THE COINAGE OF THE RASNA
A STUDY IN ETRUSCAN NUMISMATICS
Mystery has surrounded the Etruscans for centuries. They were described either as
indigenous Italians or Slavs, Basques, Celts, Canaanites, Armenians, Egyptians or
Tatars. Today the most generally accepted theory is that they were a race of
indigenous Italic origin infused with oriental influences. The Greek name for the
Etruscans is Tyrsenoi or Tyrrhenoi, the Latin Etrusci or Tusci, but according to
Dionysius of Halicarnassus their own name for themselves was Rasenna ‘. He quotes
Hellanicus’ identification of the Etruscans with the Pelasgians, the original inhabitants
of Greece who came to Italy and founded Cortona, but, rejecting this legend, states
that the Etruscan race «is very ancient and has no similarities in language and customs
with any other race2».
Etruria proper, lying between the Arno and the Tiber rivers, takes in part of mod¬
ern Umbria, all of Tuscany and Latium down to Rome. Etruscan colonies were estab¬
lished in the Po valley and Campania as early as the 6th century B.C.
Etruscan civilization seems to have developed from the Iron Age culture known as
Villanovan from the site near Bologna where it was first identified in 1853 3. These
Iron Age sites later became important Etruscan cities and were usually situated near
the sea or on lakes or rivers, and often in naturally defensive positions such as hill-tops
surrounded by rich farmland.
The 8th century saw increasing economic development with Phoenician and Greek
merchants and colonists trading for Etruscan commodities such as iron, bronze and
wood. Though condemned as pirates by a hostile Greek tradition, by the 7th century
the Etruscans were naval rivals of the Greeks and Carthaginians. Their influence
spread abroad and Etruscan bucchero ware has been found in North Africa, Spain,
Southern France and Greece.
An ostentatiously luxury-loving aristocracy evolved, encouraged in its tastes by
goods imported from Greece, Phoenicia, Cyprus and Egypt. Fantastic animals and
demons, copied from eastern prototypes, were especially appreciated and are promi¬
nent in Etruscan art.
By the 6th century southern Etruria had an advanced culture attested by the tomb
paintings, sculptures and monumental architecture found at Vulci, Tarquinia, Cervetri,
Veii and Praeneste. The orientalising style was more slowly absorbed in north¬
ern Etruria and the Po valley. Apparently the mining areas of Populonia and Vetulonia
were not yet developed.
By about 700 B.C. the Etruscans had adopted the archaic Greek alphabet, using the
scripts of Pithecousae and Cumae as a model. They developed it locally (subject to dia¬
lect and individual solutions to the problems of adaption), mostly for votive inscrip¬
tions and for the religious literature which was to influence later Roman ritual practice
profoundly. The Etruscan alphabet gave rise to the Oscan and Umbrian scripts in cen¬
tral Italy, and to various alphabets in northern Italy, as well as to the early Latin script
used on the Lapis Nigra of ca. 600 B.C.
During this period appears in Etruria and Latium the use oi praenomen and nomen fol¬
lowed by cognomen as a means of distinguishing/amz/w« and gentes, a system of nomen¬
clature unique in the ancient world4.
Parallel with the Greek world, an artistic golden age blossomed in Etruria where we
find migrant Greek painters such as Aristonothos at Caere and western Asiatic metal¬
workers whose tradition combined Cypro-Phoenician and Greek elements. Vulci
housed a school of Greek craftsmen who produced vases of Corinthian type. Scullard
well describes how the historical events of the early period down to the 5th century
(often handed down to later ages by oral tradition rather than documented evidence,
unfortunately), bound the social and economic relations of Etruria with Rome ever
closer5. In ca. 616 Lucius Tarquinius Priscus of Tarquinia became the first Etruscan
king of Rome, establishing a dynasty that was to last until the end of the 6th century
B.C. He secured both the Tiber bridgehead and the land route to Campania. Even
with a developed agricultural base, industry, advanced mining technology, irrigation,
timber and animal husbandry, and despite the spectacular economic and cultural
growth of the 6th century caused by the influx of Ionian refugees from the Persian
Wars, a system of local coinage was not introduced as it was in the Achaean colonies of
southern Italy. This is a controversial statement which I hope to clarify later. In
Rome, central Italy and Etruria, however, use was made of bronze bars and crude
bronze lumps, aes rude, as bullion for limited commercial transactions.
The extent to which Roman institutions and culture are indebited to Etruria is best
evaluated by Ogilvie in a constructively critical and scholarly account of Rome’s early
history6. He sifts through the facts and fables in the histories of Livy, Dionysius of
Halicarnassus, Diodorus and Cicero and tries to establish what really took place from
the start of the Etruscan domination in ca. 625 to the sack of Rome by the Gauls in ca.
390. From this study it emerges that Rome inherited anthropomorphic representations
of the gods from the Etruscans as in Tarquin’s temple where the Capitoline triad of
Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Tinia), Juno (Uni), and Minerva (Minvra) were repre¬
sented by statues sculptured by Vulca from Veii. This temple probably replaced altars in an open sanctuary dedicated to Italic deities such as Mars and Quirinus. In com¬
mon with other cities, Etruscan Rome acquired a Trojan hero-founder in Aeneas.
