The Etruscans, Phoenicians, and Tartessos

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Andrew Selkirk writes:

Etruscan sarcophagus from Chiusi
Look! I’m rich, I’m wealthy! See my big tum!
Etruscan sarcophagus from Chiusi, in the Florence Museum

Having finished writing my magnum opus on the Greeks, I thought I should take a quick look at their rivals in the Mediterranean at that time — the Etruscans, the Phoenicians, and Tartessos —  and to try to see how they rose, and how eventually they were gobbled up by the Greeks and Romans.

The Etruscan town of Marzabotto – they had learnt some Greek ideas about rectilinear town planning by this time. Note the mist in the distance – it was raining when we visited!

I begin with the Etruscans. The Etruscans were always something of a mystery; they emerge from the native Italian Villanovans at much the same time as the Greeks were also emerging from their ‘Dark Age’ in the 8th century BC, and they soon adopted Greek ways , bought lots of Greek pots, and were buried in rich tombs. Sadly, few of their towns survive apart from Marzabotto, which we visited not so long ago in the rain. But eventually they were conquered by the Romans, and in many ways their civilisation reaches its peak in the Roman, or let’s call it the Hellenistic period. I photographed this splendid tomb lid in the Florence Museum showing a wealthy Etruscan displaying his wonderfully fat belly as proof of his great prosperity.

And then there were the Phoenicians who are a story in two parts. The story begins in the late Bronze Age when the peoples of Tyre and Sidon were great seafarers. In the 8th century BC, they were swallowed up by the Assyrians, but they managed to achieve semi-independence providing they supplied the Assyrians with the metals they needed: copper and silver.

Phoenican art: silver bowl from Amathus
Silver bowl from Amathus in Cyprus, 8th – 7th century BC, now in the British Museum. The decoration shows an extraordinary blend of styles. The outermost frieze shows to the right Assyrian archers and Greek soldiers with their round hoplite shields attacking a city, while to the left, Egyptian soldiers climb ladders up the walls and other Egyptians cut down trees with Aegean double axes. (Click on image to view details)

So first they went to Cyprus, then called in on the Greeks, where they brought about an ‘Orientalising’ phase, then on to Sardinia, and eventually to Spain, where they found lots and lots of copper and more particularly silver, which is what the Assyrians really wanted. In the course of their exploration, they also founded Carthage, and when Tyre began to decline in the 5th century, Carthage took its place. Thus, we come on to the Phoenicians, part two.

The shipsheds in Carthage, where the Carthaginians kept their ships

The Carthaginians built up a great estate, but eventually they too were conquered by the Romans. But why? Hannibal won all the battles, but the Roman allies by and large remained faithful, and Rome survived, and eventually took the fighting to Spain and then to Carthage itself. But why did Rome eventually win? I agonised over this problem. Roman state craft perhaps?  Or was it because Rome more effectively assimilated Greek culture? See if you agree with my conclusions.

And then we come to Tartessos, in Spain, which is a virtually unknown civilisation. Barry Cunliffe has been going on about it for some time, so I thought I had better investigate (always follow what Barry is doing!). Tartessos sprang up along the River Guadalquivir where there are great deposits of copper and silver – it is known as the Rio Tinto, the red river. A great civilization sprang up called Tartessos, which exported the valuable metals through Phoenician trading stations along the coast, and everyone grew rich on the trade. But then the Assyrians were conquered by the Medes and Persians. The Medes were not interested in silver, so the trade collapsed and so did Tartessos. It is only recently that archaeology has resurrected this lost civilisation, and I have heard great fun in tracking down some of the latest Spanish discoveries.

I hope you will want to read more,  so join me on my other website at  And for more world archaeology, visit the Current World Archaeology homepage at 


  1. I just wanted to compliment you for allowing us to see the site with your high quality images. I wish the world-over would do what you have done.

  2. Great article, although somewhat ..indigent, without some maps, to assist the narration.

    GREEN: Celts / Gauls,

    GRAY: Greeks / Greeks,

    ORANGE: Carthaginians / Libyphoenicians

    Rome will absorb all three peoples, although the Germans will cajole much of the continental Celts, while the Parthians will prevent the expansion of Rome into the beyond-the-Euphrates sector of the Hellenistic World!

    Contrary to what is propagated, Carthage did not disappear without a trace.
    A Punic house will even take up the governance of Rome: the Severi Dynasty (192-235 CE)!

  3. Hello. About Tartessos, I believe the theory that places it in nowadays Cartagena instead of Cadiz is better founded. Regards.

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