The Etruscans are, for all their great cultural influence on the Romans, a poorly understood people. We know they once dominated northern Italy and much of its western coast and that they interacted extensively with not only the Romans but also many other native Italic tribes in the 1st milennium BC. Some of this contact is reflected linguistically: the modern English word “person,” deriving from Latin persona, entered the Latin language from Etruscan phersu; and some is reflected culturally: many of the trappings of the Roman monarchy that would gain broader significance in Republican Rome and beyond, like the fasces, had Etruscan sources. (The fasces are a bundle of rods and an axe signifying powers of c0rporal punishments, a symbol that has had a lively political and intellectual history. They can be found on US currency and other seals. Also, the modern idea of fascism is related.)
One of the problems in investigating the Etruscans is the almost total lack of Etruscan literature. Although around 10,000 Etruscan inscriptions survive today, the vast majority of these are short and formulaic, meaning we can increase our Etruscan and grammatical understanding only very little through their study. The far and away longest extant inscription, the “Zagreb text” is only about 1200 words; the writings are on a piece of cloth found around an Egyptian mummy. Even this text cannot yield more than 500 or so words, once one discards unreadable or duplicated words. As the majority of these words are hapax legomena (words appearing only once in the language) because they do not show up in other inscriptions, we can only guess in a general way at their significance. The next largest text is only 300 words; after that, 150 words. The difficulty is clear, I think! (For more info, see Emeline Richards, “An Archaeological Introduction to the Etruscan Language.”
Most of the direct evidence about the Etruscans, then, comes to us through archaeology. In particular, Etruscan graves have furnished most of what we know about their culture. There are some problems even here. Tomb robberies and hasty excavations over the centuries have left many tombs completely bare of grave goods or opened them to environmental decay. When we do know where the artifacts are to be found, we rarely know in which particular tombs they were found or in what layout. Nevertheless, analyzing these tomb remnants and especially the frescoes that in some tombs is still the best way of accessing Etruscan culture that we have. A great collection of many of these Etruscan artifacts can be found at the Villa Giulia, an erstwhile Pope’s home now serving as a museum for Etruscan relics.
Recently, I had the chance to visit some of the surviving Etruscan tombs in Tarquinia and Cerveteri (ancient Caere). I thought I would share some of the pictures I took from the tombs; the first few below painted tombs, which begin cropping up around the 6th century; these were all taken in tombs around Tarquinia. The last couple are pictures of the tumuli (burial mounds) at the necropolis near Cerveteri. Both of these cities are within a couple hours’ drive north of Rome.
To start, the image at the top of this post is of everybody’s favorite cyclops, Polyphemus. Polyphemus is most well known for his appearance in Homer’s Odyssey, where he nearly kills Odysseus before Odysseus puts his eye out and escapes. This scene is actually an image of this blinding; notice the sharpened stake. Also note the Etruscan word “CUCLU” (= cyclops) written at the top (from right to left) labeling the scene. This is an image from the Etruscan tomb known as the “Tomb of Orcus.”
Below is another image from this same tomb, of a winged blue Etruscan demon. He’s probably not too nice. This tomb dates from the 3rd century BC. Interestingly, around this time Etruscan tombs began to portray increasingly dark imagery in their frescoes, like Polyphemus’s violent blinding above and this savage guy here. Some speculate that this reflects a deep pessimism among the Etruscans about their future as a distinct culture under Roman rule.
Two more images below from this same tomb; on the left, Geryon, the three-headed giant; and on the right, Agamemnon (perhaps most well known for his central role in Homer’s Iliad). Note the plant with small bodies hanging off of it; this was the Etruscans’ way of representing the awful stench of a species of plant.
Also check out the Tomb of the Leopards and the Tomb of the Bacchants. The Tomb of the Leopards is named for its apotropaic (= warding off evil) images of leopards along the top of the back wall. The Tomb of the Bacchants also has apotropaic imagery, but this time in the form of Bacchic revelers dancing about the sides of the tomb. There are also images of big cats in the Tomb of the Bacchants: twin lions kill deer on the back wall, heightening the “natural frenzy” of the moment.
As mentioned, all of the painted tombs in these photographs come from Tarquinia. Below, you can check out a couple of pictures of the necropolis at Cerveteri (ancient Caere). The first shows the “Via di Inferi” (Road of the Dead), the central path leading among the tumuli. The second image was taken from on top of a particularly large tumulus, and shows the verdure of the area. Here is a picture of the front of a tumulus.