Origins of the Etruscans

The question of the origins of the Etruscans has been debated since the first Century BCE. It has often been a controversial subject, even up to the present day, with publications and web-sites alike arguing vehemently in favour of the autochthonous theory, the Eastern Provenance Theory or the Northern Provenance Theory, or any of the other fringe theories which seek to identify the Etruscans with one present day national group or another.

When we stop to consider all the evidence from a cultural perspective and taking into account ancient literary sources as well as linguistic and archaeological evidence, it is clear that we can identify a large number of distinct influences and interactions at various stages in the development of the Etruscan civilisation. These influences include the Urnfield culture of Central Europe, the Sicilian Nuraghan culture through the influences of Phoenician traders and settlers, as well as the artistic influences of Cypro-Phoenician and Syro-Phoenician artists and craftsmen.

By far the most significant culture influences on the Etruscans came as a direct result of the Greek cultural influences from Magna Graecia - from the mezzogiorno of Italy. While it is difficult to imagine how the Romans would have developed without the Etruscans, it is equally difficult to imagine how the Etruscan could have blossomed without the influence of the colonies of Magna Graecia.

The first Greek settlements of Southern Italy and Sicily came with the trading posts and early colonies of the Mycenaean culture during the late Bronze age. However it wasn't until the late 7th Century that later Greek colonies began to exert strong cultural and artistic influences on the Etruscans. These included the Corinthians, the Ionian and Eastern Greeks, and others.

The slightly effeminate stylistic characteristics of the Ionian school, had considerable influence on artistic development in the colonies of Magna Graecia as well as in the tombs of Tarquinia and Caere during the mid to late 6th Century BCE.

Despite these significant influences, the Etruscans remained as a distinctive culture right up to the 1st Century BCE.

Ancient writers talk of their dedication to religion, the very different status of women in society and their language, as three clear examples of such cultural cohesion.

Popular writers through the ages have tended to emphasise the differences of the Etruscans, setting them aside as totally distinctive from other peoples of the ancient world. The Etruscans were indeed a very successful culture who developed many innovations, but in many cases these innovations were derived from well known Phoenician or Greek influences. As an example, the Greeks were the first civilisation in Italy to use terracotta roofing tiles, however they did not use them for domestic dwellings until much later. The Etruscans were largely responsible for the widespread adoption of the terracotta roof tile, and to a large extent for the widespread deforestation of Italy.

Another example is the granulation technique used by Etruscan craftsmen. This is now accepted to have its origins in Caere, and was introduced by a small number of Syro - Phoenician craftsmen who settled in the Etruscan city of Caere.

When we start to dissect all the so-called miraculous achievements of the Etruscans, we discover that their civilisation was highly influential, though culturally complex with numerous interactions with other Mediterranean civilisations.

In view of some of these findings, the question - "What is the origin of the Etruscans?" is to some extent redundant. The question : "What is the origin of the French ?" has the same significance.

If history was represented by a video tape, and we could play the tape backwards, then we would arrive at a different answer to both of the above questions depending on where we stop.

Taking the example of the French for example, the country was united by a Germanic tribe (The Franks) from whom they derived their name. However they speak a Romance language which developed from the particular branch of "Vulgar Latin" which was spoken in the Roman province of Gaul. Most of the population was Celtic in origin - Gauls to be precise - an Indo European group which shared its origins in the distant past with the Greeks and Romans.

Just as there is no simple answer to the provenance of the French, it becomes abundantly clear that there is no simple answer to the provenance of the Etruscans. When we talk of the history of the Etruscans, are however much greater, but armed with clues from traditional, epigraphical and historical sources, we can start to fill in some of the gaps.

The Early Legends

The earliest legends involving Italy are diverse, though many are now lost. The earliest legends were retold by Greek writers, such as Antiochus, Philistus, and Timaeus of Taormina , and a chronology of these early legendary materials is given by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in "Roman Antiquities"

The Tyrrhenian coast is the backdrop for the legend of Heracles, as well as that of Ulysses.

