The Downfall of the Etruscans

The Etruscans were the most powerful nation on the Italian peninsula for about two centuries before they were eclipsed by Rome and other nations. How did this downfall occur?

May 29, 2023By Caleb Howells, BA Doctrines and Methodology of Education

fall of the etruscans


The Romans are undoubtedly the most famous powerful nation from the Italian peninsula but they were not the first. Before them, the powerful Etruscan civilization ruled over a huge portion of Italy. They were so powerful that the seas on either side of them were named in their honor, names we still use even today. On the western side of Italy, there is the Tyrrhenian Sea, named for the Greek word for “Etruscans”. On the other side of Italy is the Adriatic Sea, named after the Etruscan settlement of Adria on the coast.


Some classical historians refer to a time in which the Etruscans effectively ruled all of Italy. While this is an exaggeration, the Etruscans were extremely powerful. Yet, quite unlike the Romans, who continued to expand until they became an enormous empire, Etruscan dominance was short-lived. How did this once mighty nation come to its end?


The Etruscans and the Rise of the Greek City-States

magna graecia
Map of Magna Graecia, Italy, by Future Perfect at Sunrise, via Wikimedia Commons


Since the eighth century BCE, the Greeks had been settling in Southern Italy. This practice increased after 700 BCE and by the sixth century, there were numerous Greek city-states in the region. There were so many that the whole area came to be known as Magna Graecia. Initially, they were not especially powerful. They were not able to overcome the Etruscan power over the seas , much as they would have liked to. For the entirety of the sixth century, the Etruscans could rightfully be called the “masters of the sea” (and this is how historian Diodorus Siculus would later describe them).


In 535 BCE, an important battle, the Battle of Alalia, occurred between the Greeks and the combined forces of the Etruscans and the Carthaginians. The Greeks effectively lost this battle, which occurred near the island of Corsica. As a result, Etruscan control of the Tyrrhenian Sea was strengthened even more.

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carthage modern illustration
Ancient Carthage, by Damien Entwistle, via Wikimedia Commons


However, this situation did not last forever. The Greek city-states continued to grow more powerful. At the same time, the Etruscans tried to expand their dominance more and more. In 524 BCE, they campaigned in the south of Italy, in Magna Graecia. They attacked the city of Cumae, which was a city of major importance to the Greeks. However, the Greeks came off victorious in this land battle. They were under the leadership of a general named Aristodemus.


This victory must have encouraged the Greeks to believe that they could stand a chance against the power of the Etruscans. Later, in c. 506 BCE (sometimes given as 508 BCE in modern sources), the Etruscans faced another notable defeat. Around this time, King Lars Porsena had led the Etruscans to victory against Rome. Although a peace treaty was then concluded between the Romans and the Etruscans and Lars Posena withdrew his forces, he later sent out an attack against the Latin city of Aricia. The inhabitants of that city requested help from Cumae. Aristodemus, who was still in power, gave the requested assistance and defeated the Etruscans again.


The Rise of Rome

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Illustration of the Battle of Lake Regillus, John Reinhard Weguelin, 1880, via Wikimedia Commons


Very shortly before Lars Porsena attacked Rome, the Roman monarchy had been overthrown and a Republic had been established. The immediate consequence of this was that Rome lost control of the territories that the monarchy had gained control of. However, it quickly conquered them again. At the Battle of Lake Regillus, the Romans defeated the Latin League and imposed loose control over the Latin cities. This occurred in 494 BCE.


With the rise of Rome in central Italy, the Etruscans were losing their ability to extend their influence south of Etruria (Rome’s northern neighbor).  Their loss at the Battle of Aricia in c. 506 BCE had already made it difficult for them to campaign toward Magna Graecia. However, what was once difficult soon became impossible. As the years went on in the fifth century BCE, Rome became more powerful. They effectively cut Etruria off from the southern half of the country. Nonetheless, the Etruscans were still able to maintain their own territory. They inflicted a loss on the Romans in 477 BCE at the Battle of the Cremera.


The Battle of Cumae

greek trireme olympias
‘Olympias’; a reconstruction of a Greek trireme, 1987, via Hellenic Navy


One of the reasons for Etruscan dominance during this period was that they were allied with the Carthaginians, who themselves were quite strong. However, in about 480 BCE, the Greeks defeated the Carthaginians at the Battle of Himera. The main Greek city-state involved in this battle was Syracuse, which was growing in power in this era. This defeat crippled the power of the Carthaginians over Sicily, one of the most important islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea.


