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date: 26 June 2022



  • Nigel Spivey


  • Roman History and Historiography
  • Roman Material Culture

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.

Etruscans (Tyrsenoi, Tyrrheni, Etrusci) dominated much of Italy throughout most of the first millennium bce. Geographically, their presence can be traced from the Adriatic coast to Campania; their principal centres, however, were located in territory between Rome to the south and Florence to the north, on the western side of the Apennines. (The “Tyrrhenian Sea” usually refers to waters extending from Sicily up to the Gulf of La Spezia.) The Etruscans have a reputation for mystery generated to a large extent by the fact that their language was radically different from both Greek and Latin (see etruscan language). Substantial and consistent ancient written sources for Etruscan history have not survived; nonetheless, modern research has gone some way towards clarifying our vision of a society that, while heavily influenced by the Greeks, and eventually subsumed by the Romans, was politically and culturally autonomous.

There were contradictory theories in antiquity about the ethnic origin of the Etruscans, with one Greek narrative (Hdt. 1.94) claiming that a certain Tyrrhenus led migrants to Italy from Lydia in the eastern Mediterranean. Various Roman writers (e.g., Cic. Div. 1.12) were content to follow this tradition, in so far as it facilitated distinction between indigenous Latins and foreign Etruscans. Yet such distinction was explicitly denied by Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Ant. Rom. 1.27-30). Massimo Pallottino, the twentieth-century pioneer of “Etruscology” as an academic discipline, argued for an Etruscan identity emerging out of the so-called Villanovan culture characteristic of central Italy in the Early Iron Age. This remains the general consensus—but does not preclude suppositions of demographic influx at certain points in the Etruscan timeline. Evidence from DNA analysis has so far attested little more than was already expected: strains of genetic material from south-west Asia may relate to the aboriginal colonization of Italy in the Neolithic period, or else subsequent movements of people—for example, a diaspora caused during the sixth century bce by Persian conquest of Anatolia’s Aegean coastline. The rich agricultural potential of Etruscan heartlands was naturally attractive and complemented by valuable mineral resources, notably iron on the island of Elba.

Nucleation of communities into proto-urban settlements is archaeologically visible at sites such as Tarquinii (Tarquinia) c. 900 bce. Typically the location was a naturally defensible volcanic plateau up to around 175 hectares in extent, set inland, yet not far from sea or river access. Maritime connections with the eastern Mediterranean are attested by a number of rich “Orientalizing” burials belonging to the late 8th and early 7th centuries bce; the same “princely” tombs indicate a social hierarchy based upon warrior status and control of extended family groups. To the chariots, weapons, and panoplies symbolic of power should be added finely wrought jewellery and objets d’art, some of which appear to have been produced locally. A distinctively Etruscan ceramic type developed, the black ware known as bucchero, imitative of metalwork. Olives, cereals, and vines were the principal cultivars; a key feature of Etruscan land use from c. 600 bce onwards is the cutting of extensive subterranean water channels (cuniculi) through the soft tufa rock characteristic of the region. This geology also favoured the creation of elaborate family tombs. At Tarquinia, the custom developed of layering the walls of underground chambers with a light plaster and then painting the walls: consequently, one cemetery of the ancient city, the Monterozzi necropolis, remains one of the best places to see examples of large-scale painting in the pre-Roman Mediterranean. At Caere (Cerveteri), by contrast, a protohistoric funerary custom of depositing the dead in containers similar in shape to domestic dwellings (the so-called “hut-urns”) gives way to the construction of monumental stone tumuli. A transformation of these circular tombs into regular size and rectangular shape, laid out as if along orthogonal streets, is clearly visible at the city’s Banditaccia cemetery; and this architectural change, dated to the late 6th century bce, is plausibly considered to reflect not only contemporary urban layout, but also the emergence of a “middle class” in Etruscan society. Its basis lay in mercantile trade, facilitated by a period of cooperation with the Carthaginians—an alliance attested in Greek sources (Arist. Pol. 3.5.10) and confirmed by Etrusco-Phoenician inscriptions from Pyrgi, Cerveteri’s port emporium.

By one account (Val. Max. 1.1.10) the Latin word for “ceremony” derived from the religious conservatism prevalent at Cerveteri; political structures throughout Etruria may have remained similarly conservative, in so far as magisterial and sacerdotal powers were apparently integrated—and confined to certain dynasties. One such dynasty was the Tarquins (see tarquinius priscus), who assumed control of Rome in the late 7th century and did much to transform a modest settlement into a city extending to some 426 hectares. Prior to their expulsion (in 509 bce), the Tarquins sponsored a large temple to Jupiter (Etruscan Tinia) on the Capitoline, drained and paved the valley that developed into the site of the Forum, and laid the foundations for what would become the Circus Maximus. The Cloaca Maxima remains a testament to Etruscan engineering, and surviving sections of the supposedly archaic “Servian walls,” built and subsequently restored in volcanic stone, indicate an ambitious vision (thus “la grande Roma dei Tarquini”).

