When I visited New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art some years ago, the object I found most stunning was the “Monteleone Chariot,” a sixth century Etruscan bronze chariot inlaid with ivory. I stood staring at it, transfixed, long enough for my wife to shuffle her feet impatiently. Still I lingered, dwelling on every detail, especially the panels depicting episodes from the life of Homeric hero Achilles. By that time, I had read The Iliad more than once, and had long been immersed in studies of ancient Greece. How was it then, I wondered, that I could speak knowledgeably about Solon and Pisistratus, but yet know so little about the Etruscans who crafted that chariot in the same century those notables walked the earth?
Long before anyone had heard of the Romans, city-states of Etruria dominated the Italian peninsula—and, along with Carthage and a handful of Greek poleis—the central Mediterranean, as well. Later, Rome would absorb, crush or colonize all of them. In the case of the Etruscans, it was to be a little of each. And somehow, somewhat incongruously, over the millennia Etruscan civilization—or at least what the living, breathing Etruscans would have recognized as such—has been lost to us. But not lost in the way we usually think of “lost civilizations,” like Teotihuacan, for instance, or the Indus Valley, where what remains are ruins of a vanished culture that disappeared from living memory, an undeciphered script, and even the uncertain ethnicity of its inhabitants. The Etruscans, on the other hand, were never forgotten, their alphabet can be read although their language largely defies translation, and their DNA lingers in at least some present-day Italians. Yet, by all accounts they are nevertheless lost, and tantalizingly so.
Such a conundrum breeds frustration, of course: Romans supplanted the Etruscans but hardly exterminated them. Moreover, unlike other civilizations deemed “lost to history,” the Etruscans appear in ancient texts going as far back as Hesiod. There are also hundreds of excavated tombs, rich with decorative art and grave goods, the latter top-heavy with Greek imports they clearly treasured. So how can we know so much about the Etruscans and at the same time so little? Fortunately, Lucy Shipley, who holds a PhD in Etruscan archaeology, comes to a rescue of sorts with her well-written, delightful contribution to the scholarship, entitled simply The Etruscans, a volume in the digest-sized Lost Civilization series published by Reaktion Books.
Most Etruscan studies are dominated by discussions of the ancient sources and—most prominently—the tombs, which are nothing short of magnificent. But where does that lead us? Herodotus references the Etruscans, as does Livy. But are the sources reliable? Rather dubious, as it turns out. Herodotus may be a dependable chronicler of the Hellenes, but anyone who has read his comically misguided account of Egyptian life and culture is aware how far he can stray from reality. And Roman authors such as Livy routinely trumped a decidedly negative perspective, most evident in disdainful memories of the unwelcome semi-legendary Etruscan kings that are said to have ruled Rome until the overthrow of “Tarquin the Proud” in 509 BCE.
Then there are the tombs. Attempts to extrapolate what ancient life was like from the art that decorates the tombs of the dead—awe inspiring as it may be—can present a distorted picture (pun fully intended!) that ignores all but the wealthiest elite slice of the population. Much like Egyptology’s one-time obsession for pyramids and the pharaoh’s list tended to obscure the no less interesting lives of the non-royal—such as those of the workers who collected daily beer rations and left graffiti within the walls of pyramids they constructed—the emphasis on tombs that is standard to Etruscan studies reveals little of the lives of the vast majority of ordinary folks that peopled their world.
