Rise of Etruscan Civilization in Rome

The rise of the Etruscan civilization in Rome transformed scattered agricultural villages into an advanced city-state with the capacity to grow into a major world empire.

Summary of Event

Modern scholars continue to disagree about the origins of the Etruscans. The non-Indo-European language of these remarkable civilizers of what became Italy has not yet been satisfactorily translated. Between 800 and 600 b.c.e., the Etruscans expanded into west-central Italy, establishing Etruria (now in Tuscany) as a home base. The Etruscans became neighbors of the Latins, who had established villages in Rome as early as 1000 b.c.e.
Tarquinius Priscus, Lucius
Servius Tullius
Tarquinius Superbus, Lucius
Junius Brutus, Lucius

The Etruscans grew wealthy on the copper, tin, zinc, lead, and iron deposits in Etruria. Fertile soil and favorable climate led to abundant crops of wheat, olives, and grapes. The Etruscans traded widely with the ancient world. They were trading partners and periodic hostile adversaries of two other maritime powers, the Greek city-states and the Phoenicians.

The Etruscans built a loose confederation of twelve independent city-states including Veii (now Velo), Caere (now Cerveteri), Tarquinii, and Vulci, and a number of large towns. Judging from paintings depicting scenes from everyday life, the realistic figures of the dead placed on top of sarcophagi or funerary urns, and artifacts uncovered from tombs, the Etruscans were a luxury- and pleasure-loving people with much leisure time and were voracious consumers. Splendor was enjoyed even in death, for the Etruscans built large cities of the dead (necropoleis), laid out in grid fashion. Etruscan women enjoyed the luxury of fine jewelry, elegant clothing, and diverse cosmetics and appear to have been granted a high degree of equality in Etruscan life.

Militarily, the Etruscans developed an excellent navy and a formidable army that was based on heavy body armor and the use of bronze chariots. Cities were built on defensible hilltops, protected by heavy walls and gates as well as ravines. Their military power was projected south into the Bay of Naples and toward the Latin villages of Rome, which the Etruscans easily dominated as an aristocratic military ruling elite from 616 to 509 b.c.e. The seven hills of Rome, situated in the middle of a coastal plain, and the potential of the area as the hub of major trade routes, was not lost on the Etruscans.

In the course of a century, Etruscan Rome rapidly developed from a collection of villages into a major city. For Rome, the Etruscan cultural and technological legacy was immense. In building the city, the Etruscans first used the arch and vault, which could support considerable weight. Later, the arch would be used with great proficiency by the Romans. The practice of placing temples on a high platform (podium) at the far end of a sacred enclosure so as to elevate both the structure and the gods, making the individual feel relatively insignificant, would later become a standard Roman practice. The Romans also adopted the science of boundaries (limitatio), which divided land into rectangular grids. Also the marking of formal city boundaries in a circle (pomerium) to define a holy and protected space became a basic Roman preoccupation. To expand land for cultivation and to eliminate unhealthy marshlands, the Etruscans employed the tunnel method of draining river bottoms (cuniculus), a method that the Romans would continue. The general use of drainage and irrigation systems, the construction of excellent hydraulics works, and the building of roads, bridges, and sewers were all aspects of Etruscan technology that the Romans would borrow and continue.

In relation to religious beliefs, the Etruscans also had a major impact. Their preoccupation with foretelling the future (divination) also became a Roman preoccupation, though one that was usually relegated only to times of emergency. Examination of animal entrails, most commonly the liver, became a pseudo-science designed to uncover the will of the gods. Similarly, the interpretation of lightning and thunder was used by the Etruscans to decipher the will of the gods, a practice the Romans would continue. In fact the Romans would insist on discovering signs (auspices) before making any major decision.

Like the Greeks, the Etruscans pictured their gods as having human form. The three major Etruscan gods—Tinia, Uni, and Menrva—were adapted by the Romans. Having much leisure time, the Etruscans celebrated many official holidays in honor of their gods. The Romans would also mark the year with many religious festivals.

