Ancient History & Civilisation

9. THE ETRUSCAN EMPIRE

If Cato exaggerated when he wrote that ‘almost the whole of Italy belonged to the Etruscans’, he at least emphasized the existence of a large Etruscan empire. After the rapid development of Etruscan from Villanovan culture in Etruria itself, it soon spread much further afield, and with it an uncertain measure of political control or dominance, both to the south and north.37 Some Etruscans advanced over the Tiber into Latium and occupied Rome and other centres (pp. 35–6). Others moved further southwards, advancing by land or sea, into Campania, where some Villanovan settlements had already emerged (pp. 14–15). Here they established themselves at Capua (perhaps c. 650 BC), calling their settlement Volturnum; Etruscan inscriptions have been found at Pompeii, Nola and elsewhere. They thus came face to face with Cumae and other Greek colonies, while at the same time Greek penetration into western waters was threatening the spread of Etruscan control. On the other hand, the Greek cities of southern Italy had provided the Etruscans with new markets for their metals and metalwork, and a widespread trade had been built up especially in Greek pottery (p. 21). But events took a fresh turn when the Phocaeans of Asia Minor in c. 600 BC founded Massilia (Marseilles), which in turn sent out colonies along the coast of southern Gaul and northeastern Spain. The first people to react sharply to this new challenge were the Carthaginians, who tried to keep the Phocaeans out of these western areas, but they were defeated in a naval battle which Thucydides recorded (i, 13, 6). When the Phocaeans moved closer to the shores of Etruria itself by settling at Alalia on the east coast of Corsica the Etruscans joined Carthage against the intruders; a naval battle off Alalia in 535 BC resulted in a ‘Cadmean victory’ for the Phocaeans, who ultimately settled at Elea, the home of the Eleatic philosophers. The majority of the captured crews were taken to Agylla (Caere) where they were stoned to death.38 This reference to one Etruscan city, Caere, is a reminder that very often when action by ‘the Etruscans’ is mentioned in the sources, we do not know in detail how many or precisely which cities shared in such action: indeed many of the colonial efforts may have been made by individual cities only. However, the battle of Alalia allowed the Carthaginians to control Sardinia, and the Etruscans Corsica, and either after or before the battle these two peoples entered into a formal alliance, since it is into this period that a treaty between Carthage and Etruria, which Aristotle mentions but does not date, best fits; again, who signed for the Etruscans, whether the League or individual interested cities, remains unknown.39

Encouraged by these events, the Etruscans tried to strengthen their control in Campania by attacking Greek Cumae in 524 BC, but they were defeated by land by the Cumaeans under the leadership of Aristodemus. Before very long Etruscan influence began to weaken in Latium also and they lost control of Rome when Tarquinius was driven out. The other Latin cities were encouraged to seek freedom from the Etruscans and while resisting Etruscan counterattacks they appealed to Cumae, which sent a force by sea under Aristodemus. He routed the Etruscans under Arruns, the son of Lars Porsenna of Clusium, at Aricia c. 506 BC. Aristodemus used his success to become tyrant at Cumae, and the victorious Latins could now cut the land communications between Etruria and Campania. Some years later, in 474, Cumae, either threatened again by the Etruscans or else herself taking the initiative against them, appealed to Hiero king of Syracuse, who had recently, at the battle of Himera, smashed a Carthaginian attempt to occupy eastern Sicily. At a naval battle off Cumae the Greek allies broke Etruscan sea-power: the Greeks regained the freedom of the seas around Naples, and the Etruscan cities in Campania were now isolated by sea as well as by land.40 Thus the southern part of the Etruscan empire collapsed, but in fact the victors did not enjoy independence in Campania for long, since Sabellian tribes began to descend from the mountains, and by 420 both Etruscan Capua and Greek Cumae had succumbed to their assault (p. 99).

The second main line of expansion was northwards over the Apennines; it originated from the cities of the interior of Etruria and began near the end of the sixth century, a considerable time after the start of the southern expansion, and in fact when the Etruscans’ grip there was weakening. The chief colony was founded alongside the old Villanovan settlement at Bologna and was named Felsina; it soon became a prosperous city of farmers, industrialists and traders, and imported large numbers of Greek vases. These came more immediately from Spina at the head of the Adriatic, which became the chief port for Greek goods, especially Athenian vases: it was originally a Greek settlement in which the Etruscans secured a strong foothold. The third important base in the north was the Etruscan settlement at Marzabotto (probably called by them Misa or Misna), some seventeen miles south of Felsina, in a key position to control the valley leading southwards over the Apennines to Etruria itself. Its interest lies not least in the facts that it was an entirely new foundation (c. 500 BC) on virgin soil, and has not been built over since: it thus provides an outstanding example of a late Etruscan city and its street-planning. The extent of Etruscan settlement beyond the area of these three cities is uncertain, since archaeological evidence is lacking for widespread settlement in the northern plain (especially north of the Po), and the tradition that the Etruscans established a League of Twelve Cities here, as in Etruria (and allegedly in Campania), is doubtful. Etruscan trade, but only limited settlement, therefore seems to have spread northwards, where before very long it encountered opposition from Celtic tribes who were tempted to cross the Alps and try to occupy the northern plain of Italy. They may have started on a small scale earlier in the fifth century, but by the end of it they were sweeping all before them. The final attacks fell on Marzabotto and Felsina. The latter was overwhelmed c. 350; burial stones depict the horsemen of Felsina struggling against naked Gallic warriors. Thus Etruscan power north of the Apennines was gradually pushed back and then smashed; the northern plain fell to the Celts and became known to the Romans as Cisalpine Gaul. Soon it would be the turn of Rome itself to face a Gallic incursion (p. 94).41

Thus in pre-Roman Italy there flourished an empire which corresponded in extent roughly with the Napoleonic kingdom of Italy, created probably rather by the haphazard needs and initiative of individual cities than by concerted action of the Etruscan League which was bound together more by cultural and religious than political ties. But it might have resulted in the spread of a common culture, if not in the creation of a single state, from the Alps to the Strait of Messina – had not a sudden collapse occurred, so that this achievement was reserved for the genius of Rome.

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