Ancient Etruscans and Rome: History, Art, Architecture & Religion

Instructor: Amy C. Evans

Amy has a BA/MA Criminal Justice. Worked with youth for over 20 years in academic settings. Avid reader, history and mystery lover.

In this lesson, you will be introduced to the Etruscans and how they are related to the ancient Romans. You will learn about their origins, art, building styles, and how they worshiped. Updated: 05/18/2020

Introducing the Etruscans

When thinking of Rome, most of us think of Romans; after all, it was the Romans that dominated much of the Mediterranean world. However, 'Rome' is actually an Etruscan word.

The Etruscans were an ancient people of Etruria, Italy, which comprises the areas today known as Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria.

The Etruscan economy relied heavily on trade with other peoples, often forming mutually beneficial alliances with others. As the Etruscans grew more powerful and wealthy, they increasingly became a target for other civilizations. One, in particular, became a serious threat to their well-being - the Romans.

In 396 BCE, the Romans began a campaign to conquer the Etruscans and take their land. It took a couple of centuries, but the Romans were nothing but persistent, and in 80 BCE, the last of the Etruscan cities were subdued.

The Romans assimilated the Etruscans into their civilization, but they also adopted some of the Etruscans customs and traditions, and even several rulers were of Etruscan descent. Let's take a closer look at the art, building styles, and religion that was brought to Rome by Etruscan culture.

Art

Etruscan art included ceramics, murals, carvings, and sculptures. They were known for a type of ceramic pottery called bucherro, which was shiny grey or black and formed into domestic pots and ornamental wares.

Etruscan bucchero rooster
Etrucan Bucchero Pottery

As the Etruscans increased trade with other cultures, new materials and ideas were incorporated into their artistic expression. This period in the Etruscan Civilization was called the Orientalizing Period. During this period, ivory and glass were introduced into the Etruscan culture and the Etruscan's began to develop narrative (story-telling) pieces of art.

This art included vases and pots that were decorated with scenes from real life as well as from their belief system. The Etruscans also adopted designs from the region of the Middle East and Phonecia, like images cut into impasto clay pottery. After the Romans came, the Etruscans used their skills to create Roman-themed pottery.

Etruscan ceramic boar
Etruscan Boar Vessel

Tomb Art

The Etruscans usually placed their dead (sometimes cremated, sometimes not) in subterranean tombs that contained sculptures and detailed painted murals. The sculptures were realistic in nature and included sculpted furniture, such as couches, and reclining figures.

The murals and sculptures are also an important source of information for us on what the people looked like, what they ate, how they dressed, and their activities, customs, and religious beliefs. The Romans were influenced by Etruscan tomb art, especially detailed, painted naturalistic portraiture that adorned some of the tomb walls.

Etruscan Tomb of the Leopards
Etruscan Tomb of the Leopards

Architecture

Buildings

Etruscans initially built their homes utilizing the resources that were near them, such as huts made out of mud-brick and wood for the main body of the house and roofs thatched with straw, reeds, and other vegetation. As their civilization grew, so did their technology and interaction with other cultures such as the Greeks.

By about 600 BCE, stone buildings began to appear, including sacred spaces such as temples ornamented with terracotta figures with unfluted columns and arches in their design. Homes were no longer huts but rectangular structures made out of stone with tiled roofs.

Though very little survives of Etruscan buildings, we know they used these architectural elements because they are depicted in the physical and interior design of many Etruscan tombs. Many of these architectural elements are seen in the far better-preserved remnants of ancient Rome, including the use of stone for temples, columns, and arches.

Tombs

Etruscan tombs were carved out of rock or were built out of tufa, a type of porous rock. Some tombs were in underground necropolises, or cities of the dead, while others were more visible and above ground. Tombs often replicated life, with porches and columns, and multiple rooms that mimicked the architecture of the home.

Sometimes the tombs included carved depictions of domestic goods, such as dinnerware and cooking utensils. Etruscan tombs have been invaluable to archaeologists in reconstructing Etruscan architecture and in providing a snapshot into the Etruscan culture and help show how Etruscans, in turn, influenced Roman architecture.

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