The Etruscans - Progenitors of the Roman Empire

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

      They were one of Europe's most advanced cultures in the 8th century BC, and to the Romans - who they knew as people called the Latins, living as farmers on the very southern edge of their empire - they would give their city planning based on grids, their architecture, monuments, painting, sculpture, metal work, military design, tactics and discipline, knowledge of trade by sea, games and other leisure pursuits. Even clothing: the toga was Etruscan. They put laurel wreaths in the hair. This and more they gave to the Romans, and then they would effectively disappear.

They did not give the Romans their language, which appears to have no known roots, with no existing parallel anywhere in the world.

Where did the Etruscans come from? Among at least three theories *, the most grounded is the presumption that they didn't come from somewhere else but grew from a tribe or collection of tribes in what is now Tuscany, as far back as 1,200 BC at least. Although most of the known world at that time (excluding China) spoke languages derived from the Indo-European family, the Etruscans did not. Otherwise, language would be a major clue.

The Latins farmed, but they also studied the Etruscans, learned, and waited. From Rome in 396 BC they sacked the nearby Etruscan city of Veii, and from that point the Etrucans went into decline. There is reason to believe that once the Romans dominated Italy, which they achieved in 100 BC, there was a systematic effort - successful - to eliminate the Etruscan heritage and create a mythology of origins which was entirely Roman. No Etruscan literature, and certainly no history, has been found. No one speaks for them. What we know, if incorrectly, comes from Roman and Greek authors.

The Etruscans were, like the Greece of Pericles, a confederacy of city states, called "Etruria", without a central authority, from at least 1,000 BC to their disappearance in about 100 BC. At their height they controlled most of Italy with their army, and most of the Mediterranean Sea with their navy. If this is news to you, do not feel bad; it is news to nearly everyone.

The Etruscans appear to be the originators of the Villanovan Culture, which historians identify as the appearance of the iron age in Italy, but also has to do with burial customs (cremation was common) and other cultural attributes. "Etruscan" may mean "tower builders", and they were known for constructing buildings of several stories, while the rest of the country was content with single levels. Their apparently unique language had 8 centuries to mold, blend, and refine itself, and then left no descendents.

What survives? Things found mainly at burial sites: paintings, tile mosaics, wonderful gold and bronze metal working, sculptures. They invented the stone anchor. Amphora for movement of liquids by sea, with pointed bottoms. Thus, their history is being formulated through the objects which are found beneath the ground, or underwater.

From limited wall paintings, scultures, tile mosaics, and images on pottery, it would appear that the Etruscans were fond of their leisure, gave women an equal authority in society, and lived a libertine life, partaking of sexual activity in public with numerous individuals, the children from which would be raised by married couples regardless of the father's identity. Or - rather than this being an everyday feature, it may have been the policy only at times of religious ceremony or festival, which was recorded as art work.

The tools of archeologists and historians are being refined all the time. Early Romans choosing to conceal their actual heritage from Etruscans did not think of satellites and infra-red beams discovering things buried deep in the ground. Some day we may uncover some remarkable things about the culture of this highly advanced people. Maybe a history, if anyone can read it.

* * * *

Theory 2: They came from Asia Minor, possibly Lydia or nearby. There are some cultural similarities, but not enough to be convincing. And language is different.

Theory 3: They were a sea people (they did know a lot about ships, navigation, etc.) If so, there are many geographic candidates, but again the language is the sticking point.

The 4th Theory is my own, and is the most colorful, though I toss it out with no expectation it will prove to be true. You read that the Etruscans can be traced by archeology back to 1200 BC. Where else have you seen that date? It is a convenient rounded number for the fall of Troy. Hmmm. Now, Virgil, in the "Aeneid" tells us of Aeneas and other Trojans who escape Troy with the intention of going to Italy. They arrive at Carthage, then to Sicily, then to the mouth of the Tiber. There they learn that some Tuscan farmers are battling some Latin farmers, and when Aeneas is attacked by the latter, he joins the former, and wins the country. But Virgil intended to give us a history of the founding of the Romans, when his history is actually the founding of the Etruscans! Oh well, makes for a good story.

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