Historically and artistically the most important of the indigenous peoples of pre‐Roman Italy, and acc. to Porcius Cato (1) the masters of nearly all of it—a claim confirmed by archaeology for the area between the Tridentine Alps and the gulf of Salerno.
The possessors of the indigenous culture between the Arno and the Tiber were iron age Etruscans, who gained much in the 9th and 8th cents. from the interest shown by the outside world in their mineral resources, and in the 7th were able to acquire and commission luxury goods and adornments of eastern Mediterranean (‘orientalizing’) types for the tombs of their ‘princes’. Foremost among the early bearers of outside influences were the Euboean traders who had established themselves at Pithecusae by the mid‐8th cent.: their alphabet was modified to accommodate the pre‐existing phonetic systems already characteristic of different Etruscan‐speaking zones.
The continuity in settlement and in the basic culture of the 8th and 7th cents. at the main Etruscan centres was accompanied by major developments both in society and in artistic production. The praenōmen–nōmen combination, a clear sign of proto‐urban organization, is attested epigraphically from the beginning of the 7th cent., as are recognizably local schools of fine painted pottery, soon joined by bucchero (Grey ware), bronze‐work, and jewellery—categories in which the contributions of native Etruscan and expatriate Greek and Levantine specialists and entrepreneurs are inextricably linked. Oil and wine were also produced and exported on a large scale by the mid‐6th cent. By then, too, the social class represented by the early orientalizing princely tombs had given way to a broader, polis‐based, category of prosperous merchants and landowners. Their last resting‐places take the form of single‐family chamber‐tombs, ranged along streets in well‐planned cemeteries which have yielded a rich harvest of imported vases from all the best Attic black‐figure and red‐figure workshops. The chambers at Tarquinii and a few other centres have preserved the largest extant complex of pre‐Roman painting in the classical world: its naturalistic and often cheerful depiction of banquets, games, and hunting affords a welcome glimpse of the ‘real’ Etruscan character underneath the veneer of Hellenization (see hellenism) constituted by the mass of prestige goods imported (and made locally) not only for deposition in tombs but also to supply the votive requirements of major sanctuaries.
The expansion of some Etruscan centres beyond the confines of Etruria proper began at an early stage with the foundation of the Tarquin dynasty at Rome (see rex). The presence of the Tarquins, who turned Rome into a city, doubtless facilitated control of the land route to Campania, where Capua became the chief Etruscan city. Felsina enjoyed a similar status in the Po valley from the late 6th cent., when growing Greek activity on land and at sea to the south made it imperative to cultivate new markets—not least with the mysterious Celtic communities north of the Alps. In the event, the Celts added their own weight to the pressure on the Etruscans that was already building up from Rome (whence the Tarquins were expelled in 509), from the Greek south (where the battle of Cumae was lost in 474) and from other quarters as well (the Carthaginians and the Italic peoples). Of these, the inexorable advance of Rome into Etruria and Umbria was by far the most serious threat to the survival of what was still an essentially cantonal phenomenon as distinct from a nation: city‐states, loosely organized in a League of Twelve Peoples, capable of meeting in council and of denying federal assistance to Veii, threatened by Rome since the end of the 5th cent., for primarily religious reasons. Livy's comment on this episode, to the effect that the Etruscans paid more attention than any other people to religious considerations, is one of the few positive statements about the Etruscans in the ancient sources: no Etruscan literature has survived, and Greek and Roman authors were far from objective observers of such matters as commercial rivalry (which they defined as piracy) and social customs (notably those concerning the position of women) that were not those of Greece or Rome. See etruscan language; religion, etruscan.
Subjects: Classical studies