Sunday, March 27, 2011

A description of the Estrucans

I found The Etruscan Chimera - an archeology mystery by Lyn Hamilton in a coffee shop where I regulary leave my magazines and unwanted paperbacks. It was free for the taking.

The following excerpt is from p. 27 - 30 (paperback version)

"What I found interesting was how much, yet how little, we know about the Etruscans, or the people we have come to know as Etruscans. It is unlikely they ever referred to themselves that way. That name came from the Romans, who referred to their neighbors, occasional allies, and in the end, intractable enemies, as Tusci or Etrusci. The Greeks called them Tyrrhenoi, after which the Tyrrhenian Sea is named. The Etruscans called themselves Rasenna or Rasna.

Their language, a rather unusually one that, unlike almost all other European languages, did not have Indo-European roots, has been deciphered to a large extent, but when it comes right down to it, there is very little to read, other than inscriptions on tombs and such. They may have had, indeed must surely have had, a rich body of literature, but it is lost to us, so what we know about them comes from archaeology or the writings of others: Greeks and Romans for example, whose own particular biases are reflected in their accounts. They also must have had a complex ritual and religious life, because we know that long after the Etruscan cities came under the domination of Rome, Roman citizens were still calling upon Etruscan haruspices, diviners, to aid them in important deliberations and decisions. The number and elaborate nature of their tombs indicate that there was a social structure, including a wealthy elite, but that also they believed in an afterlife. What exactly they believed, however, is, to a large extent shrouded in the mists of time.

What we do know is that people who shared a common language, customs and beliefs, dominated a large part of central Italy, what is now Tuscany - the word itself speaks to its Etruscan roots - part of Umbria and northern Lazio near Rome between about 700 B.C.E. until their defeat and assimilation by the Romans in the third century B.C.E. Their territory was essentially bounded by the Tiber River on the south and east, and the Arno to the north. To the west was the Tyrrhenian Sea. They lived in cities and used rich metal deposits along the Tyrrhenian shore to develop extensive trade by land and sea. In time, a loose federation of twelve cities, the Dodecapolis, grew up. The ruling elite of these cities, city states, really met annually at a place called Volsinii, to elect a leader.

During their heyday, before the birth of the Roman republic, there were Etruscan kings of Rome - the Taquins - who, between 616 and 509 B.C.E, were instrumental in building the city that would ultimately defeat them. The last king of Rome was Tarquinus the Proud, who was explected from Rome in 509 B.C.E. From that time on, Rome and the Etruscans were enemies, fighting over every inch of ground.

In the end, the Etruscan federation could not hold against the might of Rome. For whatever, reason the cities did not band together to protect themselves, and one by one, they fell. Their cities were abandoned, or fell into ruin, or were simply replaced by others, until they were reborn, in a different form, as medieval cities, some of the loveliest in Italy: Orvieto, Chiusi, Cortona, Volterra, Arezzo, and Perugia amoung them.

As mysterious as these people may have been, I noticed that many had opinions on them. Indeed, I would say that the Etruscans presented a blank slate, in a way, on which later people found a convenient resting place for their own hopes, beliefs, and desires. Cosimo de Medici was hardly the first to use the people's rather vague notions about the Etrucans for his own purposes. A Dominican friar who when by the name of Annuis of Viterbo, determined, in the fifteenth century, that the Etruscans, a noble and peace-loving people, according to him, had helped repopulate the earth after the Flood. To prove his point, he argued that their language was a version of Aramaic Despite his rather outlandish views, Annius's theories may have helped save some Etruscan antiquities from destruction by the church as pagan symbols. The Etruscans could have used Annius a century later, when something like six tons of Etruscan bronzes were melted down to adorn a church in Rome.

Lawerence, of Lady Chatterley's Lover fame, also thought the Etruscans were his kind of people, in touch with nature and their natural selves. He saw phallic symbols everywhere on his visits to Etruscan sites and wrote glowingly of what he saw to be their refreshingly natural philosophy. On the other hand, the philosopher Nietzsche, who arguably kewn something about angst, called them gloomy - schwermutigen - although what made him think that was not clear. The art critic Berensen dismissed all Etruscan art as being non-Greek and therefore unworthy, even though, if I'd interpreted what I'd read correctly, the Greeks living in Italy had been responsible for some of it, and some of the art prized as Greek and Roman had later been revealed to be Etruscan. By the end of my reading, it was pretty clear to me that views expressed about the Etruscans said more about the holder of those opinions than about the Etruscans themselves."

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