Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Roman and Italian society owes much to Etruscans, early inhabitants of Italy

The Etruscans had wide streets in rectangular patterns.
Ever since I first heard about the Etruscans, their civilization has fascinated me. They were the largest and most powerful of the many tribes that occupied parts of Italy in the seven centuries before the Romans overpowered the Italian peninsula around 300 B.C. We have visited more than a half dozen Etruscan museums and archaeological sites since we first started coming to Italy, and yesterday we went to another with Steve and Patti Gray.

We first toured the museum in Marzabotto, and then we walked outside to explore the ruins of the ancient city of Kainua, which existed for about 200 years from the middle of the 6th to the middle of the 4th century B.C. before being overcome by Gallic invaders.
The remains of the Temple of Tinia, the chief Etruscan diety.

Archeologists have been studying Kainua since 1862, and in 1933, the Italian government purchased the site from a private estate. Its particular claim to fame derives from the fact that Marzabotto is in a sparsely populated valley southwest of Bologna, so the ruins of Kainua have been relatively untouched for about 2,400 years. Although building walls are now at most only a few feet high, the remaining foundations tell much about the way the residential, commercial and cultural areas were organized. The rectangular arrangement of the streets probably comes from Greek influence, but the design is also rooted in Etruscan religious rules. Rural and commercial buildings are mixed together, much the same as in old Italian city centers today. On the outskirts of the city are two necropoli with individual or family graves topped by round grave markers. These differ from the necropoli I saw in the old Etruscan settlement of Sovana, which consist of huge and varied tombs, carved out of solid rock.

I try to read the name on the gravestone to see if I recognize any relatives, but all the writing has worn off.
Abundant examples of their well crafted art shows that Etruscans were a warlike yet fun-loving people, and that women—at least if they were wealthy—enjoyed high positions in society. Many of their reliefs and paintings depict them drinking wine and having family parties, a tradition that would later permeate Italian culture into modern times. Their influence on Roman society has only come to be appreciated in the last century. The Etruscans drained marshes, built underground sewers and created roads and bridges using arches. They promoted trade, the development of metallurgy, and better agriculture in and around Rome. They introduced the Greek alphabet, and, so respected was their knowledge that Roman nobles would send their sons to be educated in Etruscan schools. Christian images of demons are said to be modeled after Etruscan demons.

Overall, the Romans owed a great deal to the Etruscans,” reads the history website “The genius they (the Romans) would show for urban planning, road and bridge building and civil engineering projects such as public aqueducts and baths was a direct result of the legacy left by the Etruscans.” The first Roman rulers were Etruscans, and eventually, Etruscan society was peacefully absorbed into Roman society.

Where these people came from has been a mystery for more than two millennia. Herodotus wrote around 450 BC that they came from Lydia in Asia Minor, an area now occupied by Turkey, and that they moved because of famine experienced shortly after the Trojan War. A few years ago, I read that initial DNA testing supported this claim, but more extensive testing has accumulated in recent years. Now many experts think the Etruscans were part of the indigenous population.

Larissa Bonfante, an expert on Etruria, writes: “ . . . the history of the Etruscan people extends . . . from c. 1200 to c. 100 B.C. Many sites of the chief Etruscan cities of historical times were continuously occupied from the Iron Age Villanovan period on. Much confusion would have been avoided if archaeologists had used the name ‘Proto-Etruscan’ . . . For in fact the people . . . did not appear suddenly. Nor did they suddenly start to speak Etruscan.”

My respect and fascination for this early civilization has continued to grow as I become more familiar with Italian history. Their ruins are scattered throughout central Italy. The name Tuscany is derived from these people, and since my grandparents come from the heart of where their civilization was located, the odds are that I carry a few drops of Etruscan blood.


  1. Beautiful article. I want to be a writer just like you Paul.

  2. Thanks for the compliment, robby. Best wishes to you!

  3. As I read this I am reminded that great society's come and go and while some contributions linger for generations most vanish into obscurity. Today's hot topics will become forgotten in time. Even those things that were intended to last such as inscriptions on gravestones fade away. Our lives only have meaning as they relate to eternal life. Thanks for the reminder.


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