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The Banishment of Julia Augusti (PART 3)

by August 11, 2020

Written by Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Yet, as it turns out, Livia would not be unhappy for long. Poor Marcellus would not live to see his twenty-first birthday. After just two years of marriage, an epidemic swept through the Roman Empire that would infect Augustus almost to death. After he improved, it went after his young scion. Everyone expected the golden prince to make a full recovery.
When he perished it set off a period of mourning in Rome that resulted in some of the greatest poetry of the age. Both Virgil in the Aeneid and Propertius in Elegies wrote movingly of the prince’s passing. The ancients tell us that after her son Marcellus perished, Octavia withdrew from society.
A widow at sixteen, the ancients do not mention Julia’s feelings for her husband with whom she had been raised. And imagine how crushed Augustus must have been that the double Julian union produced no issue.
However, was Marcellus’s death natural?  Marcellus would be the first in a long line of successors who found it difficult to succeed Augustus. In fact, history bears out that each time a dynastic successor for Augustus emerged he was met with an untimely end.

Marcellus, nephew and son-in-law of Augustus.

Once Marcellus was laid to rest, the whispers began that Livia had a hand in his death. It was her son, after all, who had the most to gain. Nevertheless, if Livia was responsible for Marcellus’s demise, it was all for naught. Within a short year, Augustus betrothed his freshly widowed daughter to his close friend and war hero, the mighty general and consul Marcus Vispanius Agrippa (63 BCE-12 BCE).
Everything was set except for one small detail, Agrippa was already married. But something as trite as Agrippa’s marriage—a marriage Augustus had himself arranged years ago to Marcellus’s sister—did not stop the Princeps from fashioning Agrippa as his next son-in-law and heir-apparent.
Livia was seething. A patrician through and through, not only was she unhappy that Tiberius was once again passed over, but what is more, that he was eclipsed by someone of humble and plebian origins, several rungs below the exalted Claudian line.

Bust of Agrippa, photo from the late 19th to early 20th century, Florence.

The political truth, however, was more complicated. With the support of his loyal legionnaires, if anyone could launch a successful armed insurrection against Augustus, it would be his beloved general. A central player in Rome’s governance, Agrippa had been disappointed in Augustus’s selection of Marcellus two years ago. The poet, Gaius Maecenas—a good friend of Augustus—is quoted as saying about Agrippa: “Kill him or make him your son-in-law.” Ever prudent, the Princeps chose not to offend the man (or his legions) who all but won the Battle of Actium for him, so he made him his son-in-law instead.
Once again marching to her father’s orders, the eighteen-year-old Julia married Agrippa.  As with her wedding to Marcellus, the Princeps—off on one expedition or another—did not attend the nuptials he so diligently arranged. The ancients are mute when it comes to Julia’s sentiments about her latest match, a man twenty-five years her senior.
Often accompanying her husband on his campaigns abroad, in the nine years they were married she produced four children; two sons (Gaius and Lucius) and two daughters (Agrippina and Julia) and she was pregnant with her fifth child (Agrippa Posthumus) when Agrippa died in 12 BCE.

Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, by Johann Georg (c) English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.

In 17BCE, following the birth of her second son Lucius, the overbearing Princeps—needing more fodder for his dynastic mill—formally adopted her two eldest sons, taking full possession of them lock, stock, and barrel. Adoption in ancient Rome was a complete and irrevocable affair in which the child officially became the adopted father’s with no formal ties to his biological parents.
In this way, Julia was curtailed from providing a loving home and early education to her sons—principal functions of a matrona (married woman). Yet again the ancients are silent about her reaction to the appropriation of her sons. But assuming possession of Gaius and Lucius was not the only autocratic item on the Princeps’ domestic agenda at the time.

