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The pioneers of Italian civilization: 8th - 3rd century BC

From the 8th century BC the Etruscans provide Italy's first civilization. There has been much debate as to whether they are an indigenous Italian people or are immigrants from the Greek coast of Asia Minor.

There are good arguments on either side. Many Etruscan customs derive from their predecessors in the region, the Villanovans, who are the first Italians to use iron. On the other hand the Etruscans write in a Greek script and their art has close links with Greece. Moreover early tradition derives them from Asia Minor; Herodotus writes, in the 5th century BC, that they migrated from Lydia. A combination seems likely, with some powerful immigrants dominating but not replacing the Villanovans.


The heartland of the Etruscan culture is the west coast of Italy between the Arno and the Tiber. The name of Tuscany still recalls their prominence in the region. From the 7th century BC a network of Etruscan city-states gradually spreads across this area including, in the extreme south, the town of Rome. By the mid-6th century Etruscan influence extends even further, across the whole width of the peninsula from the Po down to beyond Rome.

This is the peak from which there is now a steady decline. In 524 BC the Etruscans are defeated by the Greek colonists of Cumae, near modern Naples. In about 509 the ruling Etruscan dynasty is expelled from Rome.


As Rome grows in power, she variously conquers or absorbs, one by one, the independent Etruscan city-states. They vanish into the larger civilization which they have helped to create.

But they survive in their art. It is preserved, as in the earlier case of Egypt, because so much of it is buried with the dead. The Etruscans hollow out rock tombs, often with several chambers, which they furnish like a house for the next world. Funerary objects include excellent pots and bronzes, usually following the Greek style of a generation earlier. The walls of the tombs are painted with vivacious scenes, in a stylized manner of Greek painting which has not survived in Greece itself.


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