Shipley neatly sidesteps these traditional traps by failing to be constrained by them. Instead, she relies on her training as an archaeologist to ask questions: what do we know about the Etruscans and how do we know it? And, perhaps more critically: what don’t we know and why don’t we know it? In the process, she brings a surprisingly fresh look to an enigmatic people in a highly readable narrative suitable to both academic and popular audiences. Arranged thematically rather than chronologically, the author selects a specific artifact or site for each chapter to serve as a visual trigger for the discussion. Because Shipley is so talented with a pen, it is worth pausing to let her explain her methodology in her own words:
Why focus on the archaeology? Because it is the very materiality, the physicality, the toughness and durability of things and the way they insidiously slip and slide into every corner of our lives that makes them so compelling … We are continually making and remaking ourselves, with the help of things. I would argue that the past is no different in this respect. It’s through things that we can get at the people who made, used and ultimately discarded them—their projects of self-production are as wrapped up in stuff as our own. And always, wrapped up in these things, are fundamental questions about how we choose to be in the world, questions that structure our actions and reactions, questions that change and challenge how we think and what we feel. Questions and objects—the two mainstays of human experience. [p19-20]
Shipley’s approach succeeds masterfully. Because many of these objects—critical artifacts for the archaeologist but often also spectacular works of art for the casual observer—are rendered in full color in this striking edition, the reader is instantly hooked: effortlessly chasing the author’s captivating prose down a host of intriguing rabbit holes in pursuit of answers to the questions she has mated with these objects. Along the way, she showcases the latest scholarship with a concise treatment of a broad range of topics informed by the kind of multi-disciplinary research that defines twenty-first century historical inquiry.
This includes DNA studies of both cattle and human populations in an attempt to resolve the long debate over Etruscan origins. While Herodotus and legions of other ancient and modern detectives have long pointed to legendary migrations from Anatolia, it turns out that the Etruscans are likely autochthonous, speaking a pre-Indo European language that may possibly be related to the one spoken by Ötzi, the mummified iceman, thousands of years ago. Shipley also takes the time to explain how it is that we can read enough of the Etruscan alphabet to decipher proper names while remaining otherwise frustrated in efforts aimed at meaningful translation. Much that we identify as Roman was borrowed from Etruria, but as Rome assimilated the Etruscans over the centuries, their language was left behind. Later, Etruscan literature—like all too much of the classical world—fell victim to the zeal of early Christians in campaigns to purge any remnants of paganism. Most offensive in this regard were writings that described the practices of the “haruspex,” a specialist who sought to divine the future by examining the livers of sacrificial animals, an Etruscan ritual later integrated into Roman religious practices. Texts of haruspices appear prominently in the “hit lists” drawn up by Christian thinkers Tertullian and Arnobius.
My favorite chapter is entitled “Super Rich, Invisible Poor,” which highlights the inevitable distortion that results from the attention paid to the exquisite art and grave goods of the wealthy elite at the expense of the sizeable majority of the inhabitants of a dozen city-states comprised of numerous towns, villages and some larger cities with populations thought to number in the tens of thousands. Although, to be fair, this has hardly been deliberate: there remains a stark scarcity in the archaeological record of the teeming masses, so to speak. While it may smack of the cliché, the famous aphorism “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” should be triple underscored here! The Met’s Monteleone Chariot, originally part of an elaborate chariot burial, makes an appearance in this chapter, but perhaps far more fascinating is a look at the great complex of workshops at a site called Poggio Civitate, more than a hundred miles from Monteleone, where skilled craftspeople labored to produce a whole range of goods in the same century that chariot was fashioned. But what of those workers? There seemed to be no trace of them. You can clearly detect the author’s delight as she describes recent excavations that uncovered remains of a settlement that likely housed them. Shipley returns again and again to her stated objective of connecting the material culture to the living Etruscans who were once integral to it.
Another chapter worthy of superlatives is “Sex, Lives and Etruscans.” While it is tempting to impose modern notions of feminism on earlier peoples, Etruscan women do seem to have had claimed lives of far greater independence than their classical contemporaries in Greece and Rome. And there are also compelling hints at an openness in sexuality—including wife-sharing—that horrified ancient observers who nevertheless thrilled in recounting licentious tales of wicked Etruscan behavior! Shipley describes tomb art that depicts overt sex acts with multiple partners, while letting the reader ponder whether legendary accounts of Etruscan profligacy are given to hyperbole or not.
In addition to beautiful illustrations and an engaging narrative, this volume also features a useful map, a chronology, recommended reading, and plenty of notes. It is rare that any author can so effectively tackle a topic so wide-ranging in such a compact format, so Shipley deserves special recognition for turning out such an outstanding work. The Etruscans rightly belongs on the shelf of anyone eager to learn more about a people who certainly made a vital contribution to the history of western civilization.
Monteleone Chariot photo credit: Image is in public domain. More about the Monteleone Chariot here: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/247020
I reviewed other books in the Lost Civilizations series here: