Introduction. Etruscans. Beginnings of Rome.

Lecture 1, Thursday 18th January 2018

How do we even begin to approach Rome? 


“Rome, to you love will come suddenly with passion”
5 century CE poet Sidonius Apollinaris (Ep. 9.14), see Bond 2016

Rome’s traditional foundation date 21st April 753 BCE
Rome’s birthday celebrated with an official festival, the Parilia (Ovid, Fasti 4.721ff.)
Regal period at  Rome 753 – 509 BCE
Roman Republic 509 BCE – 27 BCE
Roman Empire 27 BCE – 476 CE
“fall” of Rome 330 CE: capital moved Rome to Constantinople (Nova Roma)
395 CE: split into West + East
476 CE: Western portion falls
1453 CE: East falls to Ottoman Turks
Rome’s 1st king: Romulus, 753 – c. 717 BCE
Rome’s 1st emperor: Augustus (considered calling self Romulus, Suet. Aug. 7), 27 BCE – 14 CE
Rome’s last emperor = Romulus Augustulus (‘Romulus little Augustus’),  460 CE – after 476 CE

ETRUSCANS: late 8th – 5th century BCE

“Historically, the Etruscans were the people who inhabited the roughly triangular region on the west coast of Italy bounded by the rivers Tiber and Arno. Although they apparently called themselves ‘Rasenna’ (Dionysius of Halicarnassus 1.30.3), they were known to the Romans as Etrusci or Tusci, and to the Greeks as Tyrrhenians or Tyrsenians, names that survive in the language of modern geography (Tuscany, the Tyrrhenian Sea. Etruscan civilisation reached its cultural zenith in the period from the 8th to the 5th century BCE, when powerful city-states emerged. These are conventionally divided into a southern group: Veii, Caere, Tarquinii, Vulci; a northern group: Volaterrae, Populonia, Vetulonia, Rusellae; inland: Arretium, Cortona, Perusia, Clusium, Volsinii.” (Cornell 1995: 45)

Map of Ancient Italy, Map of Etruscan influence.

Left image: AWMC, right image: wikimedia.


What did early settlements in Italy look like?

Hut-urn (9th/8th century BCE)

Left: Hut-urn with removable door. For more views of this urn, see British Museum.
Right: Hut-urn with geometric design (swastikas, meanders, angular motifs). Image: Vatican Museum. Both ceramic, 9th/8th century BCE.


The Languages of Italy

source: LeGlay 2009: 8

Languages of Italy (aside from Latin + Etruscan) Faliscan closely related to Latin
Venetan found on stone slabs in the town of Este in the Veneto region
Umbrian known from bronze tablets from Ignuvium
Oscan related to Umbrian, used by people of south west Italy; the poet Ennius was supposed to speak Oscan, Greek, Latin (Gellius 17.17.1)
Sabines, Marsi, Volsci, Piceni all had their own dialects
Ligurian stood out from the above Indo-European languages, but borrowed from them
For more, see K. McDonald’s map of languages of Italy c. 700- c. 50 BCE, also McDonald 2015: Oscan in Southern Italy and Sicily, and on twitter @Katherine_McDon

The Etruscan Language

Etruscan Alphabet


Left: Etruscan alphabet. Image: wikimedia.
Right: Etruscan bucchero vase (7th century BCE) in the shape of a cockerel, inscribed with 26 letters of the Etruscan alphabet. Image: Metropolitan Museum.

  • Etruscan was not an Indo-European language
  • the alphabet was derived from Phoenician alphabet
  • resembled Greek alphabet written back to front
  • Rome took its writing system from Etruscans
  • Emperor Claudius (r. 41 to 54 CE) wrote 20 books of Etruscan history (Suetonius Life of Claudius 42) and an Etruscan dictionary (both lost)
  • Etruscan loanwords in Latin:
    • Latin satelles “bodyguard” from Etruscan zatlaθ “axe-bearer”
    • Latin or Greek loanwords in Etruscan: culiχna from Greek κυλίχνη “goblet”
    • Latin persona “mask/character” from Etruscan phersu “mask”
  • similarity of concepts between Etruscans + Romans:
    • Etruscan mastarna = Roman dictator


Pyrgi tablets (510-500 BCE)

Pyrgi Tablets wikimedia By Sailko (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https:::creativecommons.org:licenses:by-sa:4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.jpg

Three golden leaves recording diplomatic exchange between an Etruscan ruler (Tiberius Velianus) and a Tyrian king, ‘bilingually’ written in Phoenician and Etruscan [read the text + translation here]. Late 6th century. Image: Sailko [CC BY-SA 4.0], via wikimedia. Now in the Villa Giulia, where they can be read by the visually impaired in Braille transcription.

  • thought by some to relate to Polybius’ (3.22) mention of an ancient and undecipherable treaty between Rome and Carthage in 509 BCE
  • reference (in Etruscan section) to goddess Uni/Astre, referring perhaps Phoenician Astarte and the Etruscan equivalent of Juno.


