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From about 800 to 300 BC, Etruscan civilization flourished in the region that still reflects its ancient heritage - Tuscany (bounded by the Rivers Arno and Tiber and the Apennine Mountains). Known as Tusci or Etrusci in Latin, the Etruscans called themselves Rasenna, while the Greeks knew them as Tyrrhenoi, from which derives the Tyrrhenian Sea.

There has been speculation about the origins of the Etruscans since antiquity. The Greek historian Herodotus believed that they came from Lydia in Asia Minor and eventually settled "among the Umbrians, founding the cities they still live in." According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who wrote at the time of Emperor Augustus, they were indigenous to the region. There is evidence to support both theories, although the latter is one that is becoming increasingly popular among more modern scholars. But whatever their origins, it is clear that the Etruscan civilization took shape in northern Italy, and that by the end of the seventh century BC, the Etruscans had become a single people, with a common language and uniform culture.

Most Etruscan towns were built on hilltops, and the oldest (Veii, Caere and Tarquinii) lay within easy reach of the coast. Only Populonia opposite the island of Elba was a coastal city. Farther east, important Etruscan cities (Clusium and Arretium) developed at a later period. The Etruscan people consisted of a loose confederation of politically independent cities, with a religious center at Volsinii. The cities were ruled by kings, although in some cases they were later replaced by elected magistrates. There was a wealthy upper class and, at the other extreme, a class of rural serfs.

Situated in a well-watered region, with fertile volcanic soil, several towns of Etruria depended on agriculture for their wealth. Rich deposits of copper and iron, particularly in the region between Volaterrae and Vetulonia, were mined until the first century BC. The iron ore mined on Elba was processed at Populonia, where there was also copper. The large areas of forest provided fuel for the smelting furnaces of the mining industry.

The Etruscans were at their most powerful around 500 BC, at which time they controlled a considerable area, from the Po to central Campania. But Etruscan expansion, which was linked to trade, was short-lived. In the north, their power was broken by invading Celts at the end of the fifth century BC, and in the south, they were defeated by the Greeks at Cumae in 474 BC. By the mid-fifth century BC, the Samnite people had pushed them out of Campania. In the next century, the great city of Veii was destroyed by the Romans, and by the end of the third, Rome had defeated or absorbed all the cities of Etruria.

The Etruscan language is not yet fully understood, although it can be read. As the many brief funerary inscriptions provide little material beyond names, knowledge of the Etruscan civilization comes largely from the tombs and grave goods of the wealthy aristocracy. The superb tomb paintings at Tarquinii and elsewhere, with their scenes of feasting, music and dancing, hunting and wrestling, give a picture of the lives of these people. Etruscan jewelry was of outstanding quality, as was its bronze work, ranging from household goods and furniture to large cast pieces. Greek models inspired the Etruscan vase painting, and both the ceramics in the Greek style and the Etruscan bucchero ware were exceptional.