The first mention of Tyrrhenians comes in the Theogony of Hesiod, and the Homeric hymn to Dionysos, possibly dating to the 8th Century BCE. In the Homeric hymn, the god Dionysus is captured by Tyrsenian pirates, whose ship is finally destroyed, and the crew turned into dolphins.

Early mention of Etruscan pirates also appear in the writings of Ephorus, as quoted by Strabo (Geography VI,2,2) where it is recorded that prior to the Greek colonies, Tyrrhenian pirates dominated the East coast of Sicily. We know with a great deal of confidence that the first Greek settlement of Southern Italy took place in the ninth century. Thucydides reported that the Sicels, who spoke a language affiliated with Latin, migrated from the mainland to Sicily approximately 300 years before this time. Traditionally, the founding date of Cumae is taken to be 850 BCE. Therefore the Tyrrhenians were reported as being active on the East coast of Sicily during or even prior to this period. From a cultural perspective, the Etruscans were still at the Villanovan stage at this time. These reports reinforce that they were a significant maritime power even during this early stage in their development.

Other earlier legends talk of the endeavours of the Aristaeus, Iolaus and the Thespians, and of a visit by king Minos to the court of king Cocalus of Sicily, and how he was slain in the city of Camious. We hear of how the indigenous inhabitants defeated the Cretans and drive them out of Sicily. One of the original Cretan settlements has been excavated at a site near to the later settlement of Agrigento.

Evidence of grave goods of Sicilian origin found in Vetulonia, and dating from the 8th and 9th centuries tend to support the cultural ties between Sicily and what was to become the homeland of the Etruscans.

The Etruscan culture did not show any signs of differentiation before 1200 B.C , and the so-called Proto-Villanovian Culture, characterized by the general spread of cremation, was widespread throughout the Italian peninsula. The cremation practices and other stylistic features such as the use of geometric ornamentation, the use of hammered sheet bronze tend to show a marked influence from the Central European Urnfields culture.

The Proto-Villanovan culture shows some degree of continuity with the later Villanovan culture, which developed from the beginning of the first Millennium BCE. Again a distinct Urnfields influence was present, although some differentiation began to appear. The Villanovan culture was found largely in the same areas as Etruscan was later spoken. Some differentiation of graves started to become apparent, and at this early stage, female burials and grave goods were comparable to male sites.

The 8th and 7th centuries marked a period of great demographic growth and some changes in burial practices. During the Orientalising period. Inhumation gradually became the dominant funerary practice , spreading from the Southern coastal cities. In the North, cremation remained for many centuries to come.

If we were to identify the first beginnings of a recognisable Etruscan culture, it would be during the Villanovan period. Although not fully developed by that time, there were traits which marked the culture as being quite distinct from that of the Italic peoples. One of these factors was the apparent flexibility in accepting outside influence, chiefly from the Greeks and to a lesser extent, from the Phoenicians.

Ancient Sources talk almost interchangeably about the Pelasgians and the Tyrrhenians. The Pelasgi were mentioned by Herodotus as the predecessors of the Greeks. Among other accounts, they are placed in Athens, in Thessaly, next to the city of Troy, and on the Island of Lemnos.

During the reign of Ramses III, around 1150, we have reports that Egyptians were attacked from all directions, and defeated in one part of the Nile delta, by a mixture of peoples as we read in the heiroglyphs, the "Rk.w" or "Lk.w" (Lukki), The "Twrjs'.w" (Trojans?, Tyrsenoi? ), the "Plst.w" (Philistines),as well as the "Jqjws'.w", "Drdnj.w", "Dnn.w" and "S'rdn.w". Although some of these are unclear, they also include the Lycians, Achaens, Dardani, Danai, Sardinians and the Sicels. Some sources state that this is evidence of the migrations of these Pelasgi to Italy, although M Pallottino in "A History of Early Italy" states that the explanation could equally be that these sea peoples had come from tribes which were already established in Italy.

Various Greek and Roman writers talk about an eastern provenance for the Etruscan people. In the simplification of foundation legends, they are represented by a group of refugees from famine in Lydia (Herodotus 43, Strabo VI quoting Ephorus )

The first voice of dissent was raised by Diodorus Siculus, who argued in favour of an autochthonous origin for the Etruscans.