A Day in the Life of an Ancient Athenian

by August 7, 2020

Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Athens, 424 BCE
It is daybreak on a Tuesday, and already the day is beginning to warm.
As usual, you wake up at sunrise to the sound of ritual singing coming from the courtyard. Your household slave has risen early and sings to the dawn as she prepares you a breakfast of wine, with yesterday’s slightly stale bread, for dipping.
You rise and put on your long plain white tunic before heading out. You decide to take breakfast outside, its barely 7 am and you like to sit with the dog and watch two of your goat’s graze in the courtyard as you dine.
Just like your father before you, you are a pottery craftsman of the middling sort. Your house is set on a busy side-street that runs from the west of Athens toward the inner city. It’s a good spot for passing customers on their way to the Agora.
Ancient Athens

A Dream of Ancient Athens, Sydney Herbert (1854–1914), Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds Museums and Galleries.

The spacious mud-brick home is one story high and consists of several adjoining rooms that surround the rectangular courtyard. The bedroom and living quarters are sectioned onto the left-wing, where you can hear the children playing with their toy wooden horses as your slave watches over them.
The decor remains modest. The walls are washed with brilliant white paint and the earthen floors are covered with plain tiles and rushed mats. The few windows you have are covered by wooden shutters that allow in slithers of the morning sun.
Your wife decides to sit nearby as you eat. She prefers to sit in the shade of the veranda, a tan is unbecoming for a respectable potters’ wife.
The pottery workshop and the slaves’ sleeping quarters are arranged at the front side of the building facing the street. The workshop slaves begin work early. Already, you can hear the bellows as the furnace is stoked and the clatter of preparations for a day’s crafting and selling.
Master and Slave

A master (right) and his slave (left) in a phlyax play, Silician red-figured calyx-krater, c. 350 BC–340 BC. Louvre Museum, Paris.

You spend the morning in the workshop overseeing the day’s work. You were fortunate enough to receive a commission from a lower member of the aristocracy for 10 decorative vases to adorn their newly built urban villa. The work is going well, and you leave early to attend an important afternoon engagement.
After an early lunch of bread, olive oil, and fish, you make your way out onto the busy Athenian streets and head towards the Acropolis for the afternoon’s public Assembly. The street is hot and the trees are in full bloom. The people scurry back and forth, conducting their daily business.
You are running late, so you decide to take a short cut to avoid the busy main street. As you zig-zag your way across the cobbles, you are careful to avoid rivers of sewage and rats that plague the streets of the lower city.
You pass the cramped apartments and crowded housing and cover your face to avoid the stench. The smell is amplified by the midday sun, and the flies congregate in their swarms.

The Acropolis of Athens, seen from the Hill of the Muses

Faces peer out from behind shutters as you pass, and boys play in the streets with hoops and yo-yos. A small group of boys with dirty faces are huddled in the corner, just off the main street. They flick nuts into a make-shift circle made of sticks. As you turn onto the main road, the smallest boy screams with glee as his nut lands with precision.
The main road to the Acropolis is a stunning contrast to the dimly lit side streets. First off, the main roads are exceptionally clean. It is a crime to litter here, as this is the place where the Gods walk among men.
Rays from the afternoon sun reflect the white stone columns of buildings, flanked with beautiful banners of rich purple and blue. The statues of Greek Gods and heroes align the streets, expertly painted with vivid reds, yellows, browns, and whites.
The Parthenon sits above you, dominating the landscape. Perched atop the Acropolis, the huge stone columns of the temple can be seen for miles, glistening in the midday sun. But that is not your destination. Today you head west and join the crowd heading for the Pnyx, the open-air auditorium that will play host to today’s Ecclesia Assembly.

The Pnyx (right), sits across from the Acropolis (left)

The Auditorium is packed with your fellow male Athenians, and you arrive just in time for the boule (leader) to take his place center stage. As one of the most senior members of the Athenian populace, he hushes the crowd and introduces the agenda of the day.
Today is a debate of particular significance.
The Athenian General Thucydides has lost the polis of Amphipolis to the Spartan Commander Brasidas. This is a major setback for Athens, and you have convened with 6,000 other Athenians to decide how to punish Thucydides for allowing this to happen.
The debate rages for hours, with each speaking member taking their turn. Those over 50 are heard first, some advocating death and others, forgiveness. You sit patiently and listen as each speaker sways the crowd from one emotion to the next. Eventually, a middle ground is settled, with a majority vote to exile the general from Athens indefinitely.

