Thursday, August 21, 2008
Origins of the Etruscans
The Etruscans, from the time of the Romans to our own, have remained a rather enigmatic people. No one really knew, or knows, where exactly they came from. Hesiod, in the Theogony, says that the Etruscans were descended from the children of Odysseus and Circe:
"Circe, the daughter of Hyperion's child, the Sungod, loved Odysseus, famous for his endurance, and bore Agrius and Latinus, the strong man with no stain. This pair rules over all the famous Tyrrenians in their faraway retreat deep in the sacred islands" (Thg. 12, 101ff)
The 'sacred islands' are probably the Lipari islands, which are just north of the toe of the boot of Italy. Herodotus relates that the Etruscans were of Lydian descent, and both Virgil and Horace refer to the Etruscans as Lydian. The Lydians were a group of Greeks in Asia Minor and neighbors of the Ionian Greeks. For Herodotus this correlation fits well into the one of the thematic facets of his Histories: barbarian 'truphe', luxurious living. Both the Lydians and the Etruscans had a reputation among the Greeks for decadant living and morals, which is also attributed to the Persians and ties into the theme of hubris that runs through the Histories.
Dionysus of Halicarnassus also had a go at trying to place the origins of the Etruscans. Writing in 7 B.C., he claimed that the Etruscans were simply the 'natives' of Italy. In his work the Roman Antiquities, Dionysus attempts to show that the Romans were originally Greeks who migrated over to Italy by comparing Greek and Roman customs, institutions and rituals. If it is the case that the Romans were originally Greeks, then the Etruscans, according to Dionysus, must have been the "barbarians". Interestingly, though, he does analyze Herodotus' claim that the Etruscans were Lydians and more or less arrives at the same conclusion that most scholars now hold, namely that the Lydians and Etruscans are completely unrelated. He notes that the Tyrrhenians and the Lydians do not use the same language, do not worship the same gods, don't make use of similar laws or institutions. In short the Etruscans must be "a very ancient nation, and...agrees with no other either in its language or in its manner of living".
Lydian, being a dialect of Greek, is an Indo European language. Etruscan, however, is not. Thus, Herodotus' migratory theory does not work. Moreover, archaeological work in Lydia has failed to unearth anything that remotely resembles Etruscan pottery or the like. Over in Italy, archaeology has shown a clear continuity between the 7th century Etruscans and the prehistoric populations that preceded them in every major Etruscan center.
So, Dionysus' theory seems the most plausible, except that it still does not tell us where the Etruscans came from. It's possible we may never know; perhaps they were part of a prehistoric migration from somewhere that, due to its age, would bear no traces in the archaeological record. Nonetheless, it is interesting that the Etruscans were a pocket (and a rather powerful pocket at that) of non Indo European speakers in an area where every other tribe spoke an IE based language. This adds to the mystery, I think. Here we have a bunch of non IE speakers who settled in the middle of Italy on some of the best land there is in Italy. One can perhaps understand how the Basques in Spain, due to their being surrounded by high mountains and thus cut off from the rest of the world, could have developed a language unrelated to those surrounding them. But, this was not the case with the Etruscans. They were literally surrounded by people completely unrelated to them, with no natural barriers to isolate them. A rather curious state of affairs.
All we can really say is that linguistically the Etruscans influenced others, and were perhaps influenced by the Italian tribes around them. Latin picked up some Etruscan vocabulary and the Etruscans picked up their script from the Phoenicians. None of this can answer the real question, though: who were the Etruscans and from where did they come?