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Origins of the Etruscans

Etruscans period in the Italy history began around the VIII century BC.  There are three theories about the Etruscans origin:

  1. The most widely used theory was – they came from the east by sea and they settled on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Herodotus claimed that they came from Lydia in XIII century BC (Strabo, Pliny the Elder and Tacitus). Hellanicus believed that the Pelasgians came from Greece and they settled at the mouth of the river Po.
  2. They came from the other side of Alps
  3. They were indigenous. Dionysius of Halicarnassus

The first permanent nucleus of the city must have been in development during the early Iron Age as the burial places from the same period would seem to indicate. These were discovered east of Civita at places called Poggio Selciatello, dell’Impiccato, Selciatello di Sopra, and contain well-tombs carved out of the naked earth. The biconical cinerary urns with a bowl shaped cover, along with a few objects from the deceased person’s possessions were placed inside. This evidence of the oldest phase of the Villanovan period is of great importance due to the presence of bronze objects of an exceptionally high technical level. It is difficult to determine, which family of languages Etruscans language belonged. Historian are familiar with the meaning of a few dozen words.

Social order

Economic and social development of the Etruscans was at a high level even in the earliest ages. At the very early age, new cities have been build, which by its type approached to the cities of the ancient world. Usually, cities were built in the naturally protected areas, with fenced walls, properly planned, and mainly constructed of stone buildings.

Throughout entire history, some remains of the tribe relations have been kept. Apparently, their social order was strictly aristocratic; military – priest aristocracy (Lucumonie) – are privileged part of society, to whom all other parts of society were submissive.

The peculiarity of their social order was reflected in the free position of women, which enjoyed certain privileges. It is assumed that the resolution of many issues of domestic life depended on the mother, and not on the father of the family. Slavery appeared in an early age – the evidence of that was hunger, fights, which were staged in the courts of the Etruscans aristocrats. They happened in an age when slaves were forced to fight over the graves of the fallen soldier, and later on, these fights were staged for entertainment and Italian people took staged shows from Etruria in order to entertain themselves.

Lucumonie, along with its groups (slaves and dependent people) attacked neighbouring areas and they were also engaged in piracy. In the beginning, cities were ruled by kings, whose power was probably an elective, and during the first half of the period, aristocracy weakened this power of kings. Because of this, in some cities electoral magistrates were removed. Symbols of royal power – were bundles of twigs, which were used for placed around the handle of axes – that have been carried by the servants of the king; a cloak with a purple edge (a cloak of preaetext); curule seat – they moved to Rome, as well as the concept of highest power (emporium) was symbol of king’s power.

Etruscan cities were independent cities – states; 12 cities formed free federation. The main economic branch was agriculture. Agriculture was possible only with artificial drying up of the soil. The Etruscans were the first people in Italy, which applied on a large-scale system of drying out of the soil. This large-scale system was possible only with mass use of working force and appropriate organization of this force. It also allowed the creation of grandiose buildings. Etruria was the first Italian region in which existed a large land estates and in which crafts and trade (and intermediary trade) were developed. Etruscan ships appeared in Carthage and even in Phoenicia.

They have perfected a technique of processing metal to a certain extent. In the Etruria, copper was extracted, and on island Elba they extracted – iron. Ceramics was also highly developed.

Etruscans political history

We know very little about the topography of the Etruscan settlement; there are remains of the city walls (5th and 4th centuries BCE), which extend for a perimetre of about 8 kilometres around the boundaries of the city and were made of massive blocks of limestone. There are also remains of a large temple, the so called Altar of the Queen on the Civita hill. This was probably constructed in the 6th century BCE and then reconstructed at the beginning of the 4th century BCE and successively thereafter. From this temple come remains of clay decorations among which are the celebrated Winged Horses, which are preserved in the beautiful museum of Tarquinia.

Political strengthening of Etruscans declined in the second half of VII and VI century. In the VI century, in the age of power, their territory stretched all the way to the north, to the Alps while on the south, their territory went all the way to Lazio and Campania. In Rome, in VI century strengthen Tarquinius dynasty, while the centre of their influence was in Campania – Capua. The Adriatic Sea was named after Etruscan city Adria.

In the beginning of VI century started a collapse of “Etruscan state”, which was caused by both internal and external factors. Among the cities, there was constant rivalry, whose prosperity rested on a permanent exploitation of lower classes. Relations with the Greeks were not peaceful and as the Etruscans more invaded to the south, in the Campania, their relations worsen more and more.

The Etruscans were in alliance with the Carthaginians, who were Greeks eternal rivals. In the late VI century and beginning of the V century, along with the strengthening of the Greek activities throughout entire Mediterranean, a battle of Italic people took place for the liberation from the Etruscan hegemony. In the north, they had led a heavy battle with Celtic tribes, which started to move. Their territory was reduced and internal Etruscan federation lines started to weaken, but on the field of culture, they continued to play a dominant role in Italy until the early IV century when they gave its place to Rome. In the middle of I century BC, Etruscan nation has lost any significance, and soon after that Etruscan language was forgotten as well.


From the middle of the 8th century BCE the city grew noticeably as is evidenced by an important trench-tomb called the Tomb of the Warrior (Museum of Berlin). It contains grave-goods consisting of arms and ceramics which attest to the vitality of Tarquinian culture and its openness to Greek influences. A bit more recent (beginning of the 7th century BCE) is the famous Tomb of Bocchoris, thus named because of the presence of extremely rich grave-good with a situla of ceramic with the cartouche of Pharaoh Bokkhoris and a point of reference for the chronology of the orientally oriented period of the peninsula.

The occupation of the hill of Monterozzi dates from the middle of the 8th century BCE and this then became the principal burial place of the city, especially during the 6th century BCE. From the middle of the 6th century BCE, examples of burial paintings begin to show up. This has turned out to be the most important example of ancient painting prior to the Imperial Age of Rome. Beginning from this period, the decoration of the walls and ceilings of the tombs became a constant characteristic of the Tarquinian necropolis. The limited number of these tombs (about 60) compared with the total number of those discovered (about 150) shows that the painted tombs belong to the high social class. It is difficult to grasp even partially the extraordinary quality and the importance of Tarquinian painting.

Etruscan painting

The first identifiable phase is the one in which Etruscan art is the recipient of the “Ionic” figurative experience and illustrative of this are the Lotus Flower Tomb (6th century), the Tomb of the Bulls (540 BCE), the Hunting and Fishing Tomb (530 BCE) and the Tomb of the Omens (530 BCE).

Transitory tombs between the “Ionic” phase and the so called “severe” style are the Tomb of the Baron (500 BCE), the Tomb of the Jesters (520-500 BCE), the Tomb of the Cardarelli (about 500 BCE). The famous Tomb of the Leopards and the Tomb of the Triclinium (first half of 5th century BCE) appear when this “severe” style is in full swing, whereas the classical and Hellenistic phases are evidenced by the Tomb of the Whale, the Tomb of the Giglioli, the Tomb of the Shields and the Typhoon Tomb.

The subjects of the wall decorations usually refer to scenes from real life, such as banquets, games, sporting event and hunts. Mythological episodes appear only rarely. All the most significant themes of archaic Etruscan ideology of the aristocratic sphere and of the funereal ritual are present. Stylistically, a first stage has been identified in which there was almost certainly foreign influence, with craftsmen coming from Ionic Greece. A second stage has also been identified when local schools of decorators were set up who worked on the tombs of the first quarter of the 5th century BCE with more fixed plans.