Roman History in a Nutshell – Wars with Etruscans Pre-753BCE to ~264 BCE

An Etruscan mural from a necropolis in Tarquinia – Once a large Etruscan settlement and likely the birthplace of the ‘Tarquin’ Roman Kings. A lot of the art we have of Etruscans depicts them having a good ol’ time! They seemed to love music and dance. This would lead to them being given an ‘effeminate’ reputation amongst Roman men. (Credit: Yann Forget, Public Domain)

‘Everybody needs good neighbours,’ so said the theme tune to the (at least in the UK) popular Australian TV series ‘Neighbours’ about a group of, would you believe it, neighbours.

Now whether or not Rome was the bad neighbour (stealing your neighbours’ women – see our last entry about the Sabines – would indicate as much) or whether those around them just didn’t like this upstart town, Rome seemed to have a lot of beef with its neighbours.

If the founding myth is correct and the whole city began with fratricide we’d have to imagine much of the responsibility for being bad at relationships with nearest and dearest is with Rome.

The Etruscans were already an established culture when Rome was founded. It probably pre-dates Rome by a century or two, has its own established towns, art style, culture, Gods (that seem to owe a lot of inspiration to those of the Greeks) and so they were, at least in legend, one of the first enemies of the Romans. Yet also likely one of their founding cultures, and many early Romans were likely Etruscan.

This famous statue? Remember this? Almost certainly an Etruscan bronze wolf, the infants being likely later additions. (Credit: Carole Raddato CC-BY-SA 2.0)

It’s easy to see why when you see the extent of their reach. Etruria itself, the main area where Etruscans lived, was basically smack-bang in the centre of Italy and they expanded from there down into the Latin territory to the south, north up to around modern Venice and along the Po valley and taking Corsica at some point.

According to Livy, before Rome was even founded the Pre-Romans led by Latinus and Aeneas were fighting Etruscans, led by Mezentius, and the Rutuli led by Turnus.

This is East Coast vs. West Coast, Crips vs. Bloods, Celtic vs. Rangers, British vs. Everyone – Until Carthage the Etruscans would be the longest lasting, biggest pain in the arse for Rome.

The problem seems to have been that Rome wanted to be friends with all of its neighbours, except being Rome’s friend involved giving them lots of stuff or else they’d hurt you. Their neighbours, also, didn’t seem to particularly like them much and when you are already an established culture, with an established military tradition, some young punk turning up and going “Hi, can I be your friend – give grain please!” is probably going to rub you up the wrong way.

A map showing the incredible reach of the Etruscans. Like many civilisations at this point they were not a unified, structured ’empire’, but a collective of city states with a shared culture. Some of these cities (Veii! I’m looking at you!) would cause Rome more problems than others. (Credit: NormanEinstein GNU-FDL)

In many ways, though, the evolution of Rome and the destruction or dominance over its near neighbours is not too dissimilar to many of the Greek Poleis, or other Mediterranean cultures and how they grew. Let’s not forget we’re talking 9th century, 8th century BCE here! It’s not like they’ve got laser-guided bunker busters, a lot of these conflicts were just farmers throwing rocks at each other while wearing leather armour!

It’s also debatable whether Etruria, or the Etruscan culture overall ‘lost’ or whether their culture, and many of their people, were assimilated into Roman life. It might be tempting to ask “What’s the difference?” but when we think of ‘Roman culture’, the popular idea of it, what we really think of is ‘Greco-Roman culture’. The periods around the early 3rd century BCE to the mid-2nd century BCE, after Rome had invaded Greece, fallen in love with its culture, been in awe of the majesty of its buildings and replicated them, with columns towering into the sky, colonnaded porticoes giving temples a sense of grandeur and then mimicked the art, sculpture, drama, theatre and poetry the likes of which they had never seen.

Much of what came before then, though? It was likely heavily influenced by the established Etruscan culture. In fact pre-Grecian influence Rome would have had Etruscan written all over it, except, oddly enough, in its writing. As I have mentioned several times, many of the Kings of Rome were of Etruscan origin, the Etruscan language appears to have survived in Rome for hundreds of years after the last Roman-Etruscan conflict. To an extent the cultural foundations of Rome were laid by Etruscans, and then built over, first by Greco-Roman influence and only later by an established ‘Roman’ identity itself.

Some of the most incredible artefacts left behind by Etruscans were their statues, particularly their bronze work. This is believed to represent Sleep and Death carrying off Sarpedon. This is a legend in Greek myth and there are many similarities between Greek and Etruscan mythology. (Credit: Daderot, Public Domain)

For all this we know little of the Etruscans. There are plenty of ruins and artefacts but little (unbiased) evidence of how to interpret them. Even their language, of which they left many loan words to the Latin language, the roots of which form words we inherit to this day, is a mystery. Only a few hundred words are understood with any degree of certainty (words like nephew, military and person are all believed to have Etruscan origins, via Latin).

But this isn’t talking about the wars, is it? So let’s have a rundown again!

As mentioned, pre-foundation of Rome there was a scrap.

In the 8th century BCE the Etruscan cities of Fidenae and Veii combined forces against Romulus and lost.

They did it again in the 7th century BCE when Rome was ruled by Tullus Hostilius, apparently because the bloke in charge of Alba Longa – another Roman neighbour – was upset the Romans had twatted him upside the head.

In the 6th Century BCE, under King Servius Tullius, those pesky Veii again caused trouble.

After the ousting of the kings of Rome in 509 BCE, the final king, Lucius Tarquinus Superbus (I still just think of a superhero bus) went back to his people, the Tarquinii, from the city of Tarquinia, Etruscans, and riled them up for another scrap against his usurpers, getting the Veii involved again! It didn’t go well, presumably.

We know it didn’t go well because in 508 BCE the Super Bus combined forces with the King of Clusium, one Lars Porsena, for another go at it. This time it worked out a lot better for the Etruscans and the Romans were forced to sign a peace treaty.

Between 483 and 476 BCE we get the Fabian war with, wouldn’t you know it, Veii! Called the Fabian war because apparently the Fabian family, gens Fabia, featured heavily in the military operations of the Roman side. Everything went quite well for the Veientes until Rome closed its doors and then they lost later. Old wars are weird.

Effectively the first line of defence against Roman attack and offence towards conquering Rome, the city of Veii clashed with the Romans in the name of the Etruscan cause, as well as often as an ally of the Sabines (we’ll get to them next time.) It’s easy to see why that city could be such a thorn in the side of the Romans. (Credit: ColdEel & Ahenobarbus CC-BY-SA 3.0)

For the year 475-474 BCE the Veii (AGAIN!) and the Sabines formed an alliance and caused some trouble.

Then, believe it or not, about a century of peace! I know, not even the Veii caused a stir.

After the sack of Rome by Gauls in around 390 BCE it is believed a variety of Etruscan communities looked to exploit the chaos and win territory and power back from Rome. This lasted until about 386 BCE and involved a lot of towns chopping and changing hands.

Then there’s another 40-50 years of peace before the Tarquinii cause a bit of trouble with some help from the Falerii, in around 359-358 BCE.

There would be several battles at Lake Vadimo, between about 310-280BCE.

Finally, the end of the Roman wars with Etruria and the Etruscans are usually dated to around 264 BCE with the defeat of the Volsinii.

Again the main contemporary source is Livy’s Histories and most of what we know is likely semi-legendary anyway. Certainly with many of the conflicts that take place in the mid-Republic it’s believed these were real wars but the narrative given by Livy is often questioned.

And as I said earlier, a lot of the time this was just farmers throwing rocks at each other! Okay, later on there may have been organised units, swords and spears but the early fighting between Rome and its near-neighbours was early-human raiding. It was robbing a bit of grain from this town, pillaging the wealth from that town. It’s easy to build up a narrative of it being a BIG IMPORTANT WAR in your head because ‘Rome’ came to mean so much. But certainly early on Rome was little more than some ramshackle houses on some hills near a river. It wasn’t until approaching the end of the era of the Kingdom of Rome that the foundation, the City, the start of this goliath that would be Rome happened.

An Etruscan Funerary Urn (left – Credit: Alun Salt CC-BY-SA 2.0) and a Roman Funerary Monument (right – Credit: Mary Harrsch CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0) Notice the similarities in the reclined posture. Roman funerary monuments often included valued family members or tools of their trade. Many Roman graves, like the Etruscan one seen here, also featured scenes of battles, scenes from the life of the deceased, or some indication of their lifestyle or occupation. The Etruscan urn is likely from aroun 200-100 BCE, though the style dates back a century further still, the Roman monument is 1st century CE. Potentially 400 years of time and still the reclining man on a funeral monument motif persists.

By the end of their wars with the Etruscans, though, Rome was a Mediterranean power and one not to be ignored. The Sabines were small potatoes, and next time out I shall talk about their conflicts with the Latins, but the Etruscans were established, organised, had a unity and a discipline about them.

History being different we could be talking about a Mediterranean empire emanating from any of the large Etruscan cities. But it is Rome that won the wars, who found the balance of integration and conquest to dominate the central Italian peninsula and cement itself as a major power.

Read the other parts in our ‘Roman History in a Nutshell’ Series:
Introduction
The Founding – 753 BCE and Before

The Kingdom – 753 BCE – 509 BCE
The Patrician Era and the Conflict of the Orders – 494 BCE – 287 BCE

Wars with Sabines, Veii & Fidenae ~753 BCE – ~287 BCE
The Latin Wars 7th Century BCE – ~338 BCE
The Gallic Wars ~390 BCE – ~284 BCE
The Rest of the Med ~2,000 BCE – ~3rd Century BCE
The Samnite Wars ~343 BCE – ~290 BCE

Want to read more about Romans? We’ve got a little for you.

A New Lease of Life? – A Discussion about the new floor in the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum, and what Vespasian, who initially commissioned the building, might think.

Bad History: Boudica and Bullshit Nationalism – Looking at the use of historical figures for current political or social agendas.
Bad History: Did Rome ever Actually Fall? Questioning the ‘Decline and Fall’ narrative and looking at structures inherited from the Romans we have to this day.

The Fan-TAS-tic Virtues of Rome – A look at the moral virtues of Roman life.

What are the ‘Ides of March’ – Because I envitably get asked by my dad every Ides, I wrote about it!

The Mother of Rome: Livia Drusilla – Before the hit Sky TV series ‘Domina’ there was me espousing the life and works of Livia, the canny politician, the Patrician, the Patron and the wife and mother of an Empire.
The Pleb who Built Rome: Marcus Agrippa – It is my belief that the right-hand-man of Augustus had a much bigger part to play in the building and management of the Empire than did his friend with the titles. Find out why.

Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Introduction
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Easily available abortion (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Drawing dicks on things.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Energy Drinks
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Gender and Sexuality Liberation (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Travel and Tourist Tat.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – AirBnB
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Bipartisan Politics
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Fast Food
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Pro-Wrestling
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Social Media (Especially Insta and Twitter)

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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