The people that we call Etruscans were named Tyrsenoi or Tyrrhenoi by the Greeks, Etrusci or Tusci by the Romans, and Rasenna by themselves. They were known to the early Greek poet Hesiod c. 700 BC, and archaeology shows that by then a splendid culture was beginning to flower in Etruria. How did this come about? Were the creators of this civilization native Italians or were they immigrants, like the Greeks further south in Italy? In the mid-fifth century BC Herodotus told how during a famine a Lydian king sent his son Tyrsenus with half the population to seek a new home among the Ombriki. All other ancient writers, beguiled perhaps by the charm and authority of the Father of History, accepted the Lydian origin of the Etruscans, except for Dionysius of Halicarnassus who, living in the time of the emperor Augustus, referred to the shadowy Pelasgians who changed their name to Tyrrhenes and were autochthonous in Italy. The controversy has been carried on ever since, with various degrees of passion and interest, but little general agreement. Mommsen dismissed the question as on a par with that of the name of Hecuba’s mother: ‘neither capable of being known, nor worth the knowing’. Others feel strongly that Herodotus can not be dismissed out of hand, and that the value of Etruscan culture and the importance of its role in Italian history, including its great influence on Rome, demand full investigation. Latterly, less emphasis has been laid on origin, and more placed on the formation of the Etruscans on Italian soil and analysis of the contrasting elements in Italy and from overseas which combined to create the culture.27
The supporters of the theory of autochthonous origin rely on archaeological evidence, which indicates that most Etruscan towns developed on precisely the same sites as former Villanovan settlements. At Veii, for instance, some twelve miles north of Rome, the early Villanovan settlements appear to represent small independent villages, each with its own cemetery, but all grouped on or around the rocky tufa plateau on which the later Etruscan city was built. The types of tombs in Etruscan cemeteries seem to develop in an uninterrupted series, as does the style of their contents. At Tarquinii, for instance, Villanovan cremation burials in urns (a pozzo) were first supplemented and then superseded by inhumation in trenches (a fossa); as the richness of the contents increased and inhumation became the usual practice, chamber-tombs were cut in the rock; tomb-painting, sculpture and ceramics flourished, and imported Greek and oriental objects became more common. Thus, it is argued, Etruscan civilization had arrived without the intervention of any obvious major break: Villanovans had become Etruscans. The Etruscans spoke a non-Indo-European language, and the Villanovans must therefore presumably have done likewise. If so, since there was no obvious influx of a new population, this language presumably derived from a much earlier Bronze (or even Neolithic) Age stratum going back to before the spread of Indo-European tongues from c. 2000 BC.
Scholars who follow the Asiatic flag of Herodotus rather than the Italian flag of Dionysius point out that to transmute small villages into strong cities presupposes technical skills and administrative abilities of a much higher order than that shown by the Villanovans. True, the cemeteries do not indicate any startling break, but the method of disposing of the dead does change, and this is an area of custom in which the feelings of primitive peoples run strong and tend to be conservative. Certainly few scholars today would argue for a mass immigration into Etruria from overseas in one great influx, but if groups of newcomers who practised a different form of burial only gradually asserted themselves in the land they occupied, then any change in burial habits would naturally be somewhat slow. Further, similarities between certain tombs in Etruria and Asia Minor have been found, and Etruscan culture has many aspects which seem more oriental than Italic: the luxury of the Etruscans, their love of feasting, music and dancing, and many of their religious practices such as hepatoscopy have eastern parallels. Then there is the startling fact that an inscription on a warrior’s tombstone is in a language which has connections both with Etruscan and with the tongues of Asia Minor. This was found on the island of Lemnos in the Aegean, where, according to the historian Thucydides, the pre-Greek population was Tyrrhenian. It could be argued that native Italian Etruscans sent out a colony to Lemnos during the early days of Greek colonization, or alternatively that a very old Mediterranean language managed to survive just in these two points amid a sea of Indo-European speakers, but it is much more tempting to see in Lemnos a staging-post in an Etruscan migration from Asia Minor where some of the travellers stayed behind.
Although skulls and bones have been examined by anthropologists, and blood-groups studied by medical biologists, no clear answer has emerged, and the leading Etruscologist, M. Pallottino, has concentrated rather on the historical reality of the Etruscan nation in Italy, considering it more valuable to discuss the origin of the ethnic, linguistic, political and cultural elements that contributed to the process of ethnic formation that took place on the soil of Etruria itself, than to continue to speculate about provenance. One thing however is clear: whether with or without the introduction of incomers from the Eastern Mediterranean, the varied elements were fused together during the orientalizing phase in the early seventh century. The basic population of Etruria remained of Villanovan origin; it adopted new ideas of burial and social organization and imported more and more Greek and oriental wares (including some artists and craftsmen) which were gradually imitated by local artists. But some enquirers will still remember Herodotus and continue to speculate whether these changes were only the upsurge of native talent under eastern cultural influences, or were so fundamental as to justify belief in the impact of foreign occupation. The opening up of the countryside and the transformation of villages into cultured cities may well have required the influx of a relatively small number of men with administrative skills and the power to organize large labour forces.
If on balance we may accept an oriental element in the Etruscan nation, a view to which the Etruscans themselves officially subscribed at the beginning of the Roman Empire (Tacitus, Annals, iv, 55), we can imagine how they came in small bands and settled in strong positions near the coast whence they dominated the surrounding districts, much as the Norsemen descended upon the coasts of Scotland. This movement may even represent the final spasm of disturbances in the eastern Mediterranean that went back to the results of the collapse of the Mycenaean and Hittite empires and sent various groups of Peoples of the Sea roving around from the beginning of the twelfth century in search of plunder and new homes. The Etruscans cannot have arrived in Italy before about 800BC(Herodotus put their migration before the fall of Troy, late thirteenth century), though some might have arrived in Lemnos earlier. The magnet that drew them to Etruria will have been its mineral wealth. They were presumably groups of warriors, with few womenfolk, who brought their experience in war, administration and the arts of city life, together with their language. Their numbers may not have been large and their arrival may have continued over many years. In Etruria they found a Villanovan population which lived in villages, spoke an Indo-European tongue and cremated its dead. Superior powers of organization enabled the invaders to impose themselves as a conquering aristocracy; they intermarried with the Villanovans, their language and burial habits gradually gained the ascendancy, and they organized the subjugated Villanovans to clear the forests, drain the land, and build cities. By exploiting the copper and iron of the country they were enabled to build up an overseas trade which brought them many of the luxurious artistic products of the East. Thus by the beginning of the seventh century an Etruscan nation was born on Italian soil; the bulk of its people were Iron Age Villanovans whose latent abilities and tastes had been gradually sharpened by pressure from men who shared some of the qualities which later enabled the Normans to subdue the Saxons in England. However, the warning should be sounded once again that many scholars still prefer a theory of ‘continuous creation’ within Etruria itself.28