The Etruscans—A Mystery That Lives On
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN FRANCE
“Such was the power of Etruria that its name filled up earths and seas.”—Livy, First-Century Historian.
WHEN it comes to the Etruscans, you may feel that you do not know even the ABC’s of the subject. If, however, the language you speak uses the Latin alphabet, you unknowingly owe some of it to the Etruscans. Were it not for the Etruscans, the Latin alphabet would have begun with a, b, g (like the Greek alpha, beta, gamma or the Hebrew aleph, beth, gimel). Yet, although philologists know that the Etruscan alphabet began with a, b, c, the Etruscan language is still difficult to understand. And this is only one aspect of the Etruscan enigma.
Over the centuries historians have speculated on the origins of this most remarkable civilization. At their zenith in the fifth century B.C.E., the Etruscans formed a federation of 12 cities with a far-flung European and North African commercial network. Yet, just four centuries later, they were completely engulfed by the emerging power of Rome. But what do we know about the Etruscans, and why does the mystery live on?
Historians, archaeologists, and linguists have long mused over the origins of the Etruscans. Did they emigrate from Lydia, a province in Asia Minor, as Herodotus suggested, or were they natives of Italy, as Dionysius of Halicarnassus claimed in the first century B.C.E.? Could it be that they had diverse origins? Whatever the answer, the ethnic and cultural differences between them and neighboring peoples were so great that now we cannot be sure of their beginnings.
We do know, however, that from about the eighth century B.C.E., the Etruscans flourished throughout central Italy. The Romans called them Tusci, or Etrusci, and the area occupied by them, between the Arno River in the north and the Tiber River in the south, came to be known as Tuscany. At one time the Etruscan civilization dominated some 50 Italic peoples.
While the Etruscan language basically uses an early form of the Greek alphabet, making it seemingly easy to decipher, it is actually far removed from any other known language. The major part of the vocabulary used by the Etruscans defies translation. Yet, their literature was abundant, as books played an important part in their culture, especially in matters pertaining to religion. Although thousands of examples of Etruscan inscriptions exist today—on tombstones, vases, and alabaster sarcophagi—they contain relatively little text, so they provide little help in explaining the origin and meaning of Etruscan words.
How They Lived and Prospered
The Etruscan people were organized into self-governing city-states, ruled first by kings and later by magistrates. These cities federated into an Etruscan league, a loose religious, economic, and political association. Some Etruscan houses were equipped with running water and were located on paved streets, with sewers. Land drainage was extensively employed. Etruscan kings transformed Rome itself from a group of villages into an elegant, walled city endowed with a network of sewers, including the Cloaca Maxima, which can still be seen today.
The Etruscans prospered from the rich mineral deposits in areas under their control, such as the iron mines on the nearby island of Elba. To satisfy their thirst for metal, the Etruscans processed iron, silver, and copper—even importing tin from the British Isles. Besides these riches, the area they occupied provided fertile agricultural and grazing land, producing cereals, olives, and grapes as well as timber. These natural resources as well as extensive inland and overseas trade gave the Etruscans a vibrant economy.
The Etruscans were great mariners. In 540 B.C.E., a combined fleet of Etruscan and Carthaginian ships defeated the Greeks, thus ensuring Etruscan overseas trade. Having invented the warship ram, they were ready for battle. Products such as the famous bucchero (black earthenware pottery) were exported by sea to faraway Spain and Egypt. By means of overland trading routes, the Etruscans exported wine to Gaul (France) and Germania (Germany), thus spreading their fame.
The Etruscan Enjoyment of Life
Among the most enduring and revealing sources of information on the Etruscans are their works of art. A luxury-loving people, the Etruscans produced lavish gold jewelry, including earrings, brooches, pendants, bracelets, and necklaces. Even today the way they crafted elaborate treasures with filigree and granulation designs, using tiny beads of gold, is still a mystery. Besides goblets, dishes, cups, and dinner services in silver and other precious metals, the Etruscans sculpted and carved other prized materials, such as ivory.
