The Etruscans

So I have just finished working on a long essay about gender roles in an ancient Italian people, the Etruscans.  They have been occupying my brain almost totally, which is why I have not written much about Pokémon this week.  Come and listen to me babble; you will learn a great many things, some of which may even be true.

So these people lived mainly in northern Italy, in the region now known as Tuscany.  Their civilisation predates the glory days of Rome; they were most powerful between the 7th and 4th centuries BC, after which the Romans began to eclipse and dominate them.  The Greeks called them the Tyrrhenoi, they probably called themselves the Rasna or Rasenna, but we know them mostly by their Latin name: Etrusci, or Tusci.  They had writing, and probably literature, which we no longer possess; only inscriptions remain, for the most part.  They had their own language, which we sort-of understand, and which does not seem to be related to any of the other languages spoken in ancient Italy – it doesn’t even seem to be from the Indo-European family at all, but has a closer affinity to the Semitic languages of the Near East.  They were probably, like the Greeks, a vague coalition of autonomous city-states who would band together against common threats but otherwise did their own thing.  The later Romans believed that the Etruscans had taught them everything they knew about irrigation, sanitation and construction, and also that people of Etruscan descent (they remained an important ethnic minority in Roman Italy long after losing their independence) were especially suited to being diviners and seers.  Two of Rome’s last three semi-mythical kings were thought to have been Etruscan, and a lot of people think that their reign reflects a memory of a real period of Etruscan dominance over the Latins (the ethnic group that includes the Romans).  Most of our ‘historical’ information about the Etruscans comes from Roman writers some three hundred years removed from the decline of Etruscan civilisation, or from Greeks talking sh*t about them.  The fourth Emperor of Rome, Claudius, who was a historian, wrote a long and detailed history of the Etruscans called the Tyrrhenica, based (apparently) on the Etruscans’ own historical literature. That’s gone; we don’t have that.  Would’ve been really nice, but no.  We also don’t have much archaeological information about their towns, because most of them have Roman and modern towns on top of them, which makes it hard to dig (although there are one or two sites now that people are starting to open up).  There are a few important religious sites that have been studied carefully, but mostly, what we know about the Etruscans comes from their graves and tombs.  Hooray for grave robbing.

What I have to deal with this week is that Etruscan women seem to have been treated in a much more egalitarian fashion than their Roman or Greek counterparts.  A lot of wall paintings in tombs show scenes of parties or banquets (they were a cheery bunch), and from this it looks like aristocratic women attended parties with their husbands and engaged in the merriment and conversation to a degree that would have been scandalous in Rome or Athens.  In fact, it looks like the Romans and Greeks did find it scandalous, since the descriptions we have of Etruscan women portray them as licentious sex-crazed hussies with no self-control – the natural reaction of a strongly patriarchal society to meeting a civilisation that allows women to, like, leave the house.  For a while there were people who though that the Etruscans were a matriarchal society, that women ruled their civilisation either alongside the men or above them entirely, and I don’t think anyone really believes that anymore because Etruscan men who had held political office in life regularly record that fact in funerary inscriptions, and there’s no evidence of women doing that (to be honest, the whole idea of an Etruscan matriarchy only had any traction in the 20th century for political reasons, not because it made sense).  Also their iconography seems to show that the same division of labour that was traditional throughout the ancient Mediterranean also prevailed in Etruria – women are depicted running the domestic sphere, and particularly seem to be associated with spinning and weaving, while men are more often portrayed as warriors.  Anthropologically the division kind of makes good sense; it’s easier for a community to recover from most of the men being killed than from most of the women being killed (just in terms of how many babies one man can produce versus how many one woman can produce), so it’s not smart to risk your women in battle.  It’s not so much that the roles given to Etruscan women are different compared to women elsewhere, it’s more that they enjoy greater prominence while fulfilling them.  Clever people whose business it is to know these things, like Larissa Bonfante, now tend to say that the contrast we’re actually seeing is between Roman or Athenian civilisation that values the adult male citizen as the basic unit of society (with everything else being under the power of one adult male or another) and Etruscan civilisation that values the married couple as the basic unit, because a lot of their art gives primacy to the pairing of male and female.  They seem a lot more comfortable than the Athenians, for instance, with the idea of female nudity (which for a long time the Greeks only allow for goddesses), as well as with sexually explicit art featuring a man and a woman (most Athenian art of that kind involves two men).  Other art stresses the male and female contributions to important processes like the manufacturing of textiles; there’s a famous relief carving that shows men herding goats, collecting their wool, gathering and dividing it in the centre of the town, and women spinning, weaving and dyeing the wool.  Finally, we know from inscriptions that while Roman women tended to be known only by their family names, Etruscan women were known by their first names as well, and where Greeks and Romans would identify themselves by their fathers’ names, Etruscans would give the names of both of their parents (“Lucius Fabius, son of Marcus” or “Fabia, daughter of Marcus” vs. “Aranth Saties, son of Larth, born of Thanchvil” or “Rauntha Saties, daughter of Larth, born of Thanchvil”).  The underlying ideology seems to be that men and women are different but equal (or should be).

