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Etruscan origins and Italian nationalism.

Etruscology and Italian Nationalism

The question of Etruscan origins within Italian archaeology acquires significant relevance when analyzed in relation to Italian nationalism. Massimo Pallottino in The Etruscans argues that the very first question posed about Etruscan civilization, the question of Etruscan provenance, is irrelevant because Etruscan civilization is a unique Italian product, a cultural phenomenon not found in any land other than the Italian peninsula. The reality is that the question concerning Etruscan origins is political in nature because it implies the issues of nationalism, ethnicity and language. By asking "Where did the Etruscans come from?" we are really asking "Which nation and which population can claim a historical connection to this very advanced civilization?"

From the birth of written history, classical writers argued this same question. One of the most interesting aspects of Etruscan culture is the nature of the scholarly debate that this civilization has produced among archaeologists, historians and social scientists through time, not only in Italy, but in the international academic arena of the Western world. The unique nature of this academic debate consists in the fact that after centuries of Etruscan research, scientific innovations and academic advancements, the terms of the debate in regard to Etruscan origins remain polarized in two diametrically opposed theories still argued today on the same general terms that they were debated thousands of years ago by Herodotus and Dionysius of Halikarnassos. In order to understand the terms of this polarized debate we should briefly review its content.

The first historian to address the question of Etruscan origins was Herodotus, by tradition the first Greek historian who around the middle of the 5th century B.C. wrote a moving account describing the Etruscans as an immigrant group from Asia Minor. (2)

Thus, according to Herodotus, the Etruscan civilization derives from the Lydian plateau of Asia Minor. Several other Greek and Roman historians such as Virgil, Ovid and Horace share this point of view, referring to the Etruscans as Lydians in their poems. Seneca writes: "Tuscos Asia sibivindicate," (Asia claims to have fathered the Tuscans). He used the Etruscans as an example of an entire population that migrated from its original land in Asia. This theory of Etruscan origin, generally supported by the majority of Greek and Latin historians, was rejected by the Greek theoretician Dionysius of Halikarnassos, who, during the Augustan period, wrote in Roman Antiquities that the Etruscans were an autochthonous population of the Italian peninsula. (4)

These two contrasting views of Etruscan provenance, both theorized in classical times, have shaped the subsequent development of this discussion, creating in essence two main schools of thought among archaeologists and scholars. The theory supporting the indigenous nature of the Etruscans has been embraced and promoted mainly by Italian Etruscologists, such as Piranesi, (5) Pallottino, (6) and Torelli while non- Italian archaeologists have favored the Herodotean theory of an Asiatic origin or the Alpine Raetian origin, as in the case of Nicolas Freret (8), Barthold Niebuhr (9), and Karl Muller. (10) In modern times this debate has incorporated not only classical texts and archaeological data, but also linguistic analysis and the latest scientific testing, such as DNA analysis on both human and animal remains. These sophisticated results have been used to support both theories and have therefore not validated one theory over the other.

This fervent and lasting conflict among scholars over the question of Etruscan provenance generates natural questions in the reader: Why so much hostility and polemic vigor over the question of Etruscan origins? Why such a sharp division among Italian and non-Italian archaeologists? It has been argued that the question of provenance is a political question. This necessitates a discussion of the implications these questions raise.

A Question of Cultural Dominance

As the direct descendant of the Roman Empire, the Italian nation has achieved and enjoyed a unique status of political power. The Roman Empire and cultural domination of the Italian Renaissance, which were influenced by Etruscan historical tradition, still represents a model of cultural expression for other nations. (11)

A careful analysis of Italian cultural dominance through history reveals interesting aspects that are debated among ancient and modern scholars. Although the political importance of the Roman Empire was admired for its military conquests and geographic organization, Roman culture has always suffered "a complex of cultural inferiority" when compared to the cultural sophistication of Greek civilization. It has been argued among classical writers such as Horace that the greatness of the Roman Empire would not have existed without the immense contribution of Greece. Horace writes "Greece in its capture then captured its rough-mannered conqueror, thereby bringing the arts into countrified Latium". (12) It is commonly said that while the Roman Empire conquered the Greeks, the Romans were in return conquered by Greek culture.

