The History of Etruria

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The Founding of Rome and the Monarchy

"...a careful study of the archaeological evidence is sufficient to persuade us that both the predominant role and the absolute chronological priority in the formation of the civilisation of Ancient Italy belong to the Etruscans" - The late Massimo Pallottino

First of all, I should point out that no civilisation has ever developed entirely as a consequence of another civilisation. Although Roman civilisation drew much of their cultural inheritance from that of the Etruscans, a great many other influences came to play later in their development, particularly from the Spartan Greeks. Most of the accomplishments of the Ancient Romans was due to their own native Italic abilities. In numerous accounts of the early days of Romans, the Romans are described as barbarians, who owed to the Etruscans many of the rudiments of their civilisation. This is a very superficial point of view. It is not the intention here to describe the early Romans as barbarians. In fact recent archaeological excavations on the Palatine Hill have revealed the presence of a substantial palace dating back to the mid 8th Century BCE. Excavations in 2006 have unearthed fossa type burial urns on the edge of the Roman Forum, near the Lapis Niger. Both these examples suggest that there may be some truth to the earliest legends. The objective however is to present a balanced account, including both sides of the argument.

Although the Greeks of Cumae had considerable influence, particularly in Campania and in Latium, the influence of the Etruscans is evidenced in a number of areas. Writing itself was brought to the people of Latium by the Etruscans. Archaic Latin inscriptions did not begin to appear until around 600 BCE, during the period of the Etruscan monarchy. These inscriptions such as the Lapis Niger Stele are written in both directions. This is termed boustrophedon printing (like an ox ploughing a field). The letter C, developed by the Etruscans from the Greeks to represent the unvoiced K sound was carried on into Latin, even though the Latin language had a G sound. The letter G itself evolved at a later stage. The letter Q is found in Archaic Etruscan as well as Latin inscriptions, although this was dropped as a redundant letter in the later Etruscan alphabet.

Apart from the linguistic evidence of Etruscan loan words in Latin, we have the physical evidence of typically Etruscan Orientalization period tombs being found throughout Latium, in Palestrina and even in Rome itself.

Knowledge of Rome's early history by the end of the Republic was limited to the traditions recorded by a few authors, and most of this work was based upon a single source, that of Varro.

Most of what Livy and others wrote during the first Century BCE is collected legends, many of Etruscan origins but ascribed to this period together with a few fragments of historical fact. If Romulus Numa Pompilius and Tullus Hostilius actually existed, they would be the equivalent of village chieftains. They certainly had no kingdom to speak of. There is archaeological evidence is that only with the first of the Etruscan kings, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (616-578) came a clearing of all the old huts and the foundation of a city in accordance with Etruscan ritual. Lucius is thought to be a Latin corruption of the Etruscan word Lauchum, meaning king.

It was the 19th Century writer Mommsen who first began to question the traditional accounts of the foundation of Rome. He wrote "Of course there is no question of an actual foundation of the city as the legend supposes.... The story of the establishment of Rome by Romulus and Remus is nothing but a na´ve invention of ancient pseudo history... It is essential for historians to clear away all such fables purporting to be history."

This statement, in his R÷mische Geschichte was quite bold considering the lack of proof at that time. When he talked of clearing away the fables, little did he know that as old fables were cleared away, a myriad of new and ever more hideous fables grew up in their place, in the manner of the Medusa.

In the preface to his histories, Livy himself wrote, "Events before Rome was born, or thought of have come to us in old tales with more of the charm of poetry than of a sound historical record, and such traditions I propose neither to affirm nor refute. There is no reason, I feel, to object when antiquity draws no hard line between the human and the supernatural : it add dignity to the past, and, if any nation deserves the privilege of claiming divine ancestry, that nation is our own."

It was to be early in the 20th Century that the first proof backing Mommsen's earlier theories was to be unearthed. Excavating near the ruins of the palace of the Emperor Domitian, in some of the earlier horizons, dating back to the 8th Century BCE, the Italian archaeologist Boni discovered postholes of huts. Further deep excavations revealed additional primitive dwellings going back to the beginning of the second millenium. There was evidence of shifting settlements. The remains of similar villages were found on the Esquiline and the Quirinal, but each separate from each other. By the early seventh century, the hilltop dwellings started to be built on the slopes as well. Then about 625 BCE, the settlements spread farther out. For the first time, the settlements spread into the valleys - a result of draining of the marshes, and evidence of Etruscan Engineering expertise at work.

In 1963, excavations on the site of the Forum Boarium unearthed many shards of bucchero, (the indicative pottery of the Etruscans) relating to that period.

The site of Rome itself was located near an island on the Tiber which provided a convenient crossing for the Etruscans during their frequent travels within Latium and their city states in Campania. About 575 BCE, the evidence shows that the familiar picture of primitive settlements suddenly changes. The straw and reed-roofed wattle huts at the foot of the Palatine, Esquiline and Quirinal disappear from the ground. This was not due to destruction by war or fire, but in accordance with a carefully planned building program.

The Swedish Archaeologist Einar Gjerstad said "There is no doubt that this date is epoch making in the history of Rome, marking the transition from a primitive and rustic type of habitation to a monumental and urbanistic form of culture. This transformation from pagi to urbs is the real foundation of Rome, inasmuch as Urbs and Roma are synonymous.

The forum itself was pebbled about that time. In that first 50 years, a considerable amount of progress had been made, starting with the draining of the marshes and the formation of an integrated city.

The Forum was outside that area in that first 50 years, and thereafter became the focal point of the city- Progress radiated from the forum at an astonishing rate. The streets were laid out in a regular manner, in accordance with Etruscan ritual. Sewers were laid in the centres of the streets. At the foot of the Palatine stood the Regia- the sanctuary of the king, and the round temple of Vesta (Etruscan Hestia) which also dated from about this period.

753 BCE was the legendary date for the founding of Rome, but Rome probably became a city in the true sense in the late seventh century BCE, not the mid 8th.

The notion of founding a city is not entirely modern. The Romans learned their rites for foundation of a city from the Etruscans and adopted them. The Romulus Legend itself preserves the more etrusco. According to Plutarch, Romulus "sent out for men out of Tuscany, who directed him by sacred usages and written rules in all the ceremonies to be observed, as in a religious rite." This model which appeared in the legend of Roma quadrata, was also reflected in the layout and orientation of Roman military camps, and include such details as the Via Praetoria, which is aligned with the Etruscan decumana, and the Via Principalis, aligned with the cardo. The cosmic conceptions associated with directions (in accordance with Piacenza liver) the also had an influence on the the significance of the gates. The auspicious Eastern facing porta praetoria was a lucky gate, and legionaries would march to battle through this gate.

Tarquinius Priscus was the son of a Greek who went to live in Tarquinii, in Etruria, from which he moved to Rome on the advice of his Etruscan wife, the prophet Tanaquil upon seeing an apparition of a dismembered head (which was to signify that Rome would become the "Head of all Italy"). Changing his name to Lucius Tarquinius, he was appointed guardian to the sons of Ancus Marcius. Upon the death of Ancus, Tarquin assumed leadership.

As previously noted, evidence shows that shortly after this, between about 625 and 575 BCE, the marshy ground between the hills was drained thanks to the skills of Etruscan engineers, and people began to occupy these areas. The Cloaca Maxima, the Great Sewer of Rome dates from about that time, and is still used to this day.

By 575, Etruscan Rome was becoming a true city and was making rapid progress in civil engineering, roads, a sewer system, and a water supply.

The Second Etruscan king of Rome was Servius Tullius, (579-534 BCE) whose Etruscan name was Mastarna and who was born in Vulci.

Livy's story was a lot more imaginative that this: The story of the son of a slave being brought up by the royal family as one of their own may have been fabricated in order to deny the fact that Rome's great reformer who laid down the laws which were later adopted in the new republic was born an Etruscan.

There are two clues which tell us otherwise. The first is a fragmentary speech given by the Emperor Claudius which tells the Etruscan version of the origins of Servius Tullius. The second is the painting of Etruscan heroes in the Francois Tomb at Vulci. Among the inscriptions is one "Macstarna" and the Vibenna brothers who fought against Tarquinius Priscus in battle. The Vibenna brothers were both killed in the conflict, but Mastarna was victorious, and went on to take the throne of Rome under the name Servius Tullius. (According to Livy, the sons of Ancus conspired to murder Tarquin.)

The defeat of Tarquinius Priscus by Servius Tullius was probably the result of conflict between the interests of two or three Etruscan cities, probably Tarquinia, Vulci and Veii. Evidence has been found in Veii of votive offerings by one Avele Vipenna of Vulci and is associated with this time of conflict.

During his forty five year reign, Servius Tullius founded the earliest and most important shrine of the Latin deity Diana on the Aventine Hill.

Many reforms occurred during the reign of Servius Tullus. He made major changes in the army. Originally, the army was composed of mounted warriors from the aristocratic classes called celeres or equites who rode into battle, dismounted, and engaged in individual combat with an opponent. Only those wealthy enough to outfit themselves with armor, equipment, and one or more horses were eligible to join these elite units. These equites should not be confused with the later social class called equites or knights, who ranked below the senatorial class in political power. Servius Tullus raised a levy of troops who needed only supply their own armor and weapons and organized them into phalanxes like those of the Greek Hoplites. The success of the phalanx in battle was due to teamwork and discipline rather than individual heroics. It was an enclosed box formation in which several ranks of troops could bring their long spears to bear on an enemy whilst enjoying the protection of the interlocked shields of the first couple of ranks. These units proved devastating when used in warfare against other Latin or Italian cities. This army consisted of 6000 men arranged into 60 centuries of 100 men each.

