The Elusive Etruscans

Recently, while excavating piles of my research on various topics, I unearthed some photos from a vacation in Tuscany back in 2002. These photos were of an Etruscan tomb just outside Castellina in Chianti.

The site was simple and unassuming, but it had a great impact on my imagination, so much so that I used it in some parts of Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra. On that trip, I started to learn more about the Etruscans who inhabited the Italian peninsula from roughly the Tiber to the Arno rivers and beyond, to the Po valley and Bologna.

Going into the Etruscan tomb at Castellina in Chianti

So, my interest rekindled, I thought I would write a quick post on this fascinating people.

Not a great deal is known about the Etruscans, and I am by no means an expert, but from what I have seen and read, it’s a very interesting topic. Anyone who has studied ancient Greece and Rome will have had some contact with the Etruscans; the Greeks traded with them and were a great influence on Etruscan art and lifestyle, and Rome itself was ruled by Etruscan kings who brought that little backwater village by the Tiber out of the mud with a dash of civilization. In Tuscany itself, there are many sites where one can find remains of Etruscan civilization, places such as Cerveteri, Veii, Tarquinia, Volsinii, Volterra, Vulci and Arezzo.

Interior of an Etruscan tomb

Much of what is known about the Etruscans and their lifestyle comes from their tombs where elaborate paintings of banquets and sporting events such as the Olympics have been found. Many grave goods have been found in the tombs and there is an excellent collection of finds at the Archaeological Museums of Bologna and Florence.

The Etruscans traded a great deal, and so had much contact with the Greeks from other parts of Italy, Sicily and mainland Greece. The walls of the tombs depict chariot races and elaborate banqueting scenes with diners reclining on couches, drinking wine from kraters and being entertained by musicians. The scene is like many an ancient Greek depiction with one marked difference: in Etruscan art, women were shown dining right alongside the men, drinking wine and enjoying conversation. This would have been scandalous to an ancient Greek, as women the other side of the Ionian sea were not permitted to be in attendance at banquets or symposia.

Etruscan tomb of large family from Volterra

The Etruscans had their own rich culture and this is reflected in much of their bronze artwork and pottery. While some of it resembled ancient Greek art, or indeed was Greek art acquired through trade, much of it is quite unique. An excellent example of this is the famous bronze Chimera of Arezzo on display at the Florence Archaeological Museum.

Chimera of Arezzo

There is much debate about the origin of the Etruscans in Italy with no consensus yet in sight. Some believe the Etruscans were an indigenous people, others that they came from Lydia in Asia Minor. As far as the Roman scene was concerned, the line of Etruscan kings began circa 616 B.C. with the reign of Tarquin the Elder who was a Corinthian Greek named Lucumo who lived in Tarquinia and married an Etruscan woman named Tanaquil. The two were shunned for a mixed marriage and so moved to the growing centre of Rome where Tarquin became the fifth king of Rome.

The Etruscans were famous for their understanding of augury and prophecy, religious practices which would be widely used in Roman life for hundreds of years. Etruscan augurs would read portents and the will of the gods in animal entrails and organs, and this skill impressed the Romans. The Etruscans not only complemented Roman religious practices, but also helped to improve Roman building practices and it is to them that the Romans owe their talent for building aqueducts and sewers.

Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri

At the peak of their power and influence, the Etruscans were the dominant people of central Italy. They were however, never a truly unified nation and, like the Greeks who had influenced them and traded with them, their city-states never stopped fighting amongst themselves. With the Romans growing in strength and skill to the South, and the Celts expanding in the North, the Etruscans were in a superbly unenviable position and could not hold sway for long.

The last Etruscan king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, who according to Livy took the throne by force and ruled through fear, was narrowly defeated in a series of battles between Etruscan allies and the Romans, led by Lucius Iunius Brutus. Many died on both sides, but Tarquin lived through the day and, though no longer King of Rome, lived out his days in exile in Tusculum. The wheels had been set in motion and Rome had become a Republic.

Tarquin the Proud (Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, when I walked into the cypress-crowned tomb outside Castellina in Chianti years ago, I knew nothing of Etruscan history, nor how fascinating it really is. This short blog post is a tiny scratch on the surface, a mere taste – there is so much more to learn. There are not many books (fiction or non-fiction) on the subject, at least not in English. As far as historical fiction/fantasy, two great reads are Steven Saylor’s Roma, part of which takes place during Rome’s infancy, and the other book is Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderfully woven tale, Lavinia, which looks at the mythical foundation of Rome with the arrival of Aeneas after the Trojan War.

Winged horses from Tarquinia

If you ever find yourself in Italy, I highly recommend the archaeological museums of Florence and Bologna where you can see Etruscan artefacts for yourselves, and it goes without saying that visits to the archaeological sites mentioned are well worth the adventure. Just remember that snakes, as well as tourists, like nothing more than a dark, damp tomb in summer time.

Thank you for reading.

*If anyone has a favourite source for information on the Etruscans, please do share it in the comments below so that everyone can check it out!

