History Lesson: The Rasenna

One of my favorite ancient peoples are the Etruscans. One of the behind-the-scenes antagonists in Empire was an Etruscan. These were a people who had the misfortune to live next to the colossal asshole Romans, who when they went to war with people would raze their cities and salt the very earth where the city once stood.

Here is something I wrote back in Grad School about the Etruscans, where I speculate that it was their influence that brought the “Greco” into the “Greco-Roman” paradigm. For any history geeks, it may be a little interesting.


It is a truism to note that a large amount of ancient Roman culture shares much in common with that of ancient Greece.  The very adjective “Greco-Roman” implies that the two cultures are virtually synonymous.  This similarity is not a newly noticed or produced idea either—“[f]or Heracleides Ponticus, who lived not long after that time…says that out of the West a story prevailed, how an army of Hyperboreans had come from afar and captured a Greek city called Rome…” (Plutarch Camillus 22).   In particular based on the Athenian model, Rome had a Senate made up of the patrician class, and an Assembly where the plebeians could also contribute (however marginally).  Rome’s Capitol was similar in function to the Acropolis.  Much of the art in Rome was similar to or originally from Greece in Ponticus’s time (4th Century BCE).   Based on these and other factors, it is quite easy to assume that Rome simply borrowed or adapted wholesale much of Greek culture.  A somewhat neglected, factor, however, is how much of the Greek influence was originally transmitted through an Etruscan filter.

A lack of written sources here is even more prevalent than in other cultures of antiquity—modern scholars have not yet deciphered the Etruscan vocabulary.  With some exceptions such as the Tabula Cortonensis and the Liber Linteus, the only written sources are Roman, dating from after the Etruscans had ceased to be a power and certainly with their own agenda, and Greek, who seemed to have focused on a few aspects such as Etruscan piracy and the promiscuity of the Etruscan women.  Even the amount of secondary sources is far smaller than for other ancient cultures.

Although  Herodotus, Seneca and Tacitus each claimed differing theories that spawned a debate lasting from antiquity until the last century, it is now thought that the Etruscans were autochthonous, inhabiting much of what is now northern Italy since before recorded history.  Of the ancient historians, only Dionysius of Halicarnassus agreed with what has today been accepted as fact. “Indeed, those probably come nearest to the truth who declare that the nation migrated from nowhere else, but was native to the country, since it is found to be a very ancient nation and to agree with no other either in its language or in its manner of living”  (Dionysius I 30).

It is clear that it was during the 7th and 6th centuries BCE when the Etruscans consistently came into contact with the Greeks.  “Greek trade with Etruria in the sixth century was obviously intense”  (Barker and Rasmussen 135).  Dionysius speaks of a Corinthian trader who “gained great profit” by carrying “a Greek cargo to the Tyrrhenians and a Tyrrhenian cargo to Greece” (Dionysius III 46).

The Etruscans were among the major Mediterranean powers in the 7th century, enough so that almost 8 centuries later Pliny the Elder noted how widespread their influence could still be seen.  “There are also Etruscan statues dispersed in various parts of the world, which beyond a doubt were originally made in Etruria” (Pliny the Elder Natural History Book 34 16).  It is somewhat ironic that the Etruscans ended up as the instrument that imparting Greek culture, as they were originally hostile rivals, particularly with the Phocaeans.  Of course, neither the term Etruscan nor the term Greek is indicative of a unified whole, as there was much variance between individual cities of both cultures.  Herodotus details the epic battle and savage consequences between the Etruscans and their allies the Carthaginians and the Phocaeans.

For five years they [the Phocaeans] annoyed their neighbours by plundering and pillaging on all sides, until at length the Carthaginians and Tyrrhenians leagued against them, and sent each a fleet of sixty ships to attack the town. The Phocaeans, on their part, manned all their vessels, sixty in number, and met their enemy on the Sardinian sea…They lost forty ships in the battle, and the twenty which remained came out of the engagement with beaks so bent and blunted as to be no longer serviceable.  The Carthaginians and Tyrrhenians, who had got into their hands many more than the Phocaeans from among the crews of the forty vessels that were destroyed, landed their captives upon the coast after the fight, and stoned them all to death.  (Herodotus History Book I)

