From Prehistory to the Etruscans
Although Neanderthals, ancient Homo Sapiens, Paleolithic, and Bronze Age humans have left some of their bones and tools lying about and the 9th-century b.c. Villanovian Iron Age culture (possibly immigrants from the north) has helped fill museums with pot shards, things really didn’t start getting lively in central Italy until the Etruscans rose to power.
The most widely accepted theory is that the Etruscans came from modern-day Turkey in Asia Minor—at least, that’s what the ancient Romans believed—and arrived in central Italy in late 9th or early 8th century b.c. The fact their language isn’t Indo-European but appears similar to some Aegean dialects helps confirm this theory, but there are others who now feel the Etruscans may have risen from native peoples in central Italy, perhaps a combination of the Villanovians, local tribes, and travelers from Asia Minor. Whatever the case, these Etruschi or Tuschi formed the basic cultural/political force in the region that’s now named for them, Tuscany.
The Etruscans are a bit of an enigma. Much of what little remains to tell us of them—that which hasn’t been corrupted by later Roman influence—consists of tombs and their contents, and it’s difficult to reconstruct an entire culture simply by looking at its graveyards. Etruscan society may have been more egalitarian than later Western cultures, or at least women appeared to have more of an active role and a higher status in daily life. Historians say they loved to throw parties, have banquets, go on the hunt, and the like—but that may just be what they chose to celebrate in the few paintings and many carvings they left us. While we can read their language, what script we have goes into little beyond death, divination, and the divine.
What historians are more sure of is that Etruscans became enamored with the Attic culture of Greece and adopted many of the Greek gods and myths, as well as many Greek vases, in the 6th century b.c. This era coincided with the height of their considerable power. In fact, from the late 7th century until 510 b.c., Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings of the Tarquin dynasty. Although the Etruscan empire spread south almost to Naples, east to the Adriatic, and west onto Corsica, the heart and core called Etruria covered an area from the Arno east to the Apennines and south to the Tiber, encompassing most of Tuscany, half of Umbria, and northern Lazio.
The Etruscans surrounded their cities with massive defensive walls, were adept bridge builders, and developed sophisticated canal, sewer, and irrigation systems for their cities and fields, draining marshy lands for farming and sinking wells and cisterns and carving plumbing systems in the rock beneath their cities. (The famous Roman plumbing network was started by the Etruscan kings of Rome.)
Well before this time, around 1200 BC, Indo-European Italic peoples had wandered into Italy from the north. The Samnites and Latins continued south, but the Umbri tribes decided to settle in the Apennines and valleys east of the Tiber, which flows through the middle of modern-day Umbria. Their loosely defined zone of cultural hegemony encompassed what’s now northern and eastern Umbria and the Marches over to the sea, as well as corners of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna.
(Modern city descendants include Gubbio and Città di Castello, as well as Assisi and Todi, both of which later became Etruscan and then Roman.)
All we really know about the Umbri is they had a highly developed religion based on reading prophecies in animal sacrifices and the flights of birds—Gubbio’s famous Eugubian Tables bronze plaques tell us this much. When the Roman influence spread north in the 3rd century b.c., the Umbrian cities for the most part allied themselves to the Latins, were awarded Roman citizenship early, and enjoyed a large degree of autonomy from authorities in Rome. Aside from the usual city rivalries and moderate clashes between expanding empires, the Umbrians appear to have lived more or less amicably with their Etruscan neighbors.
At the close of the 5th century b.c., the Etruscan empire was pushed back from the south by the Greeks and from the north by the Celtic tribes. After expelling the last Etruscan king, Tarquin the Proud, and setting up a republic, Rome in the 3rd century b.c. started nipping at the heels of Etruria itself.