sought after by other cultures, and it is highly probable that Etruscans brought their wares to these shores themselves.

Art, material culture and myth

The Etruscans are responsible for creating a number of unique types of material culture, much of which, particularly pottery, has survived to modern times as grave goods. Impasto, a coarse, hand-thrown fabric often used for the ossuary urns, is characteristic of the tenth to eighth centuries. Bucchero, however, produced during the seventh and sixth centuries, is synonymous with the Etruscans. The rich black fabric is a result of the reduction process during the firing, and it is thought that very fine examples imitate metal vessels. A number of shapes that originate in bucchero, including the kantharos, kyathos, and carinated amphora, were later adopted by Greek potters. In terms of painted pottery, the Etruscans also produced Etrusco-Geometric, Etrusco-Corinthian, Etruscan black figure, and Etruscan red figure. Etruscans are also renowned for their bronze sculptures, bronze mirrors, architectural terracotta decorations, painted tombs, and gold granulated jewelery (Spivey 1997; Torelli 2001). These items containing depictions of myth give insight into the Etruscan culture and its selective adoption of Greek myth (Bonfante and Swaddling 2006).

Burial practices

One of the most significant things to note about the Etruscans is the variation in burial practices over time at each site. During the Villanovan phase (ninth to eighth centuries), burials were characteristically cremations held in biconical urns placed within a larger stone cavity accompanied by grave goods such as razors, spindle-whorls, and fibulae. The grave goods are, not unproblematically, often used to identify the sex of the deceased. Huge chamber tombs are characteristic of the orientalizing and early Archaic phases (seventh to early fifth centuries) at some of the best known Etruscan necropoleis, such as Cerveteri and Tarquinia. The chamber tombs, drum-shaped structures made of the local stone, tuff, with earthen mounds heaped on top, represent monumental funerary architecture for the demonstration of elite life. The chambers typically held one or two inhumation burials in each. The late Archaic phase (fifth and fourth centuries) marks an important architectural change at some sites, such as Cerveteri and Orvieto, with the adoption of the cube tomb, or smaller rectangular chamber tombs constructed in rows. The use of sarcophagi also becomes more widespread during this period and continues into the Hellenistic period (third to first centuries), for cremations, such as the alabaster examples at Volterra, or for inhumations at sites including Tarquinia. Many of the sarcophagi incorporated sculpted portraits of the deceased on the lids and mythological scenes sculpted in low-relief on the caskets. The dramatic increase in the number of burials from multiple generations of a family included in many chamber tombs during the Hellenistic period at many sites, including Tuscania and Volterra, indicates different socio-familial politics at work from the previous periods. The site of Chiusi and its surrounding area produced starkly different funerary containers from the rest of the region during the orientalizing and Archaic periods; the erroneously-termed "canopic urns" are crudely portrait-based ash urns often placed in miniature thrones, many of which bore a bronze mask. The small number of sarcophagi containing lids sculpted with a male and female couple reclining together, particularly the two "married sarcophagi" from Cerveteri, are thought by many to indicate loving marriages and the relative importance of women in Etruscan society.

Etruscan tomb paintings are thought by many to reveal glimpses into Etruscan life. The majority, but certainly not all, are from Tarquinia, where despite the presence of approximately one hundred and forty painted tombs, this number represents only a small percentage of the total number of tombs at the site (Steingräber 2007). Some of the most famous wall paintings depict banquets, with both men and women partaking in the food and drink, while reclining on dining couches, such as the Tomb of the leopards and Tomb of hunting and fishing. If these scenes reflect social practices (in life), then Etruscan women held relatively privileged positions, including access to what was an exclusively male sphere for Greek symposia.

Etruscan religious practices

Etruscan divinities are usually aligned with Greek and Roman gods for convenience of discussion, but should not be thought of as strict equivalents, such as Etruscan Tinia's alignment with Zeus/Jove. An understanding of Etruscan religious practices is partly based on writings from Cicero (Div.) and Seneca (Q Nat.) among others, who describe ancient texts that no longer survive concerning the Etrusca disciplina. Other important forms of evidence include: inscriptions referring to religious roles, particularly those on sarcophagi; equipment, tools, and models related to religious practices; and imagery of practices. The two main religious practices organized through priestly roles were augury and haruspicy, for which the Etruscans were famed. Augury was based upon divining omens through the interpretation of bird flight and lightning. Augurs are identified by their association with the lituus, or curved staff. Haruspicy involved the "reading" of animal entrails, especially the liver, for portents. Votive offerings were potentially enacted by any member of the culture. Sacred places in nature and temples were places that received donations of items, including vases and bronze statuettes.

The formation of settlements, urban planning

Recently much research has been devoted to trying to understand the sphere of Etruscan culture which has been neglected for so long, that is the actual settlements. Several excavations have sought to examine habitation areas to better understand the Etruscan life ways, rather than just their ritual and funerary rites. Unfortunately, the majority of settlement areas have not been recovered. Many of the same plateaus where the Etruscan settlements are located have been covered by medieval or even modern towns, making it virtually impossible to excavate. Instead, tomb architecture (the interior of the chamber tombs and the exterior of the cube tombs), the layouts of cemeteries, and even the Villanovan hut-urns, were used as examples of Etruscan architecture. Ornamental decoration in the tombs included carved doorframes, stone benches resembling banqueting couches, and stylized window openings. However, it is difficult to say if these elements are an accurate view of Etruscan domestic architecture. We know at least that the building materials differed between the domestic and funerary spheres of life, and maybe the overall appearance of the structures differed too. The tombs were built to last through the ages, sometimes built directly into the bedrock; the domestic structures seem, for the most part, to have been built using wood, waddle and daub, etc., sometimes with stone foundations. This was not the result of the lack of construction technology, but due to other ideals of the culture.

