The Roman Age of Kings: the Etruscans and their influence on Rome (ca. 900-509 BCE)

Etruscan sarcophagus ‘of the spouses’, from Caere, late sixth century BCE, (Villa Giulia, Rome).

Discussions about the origins of the Etruscans go all the way back to Antiquity. The Romans called their neighbours Tusci or Etrusci, while the Greeks called them Tyrrhenoi.[1] Most classical authors believed that the Etruscans were originally Lydians who, at some point in history, had migrated from Asia Minor to Italy. These authors followed the position taken by Herodotos, ‘The Father of History’.[2] According to an alternative theory the Etruscans were actually Pelasgians who had been expelled from their homes in Thessaly and had crossed the Adriatic Sea to Italy.[3] Dionysius of Halicarnassus, however, believed that the Etruscans were not migrants, but had always lived in Italy and therefore had to be considered an indigenous people.[4] It was Dionysius who passed on to us the name that the Etruscans supposedly used for themselves: Rasenna. It is difficult to say whether his claim about the name is correct, but what is certain is that Etruscan influence on the Romans was exceptionally large. This was especially the case when there were Etruscan kings on the Roman throne. Before I discuss these monarchs, I will first give a brief outline of the rise and fall of the Etruscan civilisation.

The rise of the Etruscans

The heartland of the Etruscans was Etruria, a region that covered modern Tuscany, but also parts of Lazio and Umbria. Here and in the adjacent Emilia-Romagna the so-called Proto-Villanovan culture flourished from the twelfth to the tenth century BCE. This culture was named after the town of Villanova, just east of Bologna, where in 1853 the Italian archaeologist Giovanni Gozzadini discovered an ancient necropolis.[5] An important difference between the Proto-Villanovan period and the period preceding it was that the bodies of the dead were no longer buried, but cremated. The ashes were placed in conical vases, which is compelling evidence that this part of Italy belonged to the Urnfield culture. Around 900 BCE the Proto-Villanovan culture had developed into the full Villanovan culture, which is at present considered the earliest phase of the Etruscan civilisation. To cite the famous Etruscologist Dominique Briquel:

“It has been established that places that were inhabited in the previous period were abandoned around 900. Instead of small settlements scattered across the whole area at locations that offered natural defences, we now almost always find groups of villages with necropolises, situated just a short distance from one another on plateaus and on adjacent hills, while at the same time practically empty spots appeared in the spaces in between. From then on places where later Etruscan cities would arise, such as Veii, Caere, Tarquinia, Vulci, Orvieto, Chiusi and Vetulonia, welcomed groups of villages of which the huts (…) left marks in the soil.”[6]

The Etruscan heartland (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Traces of the Villanovan culture have been found in an area that stretches from the Po valley in the north to Campania in the south. We may assume that the early Etruscans made contact with Greek and Phoenician seafarers at an early stage. These contacts with the world east of Italy intensified after about 720 BCE and ushered in the so-called Orientalizing period. It was an age dominated by the Greeks, a people that in the first half of the eighth century BCE had started to found colonies in Southern Italy. These colonies soon became both trading partners and rivals of the Etruscan cities that had by now been founded. The first Greek colony in Italy was Pithecusae, a town founded in about 775 BCE on the island of Ischia off the coast of Campania. A few decades later Cumae was founded on the mainland by colonists from the island. Cumae was followed by cities such as Sybaris, Croton and Taras (Tarentum). The Greek presence in Southern Italy would ultimately become so strong that the area was called Magna Graecia.

Greek krater attributed to Euphronios (6th-5th century BCE). Found in Arezzo (Etruscan Arretium), Archaeological Museum.

Around 700 BCE the Etruscans copied the alphabet from the Greeks of Cumae. The Greek alphabet was in its turn based on the Phoenician writing system.[7] Because of dissimilarities between the Greek and Etruscan languages, the Etruscans had to make a few adjustments to the Greek alphabet before they could fully use it. The Greek letter gamma was for instance replaced with a c (pronounced as ‘k’). When the Romans later copied the alphabet from the Etruscans they kept this change, and that is why the Latin alphabet starts with ABC instead of ABG.[8] An important point to make is that the Etruscans copied from the Greeks an alphabet that differed in some respects from the standard, i.e. Ionic-Attic alphabet. The colonists of Cumae were originally from Chalcis on Euboea and the Chalcidian alphabet they used had a number of alternative letters and letters that were pronounced differently. In the Ionic-Attic alphabet, the letter X was for instance pronounced as a guttural ‘g’, but in the Chalcidian alphabet it was pronounced as ‘ksi’. And that is why the letter X in the Latin alphabet has a completely different pronunciation than in the classical Greek alphabet.[9] It should finally be noted that the Etruscans wrote texts from right to left. So did the Greeks of Cumae in their earliest phase, but the Romans have always written from left to right.

