What is Art For? Part 9.1 The Etruscans

Evolution of consciousness in Europe 5: The Mediterranean Iron Age

Dr Charles Whitehead continues his series of  blog posts on the many functions of art, in ‘What is Art For?, here investigating the Etruscans – Rome’s most significant predecessor.

The Etruscans

“A vivid, life-accepting people, who must have lived with real fullness

D.H. Lawrence (1932)

But from 1100 BC, whilst the Greeks were still in their “Dark Age”, another brilliant new culture was germinating in Italy. The first Villanovans lived in villages of small round wattle-and daub huts, but the arrival of Iron Age technology, combined with rich mineral resources, well-organised agriculture and trade, transformed those people, subsequently known as the Etruscans, who became a major trading power during the Greek Archaic period. Etruscan expansion reached its maximum territorial extent – from the River Po in the north to the Bay of Naples in the south – by 550 BC, as the Greek Classical period was about to dawn, and the balance of power in Italy would soon shift in favour of Rome.

Dancers from the Tomb of the Augurs (left) and the Tomb of the Lionesses (right), Tarquinia, ca. 530-520 BC. The dancing phersu (left) seems remarkably casual about genital exposure, whilst the man on the right, holding a wine jug, appears to be naked. Phersu means mask or masked actor and is the origin of the Latin persona and English person. The Phersu seems to be something of a clown or trickster figure. His snub nose. large ears, long beard, and Phrygian cap, suggest a link to the god of drunken license, Dionysus.

The Romans did a pretty good job of whitewashing the Etruscans out of history. Many features of western civilization which have been credited to Rome were Etruscan innovations. Rome may have begun as a Latin village, but the city itself was founded by Etruscans, who installed much of its infrastructure, including the Cloaca Maxima, or “Greatest Sewer” which is still in use today, as well as the Circus Maximus. Rome’s major temple, the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, was originally built by Etruscans. Dedicated to the Capitoline Triad – Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva – it had a cathedral-like status relative to other Roman temples. Until around 200 BC, in the late Republic, Roman temples followed the Etruscan style, far more richly decorated than the Greek style subsequently adopted by the Romans.

Left: The Capitoline Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, mythical founders of Rome. The myth is a fabrication supposedly accounting for the fierce and indomitable Roman character. The irony here is that the Etruscans were the true founders of Rome, and the wolf is an Etruscan bronze (the twins are a Renaissance addition). 75 cm high and 114 cm long (30×45 in).  Right: Detail of a reconstructed Etruscan temple at the Villa Giulia Museum, Rome. The finely detailed terracotta decorations would have been painted in bright colours. Ca. 300 BC.

We have very little direct knowledge of Etruscan society. Latin authors such as Livy and Cicero commented on the richness of Etruscan literature, and the Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus of Sicily (90-30 BC), wrote that one of the great achievements of Etruscan culture was its literature. But none of that survives today, apart from a single book, and only then because it was written on linen and subsequently used to wrap an Egyptian mummy. We have some 13,000 Etruscan inscriptions, but most are too short to provide much information, and longer texts in the Etruscan language still await translation.

 Many Etruscan settlements have remained in occupation to this day, so archaeologists lack access to sites which are underneath people’s homes or public buildings. Most of the surviving architecture is limited to city walls and rock-cut tombs. Despite plentiful fine marble in their region, Etruscan sculpture was almost entirely in terracotta or bronze. Elaborate temple ornaments in painted terracotta survive in broken fragments, whilst most of their bronzes, because of the value of the metal, have been melted down and re-cycled. So most of the surviving art consists of frescoes in tombs, grave goods, and sarcophagi – containers for the dead.

Two naked boys serve three couples in the banqueting scene from the Tomb of the Leopards. Men and women dine together and wear identical laurel crowns – reflecting the gender equality that shocked Greek and Roman observers. The man on the right holds up an egg, a common symbol of rebirth and regeneration. Ca. 480–450 BC.

Procession of dancers and musicians from the Tomb of the Leopards.

I first came to love Etruscan art after reading a short book, Etruscan Places, by the English poet and novelist D.H. Lawrence. It’s worth quoting his response to the scenes above:

“The walls of this little tomb are a dance of real delight. The room seems inhabited still by Etruscans of the sixth century before Christ, a vivid, life-accepting people, who must have lived with real fullness. On come the dancers and the music-players, moving in a broad frieze towards the front wall of the tomb, the wall facing us as we enter from the dark stairs, and where the banquet is going on in all its glory. … So that all is colour, and we do not seem to be underground at all, but in some gay chamber of the past.”

 There is such a celebration of life and the pleasures of music, dancing, athletics, and banqueting in the tomb paintings, that Lawrence concluded that the Etruscan could imagine no afterlife that could be happier than life in this world. Many scholars would agree. There also seems to have been an appreciation and love of nature. The activities shown in the frescoes take place in the open air, surrounded by birds, plants, and trees, and often adorned with floral garlands.

Musicians and dancers surrounded by trees and birds, from the Tomb of the Triclinium. Tarquinia. Ca. 480–470 BC.

We can be sure that there was something special about Etruscan society because of the way Greeks and Romans reacted with outrage and disgust at their behaviour. Virgil, Livy and Silius complain of Etruscan cowardice, effeminacy, pride, obsession with divination, and love of luxury. Virgil, in his Aeneid, states that Etruscans are only interested in “serving Venus and Bacchus in sacred banquets where they drink, eat, make love and dance.” The unbridled enjoyment of earthly pleasures was not approved by sober-minded Greeks and Romans. In particular, their detractors were scandalised by the freedom and privilege enjoyed by Etruscan women. Theopompus of Chios, in his Histories, wrote:

“Sharing wives is an established Etruscan custom. Etruscan women take particular care of their bodies and exercise often, sometimes along with the men, and sometimes by themselves. It is not a disgrace for them to be seen naked. They do not share their [banquet] couches with their husbands but with the other men who happen to be present, and they propose toasts to anyone they choose. They are expert drinkers and very attractive. The Etruscans raise all the children that are born, without knowing who their fathers are.”

Of course the first and last allegations are laughable – Etruscan epitaphs regularly name the father and mother of the deceased. And we may detect a sneaking hint of envy when Theopompus notes that the women take good care of their bodies and are “very attractive”. The comment that “Etruscans raise all the children that are born”, however, is significant. Theopompus seems to find this surprising. Most Mediterranean societies at that time often killed their weak, deformed, or unwanted babies, and Theopompus lists this humane eccentricity of the Etruscans along with all the other shocking details.

The banqueting scene in the Tomb of the Leopards clearly shows that men and women socialised as equals. Both wear the same laurel wreaths, indicating equal privilege. Women, whether single or married, were allowed to go where they pleased. They took part in public events, councils, and naked athletics. They rode horses astride, retained their own names on marriage, could inherit property, and had similar rank and legal rights as men. Such things were unheard of in any other society at that time. For misogynistic Greeks and Romans, the proper place for women was in the home, preferably pregnant. Social life was exclusively male – most famously in the Greek symposia which were all-male drinking parties (with learned philosophical discussion of course). Greek men seem to have preferred their teenage boy lovers to their wives, whilst the high number of brothels in Roman towns suggests that at least some Roman men preferred something spicier than their spouses.

Sarcophagus of the Spouses, painted terracotta. Ca. 520–510 BC. (National Etruscan Museum, Rome)

There is perhaps nowhere that the benign gender relations among the Etruscans is more clearly expressed than in sarcophagi. The married couple above, whose remains were interred within the sarcophagus, are portrayed reclining together on a banqueting couch. They seem perfectly contented and at ease with each other. The man’s hand rests lightly on his wife’s shoulder, his index finger pointing to something – perhaps an event in their own funeral games – which his wife seems to be looking at. She gestures as if about to comment. Among all antique sculpture, I find this one of the most attractive. The work was modelled in clay and cut in half for ease of firing, then finally painted in bright colours. This is not portraiture – there is another almost identical sarcophagus, presumably by the same artist, in the Louvre, Paris.

Etruscans were also often cremated and their ashes placed in urns, some shaped like little sarcophagi, others like Etruscan houses. Each tomb was used by an extended family over several generations.

Funerary games from the Tomb of the Augurs. Left to right: the deceased in a purple toga bids farewell to his grieving servants; a man with a crook referees a wrestling match; a masked phersu entangles a blindfolded man holding a club and an attacking animal, perhaps reflecting Orphic or Dionysian mysteries.

Sexual troilism, erotic spanking, and flagellation in the Tomba della Fustigazione (Tomb of the Whipping). Maybe the Etruscans were even more “life accepting” than Lawrence imagined. Such depictions are very common in Greek art but rare in Etruscan art. These may be life-affirming scenes in the context of a funeral, or may have served an apotropaic function to ward off evil. There is also a procession of drunken revellers in this tomb, again suggesting a link to Dionysian mysteries. Ca. 490 BC.

Etruscan funeral games seem to have taken place in a carnival atmosphere with jugglers, acrobats, and drunken revelry. Some of the games were also common to Greece, like wrestling, boxing, and discus throwing, but also included tug-o’-war and climbing a pole (perhaps greasy), not found elsewhere at this time. Some of these games are shown in the tomb of the Augurs, above. Most intriguing is the so-called “phersu game”, which seems to be a blood-letting rite. The man with the bag over his head has a club, whilst the dog or panther has a grab-handle attached to its collar which the man could use to hold off the animal. Roman authors have claimed that they inherited their gladiatorial games – which also began as funeral games – from the Etruscans, but there is no direct evidence of this. The phersu game is more likely to be the origin of the Roman bestiarii, those condemned to be devoured by animals, or who fought them for pay or glory.

It has been suggested that the phersu game is linked to a Dionysian or Orphic mystery cult – and probably with satirical intent, since the pleasure-loving Etruscans seem unlikely to have favoured an ascetic salvation religion like Orphism. The Orphic mysteries in many ways prefigure Christianity, and signal the arrival of the so-called “Axial Age”, which some scholars regard as the major or even the only significant transition in the evolution of human consciousness. More on this later.

Etruscan religion was a form of immanent polytheism – that is, the belief that all things are imbued with divine life, and everything that happens is willed by the gods and can be interpreted by augury. The gods themselves could be placated by offerings and sacrifices. Seneca the Younger (ca. 4 BC-65 AD) contrasted Roman and Etruscan beliefs like this:

Whereas we believe lightning to be released as a result of the collision of clouds, they believe that the clouds collide so as to release lightning: for as they attribute all to deity, they are led to believe not that things have a meaning insofar as they occur, but rather that they occur because they must have a meaning.”

For the Etruscans, everything was meaningful. They were renowned in ancient times for their knowledge of the spiritual world. Romans had a high regard for Etruscan augury, which used the flight of birds, lightening, or the livers of sacrificed animals to predict the future or make important decisions. Long after Etruscan culture had been absorbed into Roman society, the Romans continued to employ traditional Etruscan augers, consulting them on matters of politics and military strategy. One such correctly predicted that Caesar would become a “god”, because lightning struck the letter “C” from his name in an inscription, leaving “aeser”, which is close to “aiser”, the Etruscan word for gods. 

Left: The Chimera of Arezzo. Chimera literally means “she-goat” in Greek. The inscription on the right foreleg indicates this was intended as a votive offering to the god Tinia. Etruscan bronze, 78.5 cm high and 129 cm long (31×51 inches). Ca. 400 BC.  Right: Two winged horses, part of the pediment of the Ara della Regina Temple of Tarquinia. reassembled from over a hundred fragments. The further horse was painted in red ochre and the nearer in yellow ochre. Etruscan terracotta, 1.15 meters high and 1.25 meters wide (3.77×4.1 ft). Ca. 350 BC.

By 100 BC all Etruria was annexed to Rome and by 90 BC Etruscans were granted Roman citizenship. Their frescoes became increasingly Romanised, using chiaroscuro to define form, but lost their former freshness and vitality. By the first century BC, Etruscan art was virtually dead.


Historians generally claim that Etruscan art was influenced by Greek art, but if so they certainly made it their own, and were never mere copyists. Even as Greece was entering its Hellenistic period, some of the few surviving examples of Etruscan non-funerary sculpture compare very favourably with the best Greek work. Greek and Etruscan civilizations developed pretty much in parallel, and since very little Etruscan non-funerary sculpture survives, we cannot be sure how well it compared with Greek sculpture, or to what extent Etruscan artists influenced Greeks. There were flourishing trading relations between Etruria and Greece, and Greek colonies in southern Italy, so mutual influences seem likely. 

In one area in particular – the art of the goldsmith – the Etruscans excelled over anything made in Greece, and indeed almost anything made since. They learned many of their jewellery techniques from Phoenician craftsmen who settled in Etruscan lands and taught their skills to local craftsmen. But the Etruscans, in true Etruscan spirit, took these skills to new heights. Even in the nineteenth century, Castellani, one of the leading jewellery makers in Italy with a famous family lineage, when asked to produce such work, could not equal the Etruscan level of skill even with the advantage of superior modern tools. Researching Italian archives proved fruitless. But eventually they discovered craftsmen in remote Tuscan villages who were still producing similar work, and were then able to copy their methods.

Exquisitely crafted Etruscan gold earrings featuring fine bezel and claw/wire settings, gold repoussé (shaped by hammering from behind), granulation (tiny gold beads fused to a base), and filigree (delicate gold wire tracery).  Left: Ear-stud decorated with a rosette, sirens, lotus-flowers and insets of dark blue vitreous glass paste. Diameter 6.8 cm (2.7 in) Weight: 318 grammes (11.2 oz). 530-480 BC.  Right: Pair of “a bauletto” (“little bag”) type earrings with composite flowers and filigree. 6th-early 5th centuries BC.

Of course what we have been looking at so far is the art of the wealthy and privileged, which raises the question of what life was like for the majority of people. The evidence is scant, but the Greek polymath and ethnographer Posidonius (ca. 135-51 BC) stated that even Etruscan slaves dress luxuriously. Roman authors claimed that they acquired the custom of keeping slaves from the Etruscans. It is not clear whether the Latin servus (slave) is an adequate translation of the Etruscan etera. In tomb paintings, etera are sometimes named along with their wealthy patrons, indicating at least that they were not anonymous. Greek and Roman writers seem generally confused about the relative status of labourers, freed slaves, and true chattel slaves. A few Etruscan records indicate that etera – in contrast to Greek and Roman slaves – could own land and marry into their patron families. On balance, we can conclude that Etruscan society was remarkably egalitarian compared with others around the Mediterranean at that time.

To be continued…