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What about the Unsung Etruscans?

Etruscan bronze

The Who? You might well ask if, like me, school history lessons taught you that European civilisation developed from the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Romans. Actually, European civilisation probably started in Tuscany.

What things come to mind when you think about Ancient Rome … aqueducts, plumbing, the “Roman” alphabet, paved roads, town planning, gladiators, togas, arches and more on public buildings etc. etc?

Volterra Arch
Porta all’Arco Volterra
Photo Jenny Mead

Well, the Etruscans had “been there, done that and got the T-shirt” long before.  Sadly, they didn’t “write the book”; the Ancient Romans did that and, guess who got all the credit?

That “History is written by the winners” (a quote attributed to Sir Winston Churchill) is very true in this case.

The Etruscan civilisation had flourished for centuries, growing from its Villanovan roots (Bronze/Iron Age) c.1200BC, before being gradually absorbed by Rome about 900 years later.  There was no outright conquest; the process was far more subtle and insidious.

Etruria, the land of the Etruscans, which very roughly approximates to modern day Tuscany, is an Ancient Roman “label”, as is the word Etruscan.  The Etruscans referred to themselves as the Rasenna, while the Ancient Greeks called them Tyrrhenoi.

Theirs was a highly organised and structured society and, at its height,was broadly based on twelve city states, after the model of the Ancient Greek polis.

Etruscan Vase Volterra Phoyo Jenny Mead
Etruscan Vase Volterra
Phoyo Jenny Mead

In fact, Ancient Greece inspired much of the Etruscan art, fashion, crafts etc., as a visit to any of Tuscany’s “dedicated” Etruscan museums will show.

A religious and mystical people, with a plethora of gods, the Etruscans are synonymous with funerals.

Funerary art has been discovered in abundance; from the more primitive Villanovan forms, to the highly sophisticated sarcophagi of later centuries.  Necropolises abound; some are plain and simple in both design and decor, whereas others are lavishly decorated with frescoes and filled with sumptuous grave goods.

Vetulonia Funerary Hut
Vetulonia Funerary Hut
Photo Jenny Mead

The funeral loving Etruscans had some less pleasant rites and rituals too.  On the death of a king, or noble, two servants would have the privilege of fighting to the death; the victor would then be ceremoniously executed!  From this came the idea of gladiatorial contests, which the Ancient Romans took to another level although, to be fair, the Etruscans were pretty keen on mass sporting events.

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Etruscan priests were skilled in the “science” of divination, using entrails, lightning etc. to foretell events or to choose appropriate times for them.  It has been said that it was an Etruscan priest who told Julius Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March”!

The Etruscans were traders, metal workers (thanks to vast mineral deposits within their territories), artists and artisans, farmers, town builders etc. In fact, they were a highly developed and skilled people.

An Etruscan Helmet
Skilled metal workers – An Etruscan Helmet

It was the Etruscans who founded Rome itself. They created its rectangular layout, drained its marshes, built many of its roads and bridges, and dug its underground sewers The Etruscans also built public aqueducts and installed baths.

Even Rome’s symbol – the Capitoline wolf – is of Etruscan origin.  The first kings of Rome were Etruscan (until they were kicked out and a republic was established), and many early wealthy Romans  sent their sons to be educated at Etruscan schools.  The fasces (rods bound round an axe), which was the symbol of Roman power, was Etruscan; as a symbol it lasted through to Mussolini’s fascist era.

Even allowing for the “forgetfulness” of the Ancient Romans in crediting the Etruscans with anything, it is almost beyond belief to discover how they reviled them as a promiscuous people.  They considered the Etruscans’ liberal attitude to homosexuality and gender equality as completely immoral.

That women and girls would eat together with their menfolk was nothing short of scandalous; decent Roman women dined separately, while only prostitutes ate with men!

All right, I shall try to be less biased … I have to admit that not all the Etruscans (or their civilisation) were perfect, nor were all the Ancient Romans villains who merely stole from others.  Applaud the Ancient Romans by all means, they “upped the stakes”, but they probably would not have done half of what they did if it hadn’t been for the Etruscans.

Oh dear, I simply can’t be unbiased on this subject.  However, don’t take my word for it, check out the Etruscans for yourself.

By Jenny M Want

Jenny M Want
Jenny M Want

For Jenny, living in Italy is a dream come true. A retired teacher, she now lives in scenic Barga in Tuscany with her partner David.

Immersed in Barga life, Jenny passes her time writing, researching, observing and learning.

Jenny has written a fun book for children set in Barga, Tuscany – The Bat of Barga.

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