Roman Mythology

Latins, Etruscans, and Archaic Rome

Who were the Etruscans, and what was the basis of their mythology?

The Etruscans were non-Indo-European speakers whose civilization was the most advanced on the Italian peninsula before Rome’s emergence and dominance there.

Their religion was characterized by haruspicy (the study of entrails of animals sacrificed for prophecy), by other practices of divination, and rituals growing out of a mythic prophet called Tages. Tages was said to have been born in a furrow in a field as a gray-haired child already possessed of the wisdom of a sage. In this respect he resembled other world heroes such as the Buddha, Krishna, and the Irish Cuchulainn, who as very young children possessed adult powers. Another Etruscan-based myth was that of the Sibylline Books that contained guidance for difficult times. According to a Roman story, an old woman, actually the great Sybil of Cumae, offered her nine prophetic books for sale to Tarquin, the last of the Etruscan kings of Rome. Tarquin balked at the high price demanded by the woman, and in anger she burned three of the books before offering the remaining six for sale. When Tarquin refused these, she burned three of them. Tarquin accepted her price for the remaining three, and these Sybilline Books remained on the Capitoline Hill as a source of advice for Romans during difficult times for centuries to come.

It was the rape by Tarquin’s son of the aristocratic woman Lucretia that was said to have set off the revolution that ended monarchy in Rome and marked the establishment of the Republic in 509 B.C.E.


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