The many sculptures, works of art, and wall paintings that have been found unveil the Etruscans’ joie de vivre. They enjoyed watching chariot races, boxing matches, wrestling contests, and athletic games. The king would watch these, perhaps sitting in an ivory chair, surrounded by slaves seized in conquest. His purple tunic, a symbol of his position, was later adopted by the Romans. At home he would recline alongside his wife at mealtimes and listen to the flute or double pipe and watch dancing, while being waited upon by his slaves.
In stark contrast with the Greeks or Romans, women in Etruscan society enjoyed a position of social equality. They could own property, and they enjoyed social events. Etruscan ladies possessed an individual and a family name, which is proof of their claim to legal rights.
Strange Religious Beliefs
A first-century historian called the Etruscans “a people devoted to religious customs more than any other.” The Etruscans worshiped a plethora of gods, having a predilection for trinities, in whose honor they built tripartite, or three-chambered, temples. Each chamber housed an image. Etruscan civilization revolved around mystical Babylonian ideas. Foremost among them was the idea of an afterlife and an underworld. Corpses were either buried or cremated. If they were cremated, the ashes were put in urns of differing shapes or forms. Placement of the urn in a burial tomb, along with everything deemed necessary for life in the underworld, was accompanied by rituals, offerings, and libations. The walls of wealthy people’s tombs were decorated with colorful frescoes depicting a variety of scenes, sometimes featuring demons or a menagerie of fearsome creatures. As one source says, “the Etruscans always loved a monster.”
The Etruscan practice of hepatoscopy, the study of the liver as a form of divination, can be traced back to Babylon. (Compare Ezekiel 21:21.) All aspects of their lives and their decision-making were centered on the gods. People would look to the earth or the sky for omens. So common was divination that practices of this nature became known as disciplina Etrusca, Etruscan science.
Absorption and Extinction
In 509 B.C.E., the century-old line of Etruscan kings ruling Rome came to an end. This was a harbinger of things to come. In the north the Etruscans were threatened by the Celts, whose incursions loosened the Etruscan grip in that area. Toward the south, continual border conflicts with the Italic peoples undermined their power base, fostering internal social tensions.
By the third century B.C.E., the Etruscan territory had come under Roman domination. Thus began a period of Roman cultural aggrandizement, or Romanization. Eventually, in 90 B.C.E., when Roman citizenship was extended to all Italic peoples, the last vestiges of Etruscan identity vanished. Etruscans were required to speak Latin and were absorbed into the Roman world. Apparently, few Roman scholars made efforts to translate or even to preserve Etruscan literary works. Thus, Etruscan civilization disappeared, leaving behind a mystery. But it also left a legacy.
An Enduring Legacy
Etruscan heritage is visible in Rome even today. The Romans owed to the Etruscans their Capitoline temple, dedicated to the trinity of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva; their tripartite temples; their first city walls; and the sewer that drained the Forum. Even the Capitoline wolf (Lupa Capitolina), the symbol of Rome, is of Etruscan origin. In addition, the Romans adopted a number of Etruscan customs, such as games involving fights to the death and combats with animals. (Compare 1 Corinthians 15:32.) The type of triumphal procession that Paul no doubt had in mind in one of his illustrations was of Etruscan origin.—2 Corinthians 2:14.
Etruscan symbols have also been used extensively. The Etruscan priest’s staff, resembling a shepherd’s crook, has been identified with the origin of the crosier used by Christendom’s bishops. The Etruscan fasces (rods bound together around an ax) was used as a symbol of authority by the Romans, as an emblem during the French Revolution, and by the Italian Fascist party in the 20th century.
Despite the concerted efforts of archaeologists in unearthing the past, the Etruscans’ origin and many aspects of their life remain a mystery.
[Map on page 24]
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[Pictures on page 24, 25]
1. Capitoline she-wolf, symbol of the city of Rome, a copy of the Etruscan bronze of the fifth century B.C.E.
2. Inscribed in Etruscan (right) and Phoenician (left), these golden tablets contain a dedication to Uni (Astarte)
3. Etruscan sarcophagus of a couple
4. An Etruscan archway from the fourth century B.C.E. The Romans learned arch building from the Etruscans
5. Etruscan krater and support from the seventh century B.C.E., used for mixing wine
Gold tablets: Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Roma; sarcophagus and krater: Musée du Louvre, Paris