It was not the Greeks and Romans who wrote the first civilization in the history of the West, but the Etruscans
There is no European people who have been mistreated as much as the Etruscans; not people whose legacy has been so systematically destroyed. Almost as if posterity has promised to turn off every trace of the memory of a nation that once wrote, with its pioneering action, the first great civilization in the history of the West. The situation did not change substantially even when slaves led to a large number of finds in the last century. Ask for the foundation year of Rome, and they will tell you a date, long and erroneously repeated (still present in every text or school manual): 753 BC Ask for the name of the founder, and they will answer you, just as erroneously, as a Roman schoolboy would have done two thousand years ago: Romulus.
Now, it is scientifically proven that the eternal city was founded by an Etruscan king – Tarquinio Prisco – in 575 BC. But this historical fact remained long unknown, confined in the ivory towers of high culture. And not only that: because the foundation and construction of the Tiber city by the Etruscans, and only later to become Roman, is only one of the admirable and great undertakings accomplished by this singular people, which built long before Rome Italic a strong empire of large cities, industries, crafts and world-wide trade. But even this the general public does not know a word. Anyone wishing to find out about this topic would face a disillusionment. Our statement is easily proven.
Enter a bookshop or library and ask for a history of the Etruscans; or search in the history books, in the bibliography, material on the Etruscans. You will see what effort! Yes, of course, you will find series of books and works on the enigma of the origin and language of this people, and also on the places of excavation and the mystery of its religion; and, lately, mountains of volumes illustrated on their art. But on Etruscan history …?
When it talks about its past, Europe quotes Ellade and Rome: only the “ancient Greeks” and the “ancient Romans” are the great peoples of the origins, the builders who one day laid the foundations of the future West. They alone are admired, celebrated, revered and studied: history books are full of them. And the cultured person speaks proudly of the age of Pèricle or of Augustus. But the Etruscans are excluded. As if they had never historically existed, but they lived and operated for more than seven hundred years on European soil. It is, as the American historian Will Durant has noted, “the provincialism of a traditional historiography, which makes Europe begin with Greece”.
Thus was written from the Middle Ages until the most recent past, a unique, incomplete, and therefore also wrong image; because there is a huge gap: the great Etruscan civilization, the first and most stimulating part of history, remains an empty, blank page.
For long centuries there was a valid justification: the lack of authentic and detailed traditions. Nothing has survived on Etruscan history: their literature, the Tuscae Historiae, was destroyed; and the twenty volumes Tyrrhenikà, later written by the emperor Claudius, were also lost. Only source, the few news of some Greek and Roman classics; but the names of kings and personalities, tales of deeds and works, narratives and episodes were missing: in short, everything that makes the image of the life of a people alive and understandable.
And the places where the remains of the ancient wisdom of Etruria had rested had been systematically destroyed. For about two millennia, starting with the Romans and ending with the landlord nobility and clandestine excavators of the 19th century, the gigantic necropolises were stolen from their fabulous treasures. Barbarously, behind the only stimulus of money, the very ancient tomb chambers opened; precious gems, gold, silver and bronze furnishings, luxury items and unique ceramics were avidly grabbed; what appeared to be uninterested was destroyed: the tombs were interred, so that their position could no longer be identified.
When finally in the last century, thanks to scientific interest, precise excavations began, the discovery of an intact tomb therefore became a rarity. However the work of archaeologists led to an amazing wealth of discoveries, some truly sensational.
Little by little – in parallel with the successes obtained from research in the world of the ancient Orient, Asia Minor and Egypt – the face of ancient Etruria emerged from the darkness for the first time. From a mosaic of countless documents and monuments the picture of the life and works of that people wrapped in many puzzles and mysteries began to appear. There is still a lack of systematic research on all Etruscan cities: only what has re-emerged in the meantime and can be considered established, allows us to look into a past of which we have had only a very vague idea so far, and forces us to review the historical picture.
It was the Etruscans, long before Rome, at the time of the transition between prehistory and history, who built a high civilization in the heart of Italy, laying the foundations for the future birth of Europe. It was the Etruscans who knew of the legacy of the ancient east, of its advanced civilization, transferred it to the soil of the European West.
Collecting the fascinating discoveries and new findings and inserting everything into the events of history in that contemporary world, seemed to me, a publicist with scientific interests, a seductive mission. Dominating this matter had to involve more effort and time than I imagined. As I write this premise, I have a long journey behind me, more than a decade, made of unforgettable experiences.
This journey led me to all the places where Etruscan antiquities are found: in the countless excavation sites, ruins and necropolises far and wide for Italy: in Tuscany, from Spina once famous Adria, through the superb, ancient land of the Tuscii between the Arno and Tiber rivers, down in Campania, in Pompeii once Etruscan; in all museums in Europe and America that have important Etruscan collections: in the lands where friends and enemies of the great people lived – from ancient Carthage to Greece and the Near East.
My thanks to Professor Ambros Josef Pfiffig, professor of Etruscology and Italic Antiquities at the University of Perugia, who reviewed the manuscript and gave me valid suggestions.
Werner Keller (1909-1980)
Content taken under open source license – free disclosure with sources – from the preface of the book “Etruscan civilization” by Werner Keller, Garzanti Editore.