For recreation during religious festivals, the Etruscans staged gladiator duels. Although these Etruscan duels may have been basic martial contests when compared with the later Roman gladiatorial extravaganzas, still the Romans appear to have first developed their love of gladiator shows from the Etruscan experience. Tomb paintings also indicate that chariot racing was a favorite Etruscan recreation. This entertainment also became popular in Rome, with the Circus Maximus later outdoing anything the Etruscans could have imagined. Undoubtedly, the major event in Etruscan Rome was the elaborate, semireligious procession following victorious campaigns, containing victors, captive prisoners, displays of seized treasures, musicians, and dancers. This ritual of the triumphant victory processional would continue throughout the Roman Republican and Imperial eras. The Etruscan propinquity toward rampant consumerism, fine foods, and elaborate banquets provided a hedonistic model that the Romans would first reject during the early centuries of the Republic and eventually follow to an extent that would have made the Etruscans envious.

Politically, the Romans were ruled by Etruscan kings. The king’s power, or imperium, was conferred by a popular assembly. Imperium was symbolized by an eagle-headed scepter and an ax bound in a bundle of rods (fasces). After the Etruscans, both these symbols continued as Roman symbols, as did the concept of imperium.

The first Etruscan king, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus according to tradition, consolidated Roman villages and began the building of the city. His successor, Servius Tullius, extended the city boundaries and continued building projects, including fortified city walls. He also implemented social reform, dividing the population into six classes, according to wealth. He introduced the system of centuries into the Roman citizen army, grouped in phalanx formation into legions. According to Roman historian Livy, he also cemented bonds with the Latin nobles (patricians) who formed an advisory council to the king. The patricians were grouped into clans and were known by both personal name and clan name. The common people (plebeians) were divided into thirty wards, which constituted a committee, and could only discuss matters set by the king on the agenda. In embryonic form, Rome’s second king set up the senate and assembly of tribes.

The third and last Etruscan king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, reversed the Servian Reforms, established absolute rule, and succeeded in antagonizing both plebeians and patricians. Arrogant, tyrannical, and a lavish spender, Tarquinius built a temple to Jupiter larger than the Parthenon. He is also credited with building Rome’s great sewer, the Cloaca Maxima. According to legend, Tarquinius’s son raped Lucretia, the wife of a friend. To regain her honor, Lucretia stabbed herself, inspiring a friend, Lucius Junius Brutus, to lead a revolt against Tarquinius’s tyranny. In 509 b.c.e., the revolt was successful. In reaction to monarchical tyranny, the Romans turned legislative power over to the senate. Preventing overbearing executive power, Rome established a system of two consuls, elected only for a single one-year term, each with the power to veto the other. Junius Brutus was the first consul of the newly established Republic of Rome.

Following its defeat in Rome, Etruscan power received a serious setback. In 474 b.c.e., the Etruscan navy was defeated by the Greeks off of Cumae. Rome and its Latin allies gradually expanded toward the Etruscan cities. In 396 b.c.e., Veii fell after a long siege. By 250 b.c.e., what was left of Etruscan autonomy was integrated into the Roman system.


The Etruscan concept of civilization and the technological know-how that enabled them to live in this advanced manner were integrated into the Roman civilization that followed. Much of what characterized the Roman Empire can be traced back to the Romans’ predecessors, the Etruscans.

Further Reading

  • Barker, Graeme, and Tom Rasmussen. The Etruscans. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. An overview of the Etruscan civilization. Bibliography and index.
  • Haynes, Sybille. Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000. Concentrates on the culture of the Etruscan civilization and how it influenced Italy. Bibliography and index.
  • Heurgon, Jacques. Daily Life of the Etruscans. London: Phoenix, 2002. A study of the everyday life of the Etruscans. Bibliography and index.
  • Pallottino, Massimo. A History of Earliest Italy. Translated by M. Ryle and K. Soper. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. A scholarly and well-illustrated treatment of the development of early Italy and the Etruscan role in that development.
  • Ridgway, David. The World of the Early Etruscans. Jonsered: Paul Aströms Förlag, 2002. Part of the Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology series, this book examines the ancient Etruscans and their society. Bibliography.
  • Spivey, Nigel J., and S. Stoddart. Etruscan Italy. London: Batsford, 1990. An excellent portrayal of Etruscan settlement, their technology, social and political organization, economic activity, methods of warfare, and religious beliefs.

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