During the Orientalizing period the Etruscan cities mentioned by Briquel flourished (see the map above). These cities were fairly small. They had populations of about 20-30,000 inhabitants and were situated on hill plateaus that were well defensible. In order to trade with the Greeks and Phoenicians (who in 814 BCE had founded the city of Carthage in present-day Tunis and were also active on Sardinia), ports were built on the coast. Examples include Pyrgi and Alsium for Caere and Graviscae for Tarquinii.[10] Etruria was a fertile region and produced large quantities of grain, olives and wine. Its lakes were full of fish and its woods bristling with game, which included the Etruscan boar, the tuscus aper. More importantly, Etruria could boast of huge metal deposits, especially deposits of iron ore. The most important mining district was on the island of Elba and on the coast opposite the island. The Greeks called Elba Aithaleia, which means something along the lines of ‘black as soot’ and is a direct reference to the extensive mining activities on the island.[11] The metal deposits obviously attracted the attention of the Greeks.[12] Contacts between the Greeks and Etruscans were often peaceful and both sides profited from trade. However, the two peoples were also involved in violent clashes from time to time and both sides were guilty of piracy.

Fresco from one of the Etruscan Golini tombs, archaeological museum of Orvieto (Volsinii).

Etruscan administration and territory

As was the case in neighbouring Latium, the cities of the Etruscans were initially ruled by kings, who were presumably called lucumones.[13] And as was the case in Latium these monarchies were ultimately abolished and replaced with republican forms of government. We know the names of some of the republican offices. The zilath was for instance the Etruscan equivalent of a Roman praetor, while the maru was a much lower ranking official.[14] Like Rome, the Etruscan cities probably had some sort of a cursus honorum, which saw young noblemen starting a political career by holding the lowest office first and then trying to advance to the higher offices. It is unfortunately impossible to establish whether these cities copied the cursus honorum from the Romans or whether it was the other way round.

Golden fibula from Cerveteri (Caere), ca. 675-650 BCE (Vatican Museums).

The Etruscan cities were loosely confederated into what is sometimes called an ‘Etruscan League’. The Romans spoke of a nomen Etruscum, the Greeks called it a dodekapolis (Δωδεκάπολις).[15] The latter word literally means ‘twelve-city’, but whether the confederacy really comprised twelve cities is up for debate.[16] We do know for certain that the confederacy did not have a political or military character. The ties between the Etruscan cities were mainly cultural and religious in nature. If war broke out, Etruscan cities were no more eager to come to each other’s aid than was the case with the ever bickering poleis of classical Greece. In this respect I can refer to the Etruscan city of Caere, then known as Caisra and currently as Cerveteri. The city was allied to Rome, even when in 396 BCE the Romans captured the nearby Etruscan city of Veii, which had been their rival for ages.[17]

The influence of the Villanovan culture and the Orientalizing, Archaic and Classical phases of the Etruscan culture stretched far beyond the borders of classical Etruria. To the north of this region, the cities of Bologna and Mantova have Etruscan roots. Bologna was Etruscan Felsina or Velzna until it was conquered by the Celtic Boii at the start of the fourth century BCE.[18] In 189 BCE, after having subjugated the Boii, the Romans founded the Latin colony of Bononia here. Modena – previously Mutna and since 183 BCE the Roman colony of Mutina – may also have been an Etruscan city on the other side of the Apennines. The ports of Spina and Hatria on the Adriatic coast certainly were Etruscan. The Adriatic Sea was even named after Hatria. Etruscan culture also spread south of Etruria, into Latium and Campania. The most important Etruscan city of Campania was Capua. The Etruscan cities of the Po valley and Campania were reportedly also united in a confederacy or dodekapolis, but not much is known about it.

Decline of the Etruscans

During the Archaic period (ca. 580-480 BCE), the Etruscan cities were usually able to defend themselves quite well. Their hoplite armies – the hoplite had been copied from the Greeks as well – and fleets often defeated Greek attacks, while the Etruscans could go on the offensive themselves too.[19] In about 535 BCE an important naval battle was fought near Alalia (Aleria) on Corsica. A coalition of Carthage and Etruscans led by Caere clashed with a fleet of Greeks from Phocaea.[20] About twenty years previously these Greeks had settled on Corsica, and neither the Phoenicians nor the Etruscans were too happy with that action. The latter were wary of a Greek settlement so close to the Etrurian coast and the important mining district of Elba. During the battle the Greeks lost two thirds of their ships and afterwards they were forced to abandon Corsica.[21] During the sixth century BCE the Etruscans also fought, with varying degrees of success, against the Greek colonists of Rhodes and Knidos who had settled on the Aeolian Islands off the Sicilian coast. For the Etruscans the ultimate objective of these conflicts was to remain in control of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Uni, the Etruscan Juno (Villa Giulia, Rome).