The degree of Etruscan influence upon the city of Rome is striking.  Many famous Roman buildings, including aqueducts, the Servian Walls, the Cloaca Maxima, the Circus Maximus, and the Forum itself originated while the city was still under Etruscan control, from the later much-maligned Etruscan kings.   Other examples include the toga and trabea, the Sibylline books, the Troy game, fasces as a symbol of authority, and apparently even the idea of Aenas as a founder.  “At Veii a number of votive statuettes of Aenas carrying Anchises have been found….They date from the period 515-490 BCE…Further evidence is provided by a sixth-century Etruscan scarab also showing Aeneas carrying the sacra of Troy and Anchises  (Ogilvie 34).  And the first census was taken by the Etruscan king Servius Tullus.  The fact that the Etruscans used currency after 500 BCE, is due to Greek influence

(Macnamara 142).  This was another institution passed on to the Romans, though any Etruscan adaptation is unknown, and it is likely that the Romans would have learned it directly from the Greeks had the Etruscans not already ingrained it into the culture.

There is some difficulty in ascertaining which Greek influences were added via the Etruscans and which arrived after the fall of the Etruscans.  However, it is not until the war with Veii that “a consciousness of specifically Roman identity—an identity distinct from Etruscan or Latin—grew up” (Ogilvie 116).  Therefore the pertinent period starts with the Etruscans conquering/establishing of Rome in the mid 7th century BCE and ends approximately after the beginning of the war with Rome and Veii in the 470s BCE.  It is after this point, around 474 BCE, that the Etruscan filter can no longer be considered in the same manner, as a new, relatively Etruscan-less Rome came “increasingly into contact with the Greek world, notably Cumae and the Sicilian cities from which she brought corn” (Ogilvie 117).

Even after the Etruscans were evicted, however, and a distinct Roman identity grew, Etruscan influences were so strongly ingrained that some level of influence remained.   The Romans, so long as they were paid their taxes, did not impose “Roman” or “Latin” culture up them.  And after there were no more independent Etruscan cities, “the making of bronze vessels continued unabated and at an impressive level of skill…” (Barker and Rasmussen 281).  It was an Etruscan haruspex that warned Julius Caesar of the Ides of March, a few centuries after the last Etruscan city had ceased to exist on an independent political level.  Haruspices and other religious figures indeed were among the most enduring elements of Etruscan culture, lasting well into the Roman Empire. “And all the functions which among the Tyrrhenians…were performed by those they called cadmili in the rites of the Curetes and in those of the Great Gods, were performed in the same manner by those attendants of the priests who are now called by the Romans camilli” (Dionysius II 22).

A parallel exists between the city states of the Etruscans and the city states of the Phoenicians, Carthage in particular.  In a sort of cultural sense, Rome was itself an Etruscan colony.  Many of the very symbols of Rome and what it meant to be Roman were of Etruscan origination, such as the Capitoline wolf, which according to Ellen Macnamara originated in Veii in early 5th century (82).  Pliny the Elder notes that the curule chair originated from the Etruscans; the Etruscan symbols were so ingrained that “many of the historians have taken Rome itself for a Tyrrhenian city” (Dionysius Book I 29).  That being said, Rome was ultimately a Latin city, with its own language and allied to its Latin rather than its Etruscan neighbors.

It is clear that the Etruscans had a formative role in the founding of Rome; an obvious analogy would be that of parent.  But just as real parents have other influences that affect how they raise their children, so too did the Etruscans.  Their naval explorations of centuries past had brought them into contact with many cultures, but Greece certainly ranked among the foremost countries they traded with.  “[T]he Etruscans…throughout the period of their independent artistic expression were profoundly influenced by their Greek neighbors…” (Macnamara 62).  Although art is one of the most visible reminders of Greek influence upon the Etruscans, there were many more elements as well; religious, military, and linguistically, to name a few.  Also there was the Etruscan funerary imagery, “most of which is Greek-inspired” (Barker and Rasmussen 238).

Naturally the southern Etruscan cities seem to have dealt with the Greeks more frequently.   “Sybaris was famous for her close ties with Meletus, a Greek city in Asia Minor, and this, no doubt, was a main route by which Ionian styles reached Etruria and profoundly affected the taste of the period”  (Macnamara 29).  Rome would have been a natural stopping point for goods coming from Sybaris to northern Italy and the other Etruscan city-states.  In fact, it was largely for this reason—Rome’s central location—that led to the Etruscans developing of Rome into an advanced city.

The level of Greek culture that arrived via the Etruscans in Rome rather than directly from the Greeks will not ever be entirely clear.  If the above statements are at least partially true, it would certainly be a great amount.  However there are several specific examples that exist as well.