Just six years after this defeat, in 474 BCE, the Etruscans experienced a defeat of their own. Syracuse allied itself with Cumae and defeated the Etruscans at the Battle of Cumae. This was an important naval battle that took place off the coast of that Greek city-state. The defeat crushed Etruscan dominance in that part of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Thus, within the space of just a few years, the southern region under the Etruscan power had been severely weakened. Much of Magna Graecia was now isolated from the Etruscans not only by land, but by sea as well.


Losses in the North

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Illustration of Celtic warriors, Angus McBride, via


The northern part of the Etruscan territory managed to survive for longer. The Etruscans had expanded into the region known as the Po Valley, which is an enormous plain that covers most of Northern Italy. It was under firm Etruscan dominance for a long time, however, in the late fifth century BCE, Celtic tribes started expanding south and south east from Gaul. By the beginning of the fifth century BCE, the Celts had taken over essentially the entire Po Valley. This was a significant loss for the Etruscans.


However, even more significant was what happened next. The Celts did not stop at the Po Valley. They continued pushing south, and they managed to seize territory to the east of Etruria. This was the Adriatic Coast. Therefore, with this expansion by the Celts, the Etruscans lost their main access to that sea. They were thus hemmed in from the north and the east by the Celts, and from the south by the Romans.


Losses to the Romans

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The Etruscan Monteleon chariot, c. 530 BCE, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


At about the same time, the Romans were also taking over Etruscan territory. One of the most important cities in southern Etruria was the city of Veii. Since this was also one of the closest Etruscan settlements to Rome, it is understandable that it was viewed as a target. In 396 BCE, the Romans attacked the city of Veii under the leadership of Marcus Furius Camillus. This was the climax of a war that had gone on between Veii and Rome for many years. Through clever strategy, Camillus led the Romans to victory and defeated Veii. The survivors were made into slaves, and the Romans took over the city for themselves.


The loss of Veii was an important moment in the history of the downfall of the Etruscans because it marked a major turning point in the relationship between the Etruscans and the Romans. The Romans had already been growing in power before this, but this was different. Their victory over Veii showed that they were capable of not just equalling the Etruscans, but of beating them too.


The Etruscan Nation on Life Support

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Dionysus, Tyrant of Syracuse, by Luca Giordano, 17th century, via


Shortly after the loss of Veii, the Etruscans suffered another disaster. Recall that at this point, the Etruscans’ main access to the sea was through the Tyrrhenian coast. In the first two decades of the fourth century BCE, a tyrant named Dionysius of Syracuse became very prominent. Among many other things, he attacked some of the Etruscan port cities, such as Caere and Pyrgi. This was a blow to the remaining trade activities that the Etruscans were able to perform at this time.


By the beginning of the third century BCE, the Etruscans had been forced to make alliances with various other tribes in Italy to hold back the tide of the Romans. In 295 BCE, an alliance of Etruscans, Umbrians, Gauls, and Samnites was defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Sentinum. In 280 BCE alone, several major Etruscan cities fell to the Romans, including Tarquinia and Vulci. Cerveteri fell just seven years later. Although various Etruscan cities maintained their independence for a while after this, this was the end of the Etruscans as a powerful nation.


The Downfall of the Etruscans

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Mural in the 4th century BCE Etruscan François Tomb, copy of the originals in painting by Carlo Ruspi, via Wikimedia Commons


As we have seen, the fall of the Etruscans was a gradual process. It did not happen overnight, nor was any single nation responsible. The two defeats that occurred in 524 and 506 BCE signaled the weakening of the Etruscans in comparison to the growing Greek city-states. The rise of Rome also put pressure on Etruria from the south. The Battle of Cumae in 474 BCE, however, was the most serious event at the beginning of their downfall. With this event, they lost control over the Tyrrhenian Sea.


Later, at the end of the century, the Celts began pushing into the north of Italy. Thus, the Etruscans lost control of the Po Valley and the Adriatic coast. The Romans also started conquering Etruscan territory at this time, most significantly with the capture of Veii in 396 BCE. Dionysius of Syracuse damaged the trading power of the Etruscans with his raids on what was left of their coastline. In the first few decades of the third century BCE, the Romans took city after city, dealing the final blow to the power of the Etruscans.

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By Caleb HowellsBA Doctrines and Methodology of EducationCaleb is a published history author with a strong interest in ancient Britain and the Mediterranean world. He holds a BA in the Doctrines and Methodology of Education from USILACS. He is the author of "King Arthur: The Man Who Conquered Europe" and "The Trojan Kings of Britain: Myth or History?". Caleb enjoys learning about history in general, but he especially loves investigating myths and legends and seeing how they might be explained by historical events and individuals.