The History of Rome (Mommsen)/Book 1/Chapter 9



Etruscan Nationality. The Etruscan people, or Ras,[1] as they called themselves, present a striking contrast to the Latin and Sabellian Italians, as well as to the Greeks. They were distinguished from these nations by their very bodily structure: instead of the slender and symmetrical proportions of the Greeks and Italians, the sculptures of the Etruscans exhibit only short sturdy figures with large heads and thick arms. Their manners and customs also, so far as we are acquainted with them, point to the conclusion that this nation was originally quite distinct from the Græco-Italian stocks. The religion of the Tuscans, in particular, presenting a gloomy fantastic character, and delighting in the mystical handling of numbers and in wild and horrible speculations and practices, is equally remote from the clear rationalism of the Romans and the genial image-worship of the Hellenes. The conclusion which these facts suggest is confirmed by the most important and authoritative evidence of nationality, the evidence of language. The remains of the Etruscan tongue which have reached us, numerous as they are, and presenting so many data to aid in deciphering it, occupy a position of isolation so complete, that not only has no one hitherto succeeded in its interpretation, but no one has been able even to determine precisely its proper place in the classification of languages. Two periods in the development of the language may be clearly distinguished. In the older period the vocalization of the language was completely carried out, and the collision of two consonants was almost without exception avoided.[2] By throwing off the vocal and consonantal terminations, and by the weakening or rejection of the vowels, this soft and melodious language was gradually changed in character, and became intolerably harsh and rugged.[3] They changed, for example ramuθaʃ into ramθa, Tarquinius into Tarchnaʃ, Minerva into Menrva, Menelaos, Polydeukes, Alexandros, into Menle, Pultuke, Elckʃentre. The indistinct and rugged nature of their pronunciation is shown most clearly by the fact that at a very early period the Etruscans ceased to distinguish o from u, b from p, c from g, d from t. At the same time the accent was, as in Latin and in the more rugged Greek dialects, uniformly thrown back upon the initial syllable. The aspirate consonants were treated in a similar fashion; while the Italians rejected them with the exception of the aspirated b or the f, and the Greeks, reversing the case, rejected this sound and retained the rest—θ, φ, χ, the Etruscans allowed the softest and most pleasing of them, the φ, to drop entirely except in words borrowed from other languages, and on the other hand made use of the other three to an extraordinary extent, even where they had no proper place; Thetis for example became Thethis, Telephus Thelaphe, Odysseus Utuze or Uthuze. Of the few terminations and words, whose meaning has been ascertained, most have not the most distant analogy to the Græco-Italian languages; such as the termination al employed as a designation of descent, frequently of descent from the mother, e. g. Canial, which, on a bilingual inscription of Chiusi, is translated by Cainia natus; and the termination sa in the names of women, used to indicate the clan into which they have married, e. g. Lecnesa denoting the spouse of a Licinius. Cela or clan, with the inflection clensi means son; seχ daughter; ril year; the god Hermes becomes Turms, Aphrodite Turan, Hephæstos Sethlans, Bakchos Fufluns. Alongside of these strange forms and sounds there certainly occur isolated analogies between the Etruscan and the Italian languages. Proper names are formed, substantially, after the general Italian system. The frequent gentile termination enas or ena[4] recurs in the termination enus, which is likewise of frequent occurrence in Italian, especially in Sabellian clan-names; thus the Etruscan names Vivena and Spurinna correspond closely to the Roman Vibius or Vibienus, and Spurius. A number of names of divinities, which occur as Etruscan on Etruscan monuments or in authors, have in their roots, and to some extent even in their terminations, a form so thoroughly Latin, that, if these names were really originally Etruscan, the two languages must have been closely related; such as Usil (sun and dawn, connected with ausum, aurum, aurora, sol), Minerva (menervare), Lasa (lascivus), Neptunus, Voltumna. As these analogies, however, may have had their origin in the subsequent political and religious relations between the Etruscans and Latins, and in the accommodations and borrowings to which these relations gave rise, they do not invalidate the conclusion to which we are led by the other observed phenomena, that the Tuscan language differed as widely from all the Græco-Italian dialects as did the languages of the Celts or of the Slavonians. So at least it sounded to the Roman ear; "Tuscan and Gallic" were the languages of barbarians, "Oscan and Volscian" were but rustic dialects.

