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Beyond Art

Etruscan Art Ridgway.

by Otto J. Brendel
Yale University Press (reissue), 535 pp., $27.50 (paper)

The Western Greeks

edited by Giovanni Pugliese Carratelli
Milan: Bompiani, 799 pp., L. 85,000


Etruscan art still seems to fall into the category of slightly reprehensible tastes, one of those childish things to put away in due time, to make room for the sober sophistication of the Greeks. Yet D.H. Lawrence, for one, made no bones about preferring Etruscan immediacy to Hellenic cultivation.

Myself, the first time I consciously saw Etruscan things, in the museum at Perugia, I was instinctively attracted to them. And it seems to be that way. Either there is instant sympathy, or instant contempt and indifference. Most people despise anything BC that isn’t Greek, for the good reason that it ought to be Greek if it isn’t. So Etruscan things are put down as a feeble Graeco-Roman imitation….

For me, I get more pleasure out of these [works] than out of—I had almost said, the Parthenon frieze. One wearies of the aesthetic quality—a quality which takes the edge off everything and makes it seem “boiled down.” A great deal of pure Greek beauty has this boiled-down effect. It is too much cooked in the artistic consciousness.1

The Etruscans, as Lawrence intimates, have never quite fit into the well-oiled historical machinery of the Greco-Roman world. Both Greeks and Romans argued about the origins of the people they called Tyrrhenians, Tuscans, or Etruscans, disputing whether they had migrated from Asia Minor or had inhabited their Etruria since time immemorial. The Etruscans, meanwhile, referred to themselves as Rasna, and whatever their origins, their culture came with the territory they have now occupied for well over two millennia and perhaps much longer than that. Bounded by two rivers, the Tiber to the south and east, the Arno to the north, the region of Tuscany, facing onto its Tyrrhenian Sea, remains Etruscan in more than name. DNA tests of villagers outside Siena have recently proven that these modern Tuscans, at least, descend fairly directly from the occupants of nearby Etruscan tombs.^2 Despite the loss of their language, the Etruscans never went away. They were simply absorbed, like many other peoples, into the great conglomerate called Rome.

The Roman historian Livy claimed that the Etruscans dominated the whole Italian peninsula by the end of the Trojan War (traditionally dated 1183 BC). Much of Livy’s early history is made up, and this Greater Etruria has usually figured among the suspect passages in his books; but contemporary Egyptian documents report that Tursha or Teresh, “Tyrrhenians,” were fighting as mercenaries in pharaoh’s army.3 When Homer’s Odysseus, another Bronze Age fighter, navigated between the twin monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, readers both ancient and modern have always known that the whirlpools of Charybdis referred to a real place—the famously shifty tides that roil up four times a day where the Straits of Messina divide Sicily from the toe of the Italian boot. But ancient readers understood Scylla as well; Euripides, for one, assumes that we recognize the cliff-dwelling creature, her seven dog’s heads poised to snatch sailors from their ships, as nothing more than a fanciful version of the Etruscan garrisons who guarded those same straits against all comers.

Whether an exploring Greek would have run into Etruscan marauders as early as the twelfth century BC is an open question; by the time Homer’s poems about the Trojan War came into being, circa 750 BC, the Tyrrhenian Sea had fully earned its name, held in thrall by the systematic maneuvering of Etruscan ships. From the eighth century through the fifth, Etruria maintained its corner of the western Mediterranean against Greeks and Phoenicians alike, staving off the Greeks at the Bay of Naples and the Phoenicians at the east coast of Sardinia.

In those days, Etruscan bronze trumpets were prized as the best in the Mediterranean. The sailors and metalworkers of Etruria swapped bronze and iron for Greek pottery, Egyptian trinkets, and the African gold they beat and pulled into shapes of fantastic intricacy. They plied their wares in deep-bottomed cargo ships, but protected their waters with light, needle-nosed galleys propelled by banks of rowers. Etruscan pirates were fearless, said to have waylaid no less a personage than Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, and taken him hostage. (With a god’s resourcefulness, he transformed the mast of his captors’ ship into a grapevine, the pirates themselves into dolphins, and sailed merrily off across the wine-dark sea.) Etruscan women enjoyed a degree of emancipation that disconcerted their neighbors; decked out in a profusion of jewelry, they reclined alongside their husbands at dinner (and are shown doing so on many a sarcophagus outfitted for the unending banquet of the afterlife).

For most of their history, the Etruscans seem to have maintained a loose federation of independent cities; the only known attempt at political unity on a larger scale was mounted toward the end of the sixth century by Lars Porsena, a warlord from the wealthy inland town of Clusium (modern Chiusi, halfway between Florence and Rome). In a century rife with self-made tyrants, Porsena snatched a sizeable chunk of northern Etruria for himself before moving on Rome circa 509 BC. Later Roman historians debated what happened next; some suggest that the Etruscans held power over the city for some twenty years. Livy, and Macaulay after him, have told the more popular story: Porsena’s army never got across the Tiber, for their way was blocked by a lone Roman, Horatius Cocles, who staved off the Etruscan forces at the Sublician Bridge while his comrades hacked the wooden span to pieces under his feet. Weighted down in full armor, Macaulay’s Horatius cries out from his tottering perch:

Oh, Tiber! father Tiber!
To whom the Romans pray,
A Roman’s life, a Roman’s arms
Take thou in charge this day!”
So he spake, and speaking sheathed
The good sword by his side,
And with his harness on his back,
Plunged headlong in the tide….