The most obvious and profound example is provided by the alphabet.  “It was shown long ago that the Latin alphabet is derived ultimately from the Greek, but as (at least partly) mediated through the Etruscan…” (Barker and Rasmussen 293).  The Etruscans created and modified some letters that later were prominent in Latin, in particular the letters C, G, and Q.  Having a distinct alphabet was of great cultural importance to the young city, indeed, it has been described as “[o]ne of the greatest gifts the Etruscans handed on to their neighbors was the art of writing.” (Macnamara 183).  It is not likely that Rome would have become Greek speaking had the Etruscans not helped construct a new alphabet for Rome, but it certainly helped to foster the new sense of “Rome” for the Republic  after 509 BCE.

The number of Etruscan words borrowed from the Greeks suggests extended contacts between the two peoples. For instance, the Romans used a survey instrument called groma.  “The word groma, and probably the instrument was derived from the Greeks, but reached the Romans from an Etruscan intermediary” (Macnamara 63).  The Greek God “Herakles” became for the Etruscans “Hercle” and ultimately ended up as the Roman “Hercules.” “The similarities between several Greek and Etruscan terms for different vessel shapes emphasize the close links between the two technologies…”  (Barker and Rasmussen 203).

Religion is another key component of the Etruscan’s adaptation and subsequent transference of Greek thought.  The residing impact of Etruscan faith was still evident well into the Empire.  “Still older than the City is the holm-oak that stands on the Vatican Hill: there is an inscription in bronze upon it, written in Etruscan characters, which states that even in those days it was an object of religious veneration” (Pliny the Elder The Natural History 16 87).  Though we do not have as good an idea of Etruscan religion as either that of the Greeks or Romans, much can be learnt from the vases and tomb paintings still being unearthed in Italy today.

Many scenes from Greek mythology are depicted in Etruscan art.  “The Etruscans brought with them…vigorous ideas.  They personalized their gods, they thought of them visually and they housed them in temples instead of merely dedicating altars to them.  In this they owed something to Greek influence…” (Oglive 37).  Though the Etruscans did have their own deities and demons, most of their pantheon were Greek in origin.  More notably, the Etruscan religion contributed greatly to Roman culture.  “The Etruscans for their part…had imitated the Greek institutions; and in due course they passed on their passion for games to the Romans”  (Wellard 166).  These games became the gladiator games, the Troy game, and other public performances.

After Veii was destroyed in 396 BCE, her principal Goddess Juno was imported into Rome.  “[T]here is no doubt that Veii’s goddess became established at Rome, as Juno Regina, in 392, in a temple on the Aventine Hill near the Byzantine church of S. Sabina.” (Ogilvie 156).  The ancients noted this adoption as well, although as might be expected they placed an entirely different emphasis.  In Camillus’ victory speech, he appeals to Juno directly.  “Queen Juno, to you I pray you may leave this town where now you dwell and follow our victorious arms into our City of Rome, your future home, which will receive you in a  temple worthy of your greatness”  (Livy History of Rome 5.21.2)

Pragmatically, one of the more important elements of Etruscan themed Greekery was provided by the Roman army.  Like most of southern Italy, Roman forces had typically been cavalry, until the Etruscan king 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 in the mid sixth century BCE.  It was also during this time that the Villanovan helmet and greave were replaced by Greek equivalents.  (Macnamara 131).   Not only were the Roman forces using technically superior equipment, but they begin to understand tactics on a level not previously enjoyed.

This newly forged heavy infantry was vital in enabling Roman forces to conquer other parts of Italy, and would be dominant for three more centuries.  “It was the Servian army that, despite all the transformations down the centuries, remained the tool of Roman success”  (Oglive 43).  One of the key factors in Rome being able to survive so many military campaigns during the Republic was their ability to use their heavy infantry against their lighter armed opponents, be they Gauls, Samnites, or Marsi.  Ironically, the Romans were able to defeat many of the remaining Etruscans by utilizing this same advantage.  Although “the Romans had learned both the use of the hoplite shield and the phalanx from the Etruscans” (Macnamara 138), many other Etruscan city-states did not likewise adopt these changes.

