Tracking Down the Etruscans

Article excerpt

The Etruscans, who were a mature nation in central Italy when Rome was a baby state trying to become viable among a welter of neighboring powers, now are known primarily by their ceremonial tombs - to which D.H. Lawrence's posthumously published "Etruscan Places" (1932) remains a memorable guide among the many.

The multi-chambered tombs were built to last, while for much of their history the Etruscans themselves continued to live in their villages on volcanic tufa plateaus, later cities, in thatched, packed-mud and wood dwellings. It is one feature of the "mystery" with which popular imagination has endowed this people who lived by the Tyrrhenian Sea after coming from who knows where with their language that does not seem to have been, originally, of the Indo-European stream.

The tombs range from trench-style to raised and tumuli-covered, and in later periods sometimes are arranged in streets of cube-tombs that look like little houses. They were depositories for ash urns of the cremated, sarcophagi used in burial by inhumation (and from which skeletons have been retrieved for modern-day medical testing), stone beds and chairs, much pottery ware and other household and personal effects, not least very delicate and beautiful amber and gold jewelry dating back to the first part of the seventh century B.C.

The presence of the Etruscans on the Italian peninsula is reckoned to date at least to the 10th century, with linguistic and historical distinctiveness evident by around 700 B.C. The Etruscans' alphabet, whose influence eventually would reach far and wide, had Greek derivations that have been helpful to translators. Their language, by the time such items has come into regular demand among an emergent upper class, exhibits a mixed etymology; thus, "vinum" for wine, from the Latin, and "eleiva" for oil, from the Greek.

The big problem, of course, and another aspect of the "mystery" is an almost complete lack of surviving Etruscan literature. And references to the Etruscans in the literature of their neighbors are rare - and too often defamatory. They were said to have been cruel even by the standards of the day; and after the battle in the Sardinian Sea of 540 B.C., they did join their Carthaginian allies in stoning the Phocaean prisoners to death on the beach. Herodotus tells the story.

The Etruscan women were accused of loose living, and one matron is known to have been packed off to the hereafter with burial effects that included two wine bottles. But Sybille Haynes, an Etruscan scholar, does not agree with their neighbors' judgment of the Etruscan ladies in her engagingly written, richly illustrated "Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History."

The second-longest Etruscan text, with some 1,200 words (about the length of this column) preserved, is a piece from a "linen" book, one of which is depicted on the lid of a sarcophagus in the Banditaccia necropolis of Cerveteri, near Rome. The text, religious and pedagogical in intent, testifies to the Etruscans' religiosity - to which the tombs already provided ample evidence - and to the qualities of their "disciplina etrusca," which Livy reported as so impressing the Romans that they sent their sons to learn it, the way he as a young man had learned Greek.

Tarquin kings ruled in Rome for much of the sixth century, and Lars Porsenna of Clusium (now Chiusi) probably occupied the city briefly, Lord Macaulay's poem about Horatius defending it at the bridge to the contrary. Many centuries later an Etruscan elite remained influential in the Roman capital, derived from oligarchic families whom the Romans, in their political shrewdness, encouraged and allowed to govern the eternal affairs of their territories.

Families like the Caecina of Volterra and Cilnii of Arezzo provided, among others, Gaius Maecenas (of the Cilnii), advisor to Augustus the first Roman emperor, patron of the poet Sextus Proprertius, and celebrated in Horace's "Odes. …