The Etruscans


The Etruscans Essay, Research Paper

The Etruscans are one of those mystery peoples of the ancient world who seem to have appeared for a short time in history, then to have disappeared altogether. Although their reign was short lived, they had a great impact on later Mediterranean cultures. They were a powerful people at the height of their civilization. They controlled the entire Italian peninsula from the Alps to the Mediterranean Sea. They controlled the trade routes with their navy and were much involved in commerce with Greece and Carthage. They had a written language and they were accomplished architects and engineers. They were known throughout the Mediterranean region for their soothsaying abilities. Where they came from and why they disappeared is still not well understood, but the study of this fascinating people continues in modern day Tuscany.At the time of its greatest power, between the seventh and fifth centuries BC, Etruria, a loose confederation of twelve city-states probably embraced all of Italy from the Alps to the Tiber River. Its name is the Latin version of the Greek name Tyrrhenia; the ancient Romans called the people of the country Etrusci or Tusci, from which derived the name of the modern Italian region of Tuscany. However, much about their culture remains a mystery and even their language remains undecipherable, the voices of the Etruscans are being heard through the study of their artifacts and artwork.The Etruscans built an empire that rivaled the empires of ancient Greece and Carthage – all of this at a time when Rome was a village of mud huts on the banks of the Tiber. Although they had built such a great empire, they had no army to protect them from their enemies. When stronger more hostile invaders eventually overcame and conquered each city state, the Etruscans wrote it off as fate, thinking that the gods meant it to be that way. Was it their fatalistic attitude that caused their downfall or was it their form of government? Researchers of today have shed some light on this matter and say that their form of government was their major downfall. The Etruscans never formed one unified nation with a single national policy but belonged to at least twelve separate states, each state represented by a capital city. When the time came to form an army to protect themselves, the Etruscan city-state fell back on an archaic convention whereby every man who was called to the colours was required to name another recruit. This was no doubt an expedient way in which in muster practically the entire population of the country, but it is certain than men conscripted in this fashion were neither willing volunteers nor experienced professionals. It s no wonder that the Etruscan armies were destined to be defeated. Having no central government, these people would never have called themselves by one all encompassing name such as Etruscan; they would not have been organized enough to mount a united front against their enemies.The characteristic form of governmental organization in Etruria was the confederacy of cities. At one time, there appears to have been three separate Etruscan confederacies the northern, the southern, and the central each made up of 12 cities. The only confederacy of any significance was the central confederacy, a loose political and religious organization that gathered annually at the shrine of the deity Voltumnas to choose priests and magistrates from the nobility to govern each Etruscan city.The many traders from the eastern Mediterranean who came to the Italian peninsula influenced the Etruscans. Etruscan agricultural products such as wine, olive oil, and cereal grains as well as metal ores such a iron and copper were much sought after throughout the region. In return, the Etruscans valued gold, silver, ivory and pottery. Evidence indicates that the Phoenicians were the first to arrive, probably in the eighth century BC. They were in search of raw materials, such as un-worked metals, and perhaps wood and leather which they exchanged for the finished products of the Middle East. In time, Greek merchants began to challenge the Phoenicians dominance. By 625, BC vases manufactured in Corinth filled the Etruscan markets. In the late sixth and fifth centuries BC, Attic vases replace Corinth ware, and these were probably exchanged for Etruscan utensils in bronze, which the Athenians were thought to prize. Etruscan commerce no doubt meant a sophisticated spoken and written language, but no commercial documents have survived the centuries.The scarcity of written documents also makes the study of Etruscan religion extremely difficult. What we do know comes mostly from the writings of ancient historians who wrote about the Etruscans, centuries after they no longer existed as a people. The religious laws of Etruria, according to Livy and Cicero, seem to have been codified into three sets of books that bore the generic title of Etrusca Disciplina. The first section dealt with divination from the entrails of a freshly sacrificed animal. (The Etruscans were known for their skill not only in discerning divine will by examining entrails but also for interpreting omens of all kinds, particularly those based on the flight of birds entering and leaving certain sectors of the sky.) The second set of books explained the art of divination by lightning. The third set was more general; it concerned ritual practices as well as Etruscan standards of social and political life. The Etruscan gods were almost exactly the same as the Greek gods; they just had different names. Their abilities at soothsaying were renowned and the Roman used Etruscan priest well into the height of their empire. Many elements of the Etruscan religion were used by the Romans, including the ideas about the return of the golden age and the rite of human sacrifice, which may have given rise to the gladiatorial games.After the Roman conquest of Etruria, the Etruscan language stopped being used. Writing in the first century BC, the Greek historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, described the language as unlike any other. He thinks that the Etruscans go back to an extremely remote antiquity and are sprung from the soil of their own country. Herodotus, however, wrote that the Etruscans were a group of people who had migrated from Lydia because of a famine. Our knowledge of the Etruscan language is still very limited; linguists have made some progress in deciphering the inscriptions in tombs, which represent most of the remaining examples of Etruscan writing. Taking clues from the subject matter of sculptures and paintings that decorate the tombs, scholars have identified many proper names of historical and religious figures, but very little literature or poetry. Though the letters of the alphabet have been determined and words can be deciphered, their meanings in most cases remain a mystery. The Etruscan alphabet contained 26 letters in its earliest known form and 20 in its latest form. It somewhat resembles the Greek alphabet, but the vocabulary and grammar of the two languages differ. The Roman alphabet, with modifications, is derived from the Etruscan. Examples of their language in most cases come from inscriptions that accompany their artwork.

