Why we are all Etruscans

Though the persistent reference to “Athens and Jerusalem” captures the cliché that the modern Western way of thinking and of being comes basically from two main roots (Greek philosophy and Hebrew monotheism), the fact is that probably we owe much more to the Romans, the true creators of the civilization from which our kind of living arose. If there is a famous silly question in the history of comedy, it is, of course, Monty Python’s ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’. Even in the realm of high culture this was clearly so to an insightful author like Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom

Greeks cannot be to us what the Romans are. One does not learn from the Greeks—their manner is too alien, and too fluid, to have an imperative, ‘classical’ effect. Who would ever have learnt how to write from a Greek! Who would ever have learnt without the Romans! (Twilight of the Idols, “What I owe to the ancients”).

Of course, where Nietzsche says ‘Greeks’, he could have written ‘Hebrew’ with even more reason. But the obvious importance of Rome as the true cradle of our civilization tends to obscure the fact that many of the relevant things in which the Roman world was so different, and more familiar to us, than that of Greece or Israel is because they learnt how to be ‘civilized’ (that is, how to see themselves essentially as citizens inhabiting a network of cities with a ‘civilian’ life) from a culture of which extremely few manifest traces remain, or even remained by the heights of the Roman Empire. I am talking, of course, about the Etruscans.

Painted terracotta Sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa, about 150–130 BCE. Foto: British Museum / Wikimedia Commons

Etruscans are a mysterious people not only for having left no literature through which we can reconstruct their ideas and values, but also because of the fact that they spoke a language that was neither related to Latin or Greek, nor even being a part of the Indo-European family. Their language, that by the first half of the first millennium BCE was mainly spoken in the center-north part of Italy, besides some other few spots in the rest of the peninsula and in Sardinia, seems to be related only to a couple of other known examples: Rhaetic (spoken in the Eastern Alps), and Lemnian (a language only known by a couple of written steles from around the VI century BCE, one of them preserved as a stone used in the construction of a church more than a millennium later). To add darkness to the mystery, Lemnos is an island in the north of the Aegean Sea, just in front of the ancient city of Troy (which language its pre-Hellenic inhabitants spoke is something we totally ignore), and this is very far from the Western shores of central Italy, the home of the Etruscans… while Romans happened to presume of being themselves descendants from the Trojan warrior Aeneas (though Latin language was obviously not a part of the same family as Lemnian, as Etruscan was indeed). Are Rhaetic, Lemnian and Etruscan the peripheric remnants of a wider area of languages spoken in all East-Southern Europe before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans? Or are Etruscan and Rhaetic the result of a pre-historic immigration from Asia Minor to the north of Italy? Nobody knows.

Be it as it may, the fact is that Etruscans elaborated a way of being civilized that predates (or at most, is plainly contemporary of) the emergence of Greek ‘classic’ civilization. The Greeks colonized most of the southern coast of Italy (the Magna Graecia) around the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, three centuries before some Greeks considered of some interest writing History books, and hence too early for the real events of the colonization not having been already substituted by mere legends. It is indubitable, nevertheless, that the contact with Greeks incited a lot of changes in the culture of the Etruscans, starting with the adoption of the alphabet, though strongly modified to adapt to the peculiarities of their own languages, that, for example, lacked the difference between voiced and voiceless consonants: for Etruscans, b sounded as p, g as k, and d as t. But, as for the creation of something that we might call cities, and not mere citadels or fortified palaces (that were the norm in the Greek and Phoenician worlds by then), it has been recently argued that Etruscans were the first to do it in Europe by at least one hundred years in advance to others, i.e., by the 9th or 8th centuries, so that Rome itself (legendarily founded on 753 BCE) actually emerged as a city under the influence of a regional urbanistic movement of which it was one of its most meridional examples, and with the Greeks still being just a recent presence a little bit more to the south.1

The perception Romans had of the Etruscans (unfortunately, we have no evidence about the reversal) seems to have been one of hate-love. Romans saw themselves (and were well proud of it) as a much more ‘healthily’ rustic and bellicose people than their sophisticated, refined and comparatively peaceful and bland northern neighbours, but on the other hand they passionately craved for imitating that kind of refinement. Very probably, the ultimate reason why the world ended being ‘Roman’ instead of ‘Etruscan’ was because Etruscans seemed to be happy with building a kind of tranquil federation of independent cities and lacked the Roman compulsion to ‘colonize’ other places. Romans tended to absorb other territories not merely by ‘conquering’ them and charging them with taxes, but by forcing them to give them up some portions of land in which to settle a bunch of Roman people, which mainly explains the wide diffusion in the following centuries of their own language, Latin. But in spite of their superior military force (only clearly manifested after two or three centuries of Etruscan superiority, of which the best proof is that not a few of the legendary kings of Rome seem to have been Etruscans themselves), Latin language itself betrays an immense cultural influence on the Roman way of life, to such an extent that we can absolutely assert that the Roman way of life is basically Etruscan. Just take a look, in the appendix of this article, to a fistful of some of the oldest known ‘Latin’ words, which reveal non-Indo-European, that is, Etruscan roots (a translation is given only when the meaning is not self-evident). Some of these words come ultimately from Greek, but even in those cases their phonetics shows that it was their Etruscan version what Romans inherited. Latin only started to directly adopt Greek terms many centuries later. By the way, clear Etruscan marks are word endings like -eus, -enna, -erna, -na, -issa, -ulus, or -urnum.2

