The Etruscans are often regarded as one of the most mysterious nations of the Iron Age Mediterranean. One reason that they are so mysterious is that their language has not yet been deciphered, so we cannot read their inscriptions. Historians instead have to rely on reports from other nations, such as the Greeks and the Romans, and the enlightening discoveries of archaeologists. There is still considerable debate over where the Etruscans came from.
This is not just a mystery that modern scholars are interested in. Even in ancient times, this issue was a matter of interest and debate. Some ancient historians wrote extensively on the subject. Modern archaeology has certainly helped to provide more information, but the issue is still far from settled.
The Etruscan Anatolian Migration Theory
This first theory is based on the earliest surviving record that describes where the Etruscans came from. Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BCE, claimed that the Etruscans came from Anatolia. Specifically, he says they were Lydians, a nation that lived around the middle of the western coast of Anatolia. According to Herodotus’ account, a famine occurred in the reign of King Atys, who lived not long before the Trojan War. Because of the intense scarcity of food, King Atys decided to divide the nation into two. One half of the nation was sent away under the rulership of his son, Tyrrhenus. They settled in Italy and took the name of their leader as their new name (the Etruscans were called “Tyrrhenians” in Greek).
This legend about the origin of the Etruscans became extremely popular in the ancient world. Versions of it were repeated by plenty of other writers, such as Strabo. Dionysius of Halicarnassus refers to numerous other writers who gave essentially the same origin story to the Etruscans, although with slight variations.
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This explanation of the origin of the Etruscans has remained popular right up to modern times. Especially throughout the early to mid-20th century, scholars and archaeologists generally favored the migration theory. The more archaeologists uncovered about the Etruscans, the more connections they seemed to find with Anatolia and the Near East in general. For example, the art styles used by the Etruscans are strongly Anatolian. Various customs also seemed to demonstrate a connection with that region.
One well-known example is the practice of using a model of a liver for divination. This is known as haruspicy. The entrails of the model liver would be “read” in an effort to discern the future. This is known to have been practiced among certain nations from the Middle East. It is even mentioned in the Bible in the context of the Babylonians. The Hittites of Anatolia are known to have practiced this form of divination too. Yet, within Europe, it seems to have originally been unique to the Etruscans, only spreading to other nations through them via the Romans. Many scholars have taken this, and other practices, as evidence for the Etruscans’ Anatolian origins.
The Northern Origin Theory
This theory proposes that the Etruscans came from northern Europe, or at least north of what was known as Etruria in historical times. This theory was not popular in ancient times. It is just a modern myth.
The two ancient writers who supposedly proposed this theory were Livy and Pliny the Elder, from the first century BCE and first century CE respectively. The idea that they supported a northern origin for the Etruscans is based on a misunderstanding of their words. What they actually claimed was that the Etruscans were originally spread over a much wider area, particularly the north of Etruria. But nowhere do Livy or Pliny claim that the Etruscans originated from a more northern territory.
It is certainly worth looking at their actual wording. What Livy says is this:
“Nor were the Clusines the first Etruscans with whom the Gaulish armies came into conflict; long before that they had fought many battles with the Etruscans who dwelt between the Apennines and the Alps… They [the Etruscans] first settled on this side the Apennines by the western sea in twelve cities, afterwards they founded twelve colonies beyond the Apennines, corresponding to the number of the mother cities. These colonies held the whole of the country beyond the Po as far as the Alps.”
Yes, this quote does claim that the Etruscans lived between the Apennines and the Alps (the northernmost part of Italy) “long before” a certain war. But this is not the same as saying that they were originally from that region. In fact, Livy explicitly argues against such an idea. He says that the Etruscans first settled on the Roman side of the Apennines by the western sea — that is, the region known as Etruria. It was only afterward that they founded colonies north of the Apennines. Pliny’s statements are much the same.
