Legend and history
Etruscan riders, Silver panel 540–520 BC, from Castel San Marino, near Perugia
The ancient Romans referred to the Etruscans as the Tuscī or Etruscī. 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 Τυρσηνοί Tursēnoi), 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 word may also be related to the Hittite Taruisa. The Etruscans called themselves Rasenna, which was syncopated to Rasna or Raśna.
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. 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), and 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/Tyrsenos to the Italian Peninsula. The Lemnian-Pelasgian link 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 Tyrrhenians (Etruscans). Dionysius of Halicarnassus 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"; Herodotus describes how the Tyrrheni migrated from Lydia to the lands of the Umbri (Ὀμβρικοί).
Strabo as well as the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus make mention of the Tyrrhenians as pirates. Pliny the Elder put the Etruscans in the context of the Rhaetian people to the north and wrote in his Natural History (AD 79):
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 grave goods and tomb findings. An mtDNA study in 2007 suggested that the Etruscans were not related substantially to the Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherer populations of Europe and that they showed no similarities to populations in the Near East. An earlier DNA study performed in Italy, however, partly gave credence to the theory of Herodotus, as the results showed that 11 minor mitochondrial DNA lineages extracted from different Etruscan remains occur nowhere else in Europe and are shared only with Near Eastern samples.
Another source of genetic data on Etruscan origins comes from four ancient breeds of cattle. Analysis of the mitochondrial DNA of these and seven other breeds of Italian cattle found that the Tuscan breeds genetically resembled cattle of the Near East. The other Italian breeds were linked to northern Europe.
One other hypothesis gives credence to a claim made by a DNA study, which states that the Etruscans are indigenous, probably stemming from the Villanovan culture, while the latest 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 genetic links between Tuscany and Anatolia date back to at least 5,000 years ago during the Neolithic.
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.
There were two other Etruscan leagues ("Lega dei popoli"): that of Campania, the main city of which was Capua, and the Po Valley city-states in the North, which included Spina and Adria.
Possible founding of Rome
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.