Bloomsbury (2020) p/b 256pp £14.99 (9781780766157)
For too long the Etruscans have been, in Merseyside terms, the Tranmere Rovers of the ancient world, completely overshadowed by their two better-known neighbours and rivals, the Romans and the Greeks. The absence of any literature, the lack of spectacular sites, the swiftness of their assimilation into the Roman republic next door have all contributed to our under-estimating the importance of Etruscan civilisation and its own part in shaping our modern world.
Just in the last decade the balance is being restored, with important studies from MacIntosh Turfa (2013), Smith (2014), Bell and Carpino (2016) and Naso (2017). Now Corinna Riva, a Professor in Mediterranean Archaeology at UCL, offers this Short History. That history was indeed short but its historiographical treatment is itself revealing. From the start, interpretations of early Etruscan history were heavily Graeco-Roman centric, manipulated to suit the ideologies of 14th and 15th century Florence, tailored by 19th century philhellenism, then adapted to do duty for the new Italian state, and even now are being squeezed and shaped to fit into today’s anti-colonialist and globalisation agendas.
R. reminds us that the absence of an Etruscan literature alongside its language and inscriptions should not condition our view of the archaeological sources. This was a sophisticated culture, with glorious painting, elaborate funeraria and stylish temples found in cities between the Arno and the Tiber such as Veii, Pyrgi, Gravisca and Luni. The Etruscan heritage has much to tell us about the treatment of religion in the private and public spheres, the transformation from kingship to oligarchic politics, the assimilation of other cultures through trade as the Italian peninsula opened up, and the first successful demonstration of Rome’s technique of accommodating the interests of local elites in the territories that it conquered.
Medieval Florence exploited its roots in the Etruscan city state. Lorenzo used its culture and art to legitimise his rule and dynastic succession. Vasari decorated the hall of the Palazzo Vecchio with the boast constituta civitate / aucto imperio / pacata Etruria. Cosimo I styled himself Etruriae Dux. Etruscan art was deemed more ancient than that of Greece, its rulers descended via Comerus from Noah, its language as old as Hebrew or Aramaic.
In the 19th century textual sources re-asserted their authority over ideology and the archaeological evidence: Etruscan antiquity could properly be understood through the philhellenic prism. Etruscan art was labelled an offshoot of Greek, borrowing its mythology but cloaking it in more primitive origins, even in oriental superstition; decoration and style were dismissed as opulent, luxurious and imitative, lacking the dynamism and innovation of Greek art and sculpture. But the emergence of the new Italian state (1861) and a wave of fresh excavations and newly-found inscriptions led to greater recognition of the originality of Etruscan art: Etruscology claimed its own field within classical scholarship. Attention shifted from speculation about origins to intensive studies of landscapes and smaller sites, many of which still yield promising new material today.
Etruscan history begins in the transition from the Final Bronze to the Early Stone Age. The first settlements were small, defensible and agricultural, not unlike other Greek-Phoenician settlements in the central Mediterranean. Grave decorations showed sophisticated workmanship combined with symbols of military might and political authority. Local cultures were assimilated through external trade, especially with Corinth and cities of the Aegean: the harbour cities of the Tyrrhenian coast hosted monumental sanctuaries open to different religions and illustrating the extraordinary cultural and economic vivacity of archaic Etruscan society.
In the 6th century we find Etruscan cities spreading further north and east in the Po valley, and then southwards into Campania. Settlements could be similar in layout to Greek colonies but used an Etruscan cosmology and a pre-monetary exchange system based on metal weights. As Etruscan civilisation peaked, we find large, elegant temples and the transition of sophisticated funeral monuments from private to public ornamental spaces. Remarkable paintings at the Tomb of the Ship, the Tomb of the Shields, the Tomb of the Meeting, the Tomb of the Blue Demon, and the quite exceptional Tomb of the Infernal Chariot show how a more refined eschatology developed out of earlier dionysiac cults.
Already in the 5th century there was growing political instability as city states competed more intensively or combined against external forces such as Greek Phoenicians, Cumae and Syracuse. The beginning of the 4th century saw the fall of Veii (396 BC) and Rome’s capture of a string of Etruscan towns along the Tiber valley, significantly expanding Rome’s land area. But, as elsewhere, this was neither systematic nor uniform. Etruscan funeral rites continued well into the Augustan period. Becoming Roman was a complex process, well-described as cultural ‘bricolage’. There wasn’t a full stop in ceasing to be Etruscan, nor was Rome’s expansion linear or demarcated by rivers or valleys.
Romanisation was gradual, respecting local traditions and cultural norms but giving them new meaning. Symbols and political practice were interchanged: there was an Etruscan version of the cursus honorum. It was the start of what was to become one of the most successful features of the Roman imperium: Rome’s far-sighted absorption of local elites and interests, binding them into Roman political and social culture.
The adoption of the great Etruscan sanctuary, the Fanum Voltumnae, at Campo della Fiera near Orvieto, is a good example. Probably the religious and political centre of the original Duodecim Populi, it was re-used as a Roman temple, and is evidence, R. believes, of the so-called Etruscan revival under Augustus. He and successor emperors encouraged a re-imagining of the past, investing Etrurian cities and their leading families with a mythology and history to match.
Modern Etruscology has so far remained mostly immune, R. tells us, from the post-colonial angst affecting some classical scholarship of the Roman Empire, and has thus been spared the modern absorption with issues of identity and self-perception. Etruscan studies have in any case been generally ‘bottom up’, focusing on local traditions, the different city states and their continuity under the Republic. And there’s plenty more research to be done: on the workings of the agrarian Etruscan economy, the social structures around it, and their place in the wider central Mediterranean perspective. Detaching Etruscan history from the later historiographical ideologies imposed upon it and shielding it from the current fashion with big global trends may be unglamorous. But down amongst the tombs and monuments we have much still to learn from the detail of this rich and important culture.
Professor Riva has done the subject and her readers proud.
Sir Michael Fallon
Former chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Classics Group