Culture that is identifiably Etruscan developed in Italy after about 800 BC, approximately over the range of the preceding Iron AgeVillanovan culture. The latter gave way in the 7th century BC to a culture that was influenced by Ancient Greek culture, during the Archaic (Orientalizing period) and the Hellenistic period. At its maximum extent, during the foundational period of Rome and the Roman Kingdom, Etruscan civilization flourished in three confederacies of cities: of Etruria (Tuscany, Latium and Umbria), of the Po Valley with the eastern Alps, and of Campania. The decline was gradual, but by 500 BC the political destiny of Italy had passed out of Etruscan hands. The last Etruscan cities were formally absorbed by Rome around 100 BC.
Although the Etruscans developed a system of writing, the Etruscan language remains only partly understood, and only a handful of texts of any length survive, making modern understanding of their society and culture heavily dependent on much later and generally disapproving Roman and Greek sources. Politics was based on the small city and probably the family unit. In their heyday, the Etruscan elite grew very rich through trade with the Celtic world to the north and the Greeks to the south and filled their large family tombs with imported luxuries. Archaic Greece had a huge influence on their art and architecture, and Greek mythology was evidently very familiar to them.
The Etruscans called themselves Rasenna, which was syncopated to Rasna or Raśna, while the ancient Romans referred to the Etruscans as the Tuscī or Etruscī (singular Tuscus). Their Roman name is the origin of the terms "Tuscany", which refers to their heartland, and "Etruria", which can refer to their wider region. In Attic Greek, the Etruscans were known as Tyrrhenians (Τυρρηνοί, Turrhēnoi, earlier ΤυρσηνοίTursēnoi), from which the Romans derived the names Tyrrhēnī, Tyrrhēnia (Etruria), and Mare Tyrrhēnum (Tyrrhenian Sea), prompting some to associate them with the Teresh (Sea Peoples).
The origins of the Etruscans are mostly lost in prehistory, although Greek historians as early as the 5th century BC repeatedly associated the Tyrrhenians (Turrhēnoi/Τυρρηνοί, Tursēnoi/Τυρσηνοί) with Pelasgians, which could both be broad descriptive terms. Strabo and the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus make mention of the Tyrrhenians as pirates.Thucydides,Herodotus and Strabo all denote Lemnos as settled by Pelasgians, whom Thucydides identifies as "belonging to the Tyrrhenians" (τὸ δὲ πλεῖστον Πελασγικόν, τῶν καὶ Λῆμνόν ποτε καὶ Ἀθήνας Τυρσηνῶν). Although both Strabo and Herodotus agree that Tyrrhenus/Tyrsenos, son of Atys, king of Lydia, led the migration, Strabo specifies that it was the Pelasgians of Lemnos and Imbros who followed Tyrrhenus to the Italian Peninsula. A link between Lemnos and the Tyrrhenians was further manifested by the discovery of the Lemnos Stele, whose inscriptions were written in a language which shows strong structural resemblances to the language of the Etruscans. This has led to the suggestion of a "Tyrrhenian language group" comprising Etruscan, Lemnian and the Raetic spoken in the Alps.
Hellanicus of Lesbos records a Pelasgian migration from Thessaly to the Italian peninsula, noting that "the Pelasgi made themselves masters of some of the lands belonging to the Umbri".
By contrast, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek writer living in Rome, dismisses many of the ancient theories of the other Greek historians and postulates that the Etruscans were indigenous people who had always lived in Etruria.
For this reason, therefore, I am persuaded that the Pelasgians are a different people from the Tyrrhenians. And I do not believe, either, that the Tyrrhenians were a colony of the Lydians; for they do not use the same language as the latter, nor can it be alleged that, though they no longer speak a similar tongue, they still retain some other indications of their mother country. For they neither worship the same gods as the Lydians nor make use of similar laws or institutions, but in these very respects they differ more from the Lydians than from the Pelasgians. Indeed, those probably come nearest to the truth who declare that the nation migrated from nowhere else, but was native to the country, since it is found to be a very ancient nation and to agree with no other either in its language or in its manner of living.
Furthermore, Dionysius of Halicarnassus is the first ancient writer who reports the endonym of the Etruscans: Rasenna.