The idea of Roman civilization as the cultural product of Greek influence has been reconsidered by Massimo Pallottino in A History of Earliest Italy. Pallottino offers a counterargument to the question of Greek influence on Roman civilization by evaluating the history of pre-Roman Italic cultural expressions present on the Italian peninsula such as Osco- Umbrian, Sabellic, Etruscan, Ligurian, Venetic and Samnite. (13) He argues that historians have underestimated the cultural value and degree of sophistication that Italic cultures had achieved on the Italian peninsula before and during the Roman civilization. More specifically Pallottino blames the hegemonic role of German and German-language scholarship and its culmination in the neohumanism of Helmut Berve which was intolerant of cultural expressions that were not Greek. (14) Pallottino believes that a careful study of the Italic cultures in Italy will not only provide a historical definition of Italian cultural essence, but will also inform a better understanding of the significant achievements of the Roman Empire. Pallotino promotes a rewriting of the history of earliest Italy that emphasizes the existence and immense contribution of autochthonous Italic civilizations on Italian land. His analysis also answers many puzzling questions concerning Etruscan origins, demonstrating that Etruscan civilization is the sole result of interactions of Italic cultures. Pallottino writes: "Modern scholarship, even as it rejected the notions of antiquity, remained fixated on the idea that the origins of the Italic peoples were to be found in the effects of immigration from outside". (15) Pallottino investigates the historical fallacy of non-autochthonous Etruscan origins by arguing against the traditional approach held by ancient and modern scholars on the issue of Etruscan provenance. Pallottino writes that ancient and modern thinkers have tried to explain the question of origins with historically accepted stereotypical images of a maritime immigration into Italy from the East, taking place in an early heroic age by Arcadian, Pelasgian, Achaean, Trojan, Lydian, Cretan, and Iapygian peoples. These eastern civilizations were associated with a mythical hero who would establish a new civilization on the Italian peninsula. Among these mythical figures are Heracles, Minos, Ulysses, Diomedes, Aeneas, Tyrrhenus and others . These heroic tales have the following common elements: they occur during the time of the Trojan War, have a fixed narrative in which a heroic leader travels west to a foreign land where he wages war on the indigenous inhabitants, marries the daughter of the foreign king and establishes a new kingdom on the conquered land. These mythological tales have been used to promote the political and cultural dominance of Eastern civilizations on Italic culture.

The investigation of Italic cultures on the Italian peninsula is the product of a long historical tradition rooted at the birth of Italian nationalism. In order to understand how Italian archaeologists have reached this level of introspection in Italian cultural studies it is important to analyze the political and psychological factors that have interacted to form the idea of Italian nationalism.

During the Neoclassical period in the eighteenth century a significant Italian cultural triumph was celebrated on Italian soil with the unexpected discovery of an artistic and advanced cultural expression in the regions of Tuscany and Latium, now known as the Etruscan culture, which predates the Romans and flourished on the Italian peninsula. The existence of an Etruscan civilization on Italian soil had in reality already been known since Roman times, but at this time the material rediscovery of Etruscan artistic wealth on Italian soil not only reopened the question of Etruscan origins, it gave confidence to Italian scholars to promote an entirely Italian cultural and artistic expression predating the Romans, one that developed solely on Italian land.

The material discovery of Etruscan civilization and its distinguishing characteristics gave birth to Etruscology, a branch of archaeology devoted completely to the study, preservation and promotion of Etruscan civilization in the world. The birth and development of Etruscology is the product of continuous interaction among scholars of many nations. It is very important to remember that although the material remains of Etruscan culture are primarily on Italian soil, the study of Etruscan civilization is not solely a pursuit of Italian archaeologists, but of experts the world over.