And then there’s the goddamn Tomb of the Embroiderer.

The Tomb of the Embroiderer was discovered at the cemetery site of Tarquinia last September.  It was reported, amidst great fanfare and sensation, that it was the tomb of a great Etruscan warrior prince – we knew this because, in addition to the various rich grave goods the body had a spear with it – and his wife (who had a jewellery box and was lying on a smaller, less prominent burial slab than her husband).  Trouble is, when the osteologists did their thing, it turned out that the body with the spear was a woman, and the body with the jewellery box was a man.  Now, the media reactions are interesting.  Once the body’s sex was identified, the Italian news reports, for the most part, stopped focusing on the spear, which sometimes isn’t even mentioned, and started focusing on another artefact found with the body – a cylindrical bronze box believed to be a sort of embroidery kit (X-rays determined that it held sewing needles) – and the tomb started being called the Tomb of the Embroiderer.  Hmm.  The English news reports portray this as a comical mistake on the part of the archaeologists (headlines often contain the word “oops”).  In part they have a point, because it is entirely reasonable to remind everyone that you can’t necessarily know the sex of a burial from grave goods – people used to think you could, until that idea was completely exploded by Anna-Maria Bietti Sestieri at Osteria dell’Osa in the 90’s, but even though we now know that it’s sometimes misleading, people still do it.  On the other hand, the director of this dig, Alessandro Mandolesi, is one of the good ones – sure, he gave the media a preliminary interpretation that the body with the spear was male, but he also got his osteologists to check it!  People have also lambasted Mandolesi for reinterpreting the spear as “a symbol of unity between the two deceased” and effectively denying that the spear is really hers (we seem interpret the same artefact differently depending on whether it’s associated with a man or a woman).  It’s worth remembering, though, that no-one has yet said a single word in a professional, academic context – the excavation has not been published; interpretation is still in progress.  Everything we’ve heard comes through the snippets that the Italian media have chosen to publish.  Never take media quotations of archaeologists at face value.

So what does all that mean, anyway?  We know that Etruscan women can be buried with weapons.  If you say the words ‘female warrior’ you will be laughed at, and not without reason, because one way in which Etruscan art does follow the rest of the Mediterranean is that warriors are always men.  I don’t want to say that it never happened, but I think we can certainly say that female warriors were never considered important or valuable in their culture.  That’s not the only reason a person could be buried with a weapon, though.  Etruscan men often seem to have been buried with useless ceremonial weapons or with more weapons than they could use, which demonstrates that these things can have symbolic character, and there’s no reason they couldn’t have the same symbolic properties for women – representing power, wealth and status.  What does that mean for this particular woman?  No idea.  Maybe she was a priestess, or even some kind of magistrate?  It’s hard to say, because we have so little explicit information about how this society worked.  Later on, in the 4th century, men brag about the political positions they’ve held in their epitaphs, but we never see women do that.  Whether they could own land is another question that we need to find ways of getting at; I suspect they could, but I don’t know what would prove it.  It doesn’t seem like this is a society where women could do all the things men could do, but they certainly seem to have been a lot freer than Greek women.  Probably.  We think.

So yeah.  I’ll get back to writing stuff you actually want to hear about now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s