Mortal Gods: The Etruscans (Part 1) – Mystery, History, and Culture

Hello everyone,

Phatis here again! I know, it has been a while, hasn’t it? We’re in the process now of gathering up all the bits for the Persia booklet (for the forthcoming Persian box set), which has taken me some time. I’ve also been busy pretending to make Mortal Gods boxes and doing…things around the shop—totally not placing curse scrolls or anything. I’m not the sort to cause trouble. Probably. Andy Hobday almost forced me to box up Gangs of Rome boxes too, but I successfully distracted him with stories about puppies. It was all very amusing. Then again, Andy generally amuses me—not intentionally, he just does things and I chuckle. Silly mortals.

Anyway, speaking of Rome (not a bad segue, eh?), there has been a lot of discussion recently on the Mortal Gods Facebook Community about incorporating Italy into the Mortal Gods skirmish game. Some wanted their own Etruscan lochoi…wait, that doesn’t quite work here, does it? Hm. My Latin is a tad rusty (such a barbaric language as it is), but I think the equivalent of lochoi would be something like a centuria? Hm. Let’s consider it a centuria for now and debate the semantics of it later. The important thing here is that there does seem to be some interest in expanding the region in which Mortal Gods is set (mainland Greece and the Aegean) without having to change the established time period (the Peloponnesian Wars in the 5th Century BCE).

It seems only proper that I, Phatis the Greatest (no, you shut up), should act as your guide into the world of the Etruscans—the de facto powerhouse in Italy at the time (I hate Latin). Peripherally, we can also take a brief look at the Magna Graecia and the Hill Tribes of Italy, with their larger role to play during the period and, obviously, their involvement in the Peloponnesian Wars (oh yes, they were involved). After all, I am someone intimately familiar with the subject, seeing as I campaigned in Sicily—probably; I mean, I’m not really a details guy.

Just a quick note on the Romans before I get fifteen million questions about them. I don’t want to spend too much time on the Romans—yet; they are far too big of a subject for shared space in this blog post and rightly deserve their own dedicated post in the future. But we should consider them in the context of Italy during the Century in question nonetheless—just as we should also think about the Gauls in Italy at the same time.

As all of this will hopefully be expanded upon in booklets for a box set or two sometime in the future (we can hope), I won’t go into too much detail below; in fact I am going to divide this into two (maybe three) blog posts rather than just keeping it as one.

The first blog post (this one) will look at the background of the Etruscans and their place in the 5th Century BCE around the time of the Peloponnesian War. The second blog post (coming in a few days) will look at the Etruscan military situation and how they may fit into Mortal Gods more broadly. If there is to be a third blog post, it will deal with the surrounded Italic peoples–though I may lump this into the second blog post. It depends on how I feel about it.

I know that the military stuff is probably more of interest to everyone, but the history of the Etruscans and the Latins (and the Romans, as it were), is rather interesting and important. So if you have the time, give the below a read-through.

Well what do you say? Let’s dive in, shall we?

Those Mysterious Etruscans

So you might be asking aloud, “Just who were the Etruscans and why are they important?” Oof. You sure start out asking the really big questions, don’t you? You couldn’t ask something easier to answer? Well it does keep me from having to pack boxes, right? Okay. Well, here’s the thing; the Etruscans remain a bit of a mystery. Their language is bizarre, their historical origins are unclear, and their cultural attributes are unique amongst their Italic and Greek neighbors. A full review of these intricacies is admittedly a little too complex to discuss here, but it is fun to speculate about nonetheless. Speculating about stuff, by the way, is just one way to pass your eternity of time in the Underworld, in case you were wondering.

Don’t worry, your pal Phatis will condense it all down into manageable parts for you.

The Etruscans seemingly came to be ex nihilo, sui generis in the 8th Century BCE (I really hate Latin). And yet they had a highly developed culture, language, and social structure. They had their own art, musical instruments, and military customs. They had three major port cities (Caisra, Tarch’na, and Fufluna) along the western coast of the Italian peninsula and through them had well-established, advanced trade networks throughout the ancient world. They ruled Rome for a time before the Republic, expanded their colonies northward into the Po Valley, and maintained dominance over the northern and central Italian countryside for very nearly a millennia.

