Roman Might: Etruscan Plight

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF


During the early formation of Italy, how did tiny Rome come to dominate and then totally absorb established Etruria? Why is it that we now speak of the ‘mighty Roman Empire’ and not the ‘invincible Etruscan hegemony’? This short essay cannot resolve all the fierce debates as academics strive to discern kernels of truth embedded in the mythic origin of Rome. Instead, it sets out to show that a single factor made the final difference between faltering Etruscan expansion and Roman domination: who had the greater grip on reality?

To reach a resolution, we have to move from a time of myth – a cloud of unknowing in early development, called the orientalising period, to a time of fact. Near East farming cultures permeated the Mediterranean. Greeks (Graikoi) came to the Italian peninsula, bringing with them the implacable militaristic world of Homer. Yet facts are scarce, sources conflicting, – if we cannot tease truth from myth, then we have to look at products.

Etruscans and Romans were humans, and being human, then to verify purported facts from early writers, we may legitimately use our knowledge of the way people think, their customs and religions, and by archaeology – of settlements, weapons, writings and tomb DNA.

Evolution, disease, aggression, and famine have thinned our ancestors down to a single species – homo sapiens. Yet within the species culturally, humans are extremely diverse in outlook and belief. Caution is needed: the views of men rather than women predominate; Roman rhetoric might not be the best guide to Etruscan thought; purported ‘history’ turns out to be myth. A dry list of battles cannot reveal thoughts and motivations, so using primary and secondary sources, this essay looks at evidence for likely mindsets on both sides of the Roman/Etruscan psychodrama to discover the psychological tipping point that enabled Rome to rise, leaving Etruria quiescent?

The fate of cultural groups is traced directly to decisions by men and women. Hills, forests, rivers and farmland plains of the Italian peninsula are merely the landscape stage on which the acts of the ‘play’ are revealed. No civilisation has a right to eternal dominance. However, for readers new to this part of world history, it is necessary to explain that the core of Etruscan civilisation emerged gradually from the Stone Age through to the Villanovan Iron Age of ninth century BCE, in what is now northern Italy. By the fifth century, Italy was patterned with many cultures, languages and beliefs. Intergroup expansionist wars and disruption by foreign invaders reached a crux in which the highly effective army of Rome began to dominate and extinguish Etruscan identity. Instead of coalescing from city states into a nation, the Etruscans fought each other, city vying with city. Fatally, Etruscans also partnered with the enemies of Rome, including the Samnites and Carthaginians.

Etruria was never a nation, it was a language and landscape-linked social structure, formed by a collective group of hill villages and Tyrrhenian coastal settlements, whose people shared common gods and rituals, partly copied from the Greeks. Etruria existed before Romans began to build their own tiny village group on the volcanic hills above Tiberian malarial marshes. Etruscans developed a fundamentally religious and artistic culture led by priests (cepen), expanding their control further south in what is now Italy and also began foreign adventures, becoming rich in the process.  

As the Etruscans expanded, so tiny Rome also grew. In between the two cultures was a dark, almost impenetrable Ciminian forest (Silva Ciminia). Myths and legends echo the acceptance of Sabine and Etruscan kings, then Romans banished them and became an efficient militaristic Republic. It is key to the evolution of Rome and the decline of Etruscan power, that the Romans and Etruscans had different languages (Latin/Oscan), gods and beliefs. It is the contention of this essay that the fate of Etruria was inevitable because Etruscans misunderstood reality to a dangerous degree.

Understanding reality

Reality is what happens whether you like it or not. To protect yourself from harsh truth about the world, life and death, you can use the mental protection salve of myth and religion.  Or, because the legendary past does not exist, you can face up to reality. In some societies, children are not given that choice.

When you wake up, you hope your parents will still be there. They will give you breakfast and show you how to behave. They will explain their own view of the universe to you and encourage you to believe it. Only later might you discover an independence of mind. However, if the religious teaching is so fervently intense, it may be almost impossible for you to emerge from it unscathed. Your mindset will have become possessed by the gods of your parents and ancestors.

