Before Rome established itself there were very powerful neighbors living in the north country at Etruria. They were known as the Etruscans. The region of Etruria stretched from the Arno to the Tiber and encompassed parts of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio as we know them today, but the origins of Etruscan culture remain a mystery. Some archaeologists believe the Etruscans migrated from the Aegean region or Northern Europe. Others think that their culture was developed in Tuscany itself.

They were a very wealthy and educated people and had been expanding their territory from Etruria all through the western Mediterranean, building city-states and eventually they expanded down toward Rome. Around 575BC the Etruscans inhabited Rome and their kings (an aristocratic family known as the Tarquins) ruled Rome for the next 66 years. Rome had really benefited from their influence because they were so advanced.

The Etruscans taught the Romans their alphabet and how to build their houses with tile roofs. They also taught them many other building techniques, including the famous "arch" (an Etruscan arch is seen left) which had, later on, been attributed to Rome for its invention.

The streets were laid out over the once mosquito infested swamps, and at the centre of the city was the great square called the Forum, which became the seat of Roman government and law. The Tarquins also built temples and taught the Romans their many religious rituals.

Rome had finally begun to emerge as a highly civilized culture, and what was once a bunch of small villages with huts and straw roofs, now had become a great city with large walls and paved streets.

Rome was prospering and advancing very fast until her 7th and last Roman king, Tarquin the Proud, had come to power. He was a very cruel dictator, and he despised the Senate as well as the voice of the people. In 509BC the people rebelled and overthrew him and cast him out. The people unanimously agreed "we will never again be ruled by a king."

The culture of the Etruscans declined after the trade routes came under the influence of the Greeks and Phoenicians.  Finally the Etruscan cities succumbed, one by one, to Roman military supremacy.


The Etruscan obsession with elaborate burials leads us to suppose that they may have had an underlying belief, similar to the Egyptians that a part of the soul remained with the body, or at least that the body was important for the afterlife. Having said that, the earliest grave-sites were cremations but burials then appeared, the first being in Tarquinia and Caere, and eventually became the prevailing rite.

The famous Etruscan necropolis of Monterozzi, situated on a ridge southwest of the ancient city of Tarqinia, contains the most important painted tombs in Etruria, mostly rock-cut chamber tombs dating from the 6th to the 4th century BC. The Lyre Player and the Dancer frescoes come from the Tomb of the Triclinium (seen in the photo above).

Today the location of more than one hundred and fifty painted tombs (tumuli) are known. The Tarquinia tomb frescoes are well preserved in many cases, and to them we owe much of our insight into the Etruscan lifestyle. The photo below is of the tumuli of the Banditaccia and are located in Cerveteri, Lazio, some distance from Tarquinia.




By G Pugliese Carratelli

Electa Napoli, Naples 1996

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