Naples:life,death & Miraclecontact: Jeff Matthews


main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry 2008 upd. Dec 2011


The Etruscans in Campania



"Etruscan" generally evokes the image of the great pre-Roman civilization in central Italy, a still somewhat mysterious people about whom we would like to know a lot more than we ever will. You don't generally think of Etruscans this far south, in the Campania region of Italy, near Naples; yet, they were here. (Clearly, their ambitions stretched southwards but were eventually thwarted.) Indeed, Parthenope (then to become Neapolis—Naples) was somewhat of a late-comer in the area and could be founded only when Etruscan influence had weakened and almost disappeared, which it had by the mid-400s b.c., the presumptive date of the founding of Parthenope.

A few miles north of Naples is the town of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, the modern name for the ancient city of Capua, called Campeva in ancient histories. (The modern town of Capua is right next door, but “ancient Capua” means modern Santa Maria Capua Vetere.) Well before the Romans, Campeva was founded by the Etruscans in about 600 b.c. and used to be considered the southernmost identifiably Etruscan town in Italy (but see the link to "Pontecagnano," below); Campeva is well to the south of "Etruria" and not one of the 12 famous towns of the Etruscan confederation in north-central Italy, all of which are north of Rome. (See Capua, a Short Tale of Two Cities.)

The Etruscans were not Indo-Europeans (as we know from their language). To my knowledge, there is no consensus among scholars whether they (1) came from somewhere else, possibly what is now southern Turkey—as stated by Greek historian, Herodotus, or (2) are a remnant of a pre-Indo-European people indigenous to the Italian peninsula. (But see update below.) They were in Italy, however, by the tenth century b.c. They expanded into their confederation and a number of other towns in central Italy by the seventh century and were at the height of their power by about 600. By that time they had also settled their southernmost outpost in Italy, Amina (later known to the Romans as Picentia and today as Pontecagnano) on the plain just south of modern-day Salerno. They then started to fade as they came into contact with the newly encroaching immigrants of Magna Graecia, who built towns at Cuma and Paestum, limiting further Etruscan expansion along the southern coast. In the 400s BC the Etruscans of Capua also came into contact withand were eventually subdued bythe belligerent native Italic people known as the Samnites (an Oscan tribe and one of a group of tribes referred to in the literature as “Sabellian”—from Sabine), who were about to engage the young and not-yet-imperial Romans in centuries of war for the domination of central Italy.

The Etruscans were also defeated in important naval battles with the Greeks from Siracuse (Sicily), first off of Cuma in 474 BC and then at Elba in 453; with that, the Etruscans lost control of the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Their “last gasp,” so to speak, was in 414 when they went to the aid of the Athenian army that was besieging Siracuse in what is called in the history of the Peloponnesian War, the “Sicilian expedition.” (The two-year war was an utter disaster for the Athenians, leading to the eventual overthrow of the Athenian democracy.) The Etruscans were then further pressed by invading Celts in around 400 b.c. and thereafter simply dissolved into the fabric of Sabellian- and then Roman-controlled Italy. Their cultural influence is still seen even further south than Capua, however, in such things as the well-known tomb decorations in Paestum (photo, above). Their presence in the area near Capua and to the south towards Naples figures in the display at the new archeology museum in nearby Succivo.



references: "The Etruscans and the Sicilian Expedition of 414-413 B.C." by M.O.B Caspari in The Classical Quarterly,  Vol.5, No. 2 (Apr., 1911) pp.113-115.

update on Etruscan origins: In 2007,
Professor Alberto Piazza, from the University of Torino reported to the European Society of Human Genetics that there is overwhelming evidence that the Etruscans were settlers from old Anatolia (now in southern Turkey). That conclusion was based on comparative DNA studies. "We think that our research provides convincing proof that Herodotus was right", said Professor Piazza, "and that the Etruscans did indeed arrive from ancient Lydia." ^back up

[update: as of Feb 2015 there is a good small museum of Etruscan archaeology in Naples. It is on the premises of the Collegio Francesca Denza on via Discesa Coroglio and is run by the Barnabite fathers. It may be visited by appointment (091 5757533). It is an 800-piece collection first assembled between 1869 and 1882 by the Barnabites and displayed at their school in Florence. Those premises have now closed and the collection has come to Naples.]


[Also see
The Ancient Unknown City of Amina/Picentia and The Etruscan Language]

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