Common Errors (21): Etruscan Origins

28 June 2009
Etruscan urn from Chiusi. Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden

Etruscan urn from Chiusi. Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden

Just north of Rome were the cities of the Etruscans, twelve in number, according to the tradition. This nation has a reputation of being very mysterious. And it is true that they lacked the necessary credentials to give other ancient nations the idea that they understood the Etruscans: their origins were contested. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus claims that they came from Lydia in western Turkey (Histories, 1.94). However, the Greek writer Dionysius – also a native of Halicarnassus – objected that the Etruscans did not speak Lydian and did not sacrifice to eastern gods (Roman Antiquities, 1.30.2). He concluded that they had to be native Italians.

The mystery was not diminished when nineteenth-century scholars discovered that the Etruscan language did not belong to the Indo-European language family. Its speakers were therefore unrelated to the other Italian and Anatolian people. Because it was believed, back then, that language told something about a nation’s nature, the Etruscans were more enigmatic than ever.

It would be exaggerated to say that all riddles have been solved in the twentieth century, but much progress has been made. DNA research appears to have shown that at least part of the people that were later known as Etruscans are related to people in Asia Minor: there seems to have been a migration from the eastern part of the Mediterranean to Italy. This conclusion has been corroborated by the results of DNA research on goats, which also appear to have arrived from the east. These results have not been without criticism, though. Still, the language is now better understood than ever. Although we can not establish to which languages Etruscan is related, we can read most inscriptions, recognize cases and conjugations, and make a dictionary. There’s little left of the Etruscan mystery.

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