The most powerful people in central Italy in the middle of the first millennium BC were the Etruscans. At a time when Rome was still a fairly modest settlement, the Etruscans dominated the land to their north, so when the Romans tried to reconstruct their early history, they decided that early Rome must have been ruled by Etruscan kings, and it was only with the expulsion of the kings that Rome finally took off. But how far is this true? And who were the Etruscans?
The Etruscans have always been a bit of a mystery. According to classical sources they came from the East. Herodotus said that they came from Lydia and tells a story of how there was a great famine in Lydia, so they decided to split the population in half and those who drew the short straw were sent off to settle somewhere in the West and they ended up in Italy and became the Etruscans.
Archaeology however tells a rather different story of evolution from the Iron Age inhabitants. These are known as the Villanovan culture after a site excavated near Bologna in 1855. They date roughly from 1000 to 800 BC and were basically an extension of the central European Urnfield culture where the dead were cremated and the ashes buried in elaborate urns, the Villanovan type being typified by a double urn, with one urn placed as a lid on top of the other. They were the first users of iron, and their timber built round houses are sometimes found under the classic Etruscan sites.
But around 800 to 750 BC, the pace of change quickened. Elaborate tombs begin to appear – no longer cremation but now inhumation in underground chamber tombs sometimes covered by a mound forming a tumulus. There was a population explosion too, and the number of settlements increased everywhere.
Etruscan history is often divided into three phases. It begins with an Oriental phase with influence coming from the East Mediterranean – strange beasts appear including lions — which are not normally found in Italy. The same thing was happening in Greece too with oriental influence showing up in Corinthian pottery. Is this the result of the eastern ‘invasion’? Probably not, as no colonies or distinctive settlements of eastern merchants has been discovered. The first definite foreign presence is further south, in the bay of Naples, where at Pithekoussai, on the island of Ischia there is a clearly Greek settlement, apparently of merchants seeking after the mineral wealth of Italy.
Then around the 580s, a new phase of centralisation begins, and the numerous small villages began to form towns. An Etruscan league was formed of 12 cities, – more or less – the number is inconsistent but they met every year at the shrine of Voltumnae, somewhere near modern Orvieto; the Etruscans grew rich, possibly on the export of copper and iron ores, rich enough to import many fine vases from Greece particularly Attica. Many of the finest Greek vases in the museums of the West come in fact from Etruria.
The next phase is often hung around the first definite date, that of 474 when a major battle took place at Cumae when the Etruscan forces were defeated by the Greek colony of Syracuse. The Greek colonies in Sicily were at their height, and for the Greeks in Sicily, the prime enemy were the Carthaginians, who were also seeking to expand in the Mediterranean. The Carthaginians and the Etruscans were often allied, but in the 480s, they were defeated by the Greeks, and the Etruscans ceased to be a major maritime power. The Etruscans were no longer able to acquire quite so many Greek vases as before, and the tomb paintings lose some of their quality when the native painters no longer had the inspiration and challenges posed by the Greek artists. Nevertheless the Etruscans, particularly in the more northerly and inland areas continue to flourish.
In the third century however, they faced a double challenge, twin conquests by Rome and by Greece. Artistically Greece conquered the Etruscans just as it was conquering Rome at the same time, and Etruscan art has a glorious final Hellenistic phase. But it was Rome that now eventually conquered and absorbed the Etruscans. The story is a complex one, not helped by the fact that the histories of Livy, who has hitherto provided a framework for Roman history, are lost between 292 and 218 BC and we must rely on inferior secondary sources. But one by one the Etruscan cities fell to Rome: unfortunately the Etruscans were never able to unite and present a united front, so Rome picked them off one by one. It was a long process where often battles were followed by a 30 or 40 year truce: the Romans by now were perfecting their political skills, and offered the conquered territories Latin rights and various forms of second tier citizenship which often, one suspects, gave the middle classes life as good as, if not better, than that which they led under their home-grown rulers. When Hannibal invaded at the end of the century, the Etruscan state remained on the whole faithful to Rome. By and large Etruria prospered, and the Etruscans grew fat
But what do we know about the Etruscan economy, and the way it worked? I have my twin questions: did they use money and did they have marketplaces or palaces? Well, basically they did not use money. There was indeed one city that issued its own money, and that was Populonia, the northernmost town on the coast of Etruria, which issued first gold, and then more plentifully silver. Populonia was a mining town which grew rich on the export of iron: the Etruscan remains were only discovered in the early 20th century when a mining company decided to extract the unused iron ore from the great heaps of slag, and discovered Etruscan remains beneath the slag. Like the Romans, the Etruscans used bronze bars as a form of money with their value stamped on them, though this aes grave as the Romans called it could only have been used for very basic trading purposes. I suppose you could say that moneywise the Etruscans were not unlike the Romans: they certainly had a richer economy than the Romans, but it was not an economy built on money.
But how were their cities structured? Were they ruled from palaces or from the marketplace? Here we come up against the big problem of Etruscan archaeology in that very little is known of Etruscan towns: the Etruscans are known essentially from their tombs. A trip through Tuscany is a trip through Etruscan cemeteries, many of them very magnificent with chamber tombs decorated with flamboyant wall paintings: one never quite knows how far these reflect Greek art or how far they reflect Etruscan tastes. But sadly most Etruscan towns are under modern towns and are inaccessible to the archaeologists.
The one exception that is always quoted as being the model Etruscan town is Marzabotto. This, however, is not a core Etruscan town but rather a colony situated some 50 miles north of the core Etruscan territory – today 17 miles south west of Bologna.
