THE ETRUSCANS: Lost Civilisations

Lucy Shipley

Reaktion Books (2017) h/b 213pp £15 (ISBN 9781780238326)

From holding sway in northern Italy before the rise of Rome, the Etruscans, by classical times, had sunk to being treated as purveyors of exotic mystery on the Roman doorstep. They furnished Horace with a singular compliment for Maecenas ‘descended from Etruscan kings’, so he said, and the Emperor Claudius with a focus for his antiquarian investigations. 

The contemporary age has inherited this unfortunate classical reflex. The Etruscans are still frequently seen as a lost and mysterious civilisation. This belief is fuelled by the paucity of surviving Etruscan texts, and the fact that the language is far from being fully deciphered. Yet, as S. forcefully argues in this welcome addition to the small but growing collection of works in English about the Etruscans aimed at the non-specialist reader, this reputation for mystery is entirely unjustified. S. is primarily an archaeologist, and she reminds us that even if we are short of texts, there is a wealth of material evidence which, even if ambiguous, allows a modern observer to engage with, speculate upon and ask questions about the Etruscans. 

This work is a comprehensive introduction to the Etruscans’ material legacy. S. covers everything from changing burial practices, to the dwellings of the rich and the poor in the cities and in the countryside, inscriptions and literary remains, religion, gender and sexuality. She works from these to discuss some of the perennial vexed questions about the Etruscans. Were they, as Herodotus says, migrants from the east, or indigenous, as says Dionysius of Halicarnassus? S. lays out the debate with reference to recent archaeology and DNA studies and thinks both are wrong: the balance of evidence currently suggests there was once a migration from the Near East, but in the Neolithic Period, over 7,000 years ago—long before the period even of archaic history. Were they accustomed to living in civic communities with recognisable civitas-style systems of governance? What were their relations with the Greek world? What role did women play in their society? What impact did the Etruscans have on Roman religion? What are we to make of later classical claims of Etruscan hypersexuality, and the remarkable erotic imagery discovered in a number of Etruscan tombs? 

This book excels on a number of levels. S. goes beyond the pure material legacies to look at the cultural impact of the Etruscans in the modern age. Here, the book has a wonderful range, from Shakespeare and Boccaccio, to their appropriation by Mussolini’s nationalists, the Bonapartes, the Church Fathers, D.H. Lawrence (for whom they were an emblem of erotic liberation), and the 1976 film The Omen. This is likely to engage contemporary readers, as are the frequent analogies S. draws between her subject and contemporary politics. On top of this, S. is an evocative writer of place, and her ability to describe the sites such as the city of Marzabotto or the Pianacce necropolis in the landscape not only places the Etruscans in their physical context, but also makes the book a pleasure to read. It is also beautifully illustrated, with dozens of colour pictures of sites and artefacts. For those who want to see the Etruscans as being more than a mere mystery, this is an excellent place to start. 

Bijan Omrani

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