The Etruscans are perhaps best known for being a mystery. Many people have heard of them but usually only as the neighbors of the Romans. Most people know very little about what they were actually like, or the impact they had on other nations.
The surprising truth is that this “mysterious” nation actually had a profound and lasting impact on the rest of the western world. The Etruscans were closely involved in the development of early Rome and many of Rome’s most famous cultural features can be traced back to them. To address this tragic lack of awareness about the importance of the Etruscans, this article will examine some of the many ways in which the Etruscans contributed to Roman society.
Etruscan Families in Rome
One of the most surprising contributions that the Etruscans made to early Rome was that many ruling-class Roman families (or “patricians”) were actually of Etruscan origin. Examples include the Herminia gens, the Lartia gens, the Tarquitia gens, the Verginia gens, and the Volumnia gens. The word “gens” refers to a group of families who share a common origin.
From the Herminia gens, two members held the consulship in Rome during the early history of the Republic. One of them was Titus Herminius Aquilinus, who became consul in 506 BCE, just a few years after the Republic was founded. Of the Lartia, the most prominent early member was Titus Larcius. He was consul twice (the first time in 506 BCE, along with Titus Herminius Aquilinus) and became the Republic’s first dictator. There are a number of other examples, and in many cases, these families continued to be prominent for centuries.
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Having an even more direct influence over Rome than just the regular patricians, several of Rome’s early kings are believed to have been Etruscans. According to the best information we have (which admittedly was written centuries after the fact), Rome’s fourth king was Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. He allegedly lived around 600 BCE, not long after Rome was founded. He came to Rome from Tarquinia in Etruria and eventually took power.
The Etruscan son-in-law of Priscus, a man named Servius Tullius, became the next king, and after Tullius came Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the son or grandson of Priscus. This final king was then overthrown by Lucius Junius Brutus, who allegedly established the Republic and became the joint-first consul of Rome. His co-consul was Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. Both Brutus and Collatinus were from Etruscan families.
Archaeology has confirmed that the Etruscans were present in Rome from as early as the seventh century BCE. All of this information may go a long way to explaining why Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote that “many of the historians have taken Rome itself for a Tyrrhenian [Etruscan] city.”
Etruscan Engineering and Architecture in Rome
Another way in which the Etruscans influenced the early Romans was in terms of engineering and architecture. The Romans are famous in the western world for their incredible architectural skills, as exemplified by the Colosseum and the many aqueducts that are largely intact around Europe. Yet in reality, much of the groundwork for these architectural achievements came from designs or knowledge taken from the Etruscans.
The famous hydraulic engineering of the Romans is a definite example of this. Just like the Romans, the Etruscans were excellent engineers who were able to create what they needed in order to be comfortable. Many Etruscan spas have been found, as well as dams and irrigated agricultural areas.
One example of the Etruscan impact on early Rome was the cuniculus, a type of drainage channel that the Etruscans used extensively. Notably, the earliest piece of hydraulic engineering in Rome was a sewer system, the Cloaca Maxima. Even tradition claims that this was built by Etruscans, with the Etruscan king Priscus being the one said to have commissioned it.
As well as hydraulic structures, the Etruscans also created distinctive buildings which went on to influence the Romans. Roman temples, for instance, were inspired by Etruscan ones. One early example of this is the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Its location on a high podium, its deep porch, and the permitted direction of approach, were all clearly inspired by Etruscan temples. Regular Roman houses were also clearly influenced by Etruscan architecture.
The Romans also adopted the use of what is known as the “Tuscan column”. This was first used by the Etruscans as an adaptation of the Greek Doric column. The Romans favored this Etruscan-style column for military buildings due to its strength. Interestingly, archaeology has confirmed that the first truly monumental buildings in Rome were Etruscan in origin.
Etruscan Customs in Rome
One of the most basic customs a nation can have is the custom of writing. Even in this fundamental aspect, the Romans are indebted to the Etruscans. The Etruscans adopted their alphabet from the Greeks, either directly or through the Phrygians. From the Etruscans, the Romans took up the practice of writing, using this same alphabet by the seventh century BCE.
Another fundamental part of society that the Etruscans influenced was the clothing styles of the Romans. The toga in particular was a very distinctive part of Roman dress — perhaps the most distinctive to a modern audience. It is believed that this item of dress originated from the Etruscan tebenna, a long cloak draped over the left shoulder and wrapped around the torso. The tebenna also had stripes, which was likewise adopted by the Romans for their toga.
Many Roman traditions and celebrations also came from the Etruscans. For example, the famous gladiatorial games of the Romans are believed to have come from an Etruscan custom. The Etruscans held funeral rites which involved fighting and were often deadly. An example of this is seen on the Tomb of the Augurs in Tarquinia, dated to the sixth century BCE. The Romans adopted this practice, and these funeral games eventually evolved into the famous gladiatorial games.
The Roman celebration known as the “triumph” is also thought to have originated with the Etruscans, or at least parts of it permeated from Etruscan customs. In any case, Etruscan art shows processions very similar to the Roman triumph.
In addition to all of this, it is known that Roman legal system was heavily influenced by Etruscan law. One of the ways in which this Etruscan influence is seen is in the emphasis on ritual in Roman law.
Etruscan Religion in Rome
The Etruscans also profoundly influenced Roman religion. This is seen partly in the names of the gods. The Etruscan god Uni morphed into the Roman god Juno. The Etruscan Menvra heavily influenced the later Roman Minerva. Even semi-divine heroes from Greek mythology made their way to the Romans through the Etruscans. The Greek Heracles became known to the Etruscans as “Heracle” and “Hercle”. This latter form became “Hercules” to the Romans.
It is held that the Etruscans introduced the Romans to the concept of portraying their gods as physical statues. This, in turn, may have encouraged the concept of associating their gods with specific stories and adventures.
One feature of Etruscan religion that was particularly strange to European cultures (although it was quite common in the Middle East) was the practice of haruspicy, or liver divination. The Romans adopted this practice, which went on to become quite fashionable. Many of the religious ceremonies and rituals that the Romans had originated with the Etruscans, and the Romans acknowledged this fact. The Etruscans were very concerned with contacting the gods before making any major decisions, and this general attitude passed on to the Romans.
The religious calendar of the Romans, which attempted to reconcile the solar and the lunar year, also originates with the Etruscans. It appears that it was first developed in the sixth century BCE, during the period of Etruscan domination of Rome.
Another notable fact is that, even after conquering the Etruscans, the Romans kept an Etruscan priesthood. This priesthood was consulted when the Romans faced “barbarian” enemies, possibly because the Etruscans were thought to have a closer connection to them.
How Did the Etruscans Impact the Romans?
In summary, the Etruscans had an exceedingly profound impact on Roman civilization. Much of this influence can be traced right back to the earliest days of Rome. Many of the earliest patrician families were actually Etruscan. Even the last few kings and the very first consuls were Etruscan by descent.
Many of the things that the Romans are so famous for, such as their amazing hydraulic engineering, can be traced back to the Etruscans. So can much of their architecture. Their very alphabet, from which almost all European alphabets today are derived, came from the Etruscans. As did the distinctive Roman toga and the iconic gladiatorial games. Many of the Roman gods and heroes would look very different were it not for the Etruscans, and the very calendar that we use today in the western world is also largely the work of Etruscan minds.