As you can feel from the meanings of these words, many of them remind us of the ways in which an urban, civilized, joint life is different from a rural, purely familiar one. Government, architecture, business, law, organized rituals, delicatessen, sophisticated cloths, ships, and even organized armies appear here as fields in which the Etruscan influence may still be felt. Though perhaps the most remarkable examples are those concepts that refer to scripture, leisure and entertainment. So, when in April you are attending a ceremony in a temple, or in Autumn you are in a tavern with a number of friends, discussing literature, cooking, society or government, you are being nothing but an Etruscan deep inside.

But if you are still wondering what have the Etruscans ever done for us, there is still one thing in which we are Etruscans even in the very same way we think who we are, for Etruscans were the inventors of none other than the distinction between ‘given names’ and ‘family names’ which is essential to the way we conceive our identity. In all other places, and even in most of the world after the fall of the Roman Empire and till the end of the Middle Ages, people were just given a singular name, and, in order to avoid confusion with other people, to that name it was simply added the name of his father (in the case of women, nothing so was deemed necessary, even). If he lived in a different place from where he was born, a reference to his geographical origin could be added instead of the father’s name. But this was clearly insufficient in places where many people with the same single name lived. So, Etruscans invented a way of naming people that were eagerly adopted by Romans almost from the beginning of Roman civilization: the distinction between the praenomen (something like the given name), the nomen (the family name, i.e., the designation of the gens one belonged to; this is what in Spanish ended being called apelllido), and the cognomen (that might be an individual designation, or refer to a particular branch of one’s gens), a system that produced universally known results like Gaius Iulius Caesar, Publius Cornelius Scipio or Marcus Tullius Cicero. Of course, the system that was reinvented in Europe around the 16th century, and is applied in most of the world now, does not coincide exactly with the Etruscan-Roman naming method, but it is clearly based on it as the solution we have inherited to a fundamental problem of civilized societies: that of having a procedure for identifying people that might be totally unknown to each other. Hence, even when you answer to a question as simple as who are you, what you show is just that you are nothing but an Etruscan.


Aevum (age; in Spanish, this root appears in longevo; edad comes from the contraction of aevitatis, as eterno from that of aeviternum).

Alea (dice, from which aleatory).


Antemna (mast).

Aprilis (April).

Arena (sand, and the place where gladiators fight).

As (copper coin).



Burrus (redhaired).

Caelum (sky, Spanish cielo).

Caepa (onion, from which the Spanish cebolla).

Caerimonia (observance, from which ceremony).

Calceus (shoe, from which the Spanish calzado or calzoncillos –underpants).


Camillus (altar boy).

Cappa (cloak).

Caseus (cheese).

Catena (chain).

Cera (wax).


Coleus (testicle, Spanish cojón).


Cortina (curtain).

Crapula (hangover).

Culina (kitchen, from which the Spanish cocina).

Damnun (damage, Spanish daño).

Elementum (letter).

Fascinum (pendant with phallic shape, from which fascinate).

Fenestra (window).


Formica (ant).

Ganeo (glutton, Spanish ganas).

Genista (broom).

Gubernio (pilot, from which government).

Histrio (actor).

Idus (middle of the month).

Laena (wool; in the beginning, a winter cloak).

Lamina (blade).


Littera (letter).

Lux (light)

Lucerna (lamp)

Ludis (spectacle, performance).

Malva (mallow).

Mango (slave dealer, in Spanish magnonear).

Miles (soldier, from which military).

Mitulus (mussel, from which Spanish mejillón).

Mundus (adornment, and from there, the world).

Numerus (number).

Nummus (coin, from which numismatic).

Obscenus (something ominous in a religious ceremony).

Palatus (palate).

Pallium (mantle).

Persona (masked actor, or the mask itself).

Populus (people; originally, the members of an army).

Pulcher (beautiful, Spanish pulcro).

Puteus (well, Spanish pozo).

Rite (duly, from which ritual)

Roma (from Ruma, a meridional Etruscan tribe).


Satelles (bodyguard, from which satellite).

Sentina (lowest part of the ship interior, and later sewer).

Socius (partner, from which society)

Sporta (basket, from which the Spanish espuerta).

Spurius (bastard).


Tapete (table cloath).



Titulus (label).


Tuba (trumpet).


Turris (tower).


Vagina (sheath of the sword, from which Spanish vaina).

Velox (swift).

Verna (born slave; from which vernacular).


1 Greg Woolf, The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History, Oxford University Press, 2020.

2 Nicholas Ostler, Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, Walker & Company, 2007.

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