Etruscan art shows influences from many other cultures. Artistic style and form can be traced to Greece and Egypt as well as Asia Minor. It also shows Italian elements but reflects distinctively Etruscan religious beliefs.The Etruscans, like most ancient peoples, did not regard art for its own sake but created objects for everyday use or for religious purposes. As a result, virtually no artists are known by name and few examples of strictly public or civic art, or large sculptures in durable stone exist. Reflecting the political independence of each city-state, art from each area is quite distinctive but does share some general characteristics.Most present-day examples of Etruscan art come from ancient burial sites. Nothing remains of their palaces, public buildings, or early temples which were all built of wood and brick. Miniature ceramic models of temples, as well as traces of later stone structures, indicate that temples were built in enclosures and had tiled, gabled roofs supported on pillars, much like Greek temples. Everyone thought the Romans were great road builders. They were but they learned much of their engineering from the Etruscans. Not only do ancient Etruscan roads still crisscross the region, many aqueducts, cisterns and drainage systems still exist to prove their building capabilities. Most Etruscan cities were built on the top of a hill and laid out in the form of a quadrangle, with fortifications and with the outer walls reinforced by double gates and towers. All access to the city was through these main gates. No remains of Etruscan homes have been found; but the interiors of tombs and house-shaped funerary urns, suggest that they were made of wood, had flat or gabled roofs of tile or thatch, and had one to three rooms.Surviving Etruscan painting consists chiefly of murals on the stone or plastered stone walls and ceilings of tombs. A few painted plaques have also survived. Early murals show lively scenes of food, wine, games, birds in flight, banquets, dancing, and music. The colors are bright and the feeling is that the dearly departed are on their way to a place where life will continue happily as it did before death. We also get the feeling that music was a very important part of their lives. The Etruscans so loved music noted the Greek writer Atheneaus that they kneaded their bread, practiced boxing, and whipped their slaves to the sound of pipes. Later tombs from the fourth century on, influenced by Greek mythology and the decline of Etruscan power, were more realistic in style and strikingly gloomy in feeling. These paintings depict their growing fear of death. They are beginning to lose their power in the region and are being conquered by enemies. More prominent now are bloody war scenes, frightening demons of the land of the dead, and depictions of human sacrifice. After the Romans conquered the Etruscans in 396 BC, they were completely assimilated into Roman culture. A century later even their language no longer existed.The Etruscans were a powerful and important culture of their time. What we know of them has been learned mostly from the remains of their tombs that to this day litter the Tuscan countryside. They had a massive impact on later Mediterranean life, especially the Roman Empire into which they were assimilated. We as Americans hear little about the Etruscans and their culture, but the modern day Tuscans live their lives with the ghosts of this great culture literally underfoot. In her book, Bella Tuscany, Frances Mayes, a college professor, describes a visit to a store in a Tuscan hill town. There, among the potholders, key rings, mats, and corkscrews, I find a dim opening into an Etruscan tomb! Oh yes, the owner says as he flicks on spotlights, many store owners find these surprises when they renovate. Etruscan art, artifacts and building sites continue to be discovered. Cortona was one of the twelve original Etruscan cities and, since the 17th century, the town has had an active Etruscan museum . A few years ago, archeologists discovered important new tombs, and the museum now has a large recumbent animal figure and an ever-expanding exhibit of exquisite gold jewelry, carvings and pots. A stone worker last year found a bronze table incised with Etruscan writing. Perhaps as new information is gained through studying their tombs and more of their writing becomes known, we will at last come to know the Etruscan as real people rather than mystery people.Endnotes James Wellard, The search for the Etruscans (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1973), 125. Raymond Bloch, The Etruscans (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. Publishers, 1956), 66. Rick Gore, The Eternal Etruscans. National Geographic Magazine 172 (June 1988): 172. Ibid., 712. Frances Mayes, Bella Tuscany (New York: Broadway Books, 1999), 28.BibliographyBloch, Raymond. The Etruscans. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. Publishers, 1956.National Geographic, June, 1988, Rick Gore, The Eternal Etruscans. Mayes, Frances. Bella Tuscany. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.Vaughan, Agnes Carr. Those Mysterious Etruscans. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964.Wellard, James. The Search for the Etruscans. New York: Saturday Review press, 1973.

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