Although the traditional histories handed down to us are full of anachronisms and
are written in a cyclical form similar to the Greek epic where facts and fiction are fitted
into a preconceived framework, there is a hard core of fact7. Rome became a civilised
Etruscan city with a lunisolar calendar, the toga and trabea, the sella curulis, the
ceremony of the triumph and a modern «hoplite» infantry with Greek tactics, recruited
by a «levy» legio based on individual wealth. Etruscan doctors, priests, craftsmen,
builders and traders all helped in this transformation from village to city.
Chaos followed the fall of the Tarquin dynasty to which the insurrections of Mastarna
and Porsenna bear witness. Etruria was now to lose contact with Campania via
Latium; the salt route (the via Salaria) probably was also interrupted. The general
insecurity in central Italy led to a spate of wall building as in Veii and Rome. Accord¬
ing to Livy (2.9.6.) the monopoly of salt, the price of which was high, was taken from
private individuals and transferred to state control, an indication of troubled economic
times. Archaeological evidence for the period 475-450 B.C. shows a reduction in trad¬
ing relations throughout the region, a recession that was to deepen in the 4th century
when the Italic hill tribes encroached on the territory of Latium and the Campania. It
is during this period that Etruria began, paradoxically, to become progressively
One consequence of these economic setbacks was that many individuals were com¬
pelled into bondship, nexus; as Ogilvie observed, «in a world without money, there were
few ways of discharging debt once it had been incurred8.» There was in fact «money»
in circulation, in the form oi aes rude and aes signatum of the «ramo secco» type. By the
end of the 4th century Rome began to issue a true silver and bronze coinage of Greek
type which was soon followed by a reformed system of cast units and divisions, the aes
grave. Etruria probably followed Rome’s initiative in the early 3rd century. Good rela¬
tions between Rome and Etruria endured; as late as 310 Livy (9.36.36) records that
the half brother of the consul Q. Fabius Rullianus was educated at Caere and spoke
fluent Etruscan. An important feature of Etruscan society, and lasting until the end of
the Roman period, was that no priestly rank could be held by anyone not of aris¬
tocratic birth. In Etruria as in Rome, the spiritual power was with the Rex Sacrorum,
the chief priest.
This aristocratic priestly caste with kings, lauchme, and magistrates, zilath, supported
by a middle class (possibly free farmers) apparently ruled the Etruscan cities before the
3rd century. There seems to have been no need for coined silver and gold, but as we
know from Roman sources, the use of bronze was sanctioned as an economic commod¬
ity. In his study and analysis, Peruzzi describes the traditional inception of the mon¬
etary function of bronze at Rome during the reign of Numa Pompilius, the role of
bronze in the Servian census and the system of fines until ca. 434 9. A means of exchange, as distinct from coinage, had indeed existed in Etruria and central Italy in
the form of bronze from early times and lasted until, if not later, than the introduction
of coined money in the area at the end of the 4th century.
Etruria had never developed a central political organisation and when faced with the
growing power of Rome failed to achieve unity. The league of twelve cities was mainly
of a religious character, with a common sanctuary at Volsinii and an annual fair and
festival where the representatives of its members would meet.
The decline of the Etruscans is well documented. They were defeated in 524 by
Aristodemus of Cumae and again in 505 at Aricia. Tarquinius Superbus, last king of
Rome, an Etruscan, was expelled in ca. 510. The Etruscans lost the naval battle of
Cumae in 474; moreover, the 5th century saw the loss of Campania to Samnite tribes
which deprived the Etruscans of all their southern territories. In the latter part of the 5th
century the Gauls invaded the Po valley and in the mid 4th century were
threatening Etruria itself. Yet Rome was to prove even more dangerous in the long
run and in 396 took Veii after a long siege. Bologna (Felsina) and Marzobotto had
fallen into Gaulish hands, and the Senonian chief Brennus entered Etruria and
attacked Clusium. Roman envoys responded to the call for help from Clusium which,
like Caere, had abstained from assisting Veii; the fact that they fought personally in
the battle caused the Gauls to march on Rome itself in 390. Caere gave shelter to the
Roman priests and vestal virgins when they fled with their sacred objects before the
invaders. According to Livy, Rome bought off the Gauls with 1000 pounds of gold,
and then continued its hostilities in Faliscan territory and against Tarquinia 10. Be¬
tween 358-351, however, all the Etruscan cities united in resistance to Rome. In 353
Caere signed a hundred year’s truce while Falerii and Tarquinia obtained one of forty
In 311 war broke out again when an alliance of the Etruscan cities (not including
Arretium) besieged Roman Sutrium, which had become a Latin colony ca. 383. Rome
succeeded in expanding along the upper Tiber valley. The coastal cities were less sub¬
ject to Roman pressure and were able to send ships to Agathocles of Syracuse when he
was blockaded by the Carthaginians in 307 B.C. 11
In the early 3rd century some Etruscan cities allied themselves with the Samnites,
Umbrians and Gallic tribes against Rome, but this coalition was decisively beaten at
Sentinum in Umbria in 295. In 294 Rusellae in central Etruria fell to Rome. In 285
the Gaulish Boii and the Etruscans were defeated at the battle of Lake Vadimo. Fur¬
ther Roman triumphs are recorded for 281/280 against Tarquinia, Volsinii and Vulci,
while Caere fell in 273. After this Rome employed a policy of garrisoning southern
Etruria and building military roads: the Via Aurelia to the Tyrrhenian coast, the Via
Clodia to Saturnia, the Via Cassia to Arretium and the Via Flaminia to Umbria.