Thucydides Mosaic from Jerash, Jordan, Roman, 3rd century CE at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

Dusk approaches, the sun begins to set and the crowds disperse.
You follow the crowd out and down towards the inner agora marketplace. Some street performers still play on, and music fills the air. The market vendors have all but packed up most of their goods after a day’s trading, but the sweet smell of wine, meats, and incense linger.
Slaves with torches appear out of darkened doorways and light the lamps outside their master’s villas. The oil lamp light cascades across the cobblestones and dancing shadows accompany you on your way.
You arrive at the house of a friend, who has gathered 5 others in the Andron (men’s quarters) for an evening meal. You are served a dinner of wine, fish, legumes, quail eggs, olives, cheese, and bread. You raise your glass and give a toast to the Gods before the day’s events are discussed with fervor. The tone of the conversation escalates as more wine and water is passed around the table.

Symposium scene, from the interior of a sarcophagus found in the Tomb of the Diver at Paestum, ca 480 BC. (National Archaeological Museum of Paestum, Italy)

Having had your fill of good food and company you make the final journey of the day. You arrive at your home and find the torches lit and the room silent as you gather yourself and make your way to your sleeping quarters for a good night’s rest. You sink back into your pillow and your eyes flutter closed.
In what feels like no time at all, the dawn brings more song and a new day awaits.

The Banishment of Julia Augusti (PART 2)

by August 4, 2020

Written by Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Because the mere hint of sovereignty had dispatched his dear Uncle Julius into the hereafter, he never called himself emperor, preferring to use the term Princeps, or first citizen, instead. Regardless of his title, a de facto monarchy is what his regime—the principate—would become. But like all successful monarchies, Augustus needed heirs. And in ancient Rome only males would do.
With two sons already borne to the twenty-year old Livia, the newlyweds must have had high hopes for a long line of offspring of their own. But with the passing of each year, it would become all too obvious that the “troublesome” Scribonia had succeeded where the ever-imposing Livia would most acutely fail. As a consequence of the first couple’s sterility, the fate of the Julio-Claudian dynasty rested solely on the fertility of its female kin, three of whom played key roles in early dynasty-building.
Representing the Claudian contingency was Livia, with her two sons (Tiberius and Drusus) in tow. Dating back to the foundation of the Roman Republic, the Claudians might have been royalty if monarchy were possible in the Republic. Moreover, Livia was a Claudian by birth as well as by marriage. Typical in patrician families, Livia’s first husband and the father of her two sons was also her cousin.

The cast of a portrait of Livia Drusilla (Rome, Ara Pacis museum), wife to Augustus. From the collection of casts of busts showing the members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The original artwork is exhibited in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (Copenhagen). Picture by Giovanni Dall’Orto, March 28 2008.

Because the people preferred the Julian clan, for public relations purposes, the nobility of Tiberius’s double-Claudian heritage was made much of during his reign. But if the Claudians were near to sovereignty in Rome, the Julians were near to it in the heavens. Their most recent deified son was Julius Caesar himself, canonized in 42 BCE amidst much fanfare.
The ever-politic Octavian made much of his being “the son-of-god” though neither was he truly the son of Caesar—Caesar had adopted his great-nephew Octavian just before he died—nor was Caesar truly a god. Besides Caesar, the Julians claimed descent from none other than Venus, the goddess of love—their ancestress and patron goddess, whose son Aeneas was the legendary founder of Rome—vividly portrayed in Virgil’s The Aeneid.
Hailing from the Julian clan was Augustus’s elder sister, Octavia Minor (69 BCE-11 BCE). A paragon of Roman womanhood whom the historians consistently lauded as having all the positive traits for a noble Roman woman: obedience, modesty, and devotion. Moreover, she was also fertile, reproducing five children in total; three with her first husband, Gaius Marcellus, and two with second husband, Marc Antony (83 BCE- 30 BCE).
Marc Antony

Roman male portrait bust, so-called Marcus Antonius. Fine-grained yellowish marble. Flavian age (69—96 A.D.). Rome, Vatican Museums, Chiaramonti Museum.