Late Villanovans or Early Etruscans from around the 7th Century BCE. Image from Raffaele D’Amato & Andrea Salimbeti, The Etruscans: 9th-2nd Centuries BC (Osprey, 2018)

Of course, they didn’t really pop up out of nowhere. The Etruscans were the descendants of the Villanovan peoples (the ‘proto-Etruscans’, if you will) who flourished between the 11th and early 8th Centuries BCE. The Villanovans—likely indigenous to Italy—went through an ‘orientalising’ period when they came into contact with the broader ancient world (specifically with the Greeks, the Phoenicians, and the ancient Near East) and thus would develop a new culture, incorporating traits from these other civilizations to grow into what we consider the ‘Etruscan people’.

One can refer to the Etruscans in three ways; the first is, of course, as ‘Etruscans’. This is a bit of a smashing together of the Roman name for the Etruscans (Tusci) and the Latin region name in which they are associated (Etruria). The second is as ‘Tyrrhenians’ (or ‘Tyrsenians’)—a name for them used by Greek historians in the 5th Century BCE—a name we will look at in more detail in a moment. The third way is how the Etruscans referred to themselves, as the ‘Rasenna’ (appropriately meaning “the people” in Etruscan). All three ways are acceptable, though not without their nuances.

Etruscan alphabet before the 4th Century BCE; check out the post at Omniglot about the Etruscan language.

In regards to the Etruscan language, the jury is still out. Only a few hundred words of the entirety of the Etruscan language has been meaningfully translated; it is still baffling Classicists to this day. There is just nothing exactly like it or even similar to it. For one, Etruscan is written in a seemingly incoherent way. Most of the time, Etruscan is inscribed or written in the same way as Hebrew (from right to left), other times it is written in a boustrophedon style, alternating directions on a stela, tablet, or scroll. The alphabet draws upon Greek and Phoenician influences and also possibly from other indigenous Italic languages (and Etruscan itself may have originally been an indigenous language prior to ‘orientalising’ but it is not cut and dry). It also was a direct influence on the development of Latin (Greek influenced the Latin alphabet as a product of its influence on Etruscan alphabet).

The curious question of the origin of the Etruscan language is also deeply tied to the contested origin of the Etruscans themselves. From whence did this civilization come? We know where they thrived—in the region of modern day Tuscany—and it is clear that they matured from the earlier Villanovan society. But there is no ancient or modern smoking gun to solve the riddle. There is, however, lots and lots of debate. I love debate, so let’s get into the hairiness of it all.

Ancient Villanovan burial armor, but identical to that worn by warriors in life.

The debate itself is actually an ancient one. The Etruscans were as much a mystery to the Greeks and Romans as they are a mystery to us today. Three ancient Greek historians postulated different theories; Herotodos and Thucydides—both contemporaries of the Peloponnesian Wars—as well as Dionysios of Halikarnassos, who lived in the 1st Century BCE, after the Etruscans had already assimilated and acculturated completely into Roman society. The theories laid out by these classical historians are still a focal point of our modern understanding and of academic debate.

Herodotos postulated the Anatolian theory; specifically that the Etruscans (or Villanovans) mass-migrated from Lydia (now part of modern day Turkey) under King Tyrsenos due to a famine in their homeland. Herodotos’ anecdotal narrative, somewhat tacked on to his discussion of Lydia, takes place in the 2nd Millennium BCE, during the reign of King Atys. In order to save his people, Atys has them all draw lots. Half of the population would remain behind in Lydia, while the other half would leave Lydia and travel with Tyrsenos (also known as Tyrrhenos) across the Aegean and eventually settle in Umbria (in Italy).

There are problems with the account in Herodotos. Xanthus, a contemporary of Herodotos writing at the same time and who wrote nearly exclusively on Lydian history—while left only in fragments to us—does not seem to document any prince or king with the name Tyrsenos or Tyrrhenos, nor is there a discussion of a famine, or a mention of a fleet of ships leaving the country with half of the population. These aren’t things a historian of their own country’s past leaves out. Then again maybe Xanthos wasn’t a details guy, either.

Thucydides, another contemporary of Herodotos, has a different theory. He suggests that the Etruscans were with the Pelasgians (maybe as kin or as compatriots) and had settled on the island of Lemnos prior to the Greeks settling the Aegean, but were later kicked out by the Ionians (Athenians, really). Then, quite like the story of Tyrrhenos, the Etruscans sailed and settled in Italy and then developed their culture there.