Social tensions during the wars had caused internal struggles, as at Volsinii in 264
which can possibly be associated with an issue of rare coins (if so, probably the first to
show a mark of value, nos. 1-4). From the sack of Volsinii the Romans carried off two thousand statues, an indication of Etruscan wealth in the early hellenistic period. In 241 Falerii revolted; it was also destroyed and its inhabitants were deported to a new
The last great Celtic incursions into Etruria was made by forces composed of tribes
from Cisalpine Gaul and mercenaries from Transalpine Gaul. They were annihilated
by two Roman armies in 225 near Telamon. The Etruscans made no move to ally
themselves with the Gauls as they had done in the early 3rd century.
During the Second Punic War (218-202) the Etruscan cities generally kept their
treaties of alliance with Rome although in 202 some of their leading citizens were
investigated by the consul Servilius Geminus for conspiracy. In 205 Etruscan allies
helped to supply Scipio’s expedition against Carthage: Caere provided grain and
provisions for the crew, Populonia iron, Tarquinia linen for sails, Volterra corn and
wood for shipbuilding, Arretium a vast quantity of armour, weapons, tools, handmills
and corn, Clusium and Rusellae timber and wheat. All this suggests considerable agri¬
cultural and industrial wealth.
The great aristocratic families appear to have retained their rank and wealth during
Rome’s gradual incorporation of Etruria into the Roman state and the examples of
Arretium and Volsinii show that Rome was always ready to support the ruling classes
against the plebians. In 196 a general slave uprising in Etruria was repressed by a
Roman army under the praetor M. Acilius Glabrio, who returned the surviving slaves
to their owners.
In 137 the quaestor Tiberius Gracchus observed that southern Etruria had been
almost abandoned by a free peasantry of smallholders and shepherds and was now
dominated by a few rich landlords whose latifundia were worked by foreign slaves. In
northern Etruria small farms apparently continued to flourish.
In 91 there was unrest in central Italy owing to the economic consequences of the
agrarian laws of Livius Drusus. By 89, however, Rome conferred citizenship on those
Etruscans who had remained loyal during the Social War of 91-89. In the subsequent
conflict between Marius and Sulla most Etruscan cities favoured Marius, much to
their cost. Populonia and Volterrae were besieged and starved out in 82-80.
In 41-40 Octavian besieged Marcus Antonius’ brother Lucius in Perusia. This last
Etruscan city to make a stand against Rome was starved into submission and burnt to
the ground; many of its leading citizens were slaughtered.
The Etruscan nation as such had ceased to exist and in 27 B.C. Etruria became the
7th region of Augustus’ Italy. By the time of Varrò and the Emperor Claudius the
Etruscans were already a matter for antiquarian speculation.
Most of the obscurities of Etruscan history can be traced to a lack of native his¬
torians and to a largely hostile Roman tradition. Yet the Etruscans were the first
civilized nation which the early Romans encountered. Religion, civil institutions,
warfare, architecture, art, engineering, a taste for gladiatorial games, the alphabet
and a shared use of bronze currency and monetary institutions demonstrate how
Rome was civilized under Etruscan influence.
At some time in the 3rd century Etruria produced a coinage based on a scruple
weight standard. In ca. 215 it was modified to conform to the Attic weight standard
which prevailed in the hellenistic world, concurrent with the Roman silver denarius
introduced in ca. 211.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
1.Roman Antiquities I 30 ; see also Thesaurus Linguae Etruscae (Rome
1978), 301, rasna and TLE Pars I, Liber Linteus Zagrabriensis XI (u), 5.
2 Ibid. I. 30, 2.
3 H. Hencken, Tarquinia, Villanovans and early Etruscans, American Society of Prehistoric
4 E.g. vel tutna tumu (Vel, of the family of Tutna, surnamed Tumu), see M. Cristofani, Dizionario della civiltà Etrusca (Florence 1985), 232.
5 H.H. Scullard, The Etruscan Cities and Rome (London 1966), 243-284.
6 R.M. Ogilvie, Early Rome and the Etruscans (Glasgow 1976).
7 See the fine analysis by M. H. Crawford, Coinage and Money under the Roman Republic
(London 1985), 17-24.
8 Supra (n. 6), 108.
9 E. Peruzzi, Money in Early Rome (Florence 1985).
10.The Early History of Rome, 5.48.
11.Diodorus Siculus xx.61.6-8.
SOURCE Schweizerische numismatische Rundschau = Revue suisse de
numismatique = Rivista svizzera di numismatica /1988 http://www.e-periodica.ch