 

Etruscan tomb fresco from Tarquinia (c. 400) – Greeks fighting Amazons

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

The World of Children of Apollo – Part V – Etruria

Chianty Region

In the previous installment we visited Rome, the centre of the world when the Roman Empire was at its greatest extent. We will now leave that ancient city for an even more ancient landscape. What we know today as Tuscany, the central and western region of Italy, was then part of the larger central Italian kingdom of Etruria. This region plays a large role in Children of Apollo, as it is the ancestral land of Lucius Metellus Anguis’ family. For them, the family estate is a place of childhood memory, of escape, and of mystery. Their roots run deep in that ancient land.

Chimera of Arezzo

Chimera of Arezzo

I won’t go into detail about the history of the Etruscans here, suffice it to say that Etruscan culture was the dominant and more advanced culture in the Italian peninsula around 650 B.C. Their realm included not only modern Tuscany, but also Umbria, Latium, and Emilia-Romagna. Indeed Etruscan kings ruled Rome itself until about 509 B.C. when the last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was expelled from Rome by Lucius Junius Brutus, who led the uprising. With the rape of Lucretia by the king’s son, Sextus Tarquinius, Etruscan kingship in Rome ended.

Etruscan Tomb interior

Etruscan Tomb interior

However, the Etruscans left a legacy and influence over the Roman people, other than a hatred of kingship. The Etruscan kings were also responsible for much of Rome’s architecture and religious practices. Etruscan artwork too is stunning, and though it had a great deal of Hellenic influence due to trade with Greece, it has a style all its own, be it the massive bronze burial urns, the elaborately painted tombs, or the magnificent Chimera of Arezzo. To see a magnificent collection of Etruscan artefacts, the archaeological museum in Bologna is a definite must.

Etrurian Vineyards

Etrurian Vineyards

History aside for a moment, the thing that inspired me most about Tuscany (I’ll use the modern name now) was the countryside. I am deeply influenced in my writing by physical surroundings and Tuscany, particularly the Chianti Classico region where I spent some time and where part of the book is set, left a definite mark. Not to dissuade anyone from visiting Florence or Siena, those two medieval adversaries. I thoroughly enjoyed walking the streets of both, eating bruschetta and gelato between museum and market stops. It’s a magnificent region to visit.

Radda in Chianti

Radda in Chianti

Heading into the countryside between Florence and Siena, leaving the world of the Medicis and tourist throngs behind, was a very special experience. I had expected a drier landscape my first time there, rocky and hot, similar to the Peloponnese or southern Italy. It was anything but. Tuscany was lush, quite hilly and tree-clad. The weather went from sun to storm quickly and then back to sun. Amid acres of vineyards where my favourite wine is made (Chianti, of course!), are castles and medieval towns where they still take siesta and where you can enter a cellar (there is a great one in Radda) to purchase bottles of magnificent wine, cheese and the best wild boar sausage you’ve ever had. And the bread, did I mention the bread? For those of you who are interested, you can rent a villa in Tuscany for a very good price, and it’s well worth it.

Chianti Classico Region

Chianti Classico Region

After having driven around Chianti, I knew I had to set part of the book there. The Metellus family villa is, of course, fictional. However, the look and feel are real. The villa itself is a typical villa rustica, an open air villa in the countryside, usually at the centre of an agricultural estate, as it is in the book. It was not uncommon for many noble Roman families to have countryside estates outside of Rome to which they could escape for leisure, or in times of crisis. These were often handed down generation to generation.

Etruscan tomb interior - Castellina in Chianti

Etruscan tomb interior – Castelina in Chianti

Up the mountain from the Metellus villa and outbuildings, is another tie to the family, something linking them to their Etruscan roots. In a part of the book, Lucius’ younger brother Quintus finds out a terrible family secret when he overhears a conversation in the tomb at the top of the mountain. Without giving too much away, this turns the young boy’s life upside down. The setting for the tomb of the Metellus family ancestors was inspired by the Etruscan tomb just outside of Castelina in Chianti. The tomb is quite unassuming on the outside, a large green mound topped by cypress trees which were often associated with the necropolis and rites for the dead in ancient times. The tomb is entered via stone-lined corridors with small chambers to either side. If you do go in, look out for snakes! It’s nice and cool inside.

Ipogeo Etrusco de Montecalvario (6th century B.C.)

Ipogeo Etrusco de Montecalvario (6th century B.C.)

There is more I could say about this beautiful landscape but really, there is no substitute for actually going there. For a great price, you can rent a refurbished medieval stone villa in amongst the vineyards and eat at a different restaurant in a different village every night. Enjoy wine and food (try the Trattoria Grotta della Rana in San Sano) and afterward walk along a small road flanked by olive groves on one side and grape vines on the other. Watch snakes and lizards skitter across dusty, sun-soaked lanes lined by sleek cypresses, and listen to all manner of birdsong in the hills. Most of all, enjoy the history of the land on which you are walking and savour the fact that it has not changed all that much since the Etruscan chariots thundered across the valleys.

In the next instalment of The World of Children of Apollo, we will head south, along the coast, to ancient Cumae and the cave of the Sybil.

Thank you for reading.

apollofinal

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest