September 2019. The Enigma of Etruscan Genealogy.


The Enigma of Etruscan Genealogy

The position of our small hamlet, seemingly dumped outside the city walls, has given cause for an inquisitive interest on the part of foreigners. People sometimes ask if it’s strange living in what has unkindly been described as an ‘urban Golgotha’, an epigrammatical variant of Necropolis, the Greek city of the dead. It has its moments, but after being abandoned for six centuries no one’s been discovered changing the flowers on any plot. Whether Etruscan bones still lie through those vicissitudes of fortune “which buries empires and cities in a common grave”, as Gibbon succinctly noted, I have not turned a spade to discover, though I’m assured plenty have.

After three thousand years and a penchant for cremation, an absence of any body parts was less likely to spook the tombaroli, or grave robber, who generally trashed the place leaving the archaeologist to make a tidier, if no less thorough, job of it. Both had a lamentable effect on what should have been a last lodging for these anonymous people, though the more pious among us consider this accommodation only a temporary inconvenience before passing on to a better place. As such, it seems improbable as a starting point from which a civilization came into being, let alone to an end. That is the problem with trying to pin down the Etruscan lineage, seemingly arriving and disappearing senza cerimonie, as the Italians so dismissively say. Historians need a peg to hang a jacket on, and the illusive Etruscans refuse to oblige us with even a rudimentary coat hanger.

“So, what’s the point?” you might ask. Hasn’t such an interest driven ‘Uncle Tom Cobley and all’ to turf the ceremonial ashes out of countless sarcophagi in an attempt to prove one theory or another, all without the faintest hint of success. At which point I confess, not being an archaeologist I have no particular axe to grind, only that inquisitiveness shared by those who have spent too long with their nose in history books expecting enlightenment. Being an inquisitive sort of fellow, and much enamoured of a good mystery, the illusive plot of how, or even if, such an elusive people as the Etruscans turned a nice tourist spot into a mythological Utopia, seemed to me to be worth the enquiry. After all, I’d parked myself smack bang in their front parlour, not as a postulant knocking on the front door, but a fully paid up member of the fraternity, owning a patch of their particular turf. Most of the signposts indicating how you can arrive at a possible explanation to this conundrum can be found in numerous tomes, but they tend to be less than unanimous, and lead to all sorts of disputable arguments. Best to locate what seem to be the unanimous relevant points, so they can be arranged in an orderly fashion. Therefore, this being so, I’m not going to be so ostentatious as to present a meal, only set out the meagre ingredients of my interest, and hope they provide the suggestion for a recipe.

To begin, the eperts and the not so expert, generally skirting round a civilization’s genesis, will mention the Twelve City States of Etruria, the so called dodecapoli, though there is no official or historical record of where or who they were. That leaves one with the formula based on scale: ‘the bigger the better’, and they didn’t come any bigger than Volterra, a city cradling whole farms inside the five and a half miles of Cyclopean walls that once surrounded it. (I use the past tense as the Medici reduced the size of the city to avoid any future military hanky-panky!) Considerable traces can still be seen here and there, allowing a perception of how ‘big was big’, keeping in mind that the Necropolis was placed outside the city walls. So if you’re on a visit, try walking from the city centre to the site, and don’t believe the locals when they tell you “It’s just down the road!” Anyway, a ‘city’ seems to be a tad premature for c. three thousand years ago. People don’t just pop out of the ground and say, “Right. This is it.” They have to come from somewhere, allowing the historical sleuth to contemplate clues that are in effect, and will remain, only assumptions.

The first conceivable real hint we can find is an Aegean one. There are some very exact similarities, not all on the surface, and perhaps it is better for the moment to say palpable influences rather than positive truths. If we fix the Etruscan appearance at 900BC, then any external influence must have pre-dated that by, say, 300 years or more; c.1200BC, in which case, contemporary with Mycenaean Athens, and conveniently perhaps, for the Dorian invasion that was taking place about that time. Trying to fix the time scale of so distant an event with imperfect resources can only lead to an imprecise chronology, so accept these as only advisory at best. During this period the whole of the Mediterranean area was in a continual and violent flux seeing huge movements of states and, importantly, people. The Doric races, doing most of the pushing, were the bullyboys of the age, emanating from possibly Macedonia and Epirus in the far north of modern Greece. They had two important characteristics – they spoke a language recognisably Greek, and they possessed the atomic weapon of their day, iron. These two points are of some moment; a proposition we will need to return to shortly. So then, might the Etruscans be an offshoot of the Dorians by any chance? It’s a tempting conclusion except the Dorians in recorded history were far short of any intellectual attributes when compared with the cultured Mycenaean’s, or the scant, but highly civilized remains, the Etruscan’s have left. But were they always so? Civilizations develop like a tree, from a seed to a solid trunk with many branches.

Our earliest glimpse of a recognisably Etruscan people seems to be on the Egyptian borders c.1200BC, then being penetrated by the Libyans who had allies in the form of maritime adventurers called Teresh or Tyrenians. There are some interesting aspects in this suggestion: The later Etruscan’s were a great maritime power; they used Durum wheat of a type found in the Nile Delta to make Pici, an early pasta; and they adopted an Egyptian architectural detail found in a number of southern Etruscan tomb doorways of canting the architrave stiles towards the top lintel. Make something of this if you wish, but it’s probably premature, if not considered archaeologically, a tad precocious.

I suggest we step back again towards the Athenian sphere of influence with its similar contemporary comings and goings of invasions and immigration, and consider the prevalent Greek practice of setting up new colonies throughout the Mediterranean world. The historical and mythological sagas of the Trojan wars make it very easy to understand the scale of disruption that was taking place between the Greek and Anatolian peninsulas. Almost everywhere we find a Doric immigrant colony somewhere in the Aegean having displaced the resident Mycenaean population and their king with one of Doric aristocratic archons, magistrates who were the sole source of power. Such a fused benign environment, physically and then socially successful, will see the population expand too rapidly over the centuries to be supported on the land allotted to them. The new Greek world seems to have controlled this burgeoning population by the means of colonization from the 12th century onwards, dictating small groups take their hybrid culture, and their diverse prototype Greek languages, to settle in any of the Mediterranean lands they came across. How much this was necessitated by a democratic system becoming unworkable due to every male over twenty years of age taking part in public life, with large minorities being frustrated by results and thus becoming ungovernable, has also been postulated. It may explain why these satellite colonies developed a different political system to the classical Athenian democracy. A body of these came to southern Italy, creating a zone called Magna Graecia. Later waves of Greek migrants had penetrated by the 8th century as far as Massalia in France. There is; therefore, no reason why a Doric/Tyrenian off shoot could not have done the same, coming ashore on the coast of Latium and spreading out to the north and east colonizing what is now Umbria and Tuscany. But can such a plausible case be made for such a scenario?

In this theory there is but one fly in the ointment. In 1897 the discovery of a Neolithic tomb c.2300 BC on the northern slope of Montebradoni, a small hamlet on the outskirts of Volterra, and within the area of the Necropolis, suggested there was an earlier resident population, coming to be known as Villanovan. To use another metaphor, this provided something of an archaeological red herring, as it doesn’t link itself in a continuum to this indigenous population and that of a mysterious race that appeared four hundred years later. The evidence is particularly slight, at best. However, in the circumstances, one can surmise that the extant evidence is weighted heavily towards the earlier Villanovan people being displaced by Doric colonists, probably, but not necessarily violently, as it was just as likely to be a gradual absorption of different ethnic groups similar to that of modern European countries. One significant indication for this inclination is the Villanovan seems to have lived in primitive wooden huts protected by earthworks and ditches unlike the massive stone defences of the Etruscans, which have obvious eastern origins and tends to promote a quite different culture. Of what they left behind, Villanovan pottery appears a local marginal artisan activity and had none of the sophisticated variety found in Etruscan ware heavily influenced by Greek culture. More tellingly they were an agricultural people with no activity connected to the sea, a powerful factor inherent in the Etruscan people who were an advanced, marine orientated, economic trading society.

For further reflections on the nature of this society we must turn to the organisational structure of the Etruscans, and a supposed Doric genealogy for a more supportive concrete foundation. The political constitution of post Mycenaean Greece, and of early Italy, was entirely municipal – the cities were states and the citizens were soldiers. Their governments bore a slight resemblance to a federal republic having a distinct sovereignty yet forming part of a League. In some respects it appeared like a prototype United States of America. But not very much. Given its link to the Doric system of government, the Etruscan state was similarly an aristocracy, not a monarchy, and appears to have been both political and ecclesiastical, one where the princes were also priests. Power was wholly in the hands of a caste of priestly nobles, and the people had no voice in government. Any images left behind are of a wealthy ruling class and not of the ordinary citizen. One is reminded of a mediaeval northern Europe that was feudal, comprising of serfs not slaves – a plebeian population, servile and proletarian. However, the state must have functioned on two levels with the underclass of goldsmiths, masons, bakers, carpenters, shepherds and farmers able to carry on something that resembled a normal life, when they weren’t being soldiers. This provides a more realistic aspect of society deducted from the historical evidence, and might stand for any of the Etruscan cities. It also suggests a period slightly before the rise of Classical Greece.

Can we add anything else? Well, I’ve mentioned iron and language. The former provides a very persuasive clue in that the coastal Etruscan city of Populonia consisted of a vast number of beehive furnaces for smelting copper from inland sites such as Volterra, and iron ore from the island of Elba. An industry that appears to have been initiated almost simultaneously with this colonization, and lasted for nearly a thousand years from the birth to the eclipse of the Etruscan civilization. The question of language on the other hand, is something of a mystery. We have examples in “geological literature” inscribed on stones in a script that resembles the Pelasgic, but a precise meaning remains unknown. Their custom was to write from right to left suggesting an analogy to Phoenician, a style known to exist in Campania introduced by the Doric colonists. Virtually the only physically specific clue is clear enough, though parked like headlights in a thick fog. A pair of ivory dice are inscribed on each face with the respective number: Mach; Thu; Zal; Huth; Ki; Sa, instead of the conventional dots. But which is one, and which is six, etc? Zachari Matani in his interesting book, ‘The Etruscans Begin To Speak?, has noted the similarity to ancient Albanian which further suggests a Doric link.

Architecture should provide some sort of focus for a city, but the only Etruscan built constructions that remain are bits of wall and tombs, hardly substantial like the Roman Forum or the Acropolis of Athens to ponder over. But tombs can offer clues all the same, nothing concrete (pun intended), yet signposts that can indicate a way. Pottery can be decorated: have a style, may bear incised lettering, figures representing ordinary people or gods. Metals can designate age: a movement from copper to bronze; beaten or cast, soldered or riveted. If the conditions are right then fresco wall paintings nearly always contain powerful images of the type of people who created them. Each has a place in time that can provide some of the answers archaeologists are looking for. We’ll deal with the squint later. Wall paintings need a stable environment so geology plays a large part in the practice, by no means ubiquitous in Tuscany. As an example from another time and place one can do no better than the Middle Minoan period of Crete where the celebrated piece is a fresco fragment entitled La Parisienne. She is the very type of sophisticated young woman with long black curly hair, large haunting dark eyes, full red lips and turned up ‘retroussé’ nose. She is a Cretan woman, not quite Greek, more middle-eastern. Vivacious comes to mind, something that can equally describe her Etruscan ‘sisters’, one discovered in Veii with the large eyes and voluptuous eager face, another in the Tomba dei Giocolieri again with big eyes, red lips and long black flowing hair, and yet another, a wonderfully modern woman, with big dark eyes, from Falerri Veteres. All these, in some part, seem to indicate an eastern Minoan origin.

In which case Sarcophagi might also seem an alternative place to look, along with a caveat. Many of these large stone coffins are adorned with sculptures representing the deceased, so it seems reasonable to assume that even a bad likeness would carry some ethnographic evidence to assist in identifying a racial type. Yet I think not, as in all examples of representative art a change takes place over time when new influences are introduced both in the plastic arts and nature’s own genetic synthesis. Having said that, the staid Roman “Mother in Law” found in many tombs provide as genuine an image of an Etruscan lady as the eastern Etruscan beauties. However, the type of figure found on, for example, the “Sarcofago degli Sposi”, that of husband and wife, found at Cerveteri, and also in numerous statues with facial similarities to “Appolo di Veio” from Veii, at least once again suggest a definitive and provincial eastern type existed in Tuscany during earlier times.

So there you have it. The first chapter in a nation’s book, suggesting the Etruscan origin lies somewhere among a settled Dorian people on one of the small scattered islands lying in the Aegean Sea. A last chapter might appear to be just as puzzling, but may be mirrored in the demise of Italian states during the Sixteenth century, not least because of the unbridgeable gap between the ruling group of elites and the common folk. The former could no longer count on the loyalty of their subjects, and thus were unable to defend their interests. It would be a perfect analogy for the fall of the Etrurian nation when it came to counter the rising Roman power.