The Comitia Curiata was replaced by the Comitia Centuriata. Each century was thus supposed to be represented by one vote in the Centuriate Assembly. Later, the Romans were divided into 193 "centuries" for political purposes and the Centuriate Assembly consisted of 193 members.

The conquest of Alba Longa, Rome's ancient arch - rival city which lay 12 miles to the southeast of Rome is believed to have occurred some time during the reigns of the early kings. Other events in Roman history attributed to the period of the monarchy included the founding of the port of Ostia, originally situated to work salt deposits near the mouth of the Tiber and the building of Rome's first wooden bridge, the Pons Sublicius. The Servian Wall is attributed to Servius Tullus but may have been begun earlier as an earthen rampart and probably only enclosed the northern portion of the city during Tullus' reign.

A crucial treaty between Rome and the Latin League is also assigned to his reign. According to Livy, Servius Tullius was eventually killed by his daughter and her husband, who was to become the final king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud).

The reign of Tarquin the Proud reign is dated from 534 to 509BCE. He was in legend, the son or grandson of Tarquinius Priscus and son-in-law of Servius Tullius. Tarquin supposedly murdered Tullius and established an absolute despotism--hence his name Superbus, meaning "the proud."

Tinia, Uno and Menrva (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) were the Etruscan gods worshipped during the period of the Etruscan monarchy and the great temple on the Capitoline hill dedicated to the trinity was built by Tarquinius Superbus.

According to Livy , a reign of terror followed, and many senators were put to death. Eventually a group of senators led by Lucius Junius Brutus (another Etruscan nobleman) raised a revolt. According to several sources including Livy, the final straw was the rape of the noblewoman, Lucretia, by Tarquin's son Sextus.

Most historians believe that the actual reason for the fall of the Monarchy was a power struggle between the king and the leading aristocratic families. Tarquin attempted to curb the rising power of the aristocrats by packing the Senate with 200 of their supporters, increasing the total membership to 300 men. These were known as the conscripti or the enrolled ones and this word became part of the official title of the Senate, the Patres Conscripti or Conscript Fathers.

The Tarquin family was expelled from Rome, the monarchy at Rome was abolished and the Aristocracy set up a republic in 509 BCE.

This was not unique to Rome, and it seems that in the fifth and sixth centuries the Etruscan city states saw a change of government. The kings were overthrown by the land owning aristocracy and a government of annual magistrates was introduced. The details of Etruscan republican government are by no means clear, though the titles zilath, maru and purthne are attested for the chief magistrate.

The Establishment of a Republic did not mean that Rome became a completely Latinised city. Rome still had a considerable Etruscan influence for about 50 - 60 years afterwards. A substantian number of the Aristocracy had Etruscan background. These included Lucius Junius Brutus, who was instrumental in expelling Tarquinius Superbus.

The first two consuls were the above mentioned Brutus and Tarquinius Collatinus (both Etruscan).

By 506BC, we had Titus Herminius and Spurius Lacius etc . All of the above mentioned had Etruscan Lineage and the same pattern emerges up until the mid 5th century BCE.

In summary, although many modern texts still hang Romulus foundation of Rome as 753BCE, the evolution of that date in itself is well recorded. Even at the time of Augustus, the date is in dispute, with one version giving 750BCE.

Most web pages on Early Rome also faithfully churn out the old legends. On this site, I seek to give an alternative view which can be justified without the clouded viewpoint of blind translation of old classical myths.

History was developed as necessary to suit the times. Ancient mythology tended to simplify enormously what was a very complicated reality. They preferred the simplistic approach- the heroic founder. The Myth of ROmulus and Remus was well conceived. The embellished version preserves some strong but artificial symbolism.

To illustrate this point, and demonstrate some alternative mythologies:

Hellanikos (5th Century BCE has Odysseus and Aeneas founding Rome, which they name after one of the Trojan women, Rhome. His account dates Rome at about 965 BCE

In the third century the Sicilian historian Timaeus, places the date for the foundation of the city at 814/813 BCE.

One of the problems was the gap in time between Aeneas fleeing Troy and the advent of Romulus.

The mythology developed during between the 5th and 2nd Century and the story of Romulus and Remus was considerably refined, embellished and trimmed before it was committed to text by Varro in the first Century BCE.

There is no single hypothesis for this period of history/ prehistory that has been proven right. Nothing about this period is black and white. There are grey areas, with different schools of thought. Each school of thought has its problems, The truth is probably even more bizarre than we can guess.

   Introduction   |    Origins   |    Orientalizing Period   |    Early Rome   |    Etruscan Decline   |    Burning of the books   |    Home   |