Skip to comments.Lost No More: An Etruscan Rebirth
Posted on 04/15/2003 10:36:32 AM PDT by blam
Lost No More: An Etruscan Rebirth
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
NY Times, 4-15-2003
HILADELPHIA The Romans relished their founding myths. Aeneas, a fugitive from fallen Troy, anchored in the mouth of the Tiber River and there in the hills of Latium rekindled the flame of Trojan greatness. Romulus and Remus, twin sons of Mars and a sleeping beauty, were suckled by a she-wolf and grew up to establish the city destined for grandeur.
In reality, though, the Romans owed more than they ever admitted to their accomplished predecessors and former enemies on the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans. They were known as Rasenna, and Tusci or Etrusci by Romans, whose historians generally ignored or belittled them.
It has been left to the archaeologists and art historians of today to part some of the veils of time obscuring Etruscan culture and restore these enigmatic people to their proper place in pre-Roman history.
The Etruscans, who occupied much of north-central Italy in the first millennium B.C., traded far and wide in the Mediterranean. Their prosperity and taste for luxury supported a long trading chain leading north to the Baltic Sea for prized amber. That, some experts speculate, may account for the migration of a common Etruscan man's name, Lars, to Scandinavia.
Of more enduring importance, the Etruscans were a conduit for the introduction of Greek culture and its pantheon of gods to the Romans. The Etruscans developed a version of the Greek alphabet, a step that influenced Roman letters and thereby northern Europe's. They built the first cities in Italy, when the hills of Rome stood barren of promise, and their influence shows up in later Roman works of architecture and engineering.
If the Etruscans were once considered a "lost" society, scholars said at a recent symposium here at the University of Pennsylvania, they are now being found in new excavations and a closer examination of the wealth of artifacts that have been uncovered over the last century.
The symposium, "The Etruscans Revealed: New Perspectives on Pre-Roman Italy," was held in conjunction with the opening of a new gallery of Etruscan antiquities at the university's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
"Now we are feeling confident that we really know the Etruscans and what they believed and what they were doing," said Dr. Jean M. Turfa, an archaeologist at Bryn Mawr College, who was an organizer of the meeting. "We can begin to look upon them as real people."
Dr. P. Gregory Warden, an Etruscan archaeologist at Southern Methodist University, said the significant change was a movement away from almost total reliance on evidence from tombs, splendid as some are, to systematic excavations of where the people lived.
The ruins of settlements and cities, Dr. Warden said, are revealing the "social landscape" from huts to houses to palaces. At places in and around Florence, Bologna, Perugia and Pisa, excavators are uncovering remains of fortification walls, artisans' workshops and kilns, temples and grids of streets.
Dr. Stephan Steingräber of the German Archaeological Institute of Rome described evidence of considerable urban planning. Some cities were laid out in separate zones for residences, industry and public buildings. Roads had ruts paved with stone, like trolley tracks, for a smoother ride in springless carriages and chariots.
This research, conducted by several international teams, is only just beginning, Dr. Steingräber said, but it has become clear that Etruscan settlements began evolving from collections of thatched huts to tile-roof rectangular houses on stone foundations and then to real cities as early as the seventh century B.C.
Dr. Annette Rathje of the University of Copenhagen said that excavations at a site called Murlo, on a hill south of Siena, were turning up increasing evidence of large-scale settlement and monumental art, including bold friezes and some of the earliest architectural terra cottas in Italy.
The ancient city had an impressive acropolis and an enormous building, the largest in Italy before the sixth century B.C., that appears to have consisted of many smaller structures around a courtyard. Statues of gods or dignitaries and mythical beasts adorned the place. Perhaps, Dr. Rathje said, this was a ruling family's palace.
"Murlo is about as important as it gets," Dr. Warden said.
Dr. Warden himself is directing research at a site called Poggio Colla, 22 miles northeast of Florence. The team, which includes other excavators from Southern Methodist University, Penn and Franklin and Marshall College, has explored a well-defined city wall, an extensive cemetery and, especially rare, a temple.
The excavations, Dr. Warden said, have yielded new insights into the stratified Etruscan society in which a wealthy elite controlled a large population of slaves and serfs. People lived at Poggio Colla from the seventh to the second century B.C., almost the entire span of known Etruscan history.
No one knows when the Etruscans came to Italy or where they came from. They spoke a language unlike any other known European tongue, one hard to read and surviving mostly as limited tomb inscriptions. Scholars profess to have lost interest in pursuing the search for origins, perhaps because past efforts have brought nothing but confused and contradictory speculation.
Etruscan ancestors may have crossed the Alps from the north, or lived where they were so long that their origins were of little relevance. Yet Etruscan customs and traditions have been seen as an intriguing amalgam of those of others, possibly people from Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) and particularly the Greeks. Aristotle wrote of a trade alliance signed by the Etruscans and Carthaginians.