Lemnos Stele.

Interestingly, the discovery of a necropolis in the 1920’s dating to the 9th-8th Centuries BCE, with artifacts that were similar too Villanovan and Etruscan artifacts, as well as the Lemnos Stele—a stone block containing a written language with an alphabet exceptionally close to that of Etruscan—provides perhaps some credibility to Thucydides’ belief that the Etruscans (or a similar offshoot of peoples) had some type of settlement on Lemnos. But one cannot discount the possibility that the stele may have been created by Etruscan colonists rather than from an original (pre-Italian) settlement of Etruscan peoples. And the close ties between Athens and Etruria in the Classical Period cannot go unignored either. The Etruscan-like artifacts of Lemnos may in fact be imports from Etruria to Greeks living on Lemnos.

Both Herodotos and Thucydides had reasons to favor an Aegean origin for the Etruscan civilization. Herodotos was born in Halikarnassos and Thucydides was an Athenian, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong. But another Halikarnassian, Dionysios, writing four-hundred years later in the 1st Century BCE, had an entirely different theory on the origins of the Etruscans, contradicting both Herodotos and Thucydides. He argued that there was no trace similarities between Etruscan and Lydian languages, customs, or cultures. He instead laid out the case that the Etruscans (and therefore the Villanovans) were in fact native to the Italian peninsula.

Though one has to be cautious with Dionysios’ conclusions. While he was a competent historian for his day, one cannot reasonably expect a culture and language to remain unchanged for over a thousand years (Herodotos’ chronology assumes the Etruscan ancestors settled Umbria in the 2nd Millennium BCE, after all). In that same period of time (over the course of a thousand years), Rome went from a Latin-speaking Late Classical empire to a series of broken, medieval, predominantly Italian-speaking feudal states. A lot can happen in a span of time like that. It would make sense that Lydian traditions and customs and language would also change. He underestimates how cultures and societies change over time.

Modern techniques have only assisted in amplifying all three of these theories in one way or another without definitively proving anything, which admittedly is a huge pain. Genetic testing has effectively examined these competing theories and has positively determined for all of them, but depending on methodology, blah blah blah… basically the data looks to be strongly in favor of Dionysios’ perspective—that the Etruscans actually migrated from the north (i.e., as an extension of the Indo-Europeans) into Italy and grew as a part of the native population rather than as refugees or colonists. But honestly, the jury on this is still out. The mystery is what makes them so fascinating.

Don’t let the mystery drive you crazy, though. We can debate the origins all day long, but what matters to Mortal Gods is the Classical Etruscans—and it is those Etruscans that we actually know a little bit more about.

The Etruscan League and their settlements in the early 5th Century BCE. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

To start with, the Etruscan League—a loose confederation of twelve city-states—thrived in Etruria for at least a period of 700 years. To give you some context, the Macedonian empire (along with the successor states) barely lasted two centuries before Rome shut that all down (despite its scale and power). They even had established colonies in the Po Valley (which would be overrun by Germanic Gauls in the late 5th Century BCE).

The Etruscans were also extremely wealthy; the majority of Etruscan wealth was derived from trade. They had access to some of the best ore deposits in Italy and therefore not so incidentally had amazing artisans who worked the ore and produced wonderfully intricate bronze armor, gold jewelry, and art. The links in the previous sentence are worth investigating, as the Met has a number of really incredible Etruscan artifacts on display that will blow your mind. As an example, here is a bronze and ivory Etruscan Chariot dating to the late 6th Century BCE, depicting scenes of the life of Achilles.

With these great artisans producing such amazing pieces, they were exporting goods everywhere. Their reach extended not only within the Italian peninsula, but throughout all of Europe and into the ancient Near East. They imported a great deal of goods as well (especially pottery) from across all of the Mediterranean and the Aegean. The pottery fragments recovered from the remains of their cities and necropoleis (over 30,000 pieces in all found so far in Etruria) all have similar shapes and imagery, which has led to the postulation that Athens was producing pottery explicitly for sale to the Etruscans. Yeah.

Pro-tip: If you want to show off how much money you have, get the richest Greek polis at the time to dedicate resources towards making expensive pottery just for you and your people.

