Larth Porsena’s Etruscan army is concentrating outside Rome (top left) – a classic artwork by Peter Connolly. Porsena on the right is giving orders. A large variety of Tyrrhenian/Τyrsenian weaponry is depicted. The strong Greek influence is obvious, as well as the Italian elements.
By Periklis Deligiannis
Despite Titus Livius’ reference to the “numerous Etruscan warriors”, they would be quite more numerous if their society was organized more democratically, a brilliant evolution of the Greek city-states which the Tyrsenians persistently refused to follow mainly because of ethno-social reasons. Livy quotes that in 225 BC the Etruscans and the Sabini raised 50,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry to assist Rome against the Celts. Taking into account that in this year the heavy-populated Southern Etruria was already Roman territory, and some other parameters, we reach an estimate of 80,000 combatants (men able for service) for late 6th century BC Etruria. A poor figure for a country that as has been calculated by British and Italian scholars, it had a population of around 600,000-800,000 (higher and lower trustworthy estimates). In comparison, the Greek regions of Italy and Sicily had a significantly higher percentage of combatants on their total population, because of their higher politico-economic system, mainly their democratic or milder aristocratic regime. Because of this lack of combatants, a significant portion of the armies of the Tyrsenians consisted of their vassals, allies or mercenaries, such as the Umbrians, Latins, Oscans, Golaseca culture Celts and others.
Besides the infantry, the Etruscan armies had also strong cavalry units. However the Tyrrhenian horsemen used to fight on foot, ie their horses were mostly a transport. They were fighting on horseback only when they had to confront enemy cavalrymen. That is why their equipment was essentially hoplite. The harness of the horses belonged to Greek types. The war chariot was introduced in Etruria around the late 8th century BC, but it is very doubtful if it was used as a shock weapon. After the prevalence of the Greek-type hoplite phalanx it became a transport of the Etruscan generals, until the 5th century BC when it disappeared from the battlefields. After that, the chariot was used for the Triumphs of the Tyrsenian generals, a legacy that was inherited to the Triumphs of the Roman consuls.
The well organized Tyrsenians would not neglect to raise and maintain elite units. These were the fraternities of the “devoted” warriors. They were selected among the best fighting men and swore an oath during a special ceremony, to die rather than to retreat before the enemy. It is unknown if they were hoplites, horsemen or axemen. They possibly belonged to all three types of troops. These full-time professional soldiers usually manned the generals’ or magisters’ bodyguards, even of non-Etruscan ones. The Greek general Aristodemos captured many Tyrrhenians at the battle of Aricia (505 BC). Being impressed by their martial skill, he formed a “devoted” bodyguard of them which he used to become and remain tyrant of his home city Kyme in Campania (Cumae, near modern Naples).
An Etruscan helmet of Illyrian or local Italian (Italic) origin.
An interesting peculiarity of the Tyrrhenian battle system was the use of armored axemen who were trying through the hard blows of their heavy axes to create or exploit gaps on the enemy hoplite phalanx, paving the way for the comrade hoplites who were following them. This method, of Italian origin, was abandoned in the 4th century BC because of its inefficacy against the solid hoplite phalanx.
The maritime city-states had a strong navy, consisting of penteconters, biremes and triremes. The Etruscans were among the first who navigated triremes because of their close relations to the Greek inventors of these warships (mainly from the cities of the Aegean region) but they insisted on the parallel large use of the obsolete penteconters. This choice of them resulted in a permanent large disadvantage of the Etruscan navy against the Greek fleets of Italy and Sicily, which consisted mainly of triremes. The Greeks were now using penteconters and biremes only as scout and patrol ships. The Tyrsenian captains/commanders and the marines were mainly members of Class I (see Part I). The other four Classes provided the archers, the sailors and the rowers. The Tyrrhenians were able seamen and pirates, being after all partly descendants of some of the Sea Peoples (Tyrsha or Teresh). They founded colonies in Spain (possibly the cities Tarraco [Tarragon], Tyrichai and others) and sailed up to the Atlantic Ocean. Soon, however, their navies were limited only to the sea that bears their name until today (the Tyrrhenian Sea); in fact only to its northern part. The reasons for this geo-political limitation were the strong navies of Magna Graecia, Greek Marseille and Phoenician Carthage. After the crashing defeat of the united Etruscan navy by the Syracusan war fleet in the sea battle of Kyme (Cumae, 474 BC), the number of its warships was much reduced. Additionally the Tyrsenians did not follow the 4th century BC developments in shipbuilding and never acquired warships larger than triremes (ie quadriremes, quinqueremes etc). However during the “Double” Punic War (264-201 BC) they manned the Roman quinqueremes with rowers, deck crews and possibly marines.