Etruscology and Nationalist Implications

The 18th century was a period of enthusiasm for Etruscan art and civilization. Founded in 1726, the Cortona Etruscan Academy was a local society developed to investigate and promote Etruscan civilization as a unique expression on Tuscan soil. (17) The birth of this cultural organization is indicative of a desire of the citizens of Cortona to claim the Etruscan culture as native to their land. It included a museum and a library where scholarly discussion on Etruscan civilization regularly took place.

The vigorous interest developed during the 18th century in Etruscan culture coincides with a specific national psychology in Italy. During the 18th century, Italy was still divided into small states under foreign domination, with the northern regions of Italy under Austrian power. Although the Italian Risorgimento, which resulted in Italian unification, would still be decades in the future, aspirations for a possible national unification began to develop on Italian soil. (18)

The enthusiasm over Etruscan origins at this time was advanced by a famous Italian engraver, Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Piranesi's analysis and reconstruction of Etruscan architectural achievements brought him to the conclusion that the splendor attained by Roman architecture was entirely the product of Etruscan artistic influence. (19) Piranesi's theory of Etruscan origins promoted a very nationalistic message about the birth of Etruscan civilization on the Italian peninsula. He not only dismissed the role of Greek influence on Etruscan art, he also advocated the superiority of Etruscan architecture over most other classical architecture.

The Current Status of the Debate

While Etruscology advanced due to a significant number of excavations and improved techniques, the main debate over Etruscan origins from the 19th century until our present day still remains polarized. In 1853 discoveries of Villanovan remains added a new component to the question of Etruscan origins. (20) In light of these new discoveries, some archaeologists promoted a theory that the Etruscans were related to the Alpine Raetians and that, like other Indo-European invaders, they had penetrated the Italian peninsula beginning ca. 2000 B.C. This new hypothesis of a Nordic origin was promoted mainly by Nicolas Freret, (21) Barthold Niebuhr (22) and Karl Muller, (23) all non-Italian scholars, who based their conclusion on the close connection between the name of the Alpine Raetians, a Nordic tribe that crossed the Alps and infiltrated Italy, and the name Rasenna, which, according to Livy, (24) was used by the Etruscans to describe themselves. Once again the hypothesis of a non-indigenous origin of Etruscan civilization became a matter of disagreement between Italian and nonItalian archaeologists.

Mario Torelli, a prominent Italian Etruscan scholar, in his essay, "History: Land and People", believes excavations on Etruscan sites indicate a progressive transformation of Etruscan art from Iron Age elements to an Oriental influence. Torelli states:
   Some have attempted to find confirmation in archaeology;
   considering the possibility that the Etruscans' arrival in Italy
   coincided with the socalled Orientalizing phase of Etruscan art.
   This idea is, however, contradicted by the study of the monuments
   unearthed by archaeology, for these reflect a gradual development
   from the art of the Iron Age to that of the Orientalizing period.

Torelli also opposes the theory of an Alpine origin for the Etruscans as he claims that similarities between the Raetians and the Etruscans resulted from the Etruscan expansion into the Po Valley rather than a southern migration of the Raetians into Northern Italy. (26) As we can see, a deep discrepancy of opinion is still at the very core of the debate on Etruscan origins.

Although the debate of Etruscan origins is still polarized on two contrasting theories, the tendency of contemporary international archaeologists supports an indigenous provenance. Among the new voices promoting the theory first proposed by Dionysius of Halikarnassos is Graeme Barker and Tom Rasmussen who write: "Virtually all archaeologists now agree that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the 'indigenous' theory of Etruscan origins: the development of Etruscan culture has to be understood within an evolutionary sequence of social elaboration in Etruria". (27) Barker and Rasmussen explore the question of origins following Pallottino's theory that the formation of the Etruscan civilization should be investigated rather than their origins. Barker and Rasmussen argue that the process of understanding Etruscan formation is a complex task due to multiple factors that interacted to shape the unique characteristics of Etruscan culture:
   Explaining this process, however, is still far more difficult than
   describing it. For example, contact with the outside world,
   particularly with the Greeks and Phoenicians, was certainly an
   important factor within the final stages of this process, but
   scholars disagree about the extent to which such contact was a
   cause of increasing cultural complexity in Etruria, or a result, or
   both. (28)

This new archaeological approach demonstrates that the focus of contemporary Etruscan scholarship has shifted from the question of origins to the question of cultural formation; an innovation that Pallottino introduced to Etruscan studies. The value of Pallottino's emphasis on formation is recognized in the methodological approach of international archaeologists Nigel Spivey and Simon Stoddart, who write:
   Today there is little controversy, in contrast to the time when
   Pallottino first wrote in 1944, that the Etruscans were an
   indigenous people in Central Italy. They developed from a local
   Bronze-Age population (from at least 1200 BC), at times in intense
   interaction with outside groups, but not directly dependent on
   those external groups for their own development. (29)

This debate among Italian and non-Italian scholars does not find conclusive agreement with the introduction of the latest technological advances in archaeological investigation, the use of DNA testing, which, once more, sees scholars divided in their theories about Etruscan origins.

Polemic in Scientific Testing

The use of genetic testing in archaeology is a significant scientific innovation introduced during the last decades with the hope of bringing some objective conclusions to many unresolved enigmas left by past civilizations. Among these enigmas, the case of Etruscan origins is one of the most discussed and one for which multiple and sophisticated DNA testing has been conducted by respected teams of European and American scientists. An intriguing aspect of DNA testing on Etruscan remains shows that even this ostensibly objective, scientific and unbiased testing has been used by Italian and non-Italian Etruscan scholars to support their views and to reach opposite conclusions, showing once again that the political aspect of the question of Etruscan origins permeates the scientific world also.

Mitochondrial DNA testing was conducted on Etruscan remains in 2004 and 2006 by two teams of scientists, one American and one British. The results of both tests have been published in the well respected journal, The American Journal of Human Genetics. In 2004, the team of Guido Barbujani, professor of genetics at the University of Ferrara, compared DNA of Etruscans with that of current populations in Italy, North Africa and Eastern European countries. His team came to the conclusion that the mitochondrial DNA of the Etruscans is similar to the DNA of the people now living in the region of Tuscany and also that it is different from the DNA of people living in other regions of Italy and other parts of Europe (20). There is also a similarity between Etruscan DNA and small groups of people in Germany, Cornwall, the southern coast of the Mediterranean and in Turkey. Barbujani's research resulted in the following summary:
   Within the limits imposed by the sample size, the Etruscan sites
   appear to have rather homogeneous genetic characteristics. Their
   mitochondrial haplotypes are very similar, but rarely identical, to
   those commonly observed in contemporary Italy and suggest that the
   links between Etruscans and eastern Mediterranean region were in
   part associated with genetic, and not only cultural, exchanges. (31)

Several genetic tests conducted on Etruscan remains have produced similar results, which indicate a common genetic pattern between Etruscans and populations in Asia Minor. The way in which these results have been interpreted has generated further controversies on Etruscan origins.

The supporters of the Herodotean thesis believe that this genetic testing validates an Oriental Etruscan origin. The results of these genetic tests have been received with great enthusiasm by the Turkish community, which proudly promotes the theory that the advanced and sophisticated Etruscan civilization was the historical product of Asia Minor and therefore a prominent part of Turkish historical tradition. Turkish newspapers have published the results of these genetic tests declaring that Turkey could establish without doubt a direct connection with the Etruscan past ("DNA Shows Etruscans Come From Anatolia," Turkish Daily News, 9 February 2007).


Perhaps the best answer to the debate on Etruscan origins was proposed by Massimo Pallottino, who focused on Etruscan cultural formation. Concerning the question of Etruscan origins, Pallottino writes: "It is interesting to note that right from the beginning the problem of Etruscan origins was considered to be one of provenance and not of ethnic formation as is usual when nations belonging to historical times are being studied". This polarization of the problem weighed heavily upon the future development of the discussion. Pallottino argues that the question of provenance is not the correct question to ask, as the Etruscan civilization is found only on the Italian peninsula, and therefore is the sole product of Italian soil.

To reinforce his polemic critique against those archaeologists who promote a non-Italian origin of the Etruscans, Pallottino makes an interesting transition to a direct nationalistic debate when he writes:
   Now the methodological basis of our discussion must be as follows:
   We must consider the concept of "Etruscan" as well defined,
   limited, and attached to a controllable historical reality: that of
   a nation that flourished in Etruria between the eighth and the
   first centuries B.C., possessing its own language and its own
   customs. Various ethnic, linguistic, political and cultural
   elements contributed to the formation of this historical reality.
   So as to make our meaning clearer we would like to point out that
   no one would dream of asking where Italians or Frenchmen came from
   originally; it is the formation of the Italian and French nations
   that we study. (330

Archaeologists and historians have the delicate task to reconstruct and present to the world the essence of past civilizations. This process of preservation and reconstruction should be conducted with objectivity on the part of social scientists who, being themselves the product of nations and cultural traditions, may pose research questions already biased by their political and socioeconomic background which could obstruct the objectivity of archaeological research.

The scope of this discussion on Etruscan origins is to present the nature of an archaeological question that, posed at the beginning of history, has continued to be debated through the most crucial Italian historical developments and while the nation was undergoing delicate political transition toward national unity. The issue of Etruscan cultural formation is perhaps the most important in the debate over Etruscan origins, as it introduced the innovative concept of formation over origins, a concept that can be applied in similar archaeological investigations. Political propaganda and nationalist bias have infiltrated Italian archaeology at times in relation to specific political periods; however, the essence of Italian archaeology has always remained international in nature, as Italian archaeologists have always kept open channels of communication with international archaeologists and have provided to the international community access to Italian archaeological research. It could have not been otherwise as the unique artistic wealth of the Italian nation today is the product of infinite cultural interactions that have enriched this fortunate land since the beginning of time.


[1.] Barbujani, Guido et al. (2004), "The Etruscans: A PopulationGenetic Study", In American Journal of Human Genetics, 74, (4), 694-704.

[2.] Barker, Graeme; Rasmussen, Tom (1998), The Etruscans, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

[3.] Berve, Helmut; Gruben, Gottfried; Hirmer, Max (1963), Greek Temples, Theatres, and Shrines. New York: H.N. Abrams.

[4.] De Grummond, Nancy (1986), "Recovery" in Bonfonte, Larissa (ed.) Etruscan Life and Afterlife, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

[5.] Dionysius (1950), The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Earnest Cary (Trans.), Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[6.] Freret, Nicolas (1850), "Observations generales sur la geographie ancienne", in Memories De L'Institut National De France Academie Des Inscriptions Et Belles-Lettres, pp. 331-468. Paris: Imprimerie nationale.

[7.] Herodotus (1987), The History, David Grene (trans.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[8.] Horace (1989), Epistles, book II; and, Epistle to the Pisones (Ars poetica), Rudd, Niall (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[9.] Livy (2006), The History of Rome, Books 1-5, Valerie M. Warrior (trans.), Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub.

[10.] Muller, K.O.; Deeke, Wilhelm (1877), Die Etrusker, Stuttgart, A. Heitz.

[11.] Niebuhr, Barthold Georg (1873), Romische Geschichte, Berlin: S. Galvary & Co.

[12.] Pallottino, Massimo (1955), The Etruscans, Cremona, J. (trans.), Baltimore: Penguin.

[13.] Pallottino, Massimo (1975), The Etruscans, 6th Edition, Cremona, J. (trans.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[14.] Pallottino, Massimo (1991), A History of Earliest Italy, Ryle, Martin; Soper, Kate (trans.), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

[15.] Piranesi, Giovanni Battista (1993), Scritti di storia e teoria dell'arte, Panza, Pierluigi (ed.) Milan: Sugarco.

[16.] Richardson, Emeline (1976), The Etruscans: Their Art and Civilization, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[17.] Spivey, Nigel; Stoddart, Simon (1990), Etruscan Italy, London: B.T. Batsford Ltd.

[18.] Torelli, Mario (1986), "History: Land and People", In Bonfonte, Larissa (ed.) Etruscan Life and Afterlife, pp. 47-65. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Valeria Forte *

* Valeria Forte is Visiting Professor of Humanities at the University of Dallas, where she has been teaching for the past eight years. After her studies in Classics in Italy, she completed a B.A., two M.A.s, and a Phd. in Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. Email:

(1) Massimo Pallottino, The Etruscans, Trans. J. Cremona, Baltimore: Penguin, 1955, p. 68.

(2) Herodotus, The History, Trans. David Grene, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, Book I, ch. 94.

(3) Emeline Richardson, The Etruscans: Their Art and Civilization, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, pp. 68-69.

(4) Dionysius, The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Trans. Earnest Cary, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1950, Book I, Ch. 30.

(5) Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Scritti di storia e teoria dell'arte, Pierluigi Panza (ed.), Milan: Sugarco, 1993.

(6) Massimo Pallottino, op.cit.

(7) Mario Torelli, "History: Land and People", in Larissa Bonfante (ed.), Etruscan Life and Afterlife, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986, pp. 47-65.

(8) Nicolas Freret, "Observations generales sur la geographie ancienne", in Memories De L'Institut National De France Academie Des Inscriptions Et Belles-Lettres, Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1850, pp. 331-468.

(9) Barthold Georg Niebuhr, Romische Geschichte, Berlin: S. Galvary & Co, 1873.

(10) K.O Muller and Wilhelm Deeke, Die Etrusker, Stuttgart: A. Heitz, 1877.

(11) Nancy De Grummond, "Rediscovery", in Larissa Bonfante, op.cit., p. 23.

(12) Horace, Epistles, book II; and, Epistle to the Pisones (Ars poetica), Niall Rudd (ed.), Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1989, Book II, 156.

(13) Massimo Pallottino, A History of Earliest Italy, Trans. Martin Ryle and Kate Soper, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991, p. 5.

(14) Ibidem, p. 10.

(15) Massimo Pallottino, A History of ..., p. 26.

(16) Ibidem, p. 25.

(17) Massimo Pallottino, The Etruscan, 6th Edition, Trans. J. Cremona, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975, p. 24.

(18) Massimo Pallottino, A History of ..., pp. 8-9.

(19) Graeme Barker and Tom Rasmussen, The Etruscans, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, p. 2.

(20) Ibidem, p. 60

(21) Nicolas Freret, "Observations generales sur la geographie ancienne", in Memories De L'Institut National De France Academie Des Inscriptions Et Belles-Lettres, Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1850, pp. 331-468.

(22) Barthold Georg Niebuhr, op.cit.

(23) K.O. Muller and Wilhelm Deeke, op.cit.

(24) Livy, The History of Rome, Books 1-5, Trans. Valerie M. Warrior, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub, 2006, Book 5 Ch. 33.

(25) Mario Torelli, "History: Land and People", in Larissa Bonfante (ed.), Etruscan Life and Afterlife, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986, p. 48.

(26) Ibidem, p. 48.

(27) Graeme Barker and Tom Rasmussen, The Etruscans, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, p. 44.

(28) Ibidem.

(29) Nigel Spivey and Simon Stoddart, Etruscan Italy. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1990, p. 19.

(30 Guido Barbujani et al., "The Etruscans: A Population-Genetic Study", in American Journal of Human Genetics 74, (4), 2004, pp. 694-704.

(31) Ibidem.

(32) Massimo Pallottino, The Etruscans, Trans. J. Cremona, Baltimore: Penguin, 1955, p. 47. Ibidem, p. 68.
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Author:Forte, Valeria
Publication:Studia Europaea
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Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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