by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Etruscan Museum, Rome
The Sarcophagus of the Spouses, late 6th century BC

The Etruscans

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 20 January 2001


The masters of central Italy for several centuries in the first half of the first millennium B.C., the Etruscans left a landscape liberally littered with their remains. Even today a large part of the region they once inhabited preserves a modernized form of their name, Tuscany.

The third- to fourth-century Christian writer Arnobius damningly dubbed Etruria 'the mother of superstitions,' but the pagan writer Livy reflected earlier Roman admiration for the Etruscans as 'a nation more than any other devoted to religious rites, all the more as it excelled in the art of practicing them.' Long after Etruria had been conquered by the Romans their soothsayers were highly esteemed as interpreters of lightning flashes, thunderbolts and other divine portents, and the examining of the entrails of sacrificial animals, the decipherment of livers being an ancient Etruscan specialty.

Etruscan was still being spoken at the time of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, and the most renowned patron of the arts of that age, Maecenas, was noted for his Etruscan ancestry. But the subsequent total extinction of the living language, the failure to bequeath to posterity any written literature, the final triumph of Christianity and the banning of the old-time augurs, relegated this once prominent culture to obscurity.

The revival of interest in the Etruscans dates from the Renaissance, when the study of the Greeks and Romans stimulated curiosity in their forebears. Since then a mass of Etruscan archaeological material has come to light. Yet the record is extremely complex given the sometimes overwhelming artistic influences exerted upon them by the Greeks, who colonized large tracts of southern Italy, and later the Romans, not to mention the prodigious quantities of imported artifacts that flowed into an Etruria made rich by its mines, agriculture and trading activities.

Great strides have been made in the last two or three decades in distinguishing more clearly what was indigenous to the region and in identifying their genuinely original contributions to the development of the peninsula in the context of the ancient world.

'The Etruscans,' at Palazzo Grassi, a show of more than 700 pieces from 13 countries (which continues until July 1), succeeds in visual terms as a display of interesting, often unusual and sometimes beautiful objects, but 'the story so far' of the progress of Etruscan scholarship can only be properly grasped with the aid of the weighty and lavishly illustrated catalogue, which will stand in its own right as a book on the subject for some years to come.

The chief criticism that can be leveled at the presentation of the show is its failure to distinguish more clearly, for the benefit of a broad audience, between what is authentically Etruscan, what was produced in the region under the obvious influence of foreign models and what was simply imported - such as some magnificent red and black figure Attic vases from Greece - and later statuary, for example, that might have been modeled, carved or cast in Etruria, but is stylistically Greco-Roman in inspiration.

On the other hand, while covered in the catalogue, insufficient emphasis is given in the exhibition to how influential certain aspects of Etruscan culture were on the Romans (something the victorious Romans, other than in the field of religion, tended to underplay).

At a symbolic level the Etruscans were the originators of the fasces - the ax bound in a bundle of wooden rods representing the power of the state to chastise and take the life of its citizens - and the sella curulis - the folding chair emblematic of magisterial dignity - both of which became classic insignia of Roman government. (The Etruscans also seem to have been the inventors of a typical form of 'Roman' ceremonial trumpet.)

Indeed, Rome itself according to tradition was founded by Romulus using 'the Etruscan rite' - following the practice in Etruria of creating entirely new cities on open sites, which were chosen by a complicated system of auguries and established amid an elaborate panoply of rituals - a legend that is supported by recent archaeological discoveries.

And when it came to more purely practical matters, the Romans drew extensively on Etruscan models: for the draining of land and the construction of navigable canals; the building of roads in straight lines cutting through major topographical obstacles, and in the surveying of sites and building techniques.

Given how advanced they were before Rome became a significant power, it is something of a mystery why they failed to put up more resistance to their southern neighbors, although the fact that they were being simultaneously squeezed by Celtic tribes that were invading the fertile plains of the Po to the north was certainly a contributory factor.

Etruscan women seem to have had more power and autonomy than was common at the time - respectable housewives took part in mixed 'symposia,' or dining and drinking parties, which among the Greeks were only open to males, courtesans, flute- and dancing-girls - inevitably leading some contemporary commentators to attribute the decline of Etruscan society to its 'effeminization.'

More pertinent seems to have been the social division between the increasingly sclerotic and ineffectual aristocracy and a burgeoning and restive class of serfs and artisans, who had come not only to fight the wars of their 'betters' but to conduct much of the everyday business of government and commerce. Violent uprisings and the seizure of the property of the oligarchs was the upshot, with the more ambitious new men in some cities overturning the old order by the simple expedient of 'eliminating the ruling classes and marrying their wives.'

Ever more isolated, the nobility found that it could cling to power only by calling on Roman assistance to suppress revolution. The last century of Etruscan independence was accompanied by the gloomy prognostications of the augurs - whose profession remained the preserve of the upper classes - that the nation's end was nigh. In the middle of the last century B.C., in a spectacular coup de théâtre, an eminent soothsayer interpreted the appearance of a comet as the signal of the final catastrophe, adding that the gods would surely strike him down for revealing this secret - and promptly demonstrated the unimpeachable reliability of his own prophecies by dropping dead on the spot.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023