In 524 BCE an Etruscan attack on Cumae in Campania ended in failure. Worse, a new Greek city in the region was on the rise: Syracuse on Sicily, founded in the eighth century BCE by colonists from Corinth. In 474 BCE the Etruscans again attacked Cumae, but king Hiero I of Syracuse (ca. 478-467 BCE) came to the aid of his fellow Greeks and inflicted a sharp defeat on the Etruscan fleet. In the decades that followed the defeat Syracuse proved to be a formidable opponent. In 453 BCE a Syracusan fleet attacked the Etruscan mining district for the first time and in 384-383 BCE a fleet led by king Dionysius (ca. 432-367 BCE) pillaged Pyrgi, one of the ports of Caere. During this raid the temple of Uni, the Etruscan Juno, was stripped of its valuables.

The decline of the Etruscan civilisation ultimately proved to be irreversible. The outer regions were lost first. In Campania the native Campanians united against the Etruscan and Greek minorities and the Samnites left the mountains and migrated to the fertile plains. In 423 BCE Capua was taken from the Etruscans by the Samnites.[22] Three years later Cumae was captured by the Campanians, who were later replaced by the Samnites.[23] Starting at the beginning of the fourth century BCE the Etruscan settlements in the Po valley were overrun by migrating Celts. I already mentioned the Boii, who took Felsina (Bologna). The other invaders were the Insubres and Cenomani, while the Senones marched all the way to Rome and largely destroyed the city in 387 BCE. Fortunately for the Romans, the attack on Rome was just a raid. After being bought off, the Senones withdrew to the Italian east coast, where the name of the town of Senigallia on the Adriatic Sea is a reminder that they once lived there. For the moment, the Etruscan heartland managed to repel the invaders, but between the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the third it had to submit to a new and rising power in the region. That power was a resurgent Rome.

The so-called Apollo of Veii. The statue of the god (Aplu in Etruscan) is attributed to Vulca and dates from the late sixth century BCE (Villa Giulia, Rome).

The Etruscan legacy

And that brings us to the all-important matter of the legacy of the Etruscans. Their influence on the Romans can hardly be overestimated and in many respects the Etruscans can be seen as the teachers of their later masters. We have already seen that the Romans copied the alphabet from the Etruscans. Burial gifts demonstrate that the Roman soldiers of the Age of Kings were already heavily influenced by the Villanovan culture. The introduction of the heavily armed hoplite in the Roman army took place around 550 BCE and is traditionally attributed to the Etruscan-Roman king Servius Tullius (ca. 578-534 BCE).[24] While, as was mentioned above, it is unclear who influenced who as regards the republican offices and the cursus honorum, there is no doubt that the Romans copied the insignia imperii, the insignia of the magistrates, from the Etruscans.[25] Among these insignia were the curule chair (sella curulis; a sort of folding chair) and the toga with the broad purple stripe (toga praetexta). Authors like Livius never tried to hide this tendency to copy from other peoples: the historian readily admitted it.[26]

Etruscan influence on the Romans went much further.[27] The shoes worn by senators and patricians had Etruscan origins, as did the golden signet rings and robes worn by the equites. The Romans also copied the triumph from the Etruscans, a ceremony that saw a victorious Roman general, his face painted red, driving through the city in a chariot. The triumph complemented the ovatio – a ‘lesser triumph’ on horseback – that was presumably already known to the Romans.[28] The lictors that accompanied the Roman magistrates when they exercised their duties and the rods and axes (fasces) that they carried were copied from the Etruscans too. In the field of religion the Romans made use of Etruscan soothsayers that were called haruspices. These men were able to read the will of the gods and thus predict the future by studying sheep’s livers. To interpret the real liver correctly they used bronze sheep’s livers that were subdivided into different sectors, each connected with the name of a deity. The most famous example is the Fegato Etrusco, which is kept in the Palazzo Farnese in Piacenza (see below).

Bronze sheep’s liver (Fegato Etrusco).

Relief from Caere (Villa Giulia, Rome).