In addition to their contributions in the areas of linguistics, religion, and warfare, the Etruscan stamp of Hellenic culture could be found in other areas as well.  The building of symmetrical cities was imparted by the Etruscans to the Romans.  They themselves were influenced by a handful of prominent Greeks, most notably Hippodamus of Miletus.  Buildings in Rome and the Roman Empire were similar in nature to the Etruscan aristocratic houses, specifically with the atrium in the middle.

The Etruscan practice of cultivating grapes and olives was learned from the Greeks and subsequently passed onto the Romans.  Wine and olive oil were significant aspects of the Roman economy, and the fact that Rome remained an agrarian culture for so long has its roots in this practice.  The Etruscan influence on the economy, by helping establish staple foods as well as introducing coinage, were as important to the developing Roman city as their religious or military contributions.

Etruscan art was remarkably similar to Greek.  Long after the Etruscans had ceased as an independent power, their art remained influential in the city of Rome. Pliny the Elder writes how it was required for “an artist called Vulca from Veii to make a statue of Jupiter for the Capitol…Vulca further made the Hercules still known at Rome as ‘the clay Hercules.’  These were the most magnificent statues known in those days…”  (Pliny Natural History 35 158).  In this case, the subject—Hercules—was inspired of Hellenism, but often the nature of the art, such as pottery, was in the Greek mold as well.

Pliny also gives as an example of how other art forms were brought via the Greeks to the Etruscans.  The account suggests something of a snowball effect, as more Greek artisans came to parts of Etruria, the more fashionable and feasible it was for others to follow.

According to some authorities clay modeling was first introduced in Samos by Rhoikos and Theodoros, long before the expulsion of the Bacchiadai from Corinth, and when Damaratos fled from that city to Etruria, where his son Tarquinius, afterwards King of Rome, was born, he was accompanied by three potters, Eucheir, Diopos, and Eugrammos, who introduced the art of modeling into ‘clay’ (Pliny Natural History 35 152).

An apparent exception to the Etruscan influences would be political, in that Rome became a Republic, somewhat on the Greek model, and the Etruscan cities seem to have held onto monarchies far longer than their contemporaries.  However, this is not as big a difference as it might seem.  In the guise of Republic or Empire, Rome was more less an oligarchy either way.  Though the princeps had considerable amounts of power, this was not so different from what Sulla, Pompey, Caesar and other notable senators had had during the Republic.  Both the Etruscan and the Roman cities were oligarchies.  Etruscan nobles remained influential well into the Empire–one Emperor—Otho—was of Etruscan descent, as was one of the wives of the Emperor Claudius.

On of the characteristics of Rome was its tendency to borrow from the cultures it had defeated and adapt them as Roman customs and objects.  This varied from the divine–Juno from Veii, Castor and Pollux from Latins—to the everyday such as carriages from the Celts.  Because of their proximity and role in establishing Rome as a city, the Etruscans had elements of culture borrowed on a scale probably larger than other cultures.  A significant foundation of the Greek renaissance that occurred in Rome in the 2nd century CE had been established through the Hellenic layer imparted by the Etruscans, especially before the 470s BCE.

Still Veii’s fall did not mark the end of the Etruscans.  They continued to exist independently for over a hundred years longer. By the time the last Etruscan city-state fell, in 264 BCE, the Greeks were no longer the strong cultural presence they had been for centuries. Alexander the Great, the great Hellenic disseminator, had died a century before.  In particular, Athens had arguably been in social decline since the 5th century BCE.  However, Greek culture remained intact by having been imparted to so many cities.  The Greek influences in Rome were somewhat unique in that Alexander and his successors had not actively forced it upon them, as he had in Parthia, Egypt, etc.  This was largely moot, as the Etruscans had already passed many of the key Greek institutions, customs, and art to Rome.  The existing level of Etruscan and Etruso-Greek institutions and customs in Rome left it more susceptible to further Greek influences.

Too often political and social changes are attributed to one person or one small group of people.  Servius Tullus, and to a lesser extent, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus  do seem largely responsible for many of the Greek institutions found in Rome, but it is misleading to overrate their influence.  Rather, due to the fluid nature of a fledgling Rome, coupled with the influential role played by the Etruscans, meant that much of the Hellenism in Rome was there through the influence of the Etruscans.

Beyond the concrete examples still evident today, there are potentially many other cases that have been lost in the intervening two and a half millennia.  The fact that the Etruscans were so heavily influenced by the Greeks, and then played such a formative role in the genesis of Rome’s foundation ensures that it was a notable legacy.  However, it was not by any means absolute and at no point did Rome become completely Etruscan.


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