An outcome of the martial spirit of the Etruscans was their frequent mercenary service to other armies, Tyrsenian or not. It is reported or evidenced to have been mercenaries of Carthage and various Greek city-states of the West (Kyme, Taras, tyrants of Syracuse Dionysius and Agathocles, and others). Since the early times Tyrrhenian mercenaries are fighting on behalf of wealthy tribal chiefs of Spain, and by the late 3rd century BC they also appear in the Hellenistic armies of the eastern Mediterranean, in which they are enlisted together with Oscan warriors (Samnites, Lucanians, Bruttians and others). The Etruscan, Oscan and other Italian mercenaries in the Greek and Carthaginian armies of the 3rd-2nd centuries BC were mostly runaways who refused to submit to the Roman conquerors of their homelands.
The Tyrsenians were not battling like the later Romans, ie in three alternating battle lines, but usually in one line. The prime shock troops were the hoplites of the First Class arrayed in the center of the battle front. The next two Classes were lined up either as extensions (the “horns”) of the center, protecting the right and left of the First Class, or behind it. Classes IV and V were fighting on the irregular way of the light-armed (“psiloi” in ancient Greek). Livy refers to Etruscan priests arrayed in front of their army during a battle against the Romans who marched “like demon-possessed … brandishing alive snakes and torches”. In other cases the Tyrsenians tried to mislead or to ambush the Roman army. Thereby they used these tactical artifices as well.
Livy quotes in his work on Roman History that in the 4th century BC, the Romans feared the Etruscans more than any other enemy except the Celts. However elsewhere in his work describing a battle of 310 BC makes a clear hint that the sons of the She-wolf did not esteem the martial skill or the courage of the Tyrsenians. If they really had this opinion, it concerned rather the immediate period before 310 BC. The first major victory of Rome on the Etruscans is dated shortly after 400 BC, when she destroyed the city of Veii (around 396 BC). But the Romans achieved this victory because, according to the prevailing theory, the major Tyrsenian city-states abandoned their Veintine (Veian) compatriots feeling envy of their continuous strengthening.
On the other hand, in my view it is probable that a portion of the Veintine army was absent operating in the North, at the Arnos Valley and the Apennines where the Etruscan Confederacy desperately tried to check the Gallic invaders. This expedition would have weakened the army of the city. Additionally the serfs of Veii were Latin kinsmen of the Romans, whom of course they helped by rebelling against their Etruscan despots. Soon Rome paid the price for the destruction of Veii. The simultaneous military pressure of the Gauls from the North and of the Romans from the South finally bent the Tyrrhenian resistance. At first the Celtic “flood” destroyed the once powerful Clusium (Clevsin) in Central Etruria, and then Rome itself after the elimination of the Roman army at the Allia River (387/6 ΒC).
A Tyrsenian hoplite phalanx in a vase-painting.
After that, the Etruscan cities went on a rapid decline which affected their fighting men. That is why Livy’s aforementioned hint on their quality concerns only the period after the 4th century BC. Another reason for this forfeiture is the religious one. According to the Tyrrhenian calendar, the 4th century BC marked the end of a long period, the end of which would mean the death and disappearance of the Etruscan people. This pessimism was aggravated also by the renowned Tyrsenian foretellers. It is significant that after 400 BC, the themes of the renowned frescoes of the Etruscan tombs changed radically. The major themes are no longer the symposia, the athletes or love but the grim figure of Charon, the Greek daemon of the netherworld: a clear evidence of Tyrsenian self-abandonment.
In conclusion, in the 6th-5th centuries BC and partly in the 4th century, the Etruscans have maintained high morale and military skill remaining a major threat for Rome (which they controlled during the 6th century).
The sophisticated culture and the rather luxurious life of the Tyrsenians perhaps give the impression that they were dealing with war only occasionally and out of necessity. On the contrary, they were a warlike people. An important element of Etruscan character is cruelty. It is well known that the Romans later used this element as a psychological weapon for the expansion and maintenance of their empire. They inherited this feature – as numerous other features of their civilization – from the Tyrsenians.
It is considered a certainty that the Etruscans practiced human sacrifice. A frequent theme in their renowned frescoes is the sacrifice of the Trojan captives by Achilles in honor of the dead Patroclos, because they used to do it themselves. They usually executed the prisoners of war, to accompany the souls of their own dead warriors to Hades (the netherworld). Sometimes this was done by stoning to death by the non-combatant citizens. In other cases the prisoners were tightly tied for days with the decomposing corpses of their dead comrades, or were devoured by hungry wild dogs in arenas or were forced to duel to death. In the first case, it is obvious that many tortured captives lost their mind because of the horror. Concerning the other two cases, the Romans later made these performances a basic feature of their everyday life. Their wealth allowed them to replace the dogs with lions, leopards and other “expensive” predators, but their treatment of the gladiators was clearly better. It has been estimated that the probability for a gladiator to be killed during the subsequent Roman gladiatorial games was only 10%. On the contrary, the gladiators who were entertaining the Tyrrhenians were fighting to death. The most popular myth of the Etruscans was the Greek legend of the duel between Eteocles and Polynices – very often repeated in their funerary paintings – perhaps because the two heroes kill each other simultaneously. In the Tyrsenian funerary frescoes, the heroes are usually gazing each other with satisfaction the moment they die.