But, while the Etruscans thus were far removed from the Græco-Italian stock, no one has yet succeeded in connecting them with any other known race. All sorts of dialects have been examined with a view to discover their affinity with the Etruscan, sometimes by simple interrogation, sometimes by torture, but all without exception in vain. The geographical position of the Basque nation would naturally suggest it as not unlikely to be cognate; but even in the Basque language no analogies of a decisive character have been brought forward. As little do the scanty remains of the Ligurian language, which have reached our time, consisting of local and personal names, indicate any connection with the Tuscans. Even the extinct nation which has constructed in thousands those enigmatical sepulchral-towers called Nuraghe in the islands of the Tuscan Sea, especially in Sardinia, cannot well be connected with the Etruscans, for not a single structure of the same character is to be met with in Etruria. The most we can say is that several traces, apparently reliable, point to the conclusion that the Etruscans may be on the whole included among the Indo-Germans. Thus mi in the beginning of many of the older inscriptions is certainly ἐμί, εἰμί, and the genitive form of consonantal stems veneruʃ rafuvuʃ, is exactly reproduced in old Latin, corresponding to the old Sanscrit termination as. In like manner the name of the Etruscan Zeus, Tina or Tinia, is probably connected with the Sanscrit dina, meaning day, as Ζάν is connected with the synonymous diwan. But, even granting those points of connection, the Etruscan people appears withal scarcely less isolated. "The Etruscans," Dionysius said long ago, "are like no other nation in language and manners," and we have nothing to add to his statement.

Home of the Etruscans. It is equally difficult to determine from what quarter the Etruscans migrated into Italy; nor is much lost through our inability to answer the question, for this migration belonged at any rate to the infancy of the people, and their historical development began and ended in Italy. No question, however, has been handled with greater zeal than this, in accordance with the principle which induces antiquaries especially to inquire into what is neither capable of being known nor worth the knowing—to inquire "who was Hecuba's mother," as the Emperor Tiberius is said to have done. As the oldest and most important Etruscan towns lay far inland (indeed we find not a single Etruscan town of any note immediately on the coast except Populonia, which we know for certain was not one of the old twelve cities), and, further, as the movement of the Etruscans in historical times was from north to south, it seems probable that they migrated into the peninsula by land. Indeed the low stage of civilization in which we find them would ill accord with the hypothesis of their having migrated by sea. Nations in the earliest times crossed a strait as they would a stream; but to land on the west coast of Italy was a very different matter. We must therefore seek for the earlier home of the Etruscans to the west or north of Italy. It is not wholly improbable that the Etruscans may have come into Italy over the Rætian[errata 1] Alps; for the oldest traceable settlers in the Grisons and Tyrol, the Ræti[errata 2], spoke Etruscan down to historical times, and their name sounds similar to that of the Has. They may indeed have been remains of the Etruscan settlements on the Po; but it is at least quite as likely that may have been a portion of the nation which remained behind in its earlier abode.

In glaring contradiction to this simple and natural view stands the story that the Etruscans were Lydians who had emigrated from Asia. It is very ancient: it already occurs in Herodotus; and it reappears in later writers with innumerable changes and additions, although several intelligent inquirers, such as Dionysius, expressly declared their disbelief in it, and pointed to the fact that there was not the slightest similarity apparent between the Lydians and Etruscans in religion, laws, manners, or language. It is possible that an isolated band of pirates from Asia Minor may have reached Etruria, and that their adventure may have given rise to such tales; but more probably the whole story rests on a mere verbal mistake. The Italian Etruscans, or the Tursennæ (for this appears to be the original form and the basis of the Greek Τυρσ-ηνοί, Τυῤῥενοί, of the Umbrian Turs-ci, and of the two Roman forms Tusci, Etrusci), nearly coincide in name with the Lydian Τοῤῥηβοί, or perhaps also Τυῤῥ-ηνοί, so named from the town Τυῤῥα. This manifestly accidental resemblance in name seems to be in reality the only foundation for that hypothesis—not rendered more reliable by its great antiquity—and for all the pile of crude historical speculation that has been reared upon it. By connecting the ancient maritime commerce of the Etruscans with the piracy of the Lydians, and then by confounding (Thucydides is the first who has demonstrably done so) the Torrhebian pirates, whether rightly or wrongly, with the filibustering Pelasgians, who roamed and plundered on every sea, there has been produced one of the most unhappy complications in historical tradition. The term Tyrrhenians denotes sometimes the Lydian Torrhebi—such is the case in the earliest sources, as in the Homeric hymns; sometimes under the form Tyrrheno-Pelasgians or simply that of Tyrrhenians, the Pelasgian nation; sometimes, in fine, the Italian Etruscans, although the latter never came into lasting contact with the Pelasgians or Torrhebians, nor at all connected with them by common descent.