The Romans, however, give them other names: from the country they once inhabited, named Etruria, they call them Etruscans, and from their knowledge of the ceremonies relating to divine worship, in which they excel others, they now call them, rather inaccurately, Tusci, but formerly, with the same accuracy as the Greeks, they called them Thyoscoï. Their own name for themselves, however, is the same as that of one of their leaders, Rasenna.
Livy in his Ab Urbe Condita Libri says the Rhaetians were Etruscans driven into the mountains by the invading Gauls, and asserts that the inhabitants of Reetia were of Etruscan origin.
The Alpine tribes have also, no doubt, the same origin (of the Etruscans), especially the Raetians; who have been rendered so savage by the very nature of the country as to retain nothing of their ancient character save the sound of their speech, and even that is corrupted.
Adjoining these the (Alpine) Noricans are the Raeti and Vindelici. All are divided into a number of states. The Raeti are believed to be people of Tuscan race driven out by the Gauls, their leader was named Raetus.
Historians have no literature and no original Etruscan texts of religion or philosophy; therefore, much of what is known about this civilization derives from tomb findings. A mtDNA study in 2004 stated that the Etruscans had no significant heterogeneity, and that all mitochondrial lineages observed among the Etruscan samples appear typically European or West Asian, but only a few haplotypes were shared with modern populations. Allele sharing between the Etruscans and modern populations is highest among Germans (seven haplotypes in common), the Cornish (five haplotypes in common), the Turks (four haplotypes in common), and the Tuscans (two haplotypes in common).
A mitochondrial DNA study (2013) also suggests that the Etruscans were probably an indigenous population, showing that Etruscans appear to fall very close to a Neolithic population from Central Europe and to other Tuscan populations, strongly suggesting that the Etruscan civilization developed locally from the Villanovan culture, and that genetic links between Tuscany and Anatolia date back at least 5,000 years during the Neolithic. The ancient Etruscan samples had mitochondrial DNA haplogroups (mtDNA) JT (predominantly J) and U5, with a minority of mtDNA H1b. According to British archeologist Phil Perkins,"there are indications that the evidence of DNA can support the theory that Etruscan people are autochthonous in central Italy".
Etruscan expansion was focused both to the north beyond the Apennine Mountains and into Campania. Some small towns in the sixth century BC disappeared during this time, ostensibly consumed by greater, more powerful neighbours. However, it is certain that the political structure of the Etruscan culture was similar to, albeit more aristocratic than, Magna Graecia in the south. The mining and commerce of metal, especially copper and iron, led to an enrichment of the Etruscans and to the expansion of their influence in the Italian peninsula and the western Mediterranean Sea. Here, their interests collided with those of the Greeks, especially in the sixth century BC, when Phocaeans of Italy founded colonies along the coast of Sardinia, Spain and Corsica. This led the Etruscans to ally themselves with Carthage, whose interests also collided with the Greeks.
Around 540 BC, the Battle of Alalia led to a new distribution of power in the western Mediterranean. Though the battle had no clear winner, Carthage managed to expand its sphere of influence at the expense of the Greeks, and Etruria saw itself relegated to the northern Tyrrhenian Sea with full ownership of Corsica. From the first half of the 5th century BC, the new political situation meant the beginning of the Etruscan decline after losing their southern provinces. In 480 BC, Etruria's ally Carthage was defeated by a coalition of Magna Graecia cities led by Syracuse, Sicily. A few years later, in 474, Syracuse's tyrant Hiero defeated the Etruscans at the Battle of Cumae. Etruria's influence over the cities of Latium and Campania weakened, and the area was taken over by Romans and Samnites.
In the 4th century BC, Etruria saw a Gallic invasion end its influence over the Po Valley and the Adriatic coast. Meanwhile, Rome had started annexing Etruscan cities. This led to the loss of the northern Etruscan provinces. During the Roman–Etruscan Wars, Etruria was conquered by Rome in the 3rd century BC.
