Etruria was a region in western Italy that extended from just north of Rome to the Arno River in central Italy. The original inhabitants of this area, known as the Etruscans, established a sophisticated culture that influenced the social and political development of Rome.

The Rise of Etruscan Civilization. The origins of Etruscan civilization have been debated since at least the time of the Greek historian Herodotus in the 400s B.C. According to one legend widely accepted in the ancient world, Etruria was originally settled by people who had migrated westward from Lydia, a region in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). In support of this version was the strange and mysterious language of the Etruscans, which bore no resemblance to any other language spoken in Italy at the time. With such an exotic language, it was assumed that the Etruscans must have originated somewhere far from Italy.

Modern excavations in western Italy, however, indicate that Etruscan civilization developed from local cultures that arose in the area around 1000 B.C. By the 800s B.C., foreign demand for minerals produced in Etruria became a source of wealth and power for the Etruscans, who eventually emerged as the dominant culture on the Italian peninsula. Etruscan city-states* first appeared in the 700s B.C., multiplying rapidly during the next 200 years. By the 500s B.C., Etruscan colonies arose in other parts of Italy—to the north, across the Apennines, in the Po Valley, and to the south in Latium, the region in which Rome is located, and in Campania. By this time, the Etruscans had become, along with the Greeks and the Carthaginians, one of the most powerful civilizations in the Mediterranean.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

Etruscan Political Organization. Like ancient Greece, Etruria was composed of many separate and independent city-states. Also like the Greeks, these city-states made little attempt to unite with each other politically. They each had their own laws and customs as well as different forms of government. They were proud of their independence, and strong rivalries developed between them, occasionally erupting into armed conflict.

Nevertheless, some degree of cooperation existed among the city-states. A loosely organized council, known as the League of Twelve Peoples, dealt with issues common to all city-states, most often dealing with religion. While the League never attempted to impose centralized control over the individual city-states, it could grant or withhold financial or military assistance to any member of the League. For example, when Rome threatened to take over the Etruscan city of Veii in about 400 B.C., the League, for mainly religious reasons, refused to help. Coordinated political action was more the exception than the rule, as the various Etruscan city-states determined their own policies and largely pursued their own goals.


One custom that the Etruscans did not adopt from the Greeks was the Greek attitude toward women. While the Greeks rigidly separated the activities of men and women, the Etruscans accepted the mixing of male and female company. Greek writers commented unfavorably on the Etruscan practice of including women at dinner parties, a practice that was later taken up by the Romans. Both Greek and Roman observers accused the Etruscans of various forms of sexual immorality because of the mixing of the sexes in Etruscan society.

The Etruscan city-states must have seemed familiar to the settlers in the Greek colonies of southern Italy and Sicily that were founded in the 700s and 600s B.C. The Greeks referred to all Etruscans as Tyrrhenoi, and the Tyrrhenian Sea, the body of water on the coast where the Etruscan civilization developed, bears this name. Because of their dealings with the Greek colonies, the Etruscans learned much about Greek and Eastern cultures and passed this knowledge along to the civilization forming in Rome.

Etruscan Political Influences on Rome. Although little is known about the local political organization of most Etruscan city-states, political developments in Etruria had a significant influence on later developments in Rome. For example, some Etruscan city-states were originally ruled by kings, but these monarchies* were eventually overthrown, and the city-states developed into republics* by the 500s B.C. Power in these city-states was in the hands of aristocratic* families, similar to the patricians* who dominated Roman political life. The Etruscan pattern of social organization based on heredity was strikingly similar to that which existed in Rome. Although they never directly ruled over Rome, the Etruscans exerted a powerful influence on the forms and directions of Roman politics and government.