As primary sources reveal, so it was with the Etruscans – their beliefs were exclusive and permanent. They had derived from the spreading cultural and religious memes of the pre-Babylonians. Humans had no idea how the universe was formed, so they made up stories. The forces of nature were said to have godlike powers – perhaps they were really anthropomorphic gods – a sun god, wind, lightning and harvest gods.

Once farming began, animals were domesticated, bred and used as food. Hens, sheep, cattle and goats were butchered to fill the pot every day. The livers of these animals, although of normal shape for each species, seemed to the Etruscans to have variable marks which might help to show the will of the gods. Etruscan priests reshaped and renamed the natures and characteristics of Greek gods. Despite Etruscan religion appearing like Greek religion to outsiders, it was very different to Greek and Roman belief.

To understand Etruscan religious thinking, we need to consider two central elements: animism and teleology. The Etruscans, and many other peoples in early times, believed that the universe had a spiritual essence or soul and that, for example, rivers, forests and thunderstorms were not inanimate but alive with an essence of the gods – things that are plainly inanimate to us, were animate to them. The Etruscans gathered together observations about their animistic world and placed them in sacred books (Etrusca disciplina). All these books have been lost, but Etruscan tomb carvings show them held lovingly, or used as pillows. We can glimpse the partial content of these lost books through the works of later writers who had access to some of them. Key to the animistic beliefs in these books was that the liver, where blood was thought to originate, was the seat of the soul.

We now turn from animism to teleology. Current scientific theories derived from the physics of the early universe, are accepted by many as showing an inanimate and undirected path to evolution of our world. If we even use the phrase ‘we are here because of an amazing series of accidents which refined the nuclear fine structure constant to be perfect for our existence’ then we immediately fall into the animism and teleological trap. There is no previously planned direction to the evolution of the universe. This is not to infer that religious belief is an intellectual crime, nor to deny the efficacy of religious belief in giving succour in an implacable universe. Many millions love their religion and find it a great comfort. However, it has been shown that there is a space in the brain for religious thinking and that humans naturally default toward teleological explanations for aspects of the world that are totally without direction. Important here is the early discussion of Darwinian evolution in which Man is said to be the ultimate goal – a stupor mundi – wonder of creation. Whereas in truth anything alive is just as wonderful. There is no evidence to show that Man is more or less important to evolution that an ichneumon parasitic wasp. Life exists, but it does not have a purpose. However, to the Etruscans this philosophical stance would be sacrilege. The animistic goal-directed purpose of the liver was, teleologically, to reveal the future.

When Christianity began to take hold, the early fathers of the church condemned pagan superstition and animism, making martyrs of those who resisted. This at the same time as they accepted the miracles of the virgin birth, walking on water, water into wine, feeding the five thousand, rising from the dead and the truly phantasmagorical doctrine of chiliasm, in which trillions of dead would finally rise up at the command of an angel’s trumpet, to sit with God for eternity. It was from this fantastic yet supervening religious stance that the Berber Christian writer Arnobius (in Haynes, 2000, p.270) was able to say:

Etruria is the begetter and mother of superstition. (Arnobius, Adv. Nat. 7.26.)

Even before Christianity embedded, the Roman writer Livy declared:

Etruria is a nation devoted beyond all others to religious rites – and all the more because it excelled in the art of observing them. (Livy (5.1.6)

Like crossing your fingers, avoiding the cracks in the pavement and not walking under ladders, Etruscans were convinced that they were enmeshed in a mythic landscape which required them to behave in certain ways or be damned by the gods. They believed that gods had powers and that fate could be revealed by divining meaning from entrails in a practice called haruspice.

Learned academics and every other reader of early history will know that the Romans too were superstitious, worshipped various gods derived from the Greeks, and used not their own but Etruscan haruspice.

