Etruscan culture began in Northern Italy between the eighth and ninth centuries BC—about three centuries before the year of the birth of the Roman Republic. Their language and customs were alien to Europe. Since the last Roman kings seem to have Etruscan sounding names, some historians have surmised that the Etruscans had became the rulers of the ancient Roman village (founded in 753 BC). They might have played a role in the evolution of the Roman village into first a kingdom and then a republic in 509 BC.
The debate about the origin of the Etruscans has been raging for centuries. The eighth century BC Greek writer Hesiod has described the Etruscans as the people who live in Central Italy. One of the oldest historical accounts of the origin of the Etruscans comes from Herodotus. He says that the Etruscans migrated from Lydia, an Iron Age kingdom in present day Western Turkey.
Herodotus says that in Lydia there was a 18-year famine, which led the King of Lydia to order half the population to leave the country and find a better life elsewhere. These people sailed from Smyrna (now the Turkish port of Izmir) to look for a new home. After several adventures, they reached Umbria in Italy where they founded their colony which developed into a sophisticated culture and expanded to cover much of Northern Italy. Herodotus claims that the Lydians invented the game of dice to divert their mind from the misery of the famine.
The Roman notion of gladiator games probably originated with the Etruscans. In Etruscan custom when an important political figure died, two warriors fought to death at the funeral ceremony. This tradition was imitated by the Roman Kingdom, and the later Roman Republic institutionalized it. For much of the period of the Republic, the gladiator games remained a minor affair and took place mostly at the funerals of the leaders. The first large-scale gladiator game was held by Pompey the Great in 57 BC at Rome’s Circus Maximus.
There are Hindu texts which claim that the Etruscans were a lost Indian tribe. Some words that the Etruscans used are related to Sanskrit and other Indian languages, and many of their customs have parallels in Hinduism. But there is no historical evidence to back this claim. DNA testing is currently going on to trace the origin of the Etruscans. Mitochondrial DNA has been extracted from 30 individuals buried in Etruscan sites in Italy. But this testing has been challenged by some scholars who argue that the DNA in these remains would be contaminated by modern DNA.