Ancient Civilizations: The Etruscans

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13086

With an unknown origin, a mysterious language, and no written history or literature, the Etruscans were ignored by historians for ages. So why do we consider them so important now?


World, World

learning style
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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The Ancient Romans are famous for their gladiators, paved roads, aqueducts, planned towns, arches on buildings, and their alphabet. But did they really invent all these things themselves, or did they borrow them from another culture?

The Etruscans are known for their art, trade, love of luxury and feasting, the unique role of women in their society, and their puzzling language.

Historians are still debating where the Etruscans came from, but we know they settled near the Po River in northern Italy - a rich, fertile valley - sometime around 800 BC. They built channels to drain the marshy lands and planted farms, vineyards, and orchards.

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From there, they spread out and came to control most of northern and central Italy before the Romans arrived. They had 12 main cities, shown on the map below as the Etruscan League cities.

map of Etruscan civilization

Image by NormanEinstein, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The cities formed the Etruscan League and joined together in fighting their enemies and establishing trade with other peoples. They traded far and wide, selling their wine, grain, pottery, olive oil, and iron.

Their land, which they called Etruria, was rich in metals; so they became experts in metalworking, making items out of bronze, gold, and other metals. They made beautiful vessels, stands, mirrors, jewelry, statues, and other works of art. They traded with the Greeks and adopted some Greek artistic styles.

Art and Lifestyle

Visit Etruscan Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take a look at some of their artwork. (Click on the main image at the top to see all of the works of art.)

The Etruscans left thousands of small inscriptions, but so far no written "history" of their civilization has been found. Most of what we know about the Etruscans comes from their tombs. For example, here's a mural found inside an Etruscan tomb:

Etruscan tomb

The tomb murals often show people at feasts, relaxing on low couches while servants bring them food and drinks from tables piled high with meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables, herbs, and spices. They have luxurious settings, soft and plush material, and fluffy pillows. They drink from silver vessels.

The Etruscans grew grapes and made wine, which they carried across the Mediterranean to trade with other countries...and enjoyed drinking themselves, of course!

At their feasts, they had musicians play music on flutes and lyres (small harps), and the women dressed in fine clothing and were adorned with much jewelry.

Other murals in tombs show pictures of dancing, games, people acting out a play, and chariot racing.

chariot racing mural

Role of Women

Historians realized something surprising when they began to study Etruscan art: Etruscan women were considered as equals to men. They knew this because women are pictured as reclining with men at the feasts. This was something that shocked the Greeks when they saw it!

A 4th-century BC writer named Theopompus wrote:

"They [Etruscan women] sit down to table not beside their own husbands but besides any of the guests, and they even drink to the health of anyone they please!"

An Etruscan woman could have her own money and possessions, and her children would take her name as well as her husband's name.

Look at some examples of Etruscan sarcophagi (stone coffins). Notice how some show husbands and wives reclining together and some show women reclining by themselves. It's clear from these pieces of art that Etruscan women were honored members of society.

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Although there are many examples of Etruscan writing, most of them are short inscriptions; so their language is still a puzzle to historians. We know that the Etruscans borrowed letters from the Greeks, and that they wrote their words from right to left. But we don't know their spoken language. So, while we can sound out the words they wrote, we don't always know what they mean!

terracotta vase with the 26 letters of the Etruscan alphabet

Image from the Fletcher Fund, 1924 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is in the public domain.

If you tried to read French, Italian, or Spanish without having studied the language, you might be able to say the words, but you would not know what most of them meant. The alphabets are almost the same, but the arrangement of the letters is different, making up different words. So it is with the Etruscans.

End of the Etruscans

Eventually, around 500 BC, the Romans began taking over the Etruscans' land. Although there were a few battles, they did not really "conquer" them; it was more like the Romans "absorbed" the Etruscan civilization into their own.

Now, move on to the Got It? section, where you'll find out how much the Romans borrowed from the Etruscans and make a slideshow of Etruscan cities that have survived until this day!

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