So what was the fundamental difference between the beliefs of the Etruscans and those of the Romans? This is revealed in the most important and deeply analytical quote by Seneca the Younger (Sen Q. nat 2.32.2 in Haynes, 2000, p.270) and it gives a major clue to why Roman might led to Etruscan plight:

This is the difference between us and the Etruscans, who have consummate skill in interpreting lightning: we (Romans) think that because clouds collide, lightning is emitted. They (the Etruscans) believe that clouds collide in order that lightning may be emitted.

Seneca goes on to say:

Since they attribute everything to divine agency, they are of the opinion that things do not reveal the future because they have occurred, but that they occur because they are meant to reveal the future.

Even accepting the hold which animism and teleology had on early thinkers, this is such a remarkable reworking of the way the universe operates in reality, that it ensures that fervent Etruscans lived in a helpless dream perpetuated by haruspicing priests. For the practical common-sense Romans, B (lightning) happens because of A (clouds colliding). A is the action and B the product. For the myth-sodden Etruscans – B (clouds) think, animistically conspire and plan to make A (lightning) happen. B is the action and A is the product.  

The Roman view is concessionary yet pragmatic: Gods might exist so we will nod to them while we continue our inexorable progress – building roads and winning battles.  The Etruscan view is passively animistic and teleological. If Romans lose a battle, then they try to understand why. If Etruscans lose a battle, it was the will of the gods and nothing can be done about it.

Raphael (1483-1520 CE) caught the essence of this dilemma of possibilities in his famous ‘Academy’ painting The School of Athens, with two Latin putti inscriptions – ‘seek knowledge of causes’ and ‘knowledge of things divine’. At the top of the steps, Plato points heavenward and Aristotle to earth. In this painting almost all the thinkers are men – and in Roman society women found it difficult to promote their own world view of ideas. There is no evidence that Etruscan women fared better. In fact, the rejected academic efforts of Momigliano to prove Tanaquil as a matriarch example, leave us with a picture only of what Romans thought of Etruscan women, not what they really believed. The work of Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus effectively parodies Etruscan women as people who ‘perita ut volgo etrusci, prodigiorum mulier’ – knew how to interpret prodigies – including the eagle and cap incident and the head of a boy bursting into flames (Cantarella, 1987, p.102). Etruscan women could come and go as they pleased, reclining on banqueting couches with men – not slaves, yet not matriarchs either, and certainly not capable of realising the folly of liver divination. Etruscan men and women alike, were trapped in their culture and their time, far more than the Romans, who gave their nods to what might be, whilst attending to what is.

The Romans, with their practical and militaristic mindset, realised that though the entrails might theoretically predict victory or defeat, it was up to them to overturn fate. To the Etruscans, the idea of overturning fate was impossible. Nothing can be done if the face of the gods is turned against us – and how will we know? The priests will tell us. The fact that the priests were just ordinary men, and that one pile of goat entrails is very like another, seems to have escaped the Etruscans.

The Fatted Calf

As the Etrurian cities became richer, so Etruscans realised the need for defence. Italy was a dangerous place, with three types of conflict: fighting between aristocratic families, conflict caused by the migratory impulsion of peoples, such as Greeks and Phoenicians, to move into the territories of others, and marauding Celtic tribes from the north, expanding their territories through raids. Initially, both the Roman Army and the Etruscans had adopted the Greek hoplite style of heavily-armed spearmen.

The significant evolutionary difference between the Roman Army and Etruscan fighting troops was that the Romans adopted the deep phalanx. In a narrow phalanx those at front facing a terrifying enemy could easily flee and the thin phalanx would then collapse, perhaps losing the battle. In the deep phalanx, it was harder for the front rank to run. Adrian Goldsworthy in his book The Complete Roman Army (2018), points to this moment in which practical decisions about fighting changed Rome from a set of hill villages into an inexorable force: the development of the deep phalanx marked the growth of Roman’s population and was also a sign that a significant part of that population owned land. With the deep phalanx, the Romans could easily win battles when fighting in open country, but initially it meant winning in local squabbles, tactical rather than strategic. It is a tradition rather than pure myth, that early Roman commanders adopted the phalanx after they had encountered Etruscan hoplites. Once again, we have our prime sources in Livy and Dionysius. They describe the Comitia Centuriata and Servian Reforms in full detail. The wealthy Romans had a greater say in the formation and structure of a sound defence (of their property). So, in one inspirational decision not produced by haruspice, but by practical knowledge of what works in battle, the deep phalanxes of the Roman Army gave the Roman aristocratic families a way of gaining even more wealth from the rich fatted lands of Etruria.