At Octavian’s behest, in an effort to stabilize the troubled relationship between Antony and her brother, the ever-dutiful Octavia was married to Antony while still pregnant with her late husband’s child only months after he had died. When the lecherous Antony abandoned her in favor of Cleopatra, all of Rome was incensed but Octavia, never a hair out of place, displayed perfect dignity throughout.
Although linked to the Princeps by blood, Octavia’s children took second seat to the progeny of Julia—the principal player in Julio-Claudian family-planning. Even as a fresh-faced two-year-old, she was not too young to be used as a political pawn for her father. As part of the treaty of Tarentum (present-day Taormina) between Octavian and Antony in 37 BCE, Julia was betrothed to Antony’s son, Antyllus. Alas, not unlike the relationship between Octavian and Antony, Antyllus was to die prematurely. After the toddler was affianced to Antyllus, Octavian planned to betroth her to Cotiso, King of Getae (present-day Bulgaria).
Once again, plans fell through. In fact, it would take twelve years for another marriage scheme for Julia to hatch. By then, Octavian was the sole ruler of the Roman Empire and, as his only biological child, Julia’s every move was closely monitored under the glacial and exacting eye of Livia, who played quintessential stepmother to the spirited child.
Livia and Tiberius

Livia and her son Tiberius, AD 14–19, from Paestum, National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid

In addition to her studies, Livia made sure Julia learned conservative and all-important feminine tasks such as weaving and spinning. With barely a moment of rest, the first couple was notorious for keeping Julia under wraps—allowing only those properly vetted to socialize with the sovereign’s daughter. Some, who Julia might have preferred, were sent packing after they failed the dreaded interrogation.
Such was the life of a princess, then at the ripe old age of fourteen, Julia was wed. Although Augustus (his handlers coined the term for him in 27 BCE) may have preferred to think of himself as the emperor who transformed Rome from a city of clay to one of marble, the truth is his real talent lay in arranging marriages. The Princeps had just the match for Julia, his beloved nephew Marcellus—the next best thing to a son.
Long the emperor’s favorite, the double-Julian marriage of the seventeen-year-old eldest son of Octavia’s to his first-cousin Julia put him in line as heir and chief successor to the Princeps. In setting up the match, Augustus had acted against the fierce protestations of Livia who was none too pleased about this turn of events. She had garnered hopes for her eldest son to be in the line of succession but, although the same age as Marcellus, the somber Tiberius—never a favorite of the Princeps—paled in comparison to the charismatic Marcellus.

The Banishment of Julia Augusti (PART 1)

by July 28, 2020

Written by Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

“I would certainly not describe as mercy, what was actually the exhaustion of cruelty.”

~ Seneca, On Mercy (referring to the deified Augustus)

“Let her be banished for life,” Augustus is recorded as saying about the harsh exile of his only biological child, Julia, to the barren and windswept penal-island of Pandateria (present-day Ventotene). Banishment from Rome, however, was not enough for the wayward princess. The emperor had further decreed that aside from the guards who kept watch, no men were allowed on the island. The thinking was that because she was a woman of loose virtue, being deprived of male companionship would make for a more exacting punishment. To that end, wine was forbidden on that stygian enclave and food provisions were at a mere minimum. In other words, Julia was in prison.
Adored within the palace and outside of it, Julia was charismatic, sophisticated, and renowned for her joie de vivre. When word of her banishment got out all of Rome was in an uproar. No one had foreseen that even a wet blanket like Augustus was capable of exiling his only biological child.
In an attempt to restore their adored princess, whom they lovingly referred to as “the merry widow,” the people came out in droves for her. They held effigies calling for her release as they packed the curia and filled the streets with noise and rancor. An indifferent Augustus decried:  “Fire will sooner mix with water than that she shall be allowed to return.” In a playful retort, the people threw fiery torches on the Tiber.

View of the Tiber looking towards Vatican City.

