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Ancient Rome’s Etruscan Roots

Rome, Italy

Centuries before Rome, a mysterious Etruscan civilization ruled northern Italy. What we know about it we learned from art found in its tombs. In 509 BC the Romans threw out their Etruscan king and the rest is history.

Complete Video Script

[5, Roman Forum] With their powerful military, knack for government, and engineering genius, the Romans conquered most of their known world. That magic mix of Roman greatness was born right here — in this valley between Rome's legendary Seven Hills. Back then, six centuries before Christ, "Rome" was just a collection of small tribes.

[6, She-wolf with Romulus and Remus, fifth century BC, Capitoline Museums, Rome] It certainly was a humble beginning. In fact, this bronze She-wolf — which many believe is 2,500 years old — reminds us that legend says Rome's founders were raised by a wolf.

[7, Etruscans, c. 700–300 BC] But these earliest Romans were actually ruled by a mysterious Etruscan civilization that had long flourished across the north of the Italian Peninsula. What we know about the Etruscans is mostly from the art discovered in surviving tombs. Covered with frescos and filled with sarcophagi which in turn were filled with treasures.

[8, Hescanas Family Tomb, Etruscan, near Orvieto, Italy] Here, I'm visiting the tomb of the Hescanas family and the farmer, on whose land it was discovered, is giving me a little tour: The entire family was buried in several sarcophagi in this tomb.

Farmer:la Famiglia Hescana.

We can read the family name, spelled what we would call "backwards": HESCANAS. Faint frescoes of an Etruscan funeral take us back to that mysterious pre-Roman world.

[9] Signor Hescanas rides the chariot into the afterlife. It's a pre-Christian Judgment Day as a divine magistrate deliberates his case. A heavenly chamber orchestra plays as women in fine gowns and jewelry dance. The motion and realism captured by the 4th century BC artist is impressive.

[10, Etruscan Museum, Volterra, Italy; Vatican Museums, Rome] With each tomb excavated, archeologists are piecing together the mysterious puzzle of Etruscan culture. Marveling at the etched mirrors, stylized bronze buckles, intricately decorated pot handles, and exquisitely crafted jewelry helps us appreciate the sophistication of this pre-Roman society.

[11] Finely carved funerary urns — stone boxes containing ashes of the dead — suggest the Etruscans were influenced by their ancient Greek contemporaries. But while Greek artists focused on the idealized human form, the Etruscans represented people as unique individuals — portrayed realistically, with wrinkles, crooked noses, and funny haircuts. These urns — with subjects lounging as if munching grapes with the gods at some heavenly banquet — make it seem that the Etruscans believed you'd have fun in the afterlife.

[12, Etruscan Gate (Porto all'Arco), Volterra; Roman Forum, Rome] The Romans threw out their Etruscan king in 509 BC and eventually rose to dominate the Continent.