According to legend, there was a period between 600 BC and 500 BC in which an alliance was formed among twelve Etruscan settlements, known today as the Etruscan League, Etruscan Federation, or Dodecapolis (in Greek Δωδεκάπολις). The Etruscan League of twelve cities was founded by two Lydian noblemen: Tarchon and his brother Tyrrhenus. Tarchon lent his name to the city of Tarchna, or Tarquinnii, as it was known by the Romans. Tyrrhenus gave his name to the Tyrrhenians, the alternative name for the Etruscans. Although there is no consensus on which cities were in the league, the following list may be close to the mark: Arretium, Caisra, Clevsin, Curtun, Perusna, Pupluna, Veii, Tarchna, Vetluna, Volterra, Velzna, and Velch. Some modern authors include Rusellae. The league was mostly an economic and religious league, or a loose confederation, similar to the Greek states. During the later imperial times, when Etruria was just one of many regions controlled by Rome, the number of cities in the league increased by three. This is noted on many later grave stones from the 2nd century BC onwards. According to Livy, the twelve city-states met once a year at the Fanum Voltumnae at Volsinii, where a leader was chosen to represent the league.
Those who subscribe to an Italian foundation of Rome followed by an Etruscan invasion typically speak of an Etruscan "influence" on Roman culture – that is, cultural objects which were adopted by Rome from neighbouring Etruria. The prevailing view is that Rome was founded by Italians who later merged with Etruscans. In this interpretation, Etruscan cultural objects are considered influences rather than part of a heritage. Rome was probably a small settlement until the arrival of the Etruscans, who constructed the first elements of its urban infrastructure such as the drainage system.
The main criterion for deciding whether an object originated at Rome and traveled by influence to the Etruscans, or descended to the Romans from the Etruscans, is date. Many, if not most, of the Etruscan cities were older than Rome. If one finds that a given feature was there first, it cannot have originated at Rome. A second criterion is the opinion of the ancient sources. These would indicate that certain institutions and customs came directly from the Etruscans. Rome is located on the edge of what was Etruscan territory. When Etruscan settlements turned up south of the border, it was presumed that the Etruscans spread there after the foundation of Rome, but the settlements are now known to have preceded Rome.
Etruscan settlements were frequently built on hills – the steeper the better – and surrounded by thick walls. According to Roman mythology, when Romulus and Remus founded Rome, they did so on the Palatine Hill according to Etruscan ritual; that is, they began with a pomerium or sacred ditch. Then, they proceeded to the walls. Romulus was required to kill Remus when the latter jumped over the wall, breaking its magic spell (see also under Pons Sublicius). The name of Rome is attested in Etruscan in the form Ruma-χ meaning 'Roman', a form that mirrors other attested ethnonyms in that language with the same suffix -χ: Velzna-χ '(someone) from Volsinii' and Sveama-χ '(someone) from Sovana'. This in itself, however, is not enough to prove Etruscan origin conclusively. If Tiberius is from θefarie, then Ruma would have been placed on the Thefar (Tiber) river. A heavily discussed topic among scholars is who was the founding population of Rome. In 390 BC, the city of Rome was attacked by the Gauls, and as a result may have lost many – though not all – of its earlier records. Certainly, the history of Rome before that date is not as secure as it later becomes, but enough material remains to give a good picture of the development of the city and its institutions.
Later history relates that some Etruscans lived in the Vicus Tuscus, the "Etruscan quarter", and that there was an Etruscan line of kings (albeit ones descended from a Greek, Demaratus of Corinth) that succeeded kings of Latin and Sabine origin. Etruscophile historians would argue that this, together with evidence for institutions, religious elements and other cultural elements, proves that Rome was founded by Italics. The true picture is rather more complicated, not least because the Etruscan cities were separate entities which never came together to form a single Etruscan state. Furthermore, there were strong Latin and Italic elements to Roman culture, and later Romans proudly celebrated these multiple, 'multicultural' influences on the city.
Under Romulus and Numa Pompilius, the people were said to have been divided into thirty curiae and three tribes. Few Etruscan words entered Latin, but the names of at least two of the tribes – Ramnes and Luceres – seem to be Etruscan. The last kings may have borne the Etruscan title lucumo, while the regalia were traditionally considered of Etruscan origin: the golden crown, the sceptre, the toga palmata (a special robe), the sella curulis (curule chair), and above all the primary symbol of state power: the fasces. The latter was a bundle of whipping rods surrounding a double-bladed axe, carried by the king's lictors. An example of the fasces are the remains of bronze rods and the axe from a tomb in Etruscan Vetulonia. This allowed archaeologists to identify the depiction of a fasces on the grave stele of Avele Feluske, who is shown as a warrior wielding the fasces. The most telling Etruscan feature is the word populus, which appears as an Etruscan deity, Fufluns. Populus seems to mean the people assembled in a military body, rather than the general populace.