The Etruscans influenced the physical changes of the city of Rome itself, beginning in the late 600s B.C. From the time of its legendary founding in 753 B.C., Rome was a rural and agricultural village of huts, as opposed to the urban society in Etruria. In 616 B.C., the first of three Etruscan-born kings assumed power in Rome. Beginning with the reign of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (616-579 B.C.), Rome was transformed from a village on the banks of the Tiber River into a full-fledged city-state. Brick buildings replaced mud huts; paved roads replaced dirt tracks; sewers and other public works were built; and the first temples were erected. This process continued under the next two Roman kings, Servius Tullius (578-535 B.C.) and Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud (534-510 B.C.), both of whom were also Etruscan. By the time the Romans overthrew the monarchy in 510 B.C. to establish a republic of their own, Rome—built in the image of the Etruscan city-states—had become the foremost city in Latium.

Etruscan Cultural Influences on Rome. Although the overthrow of Tarquin signaled the decline of Etruscan political power in southern Italy, the Etruscans’ cultural influence on Rome continued. Many aspects of Roman culture, from language to religion to social customs, grew directly or indirectly from those of their neighbors to the north.

* monarchy nation ruled by a king or queen

* republic government in which the citizens elect officials to represent them and govern according to law

* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class

* patrician member of the upper class who traced his ancestry to a senatorial family in the earliest days of the Roman Republic

Much of the strength and vitality of Etruscan culture was a result of its ability to incorporate new ideas from other civilizations. The Etruscans maintained an extensive trading network that included contacts with Greeks in southern Italy and the Aegean Sea, Phoenicians in both the eastern Mediterranean and in Carthage, and other peoples from as far away as Egypt. They adopted many of the skills and cultural practices of these peoples, eventually passing them along to the Romans and to other Italians. The Roman alphabet, for example, was adopted from the Etruscans, who had themselves modified it from the Greeks. Roman sculpture, pottery, painting, and metalwork all reflect Etruscan influences, as do Roman architecture and town planning.

Much of the religious life of Rome was based on Etruscan religious beliefs and customs. The Romans worshiped many of the same gods and goddesses as the Etruscans did, and the Etruscans inspired many Roman temples, cults*, and ceremonies. One of the most notable Roman religious practices—that of interpreting omens and telling the future by reading the entrails* of animals—was imported directly from the Etruscans. Haruspices, or diviners of entrails, were prominent in Etruscan society and at various periods in Rome’s history.

The daily social life of Rome, especially that of the upper classes, also owed much to the Etruscans. The Romans shared with the Etruscans a taste for extravagant living and lavish entertainment. Jewelry and other expensive ornaments from the eastern Mediterranean were popular among the upper classes in Etruria, and Etruscan gravesites often contain many items that indicate the wealth of their owners. Paintings and sculptures from Etruscan cities portray the aristocratic classes in Etruria cheerfully living a life of luxury and leisure. Wealthy Etruscans are typically shown feasting at banquets, playing games, and enjoying the thrill of the hunt. Public entertainments, especially games, that were popular with the Etruscans became a prominent feature of public life during the Roman Empire.

The Decline of the Etruscans. Despite the many similarities between Roman and Etruscan culture, Rome developed a culture independent of Etruria. Many Roman social customs and political institutions owed little to Etruscan or other outside influences. However, since the Romans lived in close contact with the strong and vibrant culture of the Etruscans, they adapted many elements of Etruscan society to their own needs.

Despite the Etruscan dominance in Italy, Rome remained independent. Unlike the later Romans, the Etruscans were not interested in uniting Italy under one government, and other states in Italy eventually challenged their power. As the importance of the Etruscan city-states diminished after 500 B.C., Roman power increased. The capture of Veii in 396 B.C. began the Roman conquest of Etruria, which was completed with the fall of the Etruscan city of Volsinii in 264 B.C.

Although the fall of Volsinii marked the physical conquest of Etruria, many Etruscan cities retained much of their ancient culture and social organization for many years afterward. It was more than 200 years before the Etruscan language was finally replaced by Latin throughout Italy. By this time, the Romans had conquered not only Etruria but the rest of Italy and much of the rest of Mediterranean world. (See also Alphabets and Writing; Archaeology of Ancient Sites; Art, Roman; Class Structure, Roman; Colonies, Greek; Cults; Games, Roman; Government, Roman; Languages and Dialects; Religion, Roman; Rome, History of; Social Life, Roman.)

* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief or god

* entrails internal organs, including the intestines

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