Rome’s expansion came at a direct cost to the cities that made up the federated unity of “Etruria” (Rasenna seems to have been how the Etruscans themselves referred to their collective territory). A council of twelve Etruscan city states (duodecim populi) could be convened at the central sanctuary of Voltumna near Volsinii (Orvieto), but this league proved insufficient to meet aggression not only from Rome but also from Celts to the north and Greeks to the south. Reportedly, Transalpine Gauls were first lured to Etruria as mercenaries by a ruler of Clusium (Chiusi) called Arruns (Livy 5.33); archaeological evidence points to an increasingly assertive Gallic presence at Etruscan sites south of the Po, such as Felsina (Bologna) and Marzabotto, by the late 4th century. In 474 bce an Etruscan fleet was defeated by Hieron of Syracuse in waters off the Greek colony of Cumae, which effectively terminated Etruria’s dominance of the Tyrrhenian coast; almost a century later, the Syracusans sacked Pyrgi. But nothing signalled the waning of Etruscan power more clearly than the Roman seizure of Veii in 396 bce after a ten-year siege. The city became a byword for picturesque decay (Prop. 4.10.29); nonetheless, one of its late archaic temples, as retrieved from the extra-urban Portonaccio sanctuary, provides us with strong examples of vernacular “Tuscan” style in monumental architecture and terracotta sculpture.

By the late third century bce many of the Etruscan cities were under Roman control. How far this involved direct conflict is open to speculation. No Etruscan written histories survive, leaving us with Greco-Latin sources that tend to caricature the Etruscans as inflexibly oligarchic, with a ruling class typically decadent in lifestyle and fatalistic in outlook; a servile underclass was, therefore, ready for change. It is likely that some aspects of Etruscan society, such as matrilineal rights and a degree of female participation at banquets and spectacles, gave rise to misunderstanding among external commentators (Ath. 12.517d–518b). In any case, the process of Romanization was surely subject to much local variation, tantalizingly obscure. Vulci, for example, is a site with no profile at all in the surviving literature: yet clearly it was once a very prosperous and extensive Etruscan city in the Maremma area; its cemeteries of the 5th and 6th centuries are a principal source for our knowledge of Greek vase-painting in that period. By 90 bce Vulci had become a minor municipium of Roman Italy. Archaeology suggests a narrative of gradual assimilation between Romans and Etruscans—however, by the time of Augustus the distinctive features of Etruscan culture (including the language) were either eliminated or else survived merely as antique curiosities (see etruscan language; religion, etruscan).


Research in all branches of Etruscan studies is published regularly in Studi Etruschi, (1927) and Etruscan Studies, 1 (1994). Several compendious handbooks of Etruscan studies are available for anglophone readers:

  • Bell, Sinclair., and A. A. Carpino, eds. A Companion to the Etruscans. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2016.
  • Naso, Allesandro., ed. Etruscology (2 Vols). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2017.
  • Turfa, Jean MacIntosh., ed. The Etruscan World. London: Routledge, 2013.
    History and General
    • Bartoloni, Gilda. ed. Introduzione all’etruscologia. Milan: Hoepli, 2012.
    • Briquel, Dominique. L’Origine lydienne des Étrusques. Rome: École Française de Rome, 1991.
    • Dennis, George. Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria, 3rd ed. London: John Murray, 1883.
    • Haynes, Sybille. Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History. London: British Museum Press, 2000.
    • Ridgway, David. The World of the Early Etruscans. Jonsered: Paul Åströms Förlag, 2002.
    • Torelli, Mario., ed. The Etruscans (exhib. cat.). London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
    Art and Artefacts
    • Bernardini, Paolo. The Etruscans outside Etruria. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004.
    • Bonfante, Larissa. Etruscan Dress, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
    • Corpus Speculorum Etruscorum (various publishers) 1981.
    • Cristofani, Mauro. L’arte degli etruschi: produzione e consumo. Turin: Einaudi, 1978.
    • de Grummond, Nancy T., A Guide to Etruscan Mirrors. Tallahassee: Archaeological News Inc., 1982.
    • Haynes, Sybille. Etruscan Bronzes. London and New York: Sotheby’s Publications, 1985.
    • Richardson, E. H. Etruscan Votive Bronzes (2 Vols). Mainz: P. von Zabern, 1983.
    • Spivey, Nigey J. Etruscan Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
    • Steingräber, Stephan. Abundance of Life: Etruscan Wall Painting. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006.
    • Winter, Nancy A. Symbols of Wealth and Power: Architectural Terracotta Decoration in Etruria and Central Italy, 640–510 B.C. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.