Due to the fact that their literature was deliberately destroyed in the first centuries A.D., the origin of Etruscans is a mystery. They arrived in the ninth century BC on the west coast of Italy that is now Tuscany. They resembled the Phoenicians, and perhaps they were sailing in small groups by sea from Asia Minor. Like Phoenicians they were traders and sailors and founded towns along the coast.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.
|The "Chimera di Arezzo," a bronze statue in typical Etruscan style|
Apart from being great navigators, Etruscans are, nonetheless, known for having been among the first to make use of metallurgy and to raise it to an art form. They were very skilled in carving ornaments out of gold, silver, and bronze. The ancient Romans called them the Tusci or Etrusci, which later changed into Tuscany and Etruria. The ancient Greek knew them as as Τυρρηνοὶ (Tyrrhēnoi), earlier Tyrsenoi, from which the Romans derived the names Tyrrhēni (Etruscans), Tyrrhēnia (Etruria), and Mare Tyrrhēnum (Tyrrhenian Sea). The Etruscans called themselves Rasenna, which was syncopated to Rasna or Raśna.
Some Greeks held that the Etruscans were a branch of the Pelasgians, aboriginal inhabitants of the Aegean region, others such as Virgil thought they came from Lydia, a kingdom of western Anatolia. Herodotus also ascribes the origin of the Etruscans to Lydia, and reports that the ancestors of the Etruscans were forced to emigrate from Lydia because of 18 years of hard times. The Lydians built ships and half of the population left under the leadership of Tyrrhenus, the son of the king of Lydia.
The Pelasgians may have been the Sea People who around 1200 B.C. invaded the Egyptian Empire. The Greek historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in his Early History of Rome dismissed these theories and argued that the Etruscan were the aboriginal inhabitants of their area.
The question became more intriguing when, in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that most of the languages of Europe belonged to one big language family called Indo-European but Etruscan was not one of them.
|Sarcophagus from Cerveteri
520 BC (Etruscan)
Rome, Villa Giulia|
While some 13,000 Etruscan texts exist, most of these are very short, thus almost all the information about their culture is derived from their tombs, as they were obsessed with elaborate burials. The ancient Etruscans prepared extensively for the afterlife, furnishing elegant tombs ordering handsome coffins or sarcophagi, and performing meticulous and sophisticated rituals. Many Etruscan sites, primarily cemeteries and sanctuaries, have been excavated, notably at Veii, Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci, and Vetulonia.
Numerous Etruscan tomb paintings portray in vivid color many different scenes of life, death, and myth. Their interest in elaborate burials has led researchers to suppose that they may have had an underlying belief, similar to the Egyptians that a part of the soul remained with the body, or at least that the body was important for the afterlife.The passion for performing rituals such as the funereal liturgy of the Phersu and other ceremonial games of skill was very widespread among the Etruscans.
According to Dr. Annette Rathje of the University of Copenhagen 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.
New research shows 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.
|Romulus and Remus (the mythical founders of Rome) gives an idea of the great skill with which Etruscan artists worked.|
The Etruscan culture developed from a prehistoric civilization known as Villanovan (ca. 900–500 B.C.). By the beginning of the seventh century B.C., the Etruscans occupied the central region of Italy between the Arno and Tiber rivers, and eventually settled as far north as the Po River valley and as far south as Campania. Around 540 BC, the Battle of Alalia led to a new distribution of power in the western Mediterranean Sea. Though the battle had no clear winner, Carthage managed to expand its sphere of influence at the expense of the Greeks, and Etruria saw itself relegated to the northern Tyrrhenian Sea with full ownership of Corsica. From the first half of the 5th century BC, the new international political situation meant the beginning of the Etruscan decline after losing their southern provinces.
The parents’ sarcophagus (above, left), carved in a local volcanic stone, shows the more naturalistic character of Etruscan art. The middle-aged man and his wife press close together, their feet poking out beneath the covers. A long relief on the side depicts their wedding procession, with the couple at the center. The son’s sarcophagus (above, right) shows the influence of Greek art and styles in his beard and in his wife’s hairstyle, as well as in their more idealized appearance and pose. The sides of this sarcophagus are carved with less personal scenes, such as Greeks fighting Amazons and horsemen attacking armed men on foot. While some have suggested a Greek artist may have made the sarcophagus for the son and his wife, it is evident that both couples wanted to remain in eternal embrace.
The Sarcophagus of the Spouses
The Sarcophagus of the Spouses is the name given to this monumental terracotta Etruscan funerary urn, representing two spouses reclining side by side in a typical Etruscan banquet pose. Their ashes or remains were placed in the urn.
In 480 BC, Etruria's ally Carthage was defeated by a coalition of Magna Graecia cities led by Syracuse. A few years later, in 474, Syracuse's tyrant Hiero defeated the Etruscans at the Battle of Cumae. Etruria's influence over the cities of Latium and Campania weakened, and it was taken over by Romans and Samnites. In the 4th century, Etruria saw a Gallic invasion end its influence over the Po valley and the Adriatic coast. Meanwhile, Rome had started annexing Etruscan cities. This led to the loss of the Northern Etruscan provinces. Etruria was conquered by Rome in the 3rd century BC.
Even after they were subjugated and then annexed by the Roman Republic, 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.
In fact, Romans owed more than they ever admitted to the Etruscans.
Their achievements in engineering impacted 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.
The Tomb of the Leopards is a charming, cosy little room, and the paintings on the walls have not been so very much damaged. All the tombs are ruined to some degree by weather and vulgar vandalism, having been left and neglected like common holes, when they had been broken open again and rifled to the last gasp.
But still the paintings are fresh and alive: the ochre-reds and blacks and blues and blue-greens are curiously alive and harmonious on the creamy yellow walls. Most of the tomb walls have had a thin coat of stucco, but it is of the same paste as the living rock, which is fine and yellow, and weathers to a lovely, creamy gold, a beautiful colour for a background. Etruscan Places
by D. H. Lawrence
The commemoration of an affectionate marriage for eternity reflects a major difference between ancient Greek and Etruscan societies—namely, the more equal participation of women in Etruscan rituals and life. Nevertheless. many Greek and Roman authors including Theopompus of Chios and Plato referred to the Etruscans as immoral. During later Roman times, the word Etruscan was almost synonomous with prostitute, and Livy's histories moralise about the rape of Lucretia, where Roman women are seen as virtuous model wives in comparison to their liberated Etruscan counterparts. According to Timaeus (4th Century BC): "
Among the Etruscans who had become extravagantly luxurious, it is customary for the slave girls to wait on the men naked...."
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