The first great Italian empire was not based in Rome, but in Tuscany
Despite the great deal of excavated physical evidence we have, little is known about their origins. The great Roman historian Herodotus (corroborated by most modern-day researchers) wrote that the Etruscans filtered into the Italian peninsula, probably from Asia Minor, as early as the 12C BC.
By the 8C BC, there was a clearly delineated Etruscan culture; it reached a peak of power and wealth in the 6C BC with the Tarquin dynasty, which ruled Rome itself (later to be ejected). Savaged by the Gauls (Celtic peoples from present-day France), the Etruscans began to lose power. Their cities were slowly defeated and absorbed into the growing Roman Republic during the 1C BC.
The Etruscan political hegemony extended over Etruria (a loose association of city-states connected along religious rather than political lines). Key centers were such modern-day locations as Chiusi and Cortona in Tuscany, Cerveteri and Tarquinia north of Rome, Veio near Rome, and Orvieto and Perugia in Umbria. Etruscan artifacts are displayed in museums in Chuisi, Volterra, Florence, and Cortona; tombs at Tarquinia, Cerveteri, Veio, Cortona, and Chiusi; and the Etruscan walls and gateways preserved at Volterra and Perugia.
The Etruscans were highly skilled artisans who worked not only iron but also bronze, silver, copper, and gold. Etruscan potters threw handsome black bucchero vases with bas-relief figures and later adopted Greek fashions to produce fine painted vessels. They were adept engineers, constructing walled cities astride hilltops and sophisticated canal systems that drained the enormous swampy lowlands of southern Tuscany and turned them into a breadbasket.
The Etruscans also introduced that eventual favored vehicle of Ben-Hur, the chariot.