The number of Etruscan words borrowed from the Greeks suggest extended contacts between the two peoples. Scenes from Greek mythology are depicted in Etruscan art.
Dr. Tom B. Rasmussen of the University of Manchester in England described an Etruscan bronze mirror with an engraving on the back of a bearded Herakles suckling at the breast of the Greek goddess Hera.
"The Etruscans were great collectors of all things Greek," said Dr. Irene B. Romano, a Penn archaeologist and co-curator of the museum exhibition. "They and the Greeks traded with one another, fought one another and knew one another very well."
In any event, the Etruscan presence in Italy was manifest through much of the first millennium B.C., and at its peak in the sixth and fifth centuries, their domain extended well beyond its center in Tuscany. From the Tiber in the south to the Arno River in the north, Etruscan power and culture held sway. At times, their reach stretched to the Po River Valley and the Adriatic Sea and as far south as Pompeii.
In their earlier investigations, archaeologists drew most of their knowledge from Etruscan tombs, where the elite were accompanied into the afterlife with all the amenities of the living. Tomb interiors apparently resembled Etruscan homes, with stately furniture, beds, clothes and jewels, dinnerware and walls painted with scenes of banqueting, horse racing and divinities.
A recently discovered warrior's tomb from the eighth century held an ornate bronze flask, a sharp lance and a splendid crested helmet, artifacts now on display in Florence.
Some tombs contained elaborate stone sarcophaguses with lids decorated with reclining figures of the occupants, both men and women. One is in the Penn exhibition.
Primarily from tomb art, archaeologists have concluded that women had a fairly high status in Etruscan society, at least in contrast to Greeks and early Romans. Paintings showed women enjoying the food and dancing at feasts and reclining, often half naked, with their men. They also pictured them driving their own chariots. Inscriptions revealed that women could own or inherit real estate, and sometimes they ran businesses like pottery workshops.
Dr. Larissa Bonfante, a classics professor at New York University, said that unlike the Romans, Etruscan women had names of their own. The daughters of the Roman king Servius Tullius, for example, were both known only as Tullia. But Etruscans, both men and women, had long before developed a three-name system: a given name followed by their father's family name and their mother's.
Among other grave goods, archaeologists have found several artifacts reflecting the Etruscan practice of divination, determining the wishes of the gods and prophesying the future through expert examination of organs of sacrificed animals. A sheep's liver was often represented in bronze, with engraved lines marking off regions controlled by certain gods.
For all the Etruscans' arts and agriculture, their fine metalworking and commerce, Etruscan power and grip on the Italian peninsula began to decline in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.
"I am absolutely convinced one of the main reasons they weren't successful in the long run was that their society was static, didn't change with time," said Dr. Warden of S.M.U.
Etruscan civilization, scholars have learned, was governed as a loose federation of 12 or perhaps 14 city-states, each controlled by oligarchies of the wealthy and guided by the gods. The philosopher Seneca, in the first century A.D., may have had an explanation for the Etruscans' inability to take charge of themselves and change.
"This is the difference between us Romans and the Etruscans," Seneca wrote. "We believe that lightning is caused by clouds colliding, whereas they believe that clouds collide in order to create lightning. Since they attribute everything to gods, they are led to believe not that events have a meaning because they have happened, but that they happen in order to express a meaning."
From its art down to its pottery, experts say, there is strong evidence that the Etruscan culture was inflexible in the face of population growth, trade setbacks and threats from expansive neighbors.
"It was a stifling environment, a kind of theocracy without social mobility," Dr. Warden said.
Even after they were subjugated and then annexed by the Roman Republic by the first century B.C., the Etruscans and their influence never entirely disappeared. They were assimilated. They lost their language to Latin, and yet their legacy has endured in surprising ways, beyond any part they had in spreading the Greek alphabet.
As pointed out in the Penn museum's exhibition, Etruscan achievements in engineering lie behind Roman aqueducts and basilicas. The tombs of the emperors Augustus and Hadrian deliberately imitated Etruscan ones from seven centuries before. The artists of the Renaissance also built upon Etruscan foundations, as seen in the palaces of Florence, the sculpture of Pisa and the painting of Siena. Painting frescoes on wet plaster had been an Etruscan talent.
It has also been noted that as late as the fifth century A.D., priests familiar with Etruscan religion were called in to offer an explanation, perhaps through a reading of sheep entrails, for the sack of Rome at the hands of barbarians.
Even more recently, Etruscan influence surfaced in disturbing form. One of their symbols of ruling power, a bundle of rods known as the fasces, had been adopted by Romans and was then unforgettably revived by Mussolini and the Fascists of modern history.
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