The Etruscans were the first Roman people

The heyday and decline of an enigmatic people

They created the first high culture on the Italian peninsula, carried on long-distance trade and finally civilized early Rome - to which they were then subject to and in whose company they were absorbed: the Etruscans are slow to reveal the riddle of their history.

Hardly any written evidence of their history has come down to us from the Etruscans themselves. This is mainly due to the fact that their culture has been around since the 3rd century BC. Was gradually overlaid by the Roman and their language with the final admission of Etruria into the Roman state association in the year 90 BC. BC went out. On the other hand, the archaeological tradition is so good that an increasingly dense picture of the Etruscan culture emerges. There are also numerous references from Greek and Roman authors, in which the Etruscans mostly play a subordinate role; because as a rule the events concerning the Etruscans were only passed on if they had a direct connection to Rome (an exception were those ten "books", more precisely: scrolls, about the Etruscans, which Emperor Claudius wrote, but which have not survived ). But our thirst for knowledge benefits from the fact that the Etruscans between the 8th and 4th centuries BC Were the most important political and cultural power in central Italy and that there were numerous contacts with the Greek and Roman world. For the Greeks they were the most important trading partners in the western Mediterranean; the Romans always remained aware that they owed essential elements of their culture to the Etruscans.

Above all, however, the fact that they were different from their neighbors triggered a discussion in antiquity and encouraged occupation with them: their language was isolated in Italy and it was said that they had immigrated from Asia Minor. The Greek author Herodotus advocated this thesis in the 5th century BC. Who claimed that the Etruscans came to Italy as a result of a famine in their native Lydia. The Augustan author Dionysius of Halicarnassus, on the other hand, considered them to be a people who had developed in central Italy.

Indeed, the Etruscan origins, like most other peoples, are obscure. A people does not appear as a “finished product”, but is the result of a long, usually centuries-old development process. In any case, research today tends more towards the approach of Dionysius. There are two main reasons for this thesis, which is less popular with the historically interested public: On the one hand, the actually existing eastern elements in the culture and language of the Etruscans cannot be linked to findings in Lydia, but are generally of an eastern Mediterranean nature; on the other hand, recent excavations at Etruscan settlement sites show that at least since the beginning of the 1st millennium there has not been a cultural break that would suggest a closed immigration. If such a thing happened, it would have to have happened in prehistoric times, but we know too little about it. What is certain, however, is that the Etruscans have been kicking since the 9th / 8th. Century in central Italy as a finished cultural and - as far as the linguistic monuments may be interpreted in this way - also as an ethnically closed unit.

The culture of western central Italy was largely prehistoric at that time (research refers to it as the Villanova period after a site near Bologna). In the middle of the 8th century, the important event of the Greek colonization of southern Italy and Sicily occurred, which affected Etruria in two ways: On the one hand, the Etruscans in Campania were direct neighbors of Greek colonies (with Pithekussai and Kyme formed there in the 8th century the oldest Greek settlements in the Italian region), on the other hand, the commercial interests of the colonists were directed towards the rich mineral deposits of central and northern Etruria, above all of iron, which at that time was as precious as gold.

The Etruscans - or Tyrrhenians, as they were called by the Greeks - have probably adapted quickly to this new geopolitical and trade-political situation. They built ships that were not only used for trade but also capable of fighting; With them they are said to have made the seas unsafe as "pirates". For the 7th century it is unequivocally certain that the coastal settlements that have since blossomed into urban centers such as Populonia, Vetulonia, Vulci, Tarquinia and Caere / Cerveteri, as well as Veji, which is directly adjacent to Rome, not only benefited from international sea trade, but also benefited significantly as an active trading partner co-determined. By incorporating their hinterland, they had created larger territories, Veji and Cerveteri had even expanded into Campania and founded settlements (such as Capua) there as early as the 8th century. A second wave of colonization reached in the 6th century over the Apennines to the Po plain, where numerous settlements with the center in Mutina / Modena arose. Archaeological finds on the Ligurian coast of southern France suggest that the Greek Massilia (Marseille, around 600) was founded in an area that was already in close trade with Etruria. Some researchers even assume that the language closely related to Etruscan on the island of Lemnos off Asia Minor can be explained by the fact that "Tyrrhenians" settled there in the 7th or early 6th century.

Lazio lies between the Etruscan heartland and Campania. Here the Etruscans not only dominated culturally, but at times also had political supremacy. Rome, the capital of the Latins, came under the rule of an Etruscan dynasty from Tarquinia in the late 7th century. The kings Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius and Tarquinius Superbus are said to have turned the small central Italian town into an urban center by their fall in 509/08: with an advanced sewer system (the Cloaca Maxima), a first wall (the so-called Servan Wall), monumental buildings (such as the Circus Maximus and the Temple of the Triassic Trinity Iupiter, Iuno and Minerva on the Capitol Hill) as well as numerous other cultural innovations, especially in the area of ​​official insignia. Even such a characteristically Roman institution as the triumphal procession of victorious generals ending on the Capitol at the Temple of Iupiter is said - and this is quite plausible - to have been taken over from Etruria.

The 6th century shows the Etruscan city-states in greatest prosperity. Ruled by kings, society in the cities was hierarchically structured with aristocrats, a broad middle class, artisans, farmers and slaves. In addition to the continued flourishing of metal processing and intensive maritime trade, the population benefited above all from cattle breeding and agriculture, whereby the natural fertility of the country with its large inland lakes was supplemented by an advanced irrigation system ...

The language of the Etruscans The Etruscan language is still a mystery today. It does not belong to the Indo-European language family, nor does it have structural similarities with the languages ​​of the neighboring Italian peoples. Parallels are most likely to be found in Asia Minor, for example on the island of Lemnos. The fact that the traditional Etruscan inscriptions are mostly very short texts makes decoding considerably more difficult; Despite recent research, the translations therefore still cause problems.

Deciphering the Etruscan script, on the other hand, turned out to be relatively easy because the Etruscans took over at the end of the 8th century BC. A "Western Greek" (Euboean) alphabet from the Greek colonies in southern Italy and adapted it to the sounds of their own language. The inscriptions are usually written from right to left in a continuous chain of letters. As early as the second half of the 7th century, there were language differences between North and South Etruria, which were expressed, for example, in the different spelling of the names of gods. A number of bilingual, bilingual texts, mainly in Etruscan and Latin, are also known. They provide important information on the Romanization of Etruria.

Prof. Dr. Friedhelm Prayon

December 20, 2005