The Etruscan civilization reached its greatest political and economic significance during the Archaic and Classical periods (575-470 BC and 470-300 BC, respectively). During the sixth and fifth centuries BC, the powerful Etruscan city-states developed and allied themselves in the League of Twelve Cities. The most important Etruscan cities were Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci, Roselle, Vetulonia, Populonium, Veio, Bolsena, Chiusi, Perugia, Cortona, Arezzo, Fiesole, Volterra, and Pisa. (The number of cities in the league varied through time.)

Etruscan city-states were autonomous and had their own sociocultural institutions, spheres of influence, and political and economic institutions. Etruscan political organization was generally oligarchic, with important families controlling the territory of individual city-states. A patron-client system linked families within cities and between cities and the countryside. During the Archaic period the Etruscans expanded beyond their traditional boundaries, in order to establish new commercial bases. They colonized land as far south as Campania, as far north as the Po valley, and east to the Adriatic coast of Italy. Roman annalists report that the Tarquin dynasty of Etruscan kings was established in Rome throughout much of the Archaic period, from 616 to 509 BC. Many of these colonized lands were lost during the Classical period.


During the Archaic and Classical periods, Etruscan towns developed into city-states – urban centers surrounded by regional territories. In Volterra the process of urbanization is visible in increasing settlement density and in the expansion and reorganization of urban space, including the development of public works, places, and cults. A great wall circuit was begun during the Classical period, with a perimeter of 7 kilometers enclosing an area of 116 hectares. Traces of the wall are still visible at numerous points, including the city gates of Porta all’Arco and Porta Diana. A network of roads connected the foothills and valley bottom to the city.

Excavations at Acquarossa, in southern Etruria, provide evidence for domestic architecture during the Archaic period. Houses were rectangular, built on stone-block foundations. The walls usually were built of sun-dried mud bricks, supported by a wooden framework, covered with plaster, and painted. Roofs were made of terra-cotta tiles and decorated with statues and other terra-cotta ornaments. The floor plan often included a larger central room in front and two or three smaller rooms in the back. Sometimes a porch protected the doorway. The house interior was used for sleeping, protection from bad weather, and storage of tools and foodstuffs. The adjacent outdoor courtyard was where most daily activities took place. Storage spaces and shelters for cattle were carved into rock outcrops next to the houses. Archaic Acquarossa also included one monumental residential building complex constructed after the mid-sixth century: two buildings laid out in an L-shaped plan, with a large courtyard. The complex boasted a portico in front and revetment plaques on the facade, with scenes of banquets, dancing, warfare, and mythical events.

Marzabotto, an Etruscan colony established in northern Italy at the beginning of the fifth century, was laid out on a regular plan-similar to that of Greek colonial towns and quite different from the plans of settlements that developed through time, such as Volterra and Acquarossa. Four main streets, each 15 meters wide, defined the habitation area of Marzabotto. One north-west street ran the length of the town, and three east-west streets crossed it. Minor streets, each 5 meters wide, ran parallel to the main north-south axis, creating rectangular blocks. Marzabotto’s city blocks were filled with mudbrick houses and workshops. Craft workshops- including pottery and tile kilns, iron smithies, bronze foundries, and smelting furnaces-faced the street. Living quarters were located in interior courtyards, reached through narrow passageways. Each courtyard had a cistern to collect rainwater running off the tiled roofs.


Archaic period cemeteries reflect the development of new “middle” classes. Whereas cemeteries of the previous period comprised many humble tombs and a few dominating tumuli, Archaic period cemeteries consisted of many simple, uniform tombs laid on streets. Examples of Archaic cemeteries include the Banditaccia at Cerveteri and Crocefisso del Tufo at Orvieto, both from the sixth century BC. The streets of Crocefisso del Tufo were laid out in a grid during the later sixth century, and the cemetery was used throughout the fifth century BC. The small, rectangular tombs were constructed from tufa stone blocks. Their chambers usually have two stone benches for deposition of the dead. The roofs are made of stone slabs and covered with a modest mound and small stone markers (cippi).

A Classical period house interior is re-created in the Tomb of the Reliefs, from the Banditaccia necropolis at Cerveteri, built at the end of the fourth century BC. The underground tomb was carved from tufa stone; then a stucco surface was applied to the walls and painted. The original owners, a married couple, were represented lying side by side in bed. They are surrounded by relief stucco representations of everything they might need to keep house: utensils, tools, vessels, and even a gaming board. The power of the husband, a magistrate, is indicated by his ivory folding chair, trumpet, and weaponry.

Religion and Temples

During the Archaic period Etruscans continued their own distinctive religious practices, although Etruscan divinities were assimilated with the Greek Olympian gods. Again influenced by the Greeks, Etruscans also began building monumental temples. The Temple of Minerva at Portonaccio, Veio, was constructed in the mid-sixth century BC and rebuilt at the end of the century. The Tuscan-style temple is oriented to the east, facing a paved piazza. It has a square plan, each side approximately 18.5 meters. The temple was built on a low podium. Steps at the front of the temple led to a deep porch, or pronaos. The pronaos had two columns with Tuscan capitals; beyond it was placed the sacrificial altar and a sacred pit where libations to the underworld divinity were poured. At the back of the temples were three cellae, or rooms, side by side. The foundation, walls, and columns of the Temple of Minerva were built of tufa stone blocks. The wooden roof was decorated with terra-cotta sculpture, a famous product of Veio. The revetments were graced with floral ornamentation; the antefixes included heads of nymphs and masks of the Gorgons, the snake-haired sisters of Greek myth. Painted terra-cotta statues, larger than life size, were placed on the roof ridge. The famous statue of Apollo (now in the Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia, Rome) probably aimed his bow at Heracles, representing the Greek myth of their conflict over the golden-horned hind of Ceryneia.


Etruscan monumental sculpture typically was executed in terra-cotta or bronze. The Etruscan city of Cerveteri was famous for its terracotta sculpture during the Archaic period. One well-known example is a sarcophagus depicting a married couple reclining on a bed, placed in a chamber tomb beneath a tumulus in the Banditaccia necropolis around 525 BC. The husband lies behind his wife, placing his hand on her shoulder. She pours scented oil onto his palm, a rite for the deceased.

The statue of the Chimera (now in the Archaeological Museum, Florence), is a fine example of Etruscan bronze sculpture. The Chimera was a mythological fire-breathing creature with the body of a lion and heads of a lion, goat, and snake. In this representation, the creature is wounded, suggesting that the statue may have been part of a group that included the hero Bellerophon and his winged horse Pegasus. The statue (or group) probably was created as a votive offering in the late fifth century or early fourth century BC.


Tarquinia was the main center of tomb painting during the Archaic period. The rock-cut tombs from the Monterozzi necropolis are small, rectangular chambers with shallow ridge roofs. After about 530 BC brightly colored paintings covered entire walls of the chambers. The paintings showed mythological scenes, funerary games and ceremonies, banqueting and entertainment, sports, and scenes of the underworld. The Tomb of the Leopards, from the early fifth century BC, is a vibrant example.


The Etruscan economy became increasingly specialized and intensified during the Archaic period. New socioeconomic classes emerged, based in the great city-states and trading towns: manufacturers, crafts producers, and merchants. Internal trade throughout Etruria was effected via coastal waters, rivers, and roads. Long-distance trade was completed in emporia, or trade towns, along the Etruscan coastline. Bronze ingots dating to the early Archaic period probably were used as currency in long-distance trade. Pottery and metalworking remained important Etruscan industries during the Archaic and Classical periods. Early in the Archaic period the Etruscans created their own versions of red figure pottery, modeled after the famous Greek products. Beginning in the fourth century BC a distinctive Etruscan product dominated the pottery industry: tableware coated with a glossy black slip, and decorated with stamped and modeled (relief) motifs. Workshops at Vulci and other Etruscan cities worked bronze into chariots, weapons, armor, vessels, and other utensils. Precious metals, such as gold, were made into jewelry.


Etruscan society changed greatly during the Archaic period. Cities and trade towns supported the growth of new socioeconomic classes- merchants, manufacturers, foreigners-that were not bound by traditional patron-client relationships. These new groups shared common political and economic interests that were at odds with the interests of the established Etruscan aristocracy. Their growing influence and power contributed to the dissolution of the traditional Etruscan social system.


Banti, Luisa. Etruscan Cities and Their Culture, 1973.

Barker, Graeme, and Tom Rasmussen. The Etruscans, 1998.

Boëthius, Axel. Etruscan and Roman Architecture, 1970.

Brendel, Otto J. Etruscan Art., 1995.

Cornell, T. J. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars, c. 1000-263 BC. 1995.

Haynes, Sybille. Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History.

Macnamara, Ellen. The Etruscans, 1991.




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