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Etruscan Daily Life, Religion, Art & Influence on Rome

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  • 0:02 Under the Etruscan Sun
  • 0:51 Etruscan Life & Culture
  • 3:33 The Etruscans & the Romans
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the ancient Italian culture called the Etruscans and discover how they influenced the mighty city of Rome. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Under the Etruscan Sun

We hear a lot of romantic tales about sunny Tuscany, the hilly region in North-Central Italy. So, why don't we often hear about the Etruscans? Tuscany, Etruscans - notice anything similar?

The Etruscans were an ancient civilization that lived in the modern Italian states of Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio from around 700-300 BC. They were an advanced state and complex culture with their own language, religion, customs, and art. Oh, and as to why you may never have heard of them? The fascist dictator of Italy in the mid-20th century, Benito Mussolini, elevated ancient Romans as the true ancestors of the Italian people to justify his own imperial plans, leaving the Etruscans behind. In fact, the Etruscans were one of the first great civilizations of Italy, and the Romans would have never risen to power without them.

Etruscan Life and Culture

The Etruscans had a complex culture that was very unique. Their language, simply called Etruscan, as well as many of their customs, have no parallels in Europe. Part of the reason for this may be the natural isolation of the Etruscan cities. Etruscans did not have a single king or emperor but lived in major cities with their own independent governments called city-states. There was also, for a few centuries, a league of 12 major Etruscan cities that worked together to govern Etruscan land and society. Etruscan city-states were built on top of steep hills and fortified by walls, making them very difficult to access. With this city planning that clearly reflected the awareness for military defense, it should not be surprising that Etruscans valued their military culture.

The other major influence on Etruscan life was their religion. The Etruscans had a polytheistic religion, meaning they had multiple deities. For the Etruscans, everything reflected the divine; the world was full of greater and lesser deities who could be encouraged to either interfere with or ignore daily issues. Most of these gods or spirits were part of the original Etruscan mythology; only a very few were borrowed from other powerful cultures, like the ancient Greeks. Places and even events were watched over by spirits who had to be acknowledged. Wells carried special significance to the Etruscans, and the spirits of the well were greatly respected.

The Etruscan religion included an afterlife, and it was a major focus of their art. The most prominent of the remaining Etruscan sites are huge tombs where family members were interred. When we think tombs, we tend to think of dark, spooky places that you only visit on a dare during the full moon. Etruscan tombs were well-lit and featured beautiful wall murals, painted vases, and even life-size sculptures of the dead made from baked clay called terracotta. Etruscan people would have feasts in these tombs to honor their ancestors and celebrate their lives.

It was very common for the sculptures in the tombs to involve two people, seated or reclining as if they were relaxing at home or sitting for a feast. The two people were husband and wife, because marriage was the basis of Etruscan society. Families were very important to the Etruscans, and they were strictly monogamous, meaning that each person only had one single spouse. Etruscan women were treated with a high level of respect relative to other civilizations at the time and moved freely about society.

The Etruscans and the Romans

One of the major legacies of the Etruscans was the culture of ancient Rome. The Etruscans were a very ancient population, and the majority of their records have been lost to time. Therefore, there is a lot of mystery around the exact relationship between the Etruscans and Romans. But no matter which version of the legend is true, it is evident that the ancient Romans owed their success to the Etruscans.

In one version of history, the Romans were an ancient Italian tribe who moved south into the territories controlled by the powerful Etruscan city-states. The Romans requested permission to live there, and the Etruscans gave them a piece of swampy land where the founders of Rome, the brothers Romulus and Remus, founded their city. In other versions of the story, Romulus and Remus were actually Etruscan kings, or descended from Etruscan kings. This may be why Rome was founded on top of a hill and with Etruscan rituals, including the building of a magic wall to protect them. Throughout the Roman Empire, the Seven Hills of Rome remained integral sites for religious, political, and social buildings or rituals.

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