Much of the actual work in Etruria was done by the native population, who were subject to, though probably not slaves of, their conquerors; the nobility of Etruscan birth formed an exclusive caste. Women had an unusually high status compared to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Etruscan wealth and power were in part based upon their knowledge of ironworking and their exploitation of iron deposits that were abundant in Etruria. Etruscan art, which largely consisted of sculpture in clay and metal, fresco tomb paintings, and fine pottery, had some of its origins in Greek and Eastern arts and was extremely influential on the art of the Romans. Fond of music, games, and racing, the Etruscans introduced the chariot into Italy. They were also highly religious. Seeking to impose order on nature, they established strict laws to govern the relations between people and gods. Lacking the scientific rationalism of the Greeks, they tried to prolong the lives of the dead by decorating their tombs like houses. While religion is perhaps the best-known aspect of Etruscan civilization, even it remains quite enigmatic.
The Etruscan language also presents difficulties to the scholar. It can be easily read (the alphabet is of Greek extraction, and the sound value of the signs is known), but, with the exception of only a few words, the vocabulary is not understood. Although the language seems to contain both Indo-European and non-Indo-European elements as well as traces of ancient Mediterranean tongues, it cannot be classified into any known group of languages. Etruscan is known from some 10,000 epigraphic records dating from the 7th cent. B.C. to the 1st cent. A.D.; most are brief and repetitious dedications. One of the mysteries of Etruscan civilization is why the written record is so sparse and why the Romans wrote almost nothing about the Etruscan language or its literature.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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