The Etruscans

Next up — mostly because they’re the quickest way to get some material out there, three retro reviews.

This one is from July 15, 2010.

Retro Review: The Etruscans, Michael Grant, 1980, 1997.Etruscans

In his brief introduction to the 1997 edition of this book, Grant noted that nothing truly major had changed in our understanding of the Etruscans between then and the book’s original 1980 appearance. Taking a quick and very layman look at the Wikipedia and other sources on the Internet, that still seems to be true – with the exception of genetic studies that seem to support Herodotus’ contention of an Asia Minor origin for the Etruscans.

However, the whole question of Etruscan origins seems to annoy professional Etruscanologists. Etruscans became Etruscans in Italy regardless of where the people migrated from they argue. Besides, Grant points out the linguistic, logistical, and cultural evidence arguing against accepting Herodotus’ claim of a migration from Lydia forced by famine.

The problem with studying the Etruscans is we have to rely on Roman and Greek sources. Besides badmouthing their morals – particularly the freedom women were allowed, fat Etruscan men, and creating stories of them as perpetual enemies of Rome, they also distorted our view of Etruscan politics and culture. There never was, argues Grant, an Etruscan League in any sense but a group that held periodic religious festivals. Instead, Grant organizes his book around the idea of Etruscan city states. These city states had satellite cities and sometimes warred with each other. They differed in their economic basis – though the wealth of most Etruscan cities was based on iron, copper, and tin which drew trade with Greek cities and the Carthaginians. Their burial customs varied as did the output of their artisans.

However, they were bound together by language and cultural similarities and probably the activity of political adventurers who founded new cities or overthrew the rulers of old ones and formed alliances with Greek colonies and, of course, Rome. The Eternal City itself was under Etruscan kings – for how long is a matter of dispute. The ambitious, most famous Etruscan of all – Lars Porsenna – may have actually taken Rome and set up its first consuls as his clients.

In the first part of the book, Grant lays out the influences that shaped Etruscan art, how villages consolidated into cities in the eighth century BC, and the Etruscan expansion north and south in the Italian peninsula. The second part of the book is a detailed look at the seven major Etruscan city states. Grant covers their art, economic wealth, and history. Particularly interesting are the cities of Clusium, with whom Rome had a long and cordial relationship, and Veii, Rome’s nearest Etruscan neighbor and frequent rival. It was Veii’s destruction at Roman hands in 396 BC that signaled – particularly when other Etruscan cities did not come to its aid – dominance of the peninsula passing from Etruscan to Roman hands.

It would be entirely possible to read just the last chapter, “Summing Up”, and get a pretty good idea of Etruscan history and the problems pinning down their origins as a people if not a culture. The book ends with a four page chronological table showing simultaneous events in Etruria, South Italy and the Greek West, Latium and Rome, North Italy, Greece, and Phoenician and Carthaginian centers.

The book’s maps are particularly good. All the places mentioned in the text – including those outside of Italy – are shown with each Etruscan city state getting its own territorial map. Of special interest, given their importance to Etruscan wealth, security, and trade, are navigable rivers and harbors which no longer exist in modern Italy.

The book’s photos are all black and white, frankly inferior to stuff you can find on the internet. And you can find a lot of the historical and archaeological information there too. But those looking for a concise summary or just admirers of Grant’s lucidity may still want to check this book out.


More reviews of books on Roman history are on the Rome page.

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