In the field of construction technology and architecture the Etruscans were way more advanced than the Romans and it is certainly conceivable that the latter copied the foundation ritual for new cities from their northern neighbours. This ritual involved the demarcation of the pomerium, the sacred boundaries of the city, with a plough. The first Roman king, Romulus (ca. 753-716 BCE), was said to have already created a pomerium, although it reportedly covered no more territory than the Palatine Hill.[29] Under Servius Tullius (ca. 578-534 BCE), the pomerium was extended. It now included most of the city within the walls constructed by Servius himself (the Aventine Hill and part of the Capitoline Hill were excluded, although they were located within the walls). The largest sewer of Rome, the Cloaca Maxima, was also built under the Etruscan kings of the city. It is traditionally attributed to either king Tarquinius Priscus (ca. 616-578 BCE) or his son or grandson king Tarquinius Superbus (ca. 534-509 BCE).[30] The Cloaca Maxima allowed the Romans to drain the Velabrum, the marshy piece of land between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills. The valley south of the Palatine Hill, known as the Vallis Murcia, was also drained.[31]

The Etruscan drainage works had huge consequences for the development of Rome as a city. Both the Velabrum and Vallis Murcia were already used by the Romans, but that use was never permanent as these areas were prone to flooding. The drainage system built by the Etruscans changed all this. The Velabrum, of which the name survives in the church of San Giorgio in Velabro, could now be used for markets. The market here later became the Forum Boarium, Rome’s famous cattle market. In the drained Vallis Murcia Tarquinius Priscus purportedly marked out the contours of the new Circus Maximus. This king was also said to have started construction of the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.[32] A certain Vulca, a craftsman from Etruscan Veii, made terracotta statues to be placed in this temple.[33] It is no exaggeration to conclude that the Etruscans left a huge mark on Rome. It is therefore slightly ironic that a phenomenon that in the past was frequently attributed to them, i.e. gladiatorial games, almost certainly does not have Etruscan origins. The origins of these games probably lie in Campania and Lucania.[34]

The Circus Maximus in the former Vallis Murcia, seen from the Palatine Hill.


[1] The Tyrrhenian Sea was named after them.

[2] Herodotos, Histories 1.94.

[3] This theory was formulated by Hellanikos of Lesbos (5th century BCE). See Dominique Briquel, De Etrusken, p. 26.

[4] Dionysius of Halicarnassus 1.25-30.

[5] De Etrusken, p. 17. Cf. E.Chr.L. van der Vliet, Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 117.

[6] De Etrusken, p. 20 (my translation from Dutch). Cf. Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 118.

[7] Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 119.

[8] De Etrusken, p. 55-56.

[9] De Etrusken, p. 117-118.

[10] In 245 BCE the Romans founded a colony at Alsium and in 181 BCE they founded another at Graviscae. Pyrgi was the hometown of the publicanus Marcus Postumius, who was tried for fraud in 212 BCE.

[11] De Etrusken, p. 10-15.

[12] Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 119 and p. 126.

[13] De Etrusken, p. 47; Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 119.

[14] Maro in Latin, as in Publius Vergilius Maro (70-19 BCE), a famous Roman poet who had been born near Mantova, once an Etruscan city.

[15] De Etrusken, p. 37-38.

[16] The Roman historian Livius claimed there was a link between the twelve lictors of a Roman king (and later a consul) and the twelve cities of the Etruscan League (Livius 1.8).

[17] De Etrusken, p. 82.

[18] Velzna/Felsina should not be confused with Velzna/Volsinii, which is probably modern Orvieto. Volsinii was destroyed in 264 BCE by the Romans and re-founded elsewhere. See this post for the archaeological museum of Orvieto.

[19] For the next paragraphs see De Etrusken, p. 126-128.

[20] Herodotos, Histories 1.165-167. According to Herodotos the battle ended in a Greek Pyrrhic victory.

[21] As Caere (Agylla in Greek) had led the Etruscan fleet, this city was granted the largest number of Greek prisoners of war. These were taken to Caere and stoned to death.

[22] Livius 4.37.

[23] Livius 4.44 and 4.52.

[24] Bernard van Daele, Het Romeinse leger, p. 18-19.

[25] De Etrusken, p. 48; Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 120.

[26] Livius 1.8.

[27] See De Etrusken, p. 49.

[28] Cf. Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 156.

[29] Dionysius of Halicarnassus 1.88.

[30] Livius 1.56 believes Tarquinius Superbus was the king responsible for the Cloaca Maxima.

[31] See The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 221, 287 and 425.

[32] Livius 1.35 and 1.38.

[33] De Etrusken, p. 66 ; The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 155.

[34] Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 120. For a more extensive discussion: Fik Meijer, Gladiatoren, p. 25-28.

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