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Who Were the Etruscans?

Mike Anderson By Mike Anderson Published on November 5, 2015

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The story of the Etruscans is an interesting one -- interesting and obscure.

Their history is remarkable when measured by their accomplishments as merchants, craftsmen, traders, and influencers of Rome, but we only have pieces of their story. The emperor Claudius tried to help us by chronicling their history in twenty volumes, but, unfortunately, his work did not survive. Meanwhile, the Etruscan language has defied our understanding and, other than some decoding of artifacts, we can’t read it. Still, a strong link exists between Etruria and Rome because three of the Roman kings were Etruscans and they helped launch the Republic.

Ultimately, the Etruscan culture would die and fulfill an ironic prophesy.

The area of Italy we know today as Tuscany was originally settled by the Villanovans, an Iron Age culture that had migrated from Northern Europe. The Tuscan branch is referred to as the Northern Villanovans but there was also a southern faction extending beyond Rome into Campania. The term Villanovan comes from their discovery in an ancient cemetery near Villanova Italy, eight miles from Bologna. The Villanovans were not a uniform culture or society, but more of a group of tribes with common interests. They were expert metal smiths and potters who cremated their dead and buried them in cone-shaped graves. The earliest Villanovan evidence dates from the beginning of the Iron Age and continues to 500 B.C. Through artifacts, we can document their social evolution showing the tribes transitioning into a socio-economic hierarchy.

Around 750 B.C. another race arrived and displaced the Villanovans. According to Herodotus, the newcomers, eventually labeled Etruscans, came from Asia Minor. He writes in book 1 chapter 94:

“The customs of the Lydians (Asia Minor east of Ionia) are like those of the Greeks... They were the first men whom we know who coined and used gold and silver currency; and they were the first to sell by retail. …In the reign of Atys son of Manes there was great scarcity of food in all Lydia. For a while the Lydians bore this with what patience they could; presently, when the famine did not abate, they looked for remedies, and different plans were devised by different men… But the famine did not cease to trouble them, and instead afflicted them even more. At last their king divided the people into two groups, and made them draw lots, so that the one group should remain and the other leave the country; he himself was to be the head of those who drew the lot to remain there, and his son, whose name was Tyrrhenus, of those who departed. Then the one group, having drawn the lot, left the country and came down to Smyrna and built ships, in which they loaded all their goods that could be transported aboard ship, and sailed away to seek a livelihood and a country; until at last, after sojourning with one people after another, they came to the Ombrici (Umbria Italy) where they founded cities and have lived ever since. They no longer called themselves Lydians, but Tyrrhenians, after the name of the king's son who had led them there.”

What we see in the archaeology is the appearance of Etruscan settlements where Villanovan settlements once stood. Why? Perhaps they co-existed and eventually merged into one culture. The Romans called these people Tusci or Etrusci, creating the link to the region later called Tuscany.