Etruria (also known as Tyrrhenia) refers to a decentralized collection of city-states that were founded in 10th Century BC in the region that is now central Italy. Etruscan cities were typically built on hills, surrounded by a ditch and wall.
The people of Etruria were the Etruscans.
The Etruscans had a prominent role in the Ancient World, and left their mark on those civilizations that followed. Their sailors and merchants traded with Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. They were allies of Carthage, sometimes siding with them against the Greeks. Etruscan Kings ruled Ancient Rome until the establishment of the Roman Republic in 509 BC. Etruscan Mythology heavily shaped Roman Mythology and beliefs.
Despite all this influence and impact, relatively little is now known about the Etruscan people or their culture. By the 3rd Century BC the kingdoms of Etruria had been completely conquered or absorbed by the Romans. No histories of Etruria have survived the ages. Their language is totally unique, and known only from the 13,000 inscriptions they left in tombs and on jewelry, and a single lengthy linen scroll that ended up being used as a mummy wrapping elsewhere. So all we know about them is what was recorded by their trading partners and enemies, and what can be determined by examining their grave goods.
And indeed their graves did have many goods in them. The Etruscans clearly had strongly-held beliefs about the afterlife. They carefully preserved the dead, and buried them in tombs with a collection of personal belongings, furniture and art, implying that (like the Ancient Egyptians) they believed these items would be of use in the afterlife. For more information, see the Etruscan Mythology page.
Based on the artwork that survived them, scholars believe the Etruscans had very domestic, family-centric, peaceful lives compared to the Greeks and Romans. Depictions of families and babies where very common in their art. Parents put great value on the care of their children, and the living took great pains to take care of the dead.
However, contemporary Greek and Roman authors and historians basically depicted the Etruscans as swingers and exhibitionists. What level of propaganda his account entails is unknown, and the ancient Greeks criticizing someone else for their loose morals brings to mind an old proverb about a pot and kettle. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that the women of Etruria had a lot more freedom and power than the women of Greece or Rome at that time, and that open power may have been threatening to (or just misinterpreted by) the other cultures. Also, the bared breast and the nude embrace were both (in the Etruscan system) wards against black magic. (This notion actually survived far beyond the collapse of the Etruria, and was the reason for the topless woman figurehead aboard naval vessels for many centuries.)
Game and Story Use
- In a game set in Ancient Rome, hailing from Etruria is a great character background. Etruscan characters can be a little exotic without being too terribly foreign or unfamiliar. Rome itself had an "Etruscan Quarter" (the Tuscus vicus) where large numbers of such characters could be found.
- Especially good for feminist characters. If your tale is set in Greece or Rome it may be hard to justify (historically) a female character interacting with all the men, since those cultures were so strongly divided along gender lines. But if the woman grew up in a more gender-inclusive culture (ie Etruria) and also a foreigner she might more readily dodge and buck the social pressure.
- Etruscan language, culture and gods are all esoteric subjects during most of Rome. Scholars, scribes and historians may know the details, but the plebians generally don't have more than a passing familiarity with them. So mysteries, codes, magic, etc might have an Etruscan angle, and thus require seeking out a learned sage or philosopher who will be able to unravel the true significance of whatever clues the PCs have uncovered.
- An entire campaign set in Etruria gives you that "classical world" feel, but is basically taking place in a huge blank slate that the GM can fill in however they please without having to worry about getting the details right. If you're worried that your players might know history better than you do, Etruria's mystery might give you that extra freedom or confidence to silence the know-it-all players in your group.
- Etruscan Mythology has many interpretatio graeca correspondences to more familiar classical mythology, but also several interesting characters and elements of its own. Campaigns with mythic or supernatural components can use this to expand their pantheon and options. And again, the lack of familiarity means extra flexibility for the GM or author.
- Etruscan tombs full of funerary art are a natural backdrop for the adventurer archaeologist. This makes them easy to fit into a pulp setting.
- The extravagant tombs of the Etruscans are a marked contrast to the typically strong aversion that the Romans showed to the whole idea of burial … interesting (in RPG plot terms at least) that one should follow the other so directly.