Temple of Jupiter in Etruscan Rome (Aruma).
It is obvious that many enemies of the Etruscans would prefer death on the battlefield rather than captivity. This treatment of prisoners by the Tyrrhenians partially explains the vengeful wrath of the Romans on them. Apparently the people of Etruria used their formidable reputation as a psychological weapon against their enemies. Those who advocate their Eastern Mediterranean origin, bring out historical parallels of the same cruelty in several nations of the East, usually in the Assyrians. However this “brutal element” must not distort negatively the total image of the marvellous Etruscans. They were a small and outlandish people surrounded mostly by hostile states and tribes, and ruled an even more hostile population of non-Etruscan serfs. Their situation brought about their psychological rigidity and cruelty. According to the ancient Greeks, the Tyrsenian men were barbarian pirates and the Tyrsenian women were immoral. According to the Romans, the Etruscan society was decadent and without morality, doomed to perish. None of these inferences of the Greek and Latin historiography applies to the Tyrrhenians more than they apply to their “accusers”, especially taking into account that the accusers were deeply prejudiced against the people of Etruria.
NOTE: a short critique on T.J. Cornell’s study on the Early History of Rome
Many modern scholars and students deny the Etruscan dominance on early Rome on the basis supposedely given by the arguments of T.J. Cornell in his study: The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to……, (Routledge, 1995). I believe that the author of that work is rather excessive concerning his conclusions on the early history of Rome. It seems that he doesn’t take into account almost at all the Latin and Greek authors but only the rather meager archaeological evidence, and thus he denies the Etruscan dominance on early Rome which the ancient authors demonstrate so clearly in their works: they do contradict each other on this and their confusion is obvious but this condition concerns secondary issues on the Tyrrhenian presence on Rome and not the entire concept of the Etruscan dominance of Rome. Cornell seems to consider the Etruscan archaeological finds of Rome as native Roman/Latin or even Sabine based on weak arguments and he does not take into serious consideration other major facts for the dominant role of the Etruscans in Rome, e.g. the subsequent numerous genuses of nobles, patricians and a good number of other influential figures with Tyrrhenian names (e.g. some of them with the suffix -en(n)a, -un(n)na [occasionally turned to ‘-onius’ in Latin] or other characteristic Etruscan suffixes, prefixes or entire names such as Lartius). The presence of a simple Etruscan community in early Rome is not sufficient to explain the very important social, political and military status of people with Etruscan names in subsequent Rome. Cornell’s study although it seems to be a result of exhaustive work of the author, is rather one-sided, unilateral, and driven by an ‘obsession’ to challenge the evident. But the question of the allegedly “incumbent view” was always a sure way for anyone to get noticed.
ANCIENT SOURCES and MODERN BIBLIOGRAPHY
• Titus Livius: Ab Urbe Condita, Loeb Classical Library.
• Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, Loeb Classical Library
• Beloch K. J., Die Bevölkerung der griechisch-römischen Welt, Leipzig 1886 (despite the justified revisions on this work by several later scholars, for me it remains a very useful guide for estimates on the populations of the Greek and Roman World).
• The Cambridge Ancient History, New edition, Cambridge 1990-1999.
• Several articles and studies in the following historical and archaeological journals: Journal of Hellenic Studies, Journal of Roman Studies, Hesperia, Historia, Antiquity, Latomus, Greece and Rome, and others.
• Brunt P.A., Italian manpower, 225 B.C.-A.D. 14, Oxford 1971.
• Parlavecchia Paolo (editor) : Gli Etruschi e L’ Europa, Milano 1992
• Connolly, Peter: Greece and Rome at war, London 1981
• Cornell, T.J.: The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to…, Routledge, 1995
• Τoynbee, Αrnold : A study of History, London 1965
• Head D. and Heath I., Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars, Worthing 1982.
• Sekunda N. and Northwood. S., Early Roman armies, Oxford 1995.
• Hencken, Η., Tarquinia and Etruscan origins (Ancient peoples and places), London 1971
• Fogolari, G. and Prosdocimi, A.L.: I Veneti Antichi: Lingua e cultura, Padova 1988.
• Cristofani, M., The Etruscans: a new investigation, London 1979.
Pallotino, M., The Etruscans, London 1974.