etruscan history


Etruscan Bronze Mirror, 4th-3rd Century BC

Engraved with two nude male figures, the figure on the right standing wearing a helmet and mantle, leaning on a shield with his left hand and holding a spear in his right hand, and the figure on the left, a satyr wearing a fillet tied around his head, leaning on a thyrsus in his right hand and holding a bone in his left hand, with foliate decoration on either side and below,

Etruscan Bronze Cista Feet, 4th Century BC

Each in the form of a winged female deity, perhaps Lasa, standing on a beaded groundline with voluted ends, surmounting a lion paw, the deity depicted frontally with her feet turned out, pulling her tunic to the right with her right hand and up over her shoulder with her left hand, wearing a necklace and a beaded fillet in her hair, with her wings upraised, the details of the feathers incised, with two perforations and a tenon on the reverse for attachment.

In Etruscan mythology, Lasas were gods and goddesses who accompanied Turan, the goddess of love.

Ancient peoples of Italy

The future of the southern Italian peninsula was shaped by the different peoples who inhabited it between the years 800 and 200 BC. These include the Etruscans, Greeks and the many  Italian tribes such as the Latins, Campanians, Samnites, Sabines, etc.  Such tribes had spread out much earlier into Europe from the east and southeast both as invaders and, more gradually, as farmers, giving up  hunting and gathering for the more efficient process of tilling the soil. In the process they developed  towns, government and written language. This slow process started before 6,000 BC.

By 1000 BC early Italic peoples were in place on the peninsula; these are the peoples who would become the Latini, Sabines, Oscans, etc. etc. They were in place as a result of the Indo-European population diffusion, Indo-European being a term that declares common origin (3,000-4,000 years ago) of peoples as different as Swedes and Iranians or Punjabis and Spaniards. These pre-Italic Indo-Europeans can plausibly be figured to have started trickling onto the peninsula around 2500-2000 BC. There were, obviously, already some non-Indo-European inhabitants of Italy, just as there were elsewhere in Europe.

We wil talk about Etruscans later. Let’s see now some other smaller peoples.

  • Many peoples lived along the Tiber river; among these were, of course, the Latini. There is confusing historical overlap of Latini and Romans. Traditionally, Rome is said to have been founded in 753 by descendants of Aeneas, a refugee from the Trojan War. Archeology places Latini culture as early as 1100 BC. True imperial expansion of Rome starts in 295 BC when the Romans, at the Battle of Sentium (near modern Ancona), put an end to the competition in Italy by defeating a combined force of Samnites and Etruscans.
  • Along the Tiber, too, were the Sabines. The proximity of the Sabines to Rome has made it difficult to identify their ruins with certainty, although there are some from as early as the 9th century BC. The Sabines were related to the Samnites to the south, and they adopted writing from the Etruscans.
  • Other neighbors of the Romans in central Italy were the Volscians and the Equians. Most knowledge of them comes from later Roman historians complaining about these piddling little peoples getting in the way of real empire! They were Indo-European and spoke languages closely related to Latin.
  • The Samnites were an important sister tribe of the Latins. Their capital was modern Benevento in the  rugged terrain east of Naples. At the time of the first contacts between Roman and Samnite (around 350 BC), Samnium was larger than any other contemporary state in Italy. For almost two centuries, the Romans and Samnites fought for control of South/Central Italy. As warriors, the Samnites were ferocious, and some say they were the ones who gave the Romans the idea for those gruesome gladiator fights to the death.

Etruscan teeth, around 2000 years old.

Etruscans, people living in Etruria (Umbria and Tuscany, Italy), were the first to make dentures and false teeth, from 700 BCE onwards. Teeth from another person or an animal, such as an ox, were inserted into a band of gold with a metal pin and fitted on to the remaining teeth. Imagine eating with another person’s teeth! Only wealthy people could afford this treatment. There were no specialist dentists so dentistry was one of the duties of a physician.

Etruscan Bronze Armor, c. 500-450 BC

All of hammered sheet, comprising a Negau type helmet, the high-domed crown with a median ridge running front to back, carinated above the brim, the rim flanged, with a lozenge-shaped attachment at the side looped to a ring (one preserved), a perforation along the rim below, ornamented at the crown with two ribbed tubes for plumes, and two Acheloös head appliqués with projecting floral finials, perhaps for securing a crest; and the breast and backplate of a corslet, each formed of three encircled convex disks, one with a cut-out plaque riveted to the upper edge with incised and punched wave, with two wide hinges for the shoulder straps, one partially preserved, two small hinges at the sides below, the other with perforations along the upper border and loops at the sides.


Etruscan Bronze Turtle, 6th-5th Century BC

In Greek mythology, the turtle is closely linked to Hermes and is his animal-attribute (Hermes made the first lyre with a turtle’s shell, see Homeric Hymn to Hermes, 24-61). Otherwise, other divinities, like Apollo, who received Hermes’s lyre, Zeus, Artemis, Hera and Aphrodite can be connected to this animal, even though their mythological connection is not always clear. Images of turtles are frequently offered as exvotos in many of the sanctuaries of the three above-mentioned female divinities.

In the Greek world, this reptile is often seen as a terracotta ex-voto or a child’s toy, while the bronze statuettes are very rare: the majority of metal turtles were directly placed on the ground or riveted on a base, and were used as a support for the handle of a mirror or the rod of a bronze lamp (often modeled in the shape of a young man, a kouros, or of a young girl, a kore). In Etruria, three turtles sometimes support the tripods of candelabra or incense burners. When the object supported by the turtle is lost, it is very difficult to date these figurines precisely; the known examples can generally be dated between the late 6th and the 4th century BC.

Etruscan Gold Bulla with Daedalus and Icarus, 5th Century BC

A “bulla” is a hollow pendant that could hold perfume or a charm. Found inside this one was “labdanum,” a substance used in perfume. Depicted are the mythical craftsman Daedalus and his son, Icarus (on the back). To escape captivity, Daedalus fabricated wings for himself and his son, but Icarus flew too close to the sun, and when the heat melted the wax that held his wings together, he fell to his death. This artifact is believed to be from from Comacchio, near Ferrara, Italy.

Faliscan Black-Glazed Askos, 4th Century BC

The Falisci were and an Italic people who lived in what was then Etruria (map), on the Etruscan side of the Tiber River, in the region now known as Lazio, Italy. They spoke an Italic language, Faliscan, closely akin to Latin. Originally a sovereign state, politically and socially they supported the Etruscans, joining the Etruscan League. This conviction and affiliation led to their ultimate near destruction and total subjugation by Rome.