It should come as no surprise that when it comes to history, people are more likely to focus on larger civilizations.  This makes sense, following with the adage that history is written by the winners.  This also applies to the Etruscans—an Italic civilization that shared many overlaps with the development of Rome.  The Etruscans are more difficult to study because there are few surviving Etruscan texts outside of funerary inscriptions and boundary stones, especially compared to other larger Mediterranean civilizations such as the Phoenicians, Greeks, or Romans.  Because of this lack of Etruscan texts, scholars are forced to rely on material culture obtained through excavations and on historical texts by the Greeks and Romans—the “winners” of history—to learn about Etruscan society.

The boundaries of ancient Etruria cover what is nowadays part of the Umbria, Tuscany, and Lazio regions of Italy.  The traditional territory is focused mostly in central Italy, with the Tiber at the eastern edge.  At their most influential, the Etruscans spanned from the Alps to near Salerno along the Tyrrhenian Sea.  The expanse of Etruria can be seen in Figure 1.  As seen in the image, Etruscan territory extended into what would later become Roman territory. The influence of the Etruscans on Roman culture can be seen in architecture, engineering of both terraces and water channels, religious practices, and the presence of Etruscan rulers in Roman society.  The last three traditional kings of Rome, before the change to a republican system in 509 BCE, were Etruscan (Morey, 1901).


Figure 1.

Kessler, Peter and Edward Dawson. Map of Etruscan and Greek Influence in Italy. 2012. History Files. Accessed July 1, 2017.

Although it is difficult to establish a clear idea on the extent of Etruscan reach, one of the easier ways to recognize borders is through language usage. The Etruscan alphabet (Figure 2) was adopted in 7th century BCE from the Greek alphabet (Bonfante, 1986) and later adapted by the Romans into the Latin alphabet.  Although there are hints at a rich literary culture in Etruscan society through self-referential texts, the majority of primary texts are lost to us or only present in fragmentary form or as translations without the original Etruscan.  However, because of the nature of Etruscan as a non-Indo-European language and the lack of surviving texts, very little is known about Etruscan syntax and grammar, and scholars only have a working vocabulary of a few hundred words.  Some important terms we know are tular (“boundary”), rasna (the name for the Etruscan people), and zichuche (“it is written”).  Zichuche is part of a long Etruscan tradition by which adding the phrase to a text essentially serves to elevate a text to a legal status. This wording additionally helps show the respect and importance of the written word in the Etruscan culture. This is not only used with legal documentation, but it is often used in connection with mythology and prophecies in Etruscan tradition (Turfa, 2012). To say something is written is to say that it is immortalized, or given by the gods.


Figure 2.

Etruscan Alphabet Development. n.d.  Omniglot: the Online Encyclopedia of Writing Systems and Languages. Accessed July 2, 2017.

The best surviving Etruscan inscriptions have been found engraved on metals or etched into stones, both for funerary and legal purposes.  Etruscans often used large engraved stones to demarcate property lines, or boundaries between cities.  Figure 3 shows the Cippus Perusinius, one of the longest found boundary inscriptions.  It was created in either the 3rd or 2nd century BCE and found outside of Perugia and is from the current understanding most likely a legal documentation between two families regarding the use of a familial tomb on the other family’s property.  It is also an agreement to share the use of water from a property, which is interesting to note because the Etruscans placed high value on quality water and tended to use it to deliniate borders.  Turfa (2013) states that the Cippus Perusinius is a copy of the original agreement, which suggests that this was a copy made for the public to view.  The Cippus contains the ritualistic phrase “cecha zichuche” (as this sentence is written), officializing the law as it is literally carved into stone and turning it into something everlasting that anyone can be witness to while also legitimizing the law by seeing it in writing. (Bonfante, 2002).


Figure 3.

Cippus Perusinius. n.d. National Archaeology Museum of Perugia

Figure 4 shows one of the longer surviving Etruscan inscriptions, the Tabula Cortonensis, a dual sided inscription on a broken bronze tablet from about 200BCE. What survives of the inscription details a—or potentially multiple—contract about a property with vineyards on it.  the inscription would have originally been hung by the handle somewhere, possibly in a public archive or other public place (Bonfante, 2002). Much more about the contents of the tablet are unclear both because it is incomplete and because of the limited knowledge of Etruscan vocabulary.  The fact that many Etruscan legal documentations were created to be large or viewed in a public setting emphasizes the cultural significance of these physical symbols of borders.

It is interesting to note that boundaries played such an important role to the Etruscans, that boundaries were even an integral part of their mythology.  Selvans was the Etruscan god of boundaries and limits, and Veltymnus (the Etruscan creation God) both had large importance in Etruscan religious culture surrounding boundaries (Turfa, 2013).  They ritualized the importance of how sacred boundaries were by organizing sanctuary spaces with some sort of physically marked limit, although not enough materials have been preserved to have a clear understanding of this.  Sanctuary and urban limits tended to resemble each other, signifying perhaps that the ritualizing of boundaries came from the significance of separating the living from dead via use of necropolises.  It is also possible that the Roman tradition of pomerium as a boundary between the city and everything beyond it may have come from Etruscan tradition.  Through mythology, boundary lines were so elevated in importance that people were forewarned against moving boundaries by instilling a fear of punishment by disease, natural disaster, droughts, and death (Jannot, 2005).  Despite the importance of boundaries in Etruscan tradition, their beliefs and systems were not enough to prevent the Romans from coming in and moving these boundaries as they conquered.  In history, neither boundaries, nor memories thereof are permanent.  These things can only survive when they are agreed upon, and in the case of the Etruscans, the winners did not agree.  What remains of these elaborate traditions are artifacts, and the modern name of the region: Tuscany.


Figure 4.

Tabula Cortonensis. 2007. The Etruscan Academy Museum of the City of Cortona, Cortona.




Kessler, Peter and Edward Dawson. Map of Etruscan and Greek Influence in Italy. 2012. History Files. Accessed July 1, 2017.

Bonfonte, Larissa, ed. Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986. Accessed June 27, 2017.

Jannot, Jean-René. Religion in Ancient Etruria. Translated by Jane Whitehead. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. Accessed June 27, 2017.

Tabula Cortonensis. 2007. The Etruscan Academy Museum of the City of Cortona, Cortona.

Cippus Perusinius. n.d. National Archaeology Museum of Perugia

Etruscan Alphabet Development. n.d.  Omniglot: the Online Encyclopedia of Writing Systems and Languages. Accessed July 2, 2017.

Turfa, Jean MacIntosh. The Etruscan World. New York: Routledge, 2013. Accessed June 27, 2017.

Bonfante Giuliano and Larissa Bonfante. The Etruscan Language: An Introduction, Revised Edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. Accessed July 27, 2017.

Turfa, Jean MacIntosh. Divining the Etruscan World: The Brontoscopic Calendar and Religious Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Accessed July 27, 2017.

Morey, William C. Outlines of Roman History (New York, Cincinnati, Chicago: American Books Company, 1901), accessed July 2, 2017,




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