Etruscan and Roman religion

Piacenza Liver (2nd century BCE)

Piacenza wikimedia Lokilech .jpg

Life-sized bronze model of sheep’s liver with Etruscan inscriptions in subdivisions for haruspicy (divination). 16 sections correspond to 16 sections of the sky (Cicero On Divination 2.18). 2nd century BCE. 12.6 cm x 7.6 cm x 6 cm. Image: By Lokilech (Own work) [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.


Haruspices = “Etruscan Diviners”
haru – unknown etymology + spex – “one who inspects”
the word haruspices is Latin

In Roman sources, interpreters of thunderbolts, unusual events, and entrails (especially liver) of sheep. When needed, they were called by the Roman senate from Etruria to explain prodigies and suggest a remedy. These official haruspices came from Etruria’s elite, and wore a special cone-shaped hat.

Cicero On Laws 2.21Prodigies and portents shall be referred to the Etruscan haruspices, if the senate so decrees. Etruria shall instruct her leading men in this art. They shall make expiatory offerings to whatever gods they decide upon, and shall perform expiations for flashes of lightning, and for whatever shall be struck by lightning. [Cicero describes a statue on a temple struck by lightning in On Divination 1.10] 

Cicero On the Nature of the Gods 2.10-11: [On a mistake in the election of magistrates in 163 BCE] In the consulship of Publius Scipio and Gaius Figulus both our Roman augural lore and that of the Etruscan haruspices were confirmed by the evidence of actual fact. Tiberius Gracchus, then consul the second time, was holding the election of his successors. The first returning officer in the very act of reporting the persons named as elected suddenly fell dead. Gracchus nevertheless proceeded with the election. Perceiving that the scruples of the public had been aroused by the occurrence, he referred the matter to the senate. The senate voted that it be referred “to the customary officials.” Haruspices were sent for, and pronounced that the returning officer for the elections had not been in order. Thereupon Gracchus, so my father used to tell me, burst into a rage. “How now?” he cried, “was I not in order?…Who are you, Tuscan barbarians [Tusci ac barbari], to lay down the law of our elections?”

+ Link to copyrighted image of relief from Trajan’s forum (c. 120 CE) showing haruspices in action.


Etruscan Temple (6th century BCE)

Reconstruction of an Etruscan Temple .jpg

Modern reconstruction of an Etruscan temple, based on description from Vitruvius’ De Architectura (4.7.1-5), 1st century BCE Latin architect and writer. Image: wikimedia.

General features of Etruscan temples:

  • tall podium
  • front-facing, closed back (“frontality”, different from Greek temples, which have 2 fronts)
  • superstructure made of wood and mud-brick (rather than stone)
  • greater width than length

Capitoline Temple to Jupiter, Juno, Minerva (dedicated in 509 BCE)

Speculative model of the first Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, 509 BC [wikimedia].jpg

Speculative model of Capitoline Temple to Jupiter, Juno, Minerva dedicated in Rome in 509 BCE. Image: wikimedia.

  • 3 rows of 6 columns
  • cellae (inner chambers) — central one dedicated to Jupiter; Juno Regina to the left and Minerva to the right
    • Roman Jupiter = Greek “Zeus”, Etruscan “Tinia”
    • Roman Juno = Greek “Hera”, Etruscan “Uni”
    • Roman Minerva = Greek “Athena”, Etruscan “Menrva”
  • ranks alongside some of largest Greek temples in size: 210 Roman feet long x 180 Roman feet wide (62.25 x 53.30 m)
  • cult statue of Jupiter made of terracotta by Etruscan sculptor called Vulca, from Veii, Etruscan city north of Rome (Pliny NH 35.157)
  • on top of gable terracotta sculpture of four-horse chariot (quadriga) also from Veii (Plutarch, Publicola 13)
  • rebuilt in Rome several times (see denarius), inspired other capitolia around the Roman world

Tempel_Jupiter_Optimus denarius 78 BCEDenarius (78 BCE) showing the Capitoline temple
during its rebuilding after fire in 83 BCE.
Image: Hermann Junghans, wikimedia.

Account of Livy (1.55-56), Roman historian of the late 1st century BCE, of the initial building of the temple:

It is said that whilst they were digging the foundations of the Capitoline temple, a human head came to light with the face perfect; this appearance unmistakably portended that the spot would be the stronghold of empire and the head of all the world. This was the interpretation given by the soothsayers in the City, as well as by those who had been called into council from Etruria… Determined to finish his temple, the king [Tarquin Superbus] sent for workmen from all parts of Etruria, and not only used the public treasury to defray the cost, but also compelled the plebeians to take their share of the work. This was in addition to their military service, and was anything but a light burden. Still they felt it less of a hardship to build the temples of the gods with their own hands, than they did afterwards when they were transferred to other tasks less imposing, but involving greater toil-the construction of the fori [tiers of seats] in the Circus and that of the Cloaca Maxima [Great Sewer], a subterranean tunnel to receive all the sewage of the City. The magnificence of these two works could hardly be equalled by anything in the present day.  

Terracotta sculpture of Apollo from Veii (late 6th century BCE)

Late 6th century BCE terracotta sculpture of Apollo (Etruscan “Aplu”) from Etruscan town of Veii, home of the sculptor, Vulca. Contemporary with the first Capitoline Temple at Rome. Images: wikimedia (1), (2). Now in the Villa Giulia.

Further reading/watching/listening: