Book Review – The Etruscans by Michael Grant

The Etruscans by Michael Grant. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1980. 317 pp., hardback.

The Etruscans enter the stage of history in the 1st millennium B. C., first rise to considerable prominence in the 8th and following century, decline in the 4th and later centuries and gradually fade away, being absorbed into the growing Roman Republic. The Etruscans occupied the region of the Italian peninsula north and west of Rome, essentially the land west of the Tiber River all the way to the Tyrrhenian Sea, and as far north as the Arno River, and a bit further, with influence to the northeast into the Po River Valley and to the coast of the Adriatic Sea. This region is roughly 150 miles north to south and about 95 east to west.

There was a fairly widespread ancient legend to the effect that the Etruscans migrated to the Italian Peninsula from west central Turkey (the region of ancient Lydia) just after the end of the Trojan War (about 1100 B. C.), but their cultural remains (pottery, art, architecture, etc.) as well as their language firmly discredit the ancient legend. Apparently, the Etruscans were an “indigenous” people who long occupied their part of the Italian peninsula long before their appearance in history, much like the Umbrians and Latins.

The Etruscans are frequently mentioned by Greek and Roman writers, but only sketchily; such ancient writers often mention events that were hundreds of year old at the time of writing. True, they no doubt did have access to writings and oral legends now lost, but even so, they tell us a lot less than is necessary to get a full picture of the Etruscan age in Italy.

What brought the previously agrarian Etruscans to an important place among the peoples of the Mediterranean world was the presence of metallic ores in the mountains that are characteristic of Etruria, particularly ores of copper and iron, and to a lesser extent, tin. The heavily-timbered local mountains provided the huge quantities of wood necessary to fuel the smelting of these ores. These “industrial metals” were in high demand, and a heavy trade developed with the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians (all of whom had colonies or trading posts scattered throughout the peninsula), who offered gold and silver, which the Etruscans lacked, in exchange.

The Etruscans were never under one unified government, but were divided up into numerous small city-states (anywhere from 8 to 12 or a few more, depending on the period) each of which ruled a few dozen to a few hundred square miles, and most of which had subservient ports on the Tyrrhenian Sea. While there was commonly a large degree of co-operation between these city-states, yet at times they were at war among themselves.

Much of the land in the valleys between the mountains of Etruria was very fertile and highly productive agriculturally. The Etruscans developed extensive irrigation works to fully utilize this fertility. Many of the rivers of the region were navigable by small craft well upstream from the sea, facilitating trade and travel.

The Etruscans were culturally rather advanced well before Rome itself had grow to be much beyond a mere village (a considerable part of the celebrated ancient Roman civilization was ultimately derived from the prior Etruscan civilization). The Etruscans dominated Rome for centuries, and there were even some Etruscan kings ruling in Rome for nearly the whole of the sixth century B. C. The Etruscan culture was a combination of Greek, Phoenician, and Middle Eastern influences as well as local elements, which when amalgamated produced a very distinctive civilization. Most of the archaeological remains of the Etruscans are from their often elaborate and expensive tombs, with their grave goods (metal objects, pottery, terracotta and more), paintings and representations of Etruscan daily life as well as its mythology. Such known graves number in the many thousands, not a few of them not robbed in antiquity.

The Etruscan language is an enigma. It is clearly not related to any known language of that region in ancient times, not Greek or Latin or Gaulish or Phoenician / Punic or any other tongue, and not to any modern language. Furthermore, while we can “read” the multitude of inscriptions in this language, since it is written in a modified form of the Phoenician-derived Greek alphabet (the Etruscans in turn passed on the alphabet to the Romans), it is still not well understood. There are something like 13,000 known Etruscan inscriptions, but most of them are tomb-inscriptions, with very limited vocabulary and are very “formulaic” in phrasing (just how much would be known or knowable about English if all we could learn was what was inscribed on tomb stones in the average cemetery?). There is no preserved Etruscan “literature,” no poetic epics, no histories, and the extant ancient writers, Greek and Roman, while occasionally giving the meaning of particular Etruscan words, or commenting on the peculiarity of the language, give no systematic treatment of it, even though Etruscan persisted as a spoken language into the first century A. D.

The Etruscan religion was akin to that of other contemporary Mediterranean cultures–pagan, idolatrous, polytheistic (with some “native” gods, and some borrowed from the Greeks and Phoenicians), and pre-occupied with divination, with numerous shrines and temples. The absence of written Etruscan religious texts makes detailed information about their religious practices hard to come by.

The author, Michael Grant, was during his life time a well-respected scholar and historian of the ancient Mediterranean world. This particular volume, more informative than interesting, is well-supplied with documentation, many photos, numerous maps (without which much of the text would be largely unintelligible), and an extensive bibliography.

Some other books on the Etruscans that the reader might find informative include:

The Etruscans by Werner Keller (New York: Knopf, 1974); and

Daily Life of the Etruscans by Jacques Heurgon (New York: Macmillan, 1964);

On the Etruscan language, Reading the Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), “Etruscan” by Larissan Bonfante, pp. 321-378 (a very extensive treatment).

This review was written by Doug Kutilek and originally appeared in his e-mail publication:  As I See It.  This review is used with permission.  AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at:  You can be removed from the mailing list at the same address.  Back issues sent on request.  All back issues may be accessed at


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