The Autochthonous Theory
The only other major idea presented regarding the Etruscans in ancient times is the that they were autochthonous — that is, indigenous. It seems that the earliest historian of note to make this suggestion was Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Roman historian who lived in the first century BCE. He discussed the Etruscans at length and referred to a very large number of legends about their origins. But despite so many of his contemporaries placing the origin of the Etruscans outside of Italy, Dionysius did not believe that the evidence justified that conclusion. He stated:
“I do not believe… that the Tyrrhenians were a colony of the Lydians; for they do not use the same language as the latter, nor can it be alleged that, though they no longer speak a similar tongue, they still retain some other indications of their mother country. For they neither worship the same gods as the Lydians nor make use of similar laws or institutions… Indeed, those probably come nearest to the truth who declare that the nation… was native to the country, since it is found to be a very ancient nation and to agree with no other either in its language or in its manner of living.”
Dionysius did not have the benefit of modern archaeology when he wrote this assessment of the origin of the Etruscans. Yet, his analysis seems quite logical. Modern scholars agree that the Etruscans were unlike almost anyone else in their language. If the Etruscans did not have any customs or practices that were also common among the Lydians, then it is logical to dismiss the legend. One problem, of course, is that Dionysius was writing many centuries after the migration was supposed to have happened. Therefore, the fact that he could not see any commonalities between the Etruscans and the Lydians is not necessarily surprising. This could easily be explained by the passage of time since the migration.
However, Dionysius uses another argument that is arguably even stronger. He refers to a well-respected Lydian historian named Xanthus, who lived in the 5th century BCE. Dionysius notes that Xanthus “neither names Tyrrhenus in any part of his history as a ruler of the Lydians nor knows anything of the landing of a colony of Maeonians [Lydians] in Italy.” Xanthus’s work also contained a version of the legend of the Lydian nation splitting into two during the famine. In his version, significantly, both halves of the nation stayed in Anatolia.
Which Theory Is Most Supported by Scholars?
Today, the vast majority of scholars support the theory that the Etruscans were autochthonous. In other words, the Etruscans are believed to have emerged gradually out of the earlier cultures that already existed in Italy. The culture that existed prior to 700 BCE (when the Etruscan civilization as we know it emerged) is known as the Villanovan culture. Today, this is widely viewed as simply being an earlier form of the Etruscan civilization proper. This culture developed around 900 BCE from the Late Bronze Age Proto-Villanovan culture, which was simply the Italic expression of the central European Urnfield culture.
Genetic research also demonstrates a basic continuity between the Etruscans and their precursors on the Italian peninsula. This further supports the idea that the Etruscans were native to the area and simply developed their own peculiar culture.
The profound Anatolian influences among the Etruscans can be attributed to trade and cultural influences. One key issue that critics of the Anatolian migration theory point out is that these influences only occur from c. 700 BCE onward. This is about five centuries later than the date commonly given to the Trojan War when the migration was supposed to have happened.
Of course, another explanation would simply be that the Anatolian migration occurred much more recently than Herodotus and other ancient writers believed. This explanation is not usually considered, but we know that the ancient Greeks regularly exaggerated the antiquity of events. The possibility that this Anatolian evidence really is connected to the supposed migration should be borne in mind. While much of the Anatolian influence could be explained by mere trade or cultural influence, some of it requires a particularly deep connection. The practice of haruspicy is one example of something that demonstrates more than just a passing familiarity with Near Eastern customs.
Where Did the Etruscans Come From?
In summary, there are two main theories about the origin of the Etruscans. The first is that they migrated from Anatolia. The second is that they were natives of Italy who gradually formed a distinctive culture. A supposed third theory — that they migrated from the north — never really existed. The Anatolian theory seems to have been the most popular one in ancient times. It was supported by many archaeologists in the early part of the 20th century due to the profound Anatolian influence seen among the Etruscans. However, this has now been dismissed as the result of trade and cultural influence. The migration was supposed to have occurred some five centuries before this Anatolian influence is seen among the Etruscans in the archaeology. Genetic evidence also supports continuity between the Etruscans and their precursors. Nonetheless, it is not impossible that a small migration did occur, only much later than the ancient Greeks believed.