The exceptional example of Marzabotto, an Etruscan settlement just south of Bologna, contains a north–south grid plan dating to the early fifth century BCE (Bentz and Reusser 2008). It has been suggested that the town was founded and organized spatially through the use of Etruscan ritual foundation rites, involving an augur determining the orientation, organization, and extent of the urban space.

Etruscan temples and architecture

Non-funerary architecture for the Etruscans often consisted of stone foundations with wooden superstructures and terracotta decorations adorning and protecting the roof. This more ephemeral form of construction means that tombs dominate modern perceptions of Etruscan architecture. Allusions are often made to Demaratus of Corinth introducing the technique to Etruria as an immigrant to Tarquinia; however, an architectural terracotta tradition in Etruria grew out of indigenous roots early in the sixth century BCE. Huge structures combining religious, domestic, and other functions, sometimes referred to as "monumental complexes," that existed during the late Orientalizing and Archaic periods demonstrate local traditions in architecture and architectural terracottas, such as at Poggio Civitate, Murlo near Siena; and Acquarossa near Viterbo.

Etruscan temples as a more specific form of architecture developed later, from the end of the Archaic period. The Roman architect, Vitruvius, defined the "Tuscan Temple" in definite terms that included a columned portico and three cellae in the rear. In reality, Etruscan temples are variable in their form and size. The Portonaccio Temple at Veii is often viewed as an excellent example of this form of architecture, along with its ridgepole statues of Hercules, Apollo, Hermes, and others.

Etruscan women

Etruscan women are highly visible in the archaeological record, particularly in the funerary sphere, with sculpted portrait sarcophagi, rich grave goods, including chariots in many cases during the orientalizing and early Archaic periods, names inscribed on sarcophagi, tombs, and grave goods. Iconography depicting Etruscan women banqueting with men, and as domina lanifica, or the domestic head of weaving and spinning, suggest that they held socially significant and visible roles in Etruscan society.

Interaction with the Roman world

The "King Period" at Rome intertwines Roman and Etruscan history, when cultural and political boundaries were more fluid across the Tiber than suggested by historical maps. The Tarquin Dynasty produced Lucomo Tarquin, who became Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (reportedly 616–579) when he rose to power in Rome. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (reportedly 535–510/509) also took control after usurping power, and ruled until he was expelled, which paved the way for the founding of the Roman Republic.

Interactions and clashes between Rome and the Etruscan cities escalated during the late fourth century. Livy describes the wars between Rome and Veii as culminating in the sacking of the latter in 396; however, archaeological investigations indicate that Veii continued to exist on a reduced scale after this time. The nature of the clashes, and in some cases negotiations between the elites of cities, is the subject of debate. Further archaeological investigations into townscapes and the surrounding countryside, such as at Volterra and the surrounding Cecina Valley, suggest that any discussions of processes related to Romanization, must be much more nuanced in order to acknowledge the continuity of Etruscan culture on many levels throughout Etruria (and in Rome) for many centuries later (Terrenato 1998).

In terms of material culture, the Etruscans left to the Romans a legacy of important status symbols, including the purple-bordered toga, sella curulis, fasces, lituus, and triumphal procession. These items continued on and became integral elements in the Roman Republic and Empire.


Cerveteri (Caere); Pottery, Archaic and republican Rome; Pottery trade; Religion, Etruscan; Tarquinii (Tarquinia); Volaterrae.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Agostiniani, L. (2001) The language. In Torelli, M. , ed., The Etruscans, exhibition catalogue, Palazzo Grassi: 485-99. London.
  • Barker, G.; Rasmussen, T. (1998) The Etruscans. Oxford.
  • Bentz, M.; Reusser, C. (2008) Marzabotto: Planstadt der Etrusker. Mainz.
  • Boardman, J. (1980) The Greeks overseas. Their colonies and trade. London.
  • Bonfante, L.; Swaddling, J. (2006) Etruscan myths. London.
  • Haynes, S. (2005) Etruscan civilization. A cultural history. London.
  • Pallottino, M. (1956) The Etruscans. London.
  • Roth-Murray, C. (2007) "Elite interaction in Archaic Etruria: exploring the exchange networks of terracotta figured frieze plaques." Journal of Mediterranean Studies 17: 135-60.
  • Scullard, H. H. (1967) The Etruscan cities and Rome. New York.
  • Spivey, N. (1997) Etruscan art. London.
  • Steingräber, S. (2007) Abundance of life: Etruscan wall painting. New York.
  • Terrenato, N. (1998) "Tam firmum municipium: the romanization of Volaterrae and its cultural implications." Journal of Roman Studies 88: 94-114.
  • Torelli, M., ed. (2001) The Etruscans. Exhibition catalogue, Palazzo Grassi. London.
  • Carrie Roth-Murray
    Wiley ©2012

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