It is very much built in the ‘New town’ style, on a rigid orthogonal grid, laid out like the Greek colonies, the main difference being that instead of square insulae, it is laid out with long and narrow building blocks, facing on to broad roads with drainage channels down the centre. The streets are lined by houses, several of which had industrial uses, with kilns both for metalworking and brick-making and clay-working.
To one side there is a low hill which acts as an acropolis and is occupied by several temples.
On the low lying ground to the east of the town there is an extensive necropolis with fascinating details for students of Etruscan religion as imagined by D H Lawrence in his Etruscan Places. But there is no sign of any market place nor indeed of any palace. Perhaps they remain to be discovered, but sadly Marzabotto provides no answer to our question.
Another enigmatic site is Poggio Civitate, near the village of Murlo, 20 km south of Siena. Here a very large courtyard building has been excavated, constructed in the early sixth century BC – indeed it has been described as the largest building in the Mediterranean at that date. Each wing measured 60 m in length and it was gorgeously decorated with terracotta frieze plaques. Was it a Palace, a political meeting place or a Temple – there is no consensus as to its function. Current excavations nearby have revealed an extensive workplace area, but there is no indication that it was part of a town. (CWA 67)
There is however an alternative approach to studying the Etruscans by means of the great field walking survey known as the South Etruria Survey. This began in the 1950s when Rome was beginning its enormous expansion and John Ward Perkins, the director of the British School at Rome began walking over the fields north of Rome, simply collecting potsherds as he found them. This expanded into a very extensive survey in the 1950s and 60s which resulted in a groundbreaking book by Tim Potter on The Changing Landscape of South Etruria. Here he demonstrates the reality of the Etruscan phenomenon. After a slow build-up in the Villanovan period, there is a population explosion between 800 and 750 BC.
Thus whereas in the period between the 10th and the 8th centuries, only 79 sites were recorded, in the 7th to 6th centuries, 314 sites were recorded. He pointed out that this was the time when Greek colonies were being established in Southern Italy and he suggested that it may be the desire for metal ores that resulted in a steep increase both in nuclear settlements and in the rural population. The population increase was paralleled by a major investment in the construction and furnishing of tombs, but the survey also emphasised the other remarkable aspects of the Etruscans, their road building and drainage schemes , in particular in the construction of deep cuttings often running for mile, zig zagging up hills. The rich soil of Etruria is basically volcanic, which means that there are many ups and downs but it is easy to quarry out because the underlying tufa is very soft.
The survey also throws new light on the end of the Etruscan phenomenon and the takeover by Rome. The crucial event is the capture by Rome of Veii in 395 after a 10 year siege. Veii was the southernmost of the Etruscan cities, situated only 10 miles north of Rome, and its capture marks the beginning of Rome’s expansion to the north. The effects of the capture are clear with various broken statues. But it is difficult to say what effect this has on the surrounding countryside. Tim Potter argued that the countryside continued as usual, but recently there has been a re-dating of the pottery – it is very difficult to date the ubiquitous black glazed ware —but if there is a gap at this time, it extends beyond the Veii area and may be an indication of a disintegrating Etruscan Confederation
The major Roman push comes in the third century when Rome resumed its advance to the North — possibly taking advantage of the Etruscan decline. There is a substantial change in the countryside when new roads were built, often bypassing the former settlements. Individual farmsteads increase, possibly a Roman policy of settling farmers in the conquered territory. A classic example of the new policy is the foundation of Novi Faleria, a new town on flat ground to replace the defended citadel of the Faliscans – the classic Roman policy of founding new towns on the flat to replace the old hillforts. The complete plan of the new town has recently been recovered by a geophysical survey, revealing a classic Roman town plan. But it was not until Imperial times in the first century A.D. that the population really expanded as the rich Etruscan soil once again made it a valuable agricultural area.
The Etruscans remain a mystery. They flourished brilliantly for a couple of centuries, but then they collapsed and it appears that this was not entirely due to Roman aggression. The problem was that they fell between two stools. On the one hand they became established as city states on much the same pattern as in Greece. But they didn’t use money, they did not have a market economy, and did not have the essential economic underpinning that made a success of the Greek city states. On the other hand they did not go in the opposite direction and establish a powerful unitary state under a centralising emperor, the pattern that worked so well in China: there are no signs of palaces, and the burials reflect a very wealthy upper class but no sign of a pre-eminent king, no one individual elevated above the rest. And so they collapsed and were engulfed by Rome’s rising power. Many became Roman municipia – chartered towns – and in Imperial Rome, the fat Etruscan became a figure of fun – and perhaps even envy. Eventually in Imperial times the rich land of Etruria flourished again – but as a proud part of the great Roman Empire.
But the Etruscans have long had a strong fascination. D.H. Lawrence, who fell in love with the Etruscans in his closing years, explained his infatuation thus:
Myself, the first time I consciously saw Etruscan things, in the museum at Perugia, I was instinctively attracted to them. And it seems to be that way. Either there is instant sympathy, or instant contempt and indifference. Most people despise everything B.C. that isn’t Greek, for the good reason that it ought to be Greek if it isn’t. So Etruscan things are put down as a feeble Greco-Roman imitation. And a great scientific historian like Mommsen hardly allows that the Etruscans existed at all. Their existence was antipathetic to him. The Prussian in him was enthralled by the Prussian in the all-conquering Romans. So being a great scientific historian, he almost denies the very existence of the Etruscan people. He didn’t like the idea of them. That was enough for a great scientific historian. – D.H.Lawrence