The emperor was not amused. The sight of the flares aglow on the river made him increasingly dig in his heels. He charged: “If you ever bring up this matter again, may the gods afflict you with similar daughters or wives.” Although the protests eventually abated, the people’s princess was not forgotten.
Once the apple of her father’s eye, Augustus had playfully referred to his daughter as “Juliola.” An outspoken and independent-minded Julia would oftentimes spar with her strait-laced dad, inducing him to famously quip: “There are two wayward daughters that I have to put up with, the Roman commonwealth and Julia.”
Despite the back and forth, by all that is used to measure a father-daughter relationship in ancient Rome, theirs appeared adequate. So, what could account for their sudden break? Over these long millennia, Julia’s reputation has been maligned by ancient writers and contemporary historians alike, but was it something more than loose morals that set her father against her?
Make no mistake, being labeled a woman of ill-repute was reason enough to land Julia on the prison island during the authoritarian Augustan era. All the same, according to Suetonius, Augustus debated putting his daughter to death. In fact, after Julia’s freedwoman, Phoebe, committed suicide over her mistress’s scandal, Augustus bewailed:  “I had rather be the father of Phoebe than of Julia.”
Julia Augusti

Bust of Julia the Elder

Considering the severity of her father’s reaction to the disgrace, some believe that Julia’s fall was due to her involvement in a political intrigue to overthrow him.  But why act against her better interests when her two eldest sons were adopted by Augustus and primed for the throne?
This Classical Wisdom series examines the life of  Julia and explores the possible reasons behind her harsh exile, delving into the politics of the era and the climate of paranoia and suspicion within the Julio-Claudian clan itself.
One big happy family, Julia has the unfortunate distinction of being the first in a long line of Julio-Claudian (more Julio than Claudian) women forced into exile by the ruling males of their family—with no trial or due process. In fact, with the exception of her granddaughter Drusilla (who died of fever at twenty-three), all of Julia’s female descendants were exiled—the only one surviving her exile was Agrippina the Younger. In order to understand the power play between the Julio-Claudians, it is useful to have some background on the clan.
On the day Julia Augusti was born, her father—merely Octavian back then—saw fit to divorce his second wife, her mother, Scribonia. As grounds for divorce in Rome, a husband might merely state that in addition to his wife being troublesome, she was also bad in bed; both reasons Octavian used in his divorce decree.
Bust of Augustus

Head of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, Roman artwork of the late Augustan period, last decade of the 1st century BC

Though some say that Octavian might have thought twice about deserting his wife, if she had had the good sense to produce a son for him. Others suggest he waited until after she was born so that, as father, he could lay claim to her. Children in ancient Rome were the possessions of their fathers yet sources indicate that because she was merely female Octavian was in no rush to bring her into his home; instead Julia may have spent the first few years of life with her mother.
If the would-be primogenitor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty had high hopes for a long line of offspring with his next wife, the gods had other plans. Although their fifty-one year marriage could be charged with many things, being fruitful was not among them—Augustus and Livia would produce no issue.
Perhaps it was their shocking courtship that the gods frowned upon. Indeed, the emperor who would become known for his draconian marriage laws had himself a tarnished record in that regard. With a pregnant wife at home, a married Octavian took up with the virtuous Livia while she was married to her first husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero, and carrying their second child. Behavior scandalous even by the looser moral standards of the Roman Republic.
Three days after giving birth to what would be her second and last child, Livia became Octavian’s third, final, and most indelible wife. An ignominious start by the first imperial couple who would define themselves by their strict morality.

Date and Time in Ancient Rome

by July 1, 2020

Written by Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Time. It’s an abstract concept, but it frames our life possibly more than anything else. We cannot touch time, we cannot feel it or see it, but we know for sure that, as the years pass, we will have (more) grey hair and a lot more stories to tell as a result of it.
Nowadays when we read articles and blogs about the importance of time, they are mostly related to the significance of time management and living every moment as if it was our last (Memento mori!). Of course, all of this is very important as we should be aware of the preciousness and uniqueness of every moment. However, we should not forget that time is important in a much more practical sense as well.
Imagine spending a day without being able to tell the time. Even just the thought of it gives you a certain amount of discomfort, doesn’t it? We are all completely dependent on a system of time measurement that is precise enough to prevent us from being late for an important meeting, that accurately counts the period between contractions, or that allows us to perfectly boil an egg.
However, we should be reminded that it has not always been like this. There are generations of people that we are indebted to for being able to do all these things without worrying.
Roman sundial

A Roman-era sundial on display at a museum in Side, Turkey.