“Heaven help him!” quoth Lars Porsena
“And bring him safe to shore;
For such a gallant feat of arms
Was never seen before.”
And how he feels the bottom;
Now on dry earth he stands;
Now round him throng the Fathers
To press his gory hands…

With weeping and with laughter
Still is the story told,
How well Horatius kept the bridge
In the brave days of old.4

Pliny the Elder described Porsena’s mausoleum at Clusium as a triumph of human vainglory, replete with labyrinth, pyramids, and a bronze canopy jingling with wind chimes, but for the most part Roman historians portray him, like Macaulay, as an adversary of rare nobility. It may have been Lars Porsena, after all, who gave the brand-new Roman Republic its taste for overrunning the neighbors.

In any case, Porsena was the last and greatest of Etruscan warlords. Etruscan sea power began to decline in the early fifth century BC, jarred first in 474, when the Greek navy bested an Etruscan fleet off Cumae, just north of the Bay of Naples. Land power eroded more gradually, checked by a battle with Cumaean Greeks at Aricia in 506, then progressively crowded out by the expansion of Rome. The first outright Roman conquest of an Etruscan neighbor occurred in 396, when Furius Camillus sacked the city of Veii. The site, hauntingly desolate today, was never rebuilt; what the Roman poet Sextus Propertius described circa 16 BC still holds true:

Woe to you, ancient Veii! Once you, too, were a kingdom.
Once your forum, too, boasted a golden throne.
Now within your walls the languid pipe of a shepherd
Sings, and amid your bones they’re harvesting the fields.5

Most of what we now know about the Etruscans comes either from the written records of Greece and Rome or from the contents of Etruscan tombs, because the hilltop citadels on which they lived are by and large still thriving towns, places like Fiesole, Orvieto (where Etruscan streets can be seen in a church basement), Cortona, Bolsena, Volterra, Chiusi, Perugia, and Viterbo, all with still-standing traces preserved of their Etruscan walls. Graveyards, however, always lay outside the Etruscan cities, miniature cities of the dead carved into soft volcanic stone or built up of earth and masonry where settlement met countryside. Etruscan industry has also left its accessible traces: kilns, smelting pits, slag heaps, along with some stupendous waterworks.

In the eighth century BC, the Etruscans borrowed the same Phoenician alphabet as their Greek neighbors, adapting the Semitic symbols to write their own, radically distinct language. That language itself is no longer entirely understood, but it contributed some crucial words to Latin, “letter” (littera) among them. (Other Etruscan loan words include “person,” “histrionic,” and, possibly, “lasagna.”) Many early Roman religious books were written in the Etruscan language, from right to left, on bolts of linen. These cloth books and their sacred lore, the “disciplina Etrusca,” continued in use throughout the Roman era; they were still consulted in the fifth century AD. Remarkably, part of one such linen book still survives, a schedule of spring and summer sacrifices; for reasons utterly mysterious, an Egyptian of the Roman period used it to wrap a mummy and the desert air preserved it intact.

Although Roman authors assure us that there was once an extensive Etruscan literature, including tragedies as well as cloth books on prophecy and divination, nearly all the sixteen-thousand-odd remaining Etruscan texts are simple epitaphs: “Arnth Sauturinies, son of Larth and Fulni, 38 years,” “Larthi Cracnei, 75.” These we can read with fair comprehension because of their formulaic content and restricted vocabulary, but the very few longer inscriptions remain largely opaque; there is nothing to compare them with, so the meanings of words and the intricacies of grammar elude us.

Except for religious texts, written Etruscan seems to have given way to Latin in the first century BC. Rome’s dominion by then extended far beyond the Italian peninsula. Politics may have played a part as well: after the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BC, Etruscan cities like Perusia (modern Perugia) had sided with Marc Antony in the ensuing struggle for power. In 40 BC, Caesar’s adopted son Octavian captured Perusia after a brutal siege; he is said to have marked the Ides of March that year by sacrificing three hundred Perusine citizens, most or all of them Etruscans, on the altar of the deified Julius Caesar. It would take Octavian nine more years to put Antony and Cleopatra to their final rout (at Actium, in 31 BC) and four years more to obtain the title “Augustus” from the Roman Senate, but the conquest of Perusia served notice that the fate of Etruria and of traditional Italy as a whole would be bound up ever after with the house of Caesar.

Despite Octavian’s best efforts, there was no question of eradicating Etruscan influence in early Imperial Rome, but only of controlling it. Etruria had shaped the very beginnings of the younger Roman culture, providing the patterns for Roman religious and civic life, including, among other things, temple architecture, togas, and the ceremonial trappings of magistrates, the general’s camp chair or sella curulis, and the bundle of rods and axe called fasces, symbolic of the consul’s power over life and limb. Rome counted three Etruscans among its seven traditional kings, and sent its young men to Etruria in order to put the final finish on their education. Indeed, the most conspicuous literary patron of Augustus’ reign, Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, traced his own ancestry to Etruscan royalty. But Maecenas wrote in Latin, not Etruscan, and gave money to poets who did the same, Virgil, Horace, Propertius notable among them. He encouraged them, moreover, to make Rome their Muse.

  1. 1

    D.H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places, from D.H. Lawrence and Italy (Penguin, 1985), pp. 1, 106-107.

  2. 3

    During the reign of Merneptah (1212-1203 BC); see Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 19-21, 59-60, and passim; Giovanni Garbini, “The Phoenicians in the Western Mediterranean (through to the Fifth Century BC),” in The Western Greeks, p. 121.

  3. 4

    Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Horatius at the Bridge,” from Lays of Ancient Rome.

  4. 5

    Propertius IV.10. Author’s translation.

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