Etruscans: Who lived in Italy before the Romans?

(ORDO NEWS) — Before the small village of Rome became “Rome” with a capital R, a brilliant civilization once controlled almost the entire peninsula we now call Italy.

It was the Etruscan civilization, a vanished culture, the achievements of which laid the foundation not only for the development of ancient Roman art and culture, but also for the Italian Renaissance.

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Etruscan civilization, 750-500 AD BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0), NormanEinstein – based on map.

Although you may not have heard of them, the Etruscans were the first “superpower” of the Western Mediterranean who, along with the Greeks, created the very first true cities in Europe.

They were so successful that the most important cities of modern Tuscany (Florence, Pisa, Siena and others) were founded by the Etruscans and have been continuously inhabited ever since.

However, the Etruscans are often labeled “mysterious” or “mysterious” as none of their own stories or literary works have survived.

This is especially ironic since it was the Etruscans who were responsible for teaching the Romans the alphabet and spreading literacy throughout the Italian peninsula.

Influence on Ancient Rome

The Etruscan influence on ancient Roman culture was profound, and it was from the Etruscans that the Romans inherited many of their cultural and artistic traditions, from the spectacle of gladiator fights to hydraulic engineering, the design of temples, religious rituals, and more.

In fact, hundreds of years after the Etruscans were conquered by the Romans and absorbed into their empire, the Romans still retained the Etruscan priesthood in Rome (which they felt it necessary to consult when attacked by invading “barbarians”).

We even get our very common word “man” from the Etruscan mythological figure “Phersu” – the fearsome masked figure you see in this early Etruscan tomb painting that involved its victims in a terrible “game” of bleeding to soothe the soul of the deceased. (the original gladiator games, according to the Romans!).

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Fersu and his sacrifice, tomb of the augurs, late 6th century BC, Tarquinia

Early in their existence, the Etruscans developed a vibrant artistic and architectural culture that often entered into dialogue with other Mediterranean civilizations.

The trade in the numerous natural mineral resources found in Tuscany, the center of ancient Etruria, brought them into conflict with the Greeks, Phoenicians and Egyptians in the Mediterranean.

With these other Mediterranean cultures, they exchanged goods, ideas, and, often, shared artistic vocabulary.

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Etruscan hut urn (c. 800 BCE), impasto (Vatican Museums)

Etruscan art and the afterlife

However, unlike the Greeks, most of our knowledge of Etruscan art comes mainly from their burials. (Because most Etruscan cities are still inhabited, they hide their Etruscan art and architecture under layers of Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance architecture.)

But, fortunately, the Etruscans took great care to provide their dead with everything they needed for the afterlife, from tomb painting to life to sculpture and pottery that they could use in the next world.

From their vast cemeteries, we can look at the “world of the dead” and begin to understand something about the “world of the living.”

In the early stages of the development of the Etruscan civilization, they imagined the afterlife in terms of the life they knew. When someone died, he or she was cremated and provided with another “home” for the afterlife.

This type of hut urn, made from unrefined clay known as impasto, was used to store the cremated remains of the deceased.

It is no coincidence that she shows us in miniature what a typical Etruscan house in Iron Age Etruria (900-750 BC) looked like – oval, with a wooden roof and a smoke hole for the inner hearth.

More luxurious tombs

Later houses for the dead became much more elaborate. During the Orientalization period (750-575 BC), when the Etruscans began to trade their natural resources with other Mediterranean cultures and became staggeringly wealthy as a result, their tombs became increasingly luxurious.

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Fibula from the tomb of Regolini Galassi in Cerveteri, gold, mid-seventh century BC (Vatican Museums)

The famous tomb of Regolini-Galassi from the city of Cerveteri shows how this new wealth transformed a modest hut into an extravagant home for the dead. Built for a woman of apparently high rank, the massive stone tomb contains a long corridor with side, oval rooms leading to the main chamber.

A walk through the Etruscan rooms of the Vatican Museum, where artifacts from the tomb are now kept, gives an idea of ​​the colossal wealth of that time.

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Exquisite Etruscan Sculpture (OliBac)

Objects made of various precious materials were found near the woman, intended for personal adornment in the afterlife – a golden pectoral, golden bracelets, a golden brooch (or fibula) of huge size, among other objects, as well as silver and bronze vessels and many other funerary objects and furniture.

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Bronze bed and wagon, Regolini-Galassi tomb, (c. 650 BC), Cerveteri (Vatican Museums)

Of course, this important woman in the afterlife may have needed her four-wheeled bronze-lined wagon, as well as an incense burner, amber and ivory jewelry, and, touchingly, her bronze bed, around which were arranged thirty-three statuettes, all in various mourning gestures.

Although the later periods of Etruscan history are not as wealthy, the Etruscans were nonetheless extremely powerful and influential and left an indelible mark on the city of Rome and other parts of Italy.


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