The End is Nigh

Polybius (Walbank and Scott-Kilvert 1979), detailed how the Roman Army had improved so much by the second century despite being a temporary militia subject to ‘farmer call-up’. The consular army, with its cavalry on the wings and the triarii, principes and hastati triple formation of the legions, produced a fearless and inexorable fighting force. Key to this was the deep phalanx method of putting the triarii of most experienced soldiers at the rear. Since the youngest – the hastati, even if they panicked, turned and ran could not get past the calming and wise triarii at the back, then warfighting with legions became Rome’s greatest acquisitive weapon.

It is easy to see from this that military wisdom was deeply practical and that the deeply false rationale of Etruscan thinking would fail. The Etruscan religion preached that armies lost because the gods made them lose. Roman commanders prayed to the gods but reorganised their deep phalanxes in perfect arrangement for winning, without the help of any gods. Interpreting spots on liver is not going to give you an advantage in war. Instead you need to watch when the fresh-faced young understandably try to run and how to overcome that fear. Etruscans feared their gods. The Roman Army was its own invincible god and it understood the psychology of fear in war. It had a victory mindset.


The critical state of Italy in the fifth through third centuries, with social unrest and political strife, called for a sense of purpose. The clearheaded purpose of the single city of Rome was to dominate through the use of its well-constructed army. The religiously oversaturated Etruscans, with their aristocratic rivalries – city against city and their failure to strive for a national identity, made them an easy prey. The Etruscans, poking hopefully at their animal livers, must have thought the gods were against them as their major trading partner, Sybaris, was destroyed, wrecking trade with the Greeks in the south of Italy. A Cumaean-Latin alliance beat the Etruscans at the Battle of Aricia and then the Cumaeans with the help of the Syracusans, defeated the Etruscan Navy. The Etruscans lost their coastline supply routes. The desperately unwise attack on Sutrium, not far from Rome in 311 BCE, caused the Romans to attack several Etrurian cities through a series of battles, forcing Etruria into a thirty-year truce. A rebound on Rome by Etruscans and Umbrians was defeated by Quintus Fabius Maximus. Desperate Etruscans then allied with Samnites and invading Gauls. The superb Roman Army of some 36,000 men, did occasionally lose, but once Samnites and Gauls were defeated, the Etruscan cities saw in their goat entrails that it was time to join Rome as allies, just in time to help Rome fight the Greeks. Etruscans faded, not because their gods failed them, but because their gods never existed, yet reality certainly did.

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Cantarella, E. (1993) Pandora’s Daughters – The Role and Status of Women in Greek & Roman Antiquity, trans. M. Fant (1981) Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press.

Goldsworthy. A. (2018) The Complete Roman Army, London, Thames & Hudson.

Haynes, S. (2000) Etruscan Civilization – A Cultural History, London, The British Museum Press.

Livy, The History of Rome, Books 1-5, trans. V. Warrior (2006) Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing.

Walbank, F. and Scott-Kilvert, I. (1979). The Rise of the Roman Empire, London, Penguin Classics. 

Background Reading

Campbell, B. (2011) The Romans and their World – a Short Introduction, Yale, Yale University Press.

Swaddling, J. and Bonfante, L. (2006) Etruscan Myths, London, The British Museum Press.

This is my own unaided work. Copyright 2021 by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF


Author: davidbexhill

Hi, I am a wildlife and stock photographer with thousands of images for sale. I also write books, stories and poems. I paint and have my own pages on Saatchi Art. I have an honours degree in Creative Writing Classics and Linguistics with the Open University.

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