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What have the Etruscans ever done for us?

In the beginning

Imagine having to write about a rock. A simple thing really? Well, no, you aren’t allowed to see the rock. All you are allowed to do is witness the splash and ripples in the pond after the rock’s been thrown in. From the size of the splash, the noise and the resulting ripples you can guess what the rock might look like in terms of size and dimensions. But it’s not the same as holding that rock in your hand.

This is an apt metaphor for trying to work out the Etruscans, they were hugely influential and their ripples pulse through Roman culture yet so much of what we’d normally use to define and understand them is absent. We don’t have any Etruscan plays or writings, we rely instead on the reports of others. It’s a delicious mystery.

To start with what we do know. ‘Etruscan’ is a term applied to a loose collective of city-states whose core area occupied an region between the Arno and the Tiber in and around the 7th and 6th centuries BC (though they had been present dating further back than this). The hills in this area were bursting with tin and copper, both of the resources were very important both strategically and in terms of wealth creation. The latter was catalysed through trading with the Greek and Phoenician settlements sprouting across Sicily and southern Italy.

Exactly where the Etruscans come from is a problem and akin to trying to work out the colour of our metaphorical rock from earlier on. Herodotus (I,94) and the tale of Aeneas (which we’ll come to later) both hint at eastern Mediterranean origins (namely Lydia – modern day Turkey). Recent DNA studies have shown links to that part of the world, but lacking the definitive or decisive result. At best the results say yes, but there is no unique genetic marker. Interestingly the closest to this was a study on mitochondrial DNA in the cattle native to modern day Tuscany and the near east.

The alternative view is that the people were autochthonous, native to the area. This attractive proposition is turned on its head when religion and the Etruscan language is taken into consideration, both standout and don’t seem to knit well with other practices known at the time.

 

Culture

As mentioned, in terms of both language and religion the Etruscans are unique compared to their neighbours. Their language isn’t known directly to us, but we do know it was nothing like that of its neighbours. It’s believed to have been a non-Indo European language and though the Etruscans introduced the alphabet to Italy via the Greeks they used it to translate from their oral language into written. Effectively they used the Greek alphabet as a prefabricated mould, pouring their own language into it.

  A reconstructed Etruscan temple at the Villa Giulia, a must see

As a culture they shared not only language but religion. According to Etruscan religion a great revelation was made by a baby born as an old man who taught the Etruscans how to interpret the will of the gods through varying omens and signs. The religious experience was far more about this culture of interpretation. This differed from Greek religious experience, which saw an emphasis on invocation and prayer.

It’s been argued that they practised human sacrifice, which is echoed in numerous places in the Mediterranean in the archaic age (see the fate of the Trojan princes in the Iliad). The ritual of two men fighting to the death as a religious ritual, itself the precursor to the gladiator was something thought to be Etruscan.

Moving from the macabre the Etruscans were master craftsmen, not surprising given their resources. These skills were brought to bear upon a wide range of artistic disciplines from the metal work the famous black-pottery known as bucchero to tomb paintings. The tomb paintings form the largest group of pre-classical artwork in the West. Not impressive just in terms of quantity, the quality is astonishing. In contrast with the Greek ‘idealism’ the Etruscans were keen to show warts’n’all, with their tomb paintings featuring detail from daily life.

Like many tribes of the area the Etruscans practised warfare in the summer months, it’s very probable that this was fought in a hoplite manner as this picture of an Etruscan warrior seems to indicate.

The discovery of the war chariot below (dating to around 530 BC) harks bark to a Homeric age, despite seeming to be purely ornamental it seems to have been used. The Homeric ideal of spearmen and chariots in warfare is furtehr added to with the decoration on the chariot of Achilles.

 

And finally Rome

Using Rome as a context to examine Etruria in the 7/6th and 5th centuries BC feels like putting the chariot in front of the horse (to keep in theme). Though Rome was different to Etruscan city states (for example it did not share the Etruscan language) it had been informed and influenced by the Etruscan cities.

You didn’t have to look far to see how Rome incorporated these influences, the Etruscan practice of building settlements on hills (thus affording better protection) worked neatly in a landscape famous for its seven hills. The foundation myth involving Aeneas is thought to have been Etruscan in origin, the Romans eventually repatriating the myth to their own city. Going further the fate of Remus (killed for daring to jump the foundations of his brother’s walls) has more than a whiff about it of Etruscan ritual. Consider a culture who pride themselves on walled cities atop hills and you can easily imagine the ritual importance of the walls’ foundations. Attempting to curse or remove ritual from them would easily have been seen as near treachery.

Then there are the famous kings of Rome, the last three Etruscan and perhaps at this point (509 BC) Rome stepped further from its Etruscan cousins. The first act of the exiled king was to call for aid from his Etruscan connections in order to bring this young city back to heel. However, a series of battles ended with no success and further issues were to hinder Etruria ever recovering Rome.

There had been friction between Rome and various Etruscan city-states before (Rome presented a choice prize for an Etruscan city), but these had been much like the squabbles between city-states, akin to the default nature of the ever-warring Greek city-states. The expulsion of the last King of Rome seemed more than simply a rejection of who ran Rome, this was a rejection of Etruscan hegemony and a challenge to the status quo of the region. No more was Rome to be a neighbouring city of Etruria. No longer happy to live in the shadow of its cousins.

Rome’s movement away from Etrurian influence coincided with a downturn in Etrurian luck. In the south the lands it had once covered were being lost, the Carthaginian settlements in Sicily (with which it traded) were overcome by the Greeks. In one fell swoop the Etruscans were losing all they had. By the mid 5th Century BC Etruria was losing influence and power.

Just over 50 years later Rome was on the offensive, sacking the major Etruscan city of Veii in 396 BC. Even though Rome tasted its own medicine at the hands of Gauls six years later there was no opportune Etruscan force to retake control. Ever the aggressor Rome soon saw to polishing off the Etruscan threat and a final war with the cities of Tarquinii, Falerii and Caere in the middle of the 4th century BC finally put the issue to bed. What was left was a simple mopping up of Etruria which was concluded in 264 BC

Unlike other regions that Rome conquered there wasn’t much of a ‘Romanisation’ process to be undertaken. The main reason, as you can probably guess, was that much of Roman culture was Etruscan or could be recognised. Even the language issue wasn’t too difficult as Etruscans knew Latin and many Romans knew Etruscan. It wasn’t, say, akin to trying to convert Gauls where there were many cultural differences.

The effect of this was that Etruria and Etruscan culture still held value in Rome. The ‘old’ families of the new Roman Empire were often Etruscan; Claudius’ lost writings on Etruscan history were probably at the prompting of his first wife, Plautia Urgulanilla herself a proud Etruscan.

Even right at the end of Rome there was the Etruscan. Upon hearing of the advance of the Visigoths in 408 AD Pope Innocent I took audience from some Etruscan haruspex (priests) who said that they could defeat the enemy by bringing down lightning upon them. The Pope refused, only because he wouldn’t allow the ritual to be performed in public and Rome was eventually sacked.

We’ll never know if those priests were right.

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  • Oct 19, 2012
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