Inventing the modern calendar
The greatest contribution to the Roman calendar was made by Julius Caesar. We are all more or less familiar with the term Julian calendar, but what does it mean?
To understand the enormous significance of Caesar’s reform, we should first understand the issues that he was facing. As the early Romans primarily lived off of agriculture, the nature of the Roman calendar was agricultural as well. This meant that the earliest Roman years had 10 months, because January and February were unproductive months, and therefore considered nonexistent. This explains the names of the months that have remained in use to this today (e.g. November has the number 9 in its stem, novem because it was originally the 9th month).
January became the first month in 153. B.C., but there was still quite a large gap between the lunar cycle and the solar cycle. By the time of Caesar, the lunar year was months ahead of the solar year in use. The people responsible for the calendar were the pontiffs (priests), so when Caesar became pontifex Maximus in 63. B.C., he employed Sosigenes of Alexandria to help him with this change.
They stretched the year 46 B.C.—now known as the longest year in history—to 445 days long to remove this discrepancy, and introduced the leap year, which meant adding one day in February every four years. However, pontiffs wrongly added this day every three years. Fortunately, the error was corrected by Augustus who discarded this intercalation for 16 years. He rewarded himself with naming the 8th month Augustus and took one day from February to make his month equal to that of July (named after Julius Caesar).

The remains of the Fasti Praenestini. Discovered in 1770, this calendar was arranged by the famous grammarian Verrius Flaccus and contains the months of January, March, April, and December, and a portion of February. The tablets give an account of festivals, as well as the triumphs of Augustus and Tiberius.

When it comes to days and weeks, they were also initially influenced by agriculture and the Roman lifestyle. The Roman week lasted for eight days because this was the length of the period between the market days, called Nundinae. Under the influence of astrology (it was believed that there were seven planets) and Judaism, the week came to have 7 days somewhere between 19. B.C. and 14. A.D.
What day is it?
Romans had a very peculiar way of expressing dates. The days were numbered concerning three specifically named days, by counting them retrospectively. Those days were: Kalends or Kalendae (1st day of the month), Nones or Nonae  (5th or 7th day) and Ides or Idus (13th or 15th day). Therefore, if you wanted to mark May 13th you would have to say: ”two days before the Ides of May!” If it was one day before one of these dates they would use the expression pridie which expressed one day before a certain date.
Clocks and hours
As for the instruments for telling time, they are very difficult to trace but we do know that Roman horologia (clocks) were mostly solaria (Sundials) and clepsydrae, i.e. water clocks. Even though Herodotus writes about the hours as short time units, perceived as such firstly by Egyptians, and later borrowed by the Greeks, there is no account of it in Rome until the arrival of the sundial. The most well-known one is the famous Solarium Augusti on Campus Martius for which an Egyptian obelisk was used.
Fasti Praenestini 2

A fragment of the Fasti Praenestini for the month of April (Aprilis), showing its nundinal letters on the left side

However, despite this great improvement, Romans had a long way to go to arrive at even a relatively accurate division of hours. It is believed that the first sundial to offer a more or less precise account was set up in 146. B.C. The advent of the sundial resulted in the division of daytime by twelve hours, but this type of clock still had many disadvantages, which resulted in one hour varying between 45 and 75 minutes. The indication of time was given by numbering hours, e.g. hora prima, hora secunda, etc. As for the night, it was divided into four watches called prima vigilia, secunda vigilia, etc.
Now, this is all very complicated, at least when compared to how easy it is for us to tell time on our smartphones and digital watches.
Yet, if I have managed to give you a glimpse of how complicated it was for our ancestors to come up with an accurate system of time measurement, I hope it leads to a greater appreciation for the comfort and convenience we now enjoy due to the hard work of ancient peoples thousands of years removed from us.

