The Etruscans are the least familiar of the classical Mediterranean civilizations, but it is their culture that influenced a great deal of the Roman Republic’s art, architecture, government and religion. It is my intention to explore the Etruscan influence on Rome using literary and archaeological sources.
Although the beginnings of the Etruscan civilization can be traced as far back as 1000 BCE, it was not until around 750 BCE that their culture was undeniably apparent (de Puma, p.55). In later periods of their civilization, major cities were found throughout western-central Italy, and by the 5th century BCE, they had colonised areas including the Po Valley region, Campania, Elba and parts of Corsica. By 100 BCE, Rome had conquered and absorbed many of the Etruscan cities, but in the centuries to come, was influenced in many areas by these peoples.
The first example I wish to present concerns the influence surrounding the architecture of Rome. The earliest temples in Latium confirms that the architectural form was influenced by the Etruscans, and that in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, Rome was using these forms for their own projects. With the exception of the Capitoline and the Omobono temple, the earliest temples were repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, so that nothing of the original forms of those built in these centuries has survived (Shoe, p. 24).
Another influence we can see the influence the Etruscans had on Rome was through the use of technologies. The cuniculi (known singularly as cunculus), were a system of galleries cut into soft rock and were used as both aqueducts and drains, “of a size and shape sufficient to accommodate a single workman with a pick, and every 30 or 40 yards there is a vertical shaft for the extraction of excavated material” (Ward-Perkins, p.394). Although it must be stressed that the precise purpose of these systems have yet to be determined, it is highly probable that they were used in Etruscan agriculture. It could be seen as the model that Rome used to fashion their own distinct aqueducts on.
Another influence was that of roads. When Rome initially moved northwards into Etruria and absorbed her cities, she found an already existing system of roads. Initially, the Ciminan Forest still separated Rome and Etruria, but as Rome’s frontier expanded, there was more of a need for fast military roads leading to and from Rome. “The earliest of these, the Via Clodia … which was probably constructed very soon after the annexation of parts of this territory in 281 BCE, still in part follows the pattern, picking its way from village to village along the routes of the old Etruscan roads” (Ward-Perkins, p.398). It wasn’t until 220 BCE that a complete break with the Etruscan style of roads was made, but the Etruscans had had a distinct influence on Rome’s identity.
The Etruscan artistic influence came to dominate Rome’s identity for centuries after its decline and absorption. A pair of earrings, formerly in the collection of Samuel T. Baxter, can show us an example. These earrings hold a garnet cut cabochon and mounted in gold collars above and below, with chains ending buds or flowers hanging on either side. Earrings like these were common in Etruscan jewellery around the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE (Olliver,p.281). The abstract nature points the way to Roman jewellery, wherein geometric forms take over.
There is a great deal of archaeological evidence that can show Etruscan influence on many aspects of Rome’s culture, but the evidence presented here can help us look a little more closer and gives us a valuable start in exploring Rome’s cultural origins.
de Puma, Richard (1994) Etruscan Art, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, The Art Institute of Chicago.
Oliver Jr., Andrew (1966) Greek, Roman and Etruscan Jewellery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Shoe, Lucy T. (1965) Etruscan and Republican Roman Mouldings, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, University of Michigan Press for the American Academy in Rome.
Ward-Perkins, J.B. (1962) Etruscan Towns, Roads and Medieval Villages: The Historical Geography of Southern Etruria, The Geographical Journal, Blackwell Publishing.