Settlements of the Etruscans in Italy. It is, on the other hand, a matter of historical interest to determine what were the oldest traceable abodes of the Etruscans, and what were their further movements when they left these. Various circumstances attest that before the great Celtic invasion they dwelt in the district to the north of the Po, being conterminous on the east along the Adige with the Veneti of Illyrian (Albanian?) descent, on the west with the Ligurians. This is proved in particular by the existence of the already mentioned rugged Etruscan dialect which was still spoken in Livy's time by the inhabitants of the Rhætian Alps, and by the fact that Mantua remained Tuscan down to a late period. To the south of the Po, and at the mouths of that river, Etruscans and Umbrians were mingled, the former as the dominant, the latter as the older race, which had founded the old commercial towns of Hatria and Spina, while the Tuscans appear to have been the founders of Felsina (Bologna) and Ravenna. A long time elapsed ere the Celts crossed the Po; hence the Etruscans and Umbrians left deeper traces of their existence on the right bank of the river than they had done on the left, which they had to surrender at an earlier period. All the districts, however, to the north of the Apennines passed too rapidly out of the hands of one nation into those of another to permit the formation of any continuous national development there.

Far more important in an historical point of view was the great settlement of the Tuscans in the land which still bears their name. Although Ligurians or Umbrians were perhaps at one time (P. 120) settled there, the traces of their occupation have been wholly effaced by the civilization of their Etruscan successors. In this region, which extends along the coast from Pisæ to Tarquinii, and is shut in on the east by the Apennines, the Etruscan nationality found its permanent abode, and maintained itself with great tenacity down to the time of the Empire. The northern boundary of the proper Tuscan territory was formed by the Arnus; the region north from the Arnus as far as the mouth of the Macra and the Apennines was a debateable border land in the possession sometimes of Ligurians, sometimes of Etruscans, and, in consequence, larger settlements did not succeed there. The southern boundary was probably formed at first by the Ciminian Forest, a chain of hills south of Viterbo, and at a later period by the Tiber. We have already (P. 121) noticed the fact that the territory between the Ciminian range and the Tiber, with the towns Sutrium, Nepete, Falerii, Veii, and Cære appears to have been taken possession of by the Etruscans at a period considerably later than the more northerly district, possibly not earlier than in the second century of Rome, and that the original Italian population must have maintained its ground in this region, especially in Falerii, although in a relation of dependence.

From the time at which the river Tiber became the line of demarcation between Etruria on the one side, and Umbria and Latium on the other, peaceful relations probably upon the whole prevailed in that quarter, and no essential change seems to have taken place in the boundary line, at least so tar as concerned the Latin frontier. Vividly as the Romans were impressed by the feeling that the Etruscan was a foreigner, while the Latin was their countryman, they yet seem to have stood in much less fear of attack or of danger from the right bank of the river than, for example, from their kinsmen in Gabii and Alba; and this was natural, for they were protected in that direction, not merely by the broad stream which formed a natural boundary, but also by the circumstance, so momentous in its bearing on the mercantile and political development of Rome, that none of the more powerful Etruscan towns lay immediately on the river, as did Rome on the Latin bank. The Veientes were the nearest to the Tiber, and it was with them that Rome and Latium came most frequently into serious conflict, especially for the possession of Fidenæ, which served the Veientes as a sort of tête du pont on the left bank just as Janiculum served the Romans on the right, and which was sometimes in the hands of the Latins, sometimes in those of the Etruscans. The relations of Rome with the somewhat more distant Cære were on the whole far more peaceful and friendly than those which we usually find subsisting between neighbours in early times. There are indeed vague legends, reaching back to times of distant antiquity, about contests between Latium and Cære; Mezentius the king of Cære, for instance, is asserted to have obtained great victories over the Latins, and to have imposed upon them a wine-tax; but evidence much more positive than that which attests a former state of feud is supplied by tradition as to an especially close connection between the two ancient centres of commercial and maritime intercourse in Latium and Etruria. Reliable traces of any advance of the Etruscans beyond the Tiber, by land, are altogether wanting. It is true that Etruscans are named in the first ranks of the great barbarian host, which Aristodemus annihilated in 230 u.c. [524] under the walls of Cumæ (P. 121); but, even if we regard that account as deserving credit in all its details, it only shows that the Etruscans had taken part in a great plundering expedition. It is far more important to observe that south of the Tiber no Etruscan settlement can be pointed out as having owed its origin to founders who came by land; and that no indication whatever is discernible of any serious pressure by the Etruscans upon the Latin nation. The possession of the Janiculum and of both banks of the mouth of the Tiber remained, so far as we can see, undisputed in the hands of the Romans. As to the migrations of bodies of Etruscans to Rome, we find an isolated statement drawn from Tuscan annals, that a Tuscan band, led by Cælius Vivenna of Volsinii and after his death by his faithful companion Mastarna, was conducted by the latter to Rome, and settled there on the Cælian Mount. We may hold the account to be trustworthy, although the addition that this Mastarna became king in Rome under the name of Servius Tullius is certainly nothing but an improbable conjecture of the archaeologists who busied themselves with legendary parallels. The name of the "Tuscan quarter" at the foot of the Palatine (P. 53) points to a similar settlement.

It can hardly, moreover, be doubted that the last regal family which ruled over Rome, that of the Tarquins, was of Etruscan origin, whether it belonged to Tarquinii as the legend asserts, or to Cære where the family tomb of the Tarchnas has recently been discovered. The female name also Tanaquil or Tanchvil, interwoven with the legend, while it is not Latin, is common in Etruria. But the traditional story, according to which Tarquin was the son of a Greek who had migrated from Corinth to Tarquinii, and came to settle in Rome as a metoikos, is neither history nor legend, and the historical chain of events is manifestly in this instance not entangled merely, but completely torn asunder. If anything at all can be deduced from this tradition beyond the bare and really unimportant fact that a family of Tuscan descent were the last who swayed the sceptre in Rome, it can only be held as implying that this dominion of a man of Tuscan origin should neither be viewed as a dominion of the Tuscans or of any one Tuscan community over Rome, nor conversely as a dominion of Rome over southern Etruria. There is, in fact, no sufficient ground either for the one hypothesis or for the other. The history of the Tarquins was acted out in Latium, not in Etruria; and Etruria, so far can see, during the whole regal period exercised no influence of any essential moment on either the language or customs of Rome, and did not at all interrupt the regular development of the Roman state or of the Latin league.

The cause of this comparatively passive attitude of Etruria towards the neighbouring land of Latium is probably to be sought partly in the struggles of the Etruscans with the Celts on the Po (which it is probable that the Celts did not cross until after the expulsion of the kings from Rome), and partly in the inclination of the Etruscan people towards navigation and the acquisition of supremacy on the sea and seaboard, a tendency decidedly exhibited in their settlements in Campania, and of which we shall speak more fully in the next chapter.

The Etruscan constitution. The Tuscan constitution, like the Greek and Latin, was based on the gradual transition of the community to an urban life. The early direction of the national energies towards navigation, trade, and industry, appears to have called into existence urban commonwealths, in the strict sense of the term, earlier in Etruria than elsewhere in Italy. Cære is the first of all the Italian towns that is mentioned in Greek records. On the other hand we find that the Etruscans had, on the whole, less of the ability and the disposition for war than the Romans and Sabellians. The un-Italian custom of employing mercenaries to fight for them occurs among the Etruscans at a very early period. The oldest constitution of the communities must, in its general outlines, have resembled the Roman. Kings or Lucumones ruled, possessing similar insignia, and probably therefore a similar plenitude of power with the Roman kings. A strict line of demarcation separated the nobles from the common people. The resemblance in the clan-organization is attested by the analogy of the systems of names; only, among the Etruscans, descent on the mother's side received much more consideration than in Roman law. The constitution of their league appears to have been very lax. It did not embrace the whole nation, but the northern and the Campanian Etruscans were associated in confederacies of their own in the same way as the communities of Etruria proper. Each of these leagues consisted of twelve communities, which recognized a metropolis, especially for purposes of worship, and a federal head or rather high priest, but appear to have been substantially on a level in respect of rights, and some of them so powerful that neither could a hegemony establish itself, nor could the central authority attain consolidation. In Etruria proper Volsinii was the metropolis. Of the rest of its twelve towns we know by trustworthy tradition only Perusia, Vetulonium, Volci, and Tarquinii. It was, however, quite as unusual for the Etruscans really to act in concert, as it was for the Latin confederacy to do otherwise. Wars were ordinarily carried on by a single community, which endeavoured to interest in its cause such of its neighbours as it could; and when an exceptional case occurred in which war was resolved on by the league, individual towns very frequently kept aloof from it. The Etruscan confederations appear to have been from the first, still more than the other Italian leagues formed on a similar basis of national affinity, deficient in a firm and paramount central authority.

  1. Ras-ennæ, with the gentile termination mentioned at p. 126.
  2. To this period belong e. g. inscriptions on the clay vases of Cære, such as, miniceθuamimaθumaramlisiaiθipurenaieθeeraisieepanamineθunastavhelefu, or mi ramuθaʃ kaiufinaia.
  3. We may form some idea of the sound which the language now had from the commencement of the great inscription of Perusia; eulat tanna larezul amevaχr lautn velθinase stlaafunas sleleθcaru.
  4. Such as Mæcenas, Porsena, Vivenna, Cæcina, Spurinna. The vowel in the penult is originally long, but in consequence of the throwing back of the accent upon the initial syllable, is frequently shortened, and even rejected. Thus we find Porsĕna as well as Porsēna, and Ceicne as well as Cæcina.


  1. Original: Rhætian was amended to Rætian: detail
  2. Original: Rhæti was amended to Ræti: detail