The Mysterious Etruscan Language

by June 24, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Etruscan civilization was a crucial influence on the development of the Romans. For example, they influenced their social practices such as the Triumph and Gladiators and even their religion. The Etruscan language was also an influence on the development of Latin. However, we are still not able to properly decipher the language, and this means that the contribution of the Etruscans to Classical Civilization has been little understood.
Who were the Etruscans?
The Etruscans were a mysterious people who dominated most of Northern Italy and Corsica from the 10th to the 4th century BC. They were not politically united and were a loose federation of city-states. They had a common culture and religion. Etruscan kings once ruled Rome, and some argue that the city was founded by Etruscans and not Latins. Etruria was later conquered and absorbed by the Romans. The Etruscans thus lost their cultural identity.
The language of the Etruscans
Archaeologists have uncovered almost 13,000 inscriptions from monuments and graves all over the Mediterranean, with examples of Etruscan language. Experts have been able to establish that it is not an Indo-European language. Many believed that it was a language isolate—a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical (or “genetic”) relationship with other languages—since it is not related to any other contemporary language such as Latin. However, it has many similarities with extinct languages such as Rhaetian. It seems likely that Etruscan was related to a very early language, that dated back millennia, possibly to the Neolithic period.
Pyrigi Tablets

The Pyrigi tablets: written in the Phoenician language (left) and the Etruscan language (center, right). In both cases, the text is written right-to-left.

Etruscan alphabet
The city-states of Etruria were much influenced by the Greeks and the Phoenicians, with whom they traded and occasionally fought. It appears that the Etruscans based their alphabet on the Greek system for writing, but others suggest that it was the Phoenician. The Etruscan alphabet had 26 letters.
It appears that many men and women were literate in the city-states judging by the inscriptions that have survived. This was unique for the period. Experts have not fully deciphered the complex language and as a result, our knowledge of the history, religion, and literature of these fascinating people is limited. This is despite over a hundred years of study and research and the discovery of large passages of texts. One of the unique features of the alphabet was that it was read alternatively from left to right and right to left. Based on a study of the alphabet, it appears that Etruscan would have sounded very strange to our modern ears.
The influence of the Etruscan Language
The Etruscans were an important cultural influence on the early Romans. The Latin alphabet was based on the writing system used in Etruria. Moreover, the Latins also borrowed many words from their neighbors. Many of the words that are not of  Indo-European origin used in Latin are loan-words from the Etruscans. These include many words used in connection with the military. Some of these loan-words were handed down to modern Western European languages. Several English words are ultimately derived from the ancient language spoken in Northern Italy. They include arena, autumn, military, mundane, and many more. The Etruscan alphabet was also adopted by neighboring groups such as the Umbrians. Some scholars assert that their alphabet inspired the development of the Germanic Runic alphabet.
Cippus Perusinus

The Cippus Perusinus, a stone tablet bearing 46 lines of incised Etruscan text, one of the longest extant Etruscan inscriptions. 3rd or 2nd century BC.

The Decline of the Etruscan Language
The zenith of the Etruscan culture and political power was in the 5th century AD. The city-states had become very wealthy from trade and many of the elite enjoyed sophisticated lifestyles. However, Rome, after the conquest of Veii, began to slowly annex the city of the Etruscan League. However, Etruscan continued to be spoken and remained the dominant language of much of Northern Italy and we know that tragedies were written in the language.
However, many of its speakers were becoming assimilated into Latin Culture. After the Social War, this process sped up and the last Etruscan language inscription dates from the first century BC. It is believed that the language was still spoken by a few priests who used it during their rituals and especially by soothsayers known as haruspex. It is claimed that the Emperor Julian the Apostate took Etruscan diviners with him during his invasion of Persian in the 4th century AD. It may even be possible that Etruscan speaking soothsayers were consulted during the fall of Rome in 410 AD.
Emperor Claudius and the Etruscan Language
Claudius I was a very important Emperor, who greatly expanded the territories of Rome. He was also fascinated with the Etruscans and it is believed that he was descended from a noble family, from Etruria. He composed a history of them in 21 volumes and a dictionary of their language. Sadly, his works have all been lost and this means that the Ancient people of Northern Italy remain somewhat mysterious.
Claudius bust

Bust of Claudius at the Naples National Archaeological Museum

The Etruscan language has been extinct for possibly 2000 years. However, it was very important in the development of Latin and we still use many of its words. One day, when it is fully deciphered, we will learn so much more about this very important civilization which was so influential and important.