Trade routes and cultural influence of the Etruscans and Greeks in the 5th Century BCE. Brown represents Etruscan trade and influence, while green represents Greek trade and influence. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Culturally, the Etruscans were more progressive than their neighbors. Women were free and carefree, and were equal (whether married or not) and in the family, they were on par with their husbands. Marriages did not tend to be monogamous, either, and explicit themes are often on display in Etruscan art (erotic scenes on imported Greek vases are among the most common depictions found by archaeologists–perhaps second only with those scenes depicting violence). Women plays an important role in politics and in economics, perhaps moreso than women in Classical Sparta.

Etruscan couple represented on a sarcophagus from a 6th Century tomb in the necropolis at Cerveteri, Italy.

It should be noted (as above) that war and violence were also extremely important themes in Etruscan art. This is a theme best explored in Part 2 of this series. So stay tuned for that.

Another vitally important feature of Etruscan culture was its religion. Etruscan religion blended elements of Greek mythology with native Indo-European Italic beliefs and native Villanovan mythology. For example, Greek heroes like Achilles and Ajax appear heavily in Etruscan art. But so do the Etruscan psychopompoi (translating roughly to ‘guides of the souls’) Charun (who looks a bit like a modern image of a demon) and Vanth (who looks the part of a modern interpretation of an angel). In some images, Ajax or Achilles are pictured next to or in front of one of these Etruscan underworld spirit guides.

Charun and Vanth watching over or guarding the entrance to an Etruscan tomb in the ancient city of Tarquinia.

One of the more relevant (to Mortal Gods) features of Etruscan religion was the practice of augury. Augurs were Etruscans (anyone could practice augury) who specialized in interpreting the signs and omens (known as auspicia) brought about by the Gods. Omens usually came in at least one of four ways–through lightning, the flight of birds, through plants, and also through the wild beasts of the land. Augurs could also interpret happenings (known as portents, or dīrīs) that occurred unexpectedly, perhaps during a speech or important military event (say a fox running across a battlefield, or a storm cloud appearing during a political debate). These were considered extremely important and usually something that foretold something awful (though not always for the Etruscans).

Despite such a durable cultural presence, their legacy was nearly vanquished by the Romans in the 3rd Century BCE when the last of the Etruscan cities was destroyed (…or surrendered peacefully? The archaeological jury is still out). They would eventually assimilate into Roman society over the next few hundred years as the Romans absorbed their lands.

Etruscan Augur.

Augury and the other Etruscan practice of haruspex (the practice where a priest or priestess reads the bumps on a liver of a sacrificed animal to determine the future) would outlive the Etruscans. Even after the collapse of the Etruscan civilization and the envelopment by the Romans, Etrusco-Roman augurs and haruspices would pass along their wisdom from the entrails of sheep for generations. One famous Etruscan haruspex, whose name was Spurinna, delivered the ominuous warning to Julius Caesar of his ill fate on the Ides of March.

Besides their priestly sect and practices, other Etruscan influences remained. Latin is derived from the aforementioned Etruscan language; many English words have their roots in ‘Latinized’ Etruscan–lots of mundane, vernacular elements (Oh hey! those three words are all derived from Etruscan!). Etruscan military discipline and reforms from the Roman Kingdom also remained, though adapted upon and perfected by the Romans during the Samnite and Punic Wars. Indeed, western culture owes a debt to the Etruscans; if not for them, Rome may never have established itself–it may not have risen to power and ‘Empire’ and we may not have a ‘West’ as we know it today.

That about wraps up Part 1. I have to save the rest for a potential future booklet. Let’s consider all of this going into the next part, which will focus on the military side of the Etruscans, their place within the Classical period, and how they may impact Mortal Gods!

About the Author

Hi there! I'm Phatis. So there I was, minding my own business in Hades, when the War Banner gods summoned me by some ritual or another and bound me to this thankless Fate--writing about Mortal Gods. But fear not, mortals! I do enjoy my profession, even if I am only compensated by way of caffeinated drinks.

2 Comments on "Mortal Gods: The Etruscans (Part 1) – Mystery, History, and Culture"

  1. Avatar Richard John Severn | May 7, 2019 at 7:49 pm | Reply

    Superbly written and researched. Really informative.

    Thankyou Phatis

  2. As usual I am so impressed with your research and writing ability. Keep putting things like this out there. The quality is definitely there, IMHO.

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