by Kevin Blood
We tend to think of the Greeks and Romans as foundational civilizations who bequeathed to us an immense legacy. While their achievements are enormous, they too had their own forebears. The Etruscans, for instance, were a powerful civilization that had a significant influence on the development of Roman culture. For the ancient Rome we think of today – the Republic and the Empire, the vast conquests and battles, and the various, captivating personalities of the emperors – was shaped in various, vital ways by the Etruscans.
They were a maritime, trading and agricultural people, and they possessed an advanced culture. They were exponents of an impressive standard of technical expertise, particularly in metalwork. The rich mineral resources of Eturia and the nearby island of Elba may have proven significant draws for Etruscan settlement.
Rome, which had been a loose group of agricultural villages, was transformed by the Etruscans into a powerful city (urbs). Roma (Ruma) was Etruscan – the growth of the city adhered to the Etruscan pattern, including, even, the religious boundary-line of the pomerium. Much survived of the Etruscan system in the form of the Roman state religion and in Rome’s symbols of political authority. The Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, were linked to the Etruscan triad of gods; the temple on the Capitoline Hill was actually constructed by the Etruscans. Acts of divination, such as the studying of the organs and entrails of sacrificial animals, or the interpretation of the flights of birds, remained central to Roman religious ritual. In the period of the Roman republic, no public action or event could happen without the chief magistrates taking the auspices.
Many Roman symbols of power and authority came from the Etruscans. The color purple, for instance, which had been used for the robe of the Etruscan king, would be used by the Romans for the robe of a triumphant general, and in the stripe that bordered the toga of a high magistrate.
In contrast to Greek colonies, which were situated on the coastline, Etruscan towns and cities were more widespread. It was not unusual for them to situate towns and cities inland, far from the coast. They often built such settlements on fortified plateaus away from the coast, but with access to the sea. A good example of this was the settlement of Caere (Cerveteri), it was built upon a tufa plateau 5 kilometers from the sea, however, access to the sea was important, so, the settlement was built with access to three major ports in mind.
Urban planning and civil engineering were part of the Etruscan skill set. Towns were planned and laid out in a grid pattern, with paved streets intersecting at right angles. Around each town was a ploughed furrow, marking the spiritual boundary of the town (the pomerium). Evidence of Etruscan engineering skills can be found in the remains of stone walls (many with monumental gateways), underground drains and cisterns, aqueducts, bridges, tunnels and temples; extensive use of the arch, which the Etruscans introduced to Italy, is to be found in all these buildings.
Etruscan houses were constructed from perishable materials, meaning none have survived. Yet, a clear picture of how they looked can be gained through a study of the interior of design of their tombs, which were similar in design to their houses. The ancestor of the Roman house, the Etruscan house contained an atrium (open court) off which were two rooms, most likely for slaves, at the opposite end was a door leading to the triclinium (banqueting hall); three doors off the triclinium led to the sleeping quarters.
Between their cities, the Etruscans created a substantial network of roads, which the Romans later adopted and improved upon. A number of these remain in use to this day.
Etruscan towns did not unite under the banner of a formidable league. Instead, they unified in a kind of loose federation, most likely for religious purposes. Those conquered by the Etruscans were not wholly assimilated: they were more like serfs, used on the land for purposes of cultivation. They were also likely conscripts in the lower ranks of the armies. The Etruscans formed an elite class, with sole rights to positions of power and authority, and to membership of the state’s religious institutions and to its legislative bodies.
Agricultural and industrial development
The Etruscans deforested large tracts of land for agriculture, and for the same purposes, they drained marshes, developed irrigation systems, dammed rivers and planted vines and extensive olive groves.
The city of Fufluna (Populonia) attests to significant Etruscan industrial development. This port-city had forges, foundries, iron furnaces, merchant vessels for the export of iron-ore, and a naval arsenal. Crude iron was piled along the docks, alongside finished products ready for export. Such was the size of iron production that during World War I, the Italians mined the slag heaps (waste products from furnaces) for the metals within.
Smaller industries were responsible for the manufacture of silver, ivory, gold, alabaster, and bronze products.
The Greeks inspired the Etruscans to create pottery in the contemporary Greek style, yet the finished product had not the same precision and accuracy of the Greeks. It did, however, have an uniquely Etruscan flavour in its depictions of fantasy in the decoration.
The Etruscans developed a significant trade network, trading with Carthage, the Phoenicians, and the Greeks of southern Italy and Sicily. Etruscan products have been found in Germany, France, Britain and Scandinavia. They traded copper, iron, and fine metalwork for vases and art products from Greeks in the west and the east, and for silver, gold and tin from Carthage.
The predominant maritime city of Caere, in southern Etruria, possessed its own fleet, which it used to protect it commercial sphere of influence. Despite the strong cultural ties between Greeks and Etruscans, it forced the Greeks out of Corsica.
Expansion and decline
The Etruscans expanded their power and territory in the seventh century BCE , by crossing the river Tiber and conquering a large part of Latium, occupying the fertile plains of Campania, while also founding towns at strategic points, with Campania, Capua, Nola and Pompeii being amongst the most important of them.
The subsequent century saw their expansion north into the Po valley, pushing as far as the Alps. They continued to found towns, and some of these remain important urban centres in modern Italy, such as Milan, Bologna, Parma and Ravenna. Southward conquests increased their contact with the Greeks, who controlled significant assets in the from of Greek colonies along the north shore of the Mediterranean. This led the Etruscans to formerly ally themselves with the Carthaginians.
At the end of the sixth century, it is fair to say, the Etruscans were a major, if not the most powerful group in Italy. Yet, their dominion was brief. 509 and 507 saw the Latins and Romans throw off the yoke of Etruscan dominance, and this was followed in 474 by a crushing defeat by the Greeks. Etruscan power was further limited by the Samnites who overran central Italy and seized Capua in 424; and when the Gauls defeated the cities of the Po valley, Etruscan military and political power over their previous conquests was completely broken. Their power base was now confined to Etruria proper.
This failure to maintain their political and military dominance was the result of a lack of co-operation and unity between Etruscan cities, which made it difficult to keep control of hostile subjects. Yet, their decline in power in the sixth century was not the end of the Etruscan culture which continued to influence Italy.
For instance, many popular Roman entertainments, like chariot racing and gladiatorial combat, had Etruscan origins. It was in practical matters that the Etruscans main legacy to Rome was to be found in the form of planned towns, sewers, paved streets, drainage systems, aqueducts and bridges, all of which employed the vault and arch. Even Roman military camps were erected on the plan used for Etruscan towns. Yet, Rome, though it gained much from the influence of the Etruscans, maintained its Latin identity.