We have very little literary evidence about the Etruscans, because nobody in those days bothered to write about them. It is true that the Emperor Claudius wrote a 20-volume history of the Etruscans, but this work has been lost. We must therefore fall back upon archeological evidence to get a picture of what kind of people the Etruscans were and how they lived.
There is no doubt that their earliest settlements were on the sea coast. Vetulonia and Tarquinia are the earliest. Then comes Vulci, Caere, and Volterra, and the inland cities of Perugia and Arezzo.
The main areas where they settled were almost everywhere covered with woods, thickets, and marshes inhabited by wild boars. Glades were opened up in the woods and on them were built the first huts, stone houses, and villages. Gradually they conquered the surrounding territory, crossed the Apennines and settled in Umbria and Latium, reaching the plain of Padua in the north and the Campagna in the south.
The primitive villages developed into towns surrounded by strong walls. Thus began the story of the Etruscans. They probably came from the mountainous regions of Anatolia and the Caucasus where they were "Tyrrhenians." Around 800 BC they were driven from their lands by some other Asiatic tribe and tried to migrate to Egypt. But the Pharaohs, then at the height of their power, drove them out: so they crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. Some finally settled in Tuscany, which the Etruscans called "Etruria"; some went on to Sardinia, the Balearic Islands, and Spain.
A great sea-faring raceOriginally, the Etruscans were probably pirates. When they settled in Italy, they crossed the Tyrrhenian Sea (named after the Etruscans who were also called Tyrrhenians) in their merchant ships. Being astute merchants, they had commercial relations with the Carthaginians and the Greeks, whose dress they often imitated, and sailed to the ports of Spain, the Balearic Islands, and Asia Minor.
Religion and Language of the EtruscansThe Etruscans believed in gods and dreaded their anger. They therefore observed rites to soothe it, offering animals in sacrifices. They were strong believers in divination – that is to say, the art of knowing the will o the gods. The Etruscans had a great cult for the dead, whom they buried in underground rooms which were often grandiose and magnificently painted.
The Etruscans left many writings on tombstones, tablets, cups, and vases. But although they used the same alphabet as the Greeks, the words were quite different and only a hundred or so of them have been deciphered. Scholars have been trying for a century and a half to interpret the Etruscan writings, but until some bilingual inscription is found, as happened in the case of Egyptian with the Rosetta Stone, the Etruscan language will remain a mystery.
Etruscan cities and townsThe Etruscan cities, like those of the Greeks, were independent of each other. They were small states, each governed by a leader called the Lucumone. Each had to provide for its own defense in case of war: for this reason the Etruscan towns were situated on isolated hills and surrounded by strong walls.
The boundaries of a town were square. When the Etruscans founded a town, they used a plow to mark the furrow along which the foundations of the wall were to be laid. At some points the plow was raised out of the ground to leave a gap for the gates.
Etruscan housesThe Etruscans brought house-building methods with them from Asia. The houses were square and the windows looked an to an inside courtyard. Instead of a vault, they used an architrave (horizontal piece of wood) to support the roof or the floor above. The building techniques were later adapted by the Romans.
As the Etruscans liked to live in comfort, their houses were furnished with carpets, couches, large tables for banquets, and attractive ornaments. Above all they had beautiful vases used for storing things, mixing things, and for drinking.
LifestyleThe Etruscans were a lively and cultured people, and enjoyed their recreations. They were fond of good food, dancing, humorous and cruel sports. hunting, personal ornaments, and fashion. Show here is a reproduction of a mural in an Etruscan tomb showing a banquet. Note the elegance of the dress and furniture.
Lars PorsenaPerhaps the most famous Etruscan today is Lars Porsena of Clusium (capital of Etruria). In about 500 BC he marched on Rome to restore the banished Roman king Tarquinius Superbus. The story of this is immortalized in the poem Horatius by Lord Macaulay.
Lars Porsena of ClusiumGreat as was his army, he was held up by Horatius and two others who defended a bridge until it could be destroyed.
But all Etruria's noblest
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