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Who were the Etruscans?

Italy wasn’t always Roman. In the 7th and 6th centuries, the major power in that region was the Etruscans. Obviously, this didn’t last, and there is a lot we don’t know. Like, seriously, a LOT. But it’s important to know (what we can) about them. Who were the Etruscans? This is made rather difficult by the fact that they didn’t leave behind a lot of writing. Mostly just inscriptions. So, a lot of what we have to draw from is either archeological or things said about them by other cultures, which should always be questioned.

But let’s get started.

Table of Contents

Some Basics

The Etruscans, known as the “Tyrrhenians” to the Greeks, were a people who inhabited the Italian peninsula between the 9th and 2nd centuries BCE. Their heartland was the region known as Etruria, which encompassed modern-day Tuscany, parts of Umbria, and Lazio. The precise origins of the Etruscans remain a topic of debate among scholars. Some theories suggest an indigenous origin, while others propose an Eastern Mediterranean influence.

And speaking of the eastern Mediterranean, the Etruscans were not an isolated civilization. Most notably, they interacted with the Greeks and the Phoenicians. This contact profoundly influenced Etruscan art, architecture, and religious practices. Barker and Rasmussen note that “what is obvious is that many of the outward expressions of Etruscan culture are Greek-inspired – the essential forms of temples, the iconography of the major gods, styles of figurative art and the mythological content of many visual narratives.”(4) The Phoenician influence can be seen in the Etruscan alphabet, which, we think, was derived from Phoenician script. Though we still haven’t completely deciphered it.

Religion and Beliefs

The Etruscans worshipped a pantheon of deities, some of whom had parallels in Greek and Roman religion. For example, Tinia (equivalent to the Roman Jupiter) was considered the chief god, associated with the sky and thunder, Uni (similar to the Roman Juno) was the principal goddess, often depicted as a protector of women and marriage. Other deities included Fufluns, the god of wine, and Turan, a goddess of love and beauty.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Etruscan religion was their emphasis on divination and the interpretation of omens. Really, the ancient Mediterranean in general was concerned with divination, but the Etruscans were known for it. As noted by Barker and Rasmussen “they were regarded by other peoples as especially skilled, and they themselves regarded these skills as a revealed religion, centered around the figure of Tages, the mythical teacher” (228).  Etruscan priests, known as haruspices to the Romans, practiced divination by examining the entrails of sacrificed animals, particularly the liver and the blemishes and features of it. The Etruscans believed that the gods communicated their will through these signs, and it was crucial to interpret them accurately. This is something that fed down into Roman society. Haruspices were a critical part of Roman religion.

Temples were prominent throughout the region, but there’s a catch: We think a lot of these were heavily Greek-inspired.

“Etruscan religion did not require temples, and it is likely that these sprang up, as in Greece, for reasons of civic pride and in order to house cult statues. From Greece, too, came almost certainly the whole idea of anthropomorphic gods, and in the process, some of the Greek gods became assimilated with their Etruscan counterparts”. (219.)

We know they had an afterlife of some sort, but we know almost nothing in detail. There was an underworld, but “Representations of underworld scenes are not common and are late in date – of the fourth century and later. The visions are essentially Greek, of a world presided over by Hades (Aita) and Persephone (Phersipnei), and their ultimate source is Odyssey, Book 11, though usually there are Etruscan demons also present.” (Barker and Rasmussen, 239)

Decline and Legacy

The Etruscan civilization reached its zenith around the 6th century BCE, but it began to decline due to various factors, including Roman expansion. The Etruscans “gradually yielded their regional hegemony to Rome’s aggrandizing power in the face of a combination of military force and cultural assimilation”(Barker and Rasmussen, 1). By the 2nd century BCE, the Etruscans had largely assimilated into Roman culture, and their language and distinctive practices faded away. However, their influence on Rome, particularly in areas of art, architecture, and religion, persisted.

Bibliography

Barker and Rasmussen (1998), The Etruscans, Blackwell Publishers

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