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Early Italy

  • mixture of different people: Celts, Villanovans, Etruscans
  • good agricultural land in western lowlands, where Rome is
    • Rome vulnerable to attack, but well placed for communications
  • Villanovan culture: 12-7 cy. B.C.
    • related to Urnfield culture north of the Alps
      • dead cremated and buried in urns
      • grey-black pottery, sometimes with applied decoration
      • settled agricultural towns
      • first bronze, then iron was the predominant metal used

Etruscan culture

Origins obscure; emerge in 7th cy. B.C. in central Italy, between Arno and Tiber Rivers

  • Herodotus (5th century B.C. Greek historian) claimed they were from Lydia (southern Turkey)
  • Dionysius of Halikarnassos said they evolved from Villanovans: this is more likely
    • Villanovans once thought North Italian, Etruscans South, but Villanovan sites now known in Southern Italy too

Language not fully deciphered

  • no literature, just short inscriptions; we can read some but can't go on to decipher the rest of the language
    • bilingual inscriptions recently found: with Greek, at Delphi; with Punic (Carthaginian), at Pyrgi in Italy
    • names like Hercle (Herakles, Hercules), Menrva (Minerva) are recognizable
  • loan-words come in to English via Latin: antenna, ceremony?, person (Etruscan phersu, 'mask', Latin persona, 'actor's mask, character portrayed by an actor')


  • gods modelled on Greek, but usually compared with Roman names
    • Tin (= Roman Jupiter), Uni (= Roman Juno), Menrva (= Roman Minerva)
  • sacred books
  • divination by bird, thunder/lightning, animal entrails--the Piacenza liver is a diagram of divination
    • haruspex (seer) wielded a lot of power; signs observed before every major event
  • city marked out as sacred space; surrounded by magic ploughed circle

Political and economic organization

  • federation of 12 cities, by tradition, but more large settlement sites known
  • government
    • king: religious, legal and political leader until 5th cy. B.C.
    • praetor replaced king in 5th cy., with college of magistrates; both offices annually elected
  • society: aristocratic clans, serfs&emdash;no middle class
  • wealth from mining&emdash;iron and other ores), agriculture, trade with Greeks and Phoenicians
  • alliance with Carthage, in competition with Greeks: Greeks defeat them at Cumae in 474 B.C.
  • land empire--expand Southward into Campania, later North to Po river valley
    • last kings of Rome were Etruscan; in 509 B.C. it gained independence and became a Republic
  • major cities: Veii, Cerveteri (Caere), Tarquinia, Vulci

Art and architecture

  • town planning well carried out&emdash;Spina, Marzabotto: boundaries, grids
    • main N-S street, main E-W street, business center at the intersection
    • houses built around atrium (central courtyard)
    • surrounding wall with gates, towers
  • temples: built on high platform (podium), at rear of a sacred enclosure&emdash;axial position (centered, opposite entrance to enclosure)
    • unlike freestanding Greek temples you could walk around
    • columns only in front
    • made of mud-brick and wood, with painted terra-cotta (clay) decorations
  • tombs: tumuli (burial mounds) replace Villanovan cremation urnfields
    • cemeteries with elaborate underground stone tombs, built to resemble houses
      • brightly painted; see below
      • offerings include imitation Greek vases
    • tripartite plan for tombs at Cerveteri, temples at Veii, Rome
    • terra-cotta cinerary urns used early on for cremated remains; then stone sarcophagi
      • sarcophagus lid shows dead person/couple reclining or lying down
  • Archaic sculpture (6th cy. B.C.) shows some Greek influence
    • Apollo from Temple of Apollo at Veii&emdash;terra-cotta roof decoration
    • Etruscan sarcophagus, Cerveteri, c. 520, with reclining couple on lid
    • bronze Capitoline wolf, c. 500-480 (babies added by Romans)
    • small ivory of Aeneas and Anchises from Veii, early 5th cy.
      • this and other evidence proves that the legend of Aeneas fleeing from Troy to Italy was already known
  • later sculpture influenced by Rome as well as Greece
    • Etruscan sarcophagus, Vulci, 4 cy., with lying-down couple on lid
    • bronze Mars of Todi, early 4th cy.
    • bronze of Roman official Aulus Metellus, early 1st cy.
      • looks very Roman, but labelled in Etruscan (Aule Metele), showing sculptor was an Etruscan commissioned to do this portrait
  • bronze work and jewelry highly prized&emdash;mirrors, lamp stands, etc. beautifully designed, engraved
  • painting--seen in tombs
    • Tomb of the Augurs--religion
    • Tomb of the Leopards, Tarquinia, c. 480-470--Etruscan banquet, dancers
    • Tomb of Hunting and Fishing, Tarquinia, c. 530-520
      • influence from Asia Minor Greeks; man and nature shown together
  • Gradual takeover by Rome, with Greek influence in painting, architecture
    • François Tomb--paintings relate to early Roman history
    • Ficoroni cista from Praeneste (Palestrina), late 4th cy. shows cultural mix:
      • made in Rome by a Roman artist
      • decorated with scene from Greek mythology--Jason and the Argonauts
      • deposited in tomb by Etruscan noblewoman
    • sculpture continues, but with a difference (see above)

Legacy to Rome

  • town planning
    • grids with main N-S and E-W streets
    • houses built around atrium
    • magic boundary circle: in Rome called the pomerium
  • temples centered at rear of enclosed space--sometimes on platform
    • NB Nagle p. 260: unlike Greeks, for whom "man was the measure of all things", Romans subordinated even people to orderly and symmetrical arrangements: belief that everything and everybody had a preordained place in the overall scheme of the world
  • magistrates (no longer haruspex) take the auspices (signs)

Last updated: 12 April 2002

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