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Etruscan Sarcophagi: A Forgotten Tragedy Told in Death

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An Etruscan bridge in Vulci, Italy bears testament to the capabilities of a commonly forgotten group of people.

An Etruscan bridge in Vulci, Italy bears testament to the capabilities of a commonly forgotten group of people.

Two of the most famous and powerful groups of people to ever live were arguably the Greeks and the Romans. In fact, they were so impressive that the small cities in Northern Italy inhabited by the Etruscans during the same time as the Greeks go virtually unnoticed. The Greeks and their idealistic and veritably perfect art influenced the Romans and still influence Western culture today. Their impressive art and architecture, from the Acropolis to Venus De Milo, rose and fell from roughly 900 BCE to 30 BCE and was easily matched in innovation and skill by the Romans until about 337 CE and the rise of early Christianity.

These two ancient civilizations appear at first to overshadow the stories and works of the Etruscans. The dramatic artwork and engineering marvels that constitute Roman and Greek architecture seem to far outpace that of the Etruscan's. However, the story of the Etruscans is just as fascinating as that of the Greeks or Romans and the tale of the tragedy of the Etruscans that can be traced in their sarcophagi is breathtaking.

History of the Etruscans: The Beginning

The Etruscans, who referred to themselves as the Rasenna, were a mysterious people and much of their culture is still shrouded in debate. Their exact origins are unknown, but scholars believe they may have come from Lydia, in Asia Minor, and others believe they were perhaps native Italians all along. The Greeks called them Tyrrhenians and largely left them to their own devices since they posed no threat. Unbounded, the Etruscans peacefully made their homes north of modern day Rome, in hills that still bear the name Tuscany. For the most part, the people of Tusci were seafarers and dealt in prosperous trade, each Etruscan city cooperating with one another, despite the lack of any political leader. Connection to one another was based primarily on beliefs and a common language.

The Sarcophagus with Reclining Couple from Cerveteri, Italy.

The Sarcophagus with Reclining Couple from Cerveteri, Italy.

Period One: Peace

There are two noticeable periods when considering Etruscan art and sculpture. At first, Etruscan life was peaceful and the people lived and died in harmony. Their lives were celebrated and they went to their graves in intricate sarcophagi. Their afterlife was a place of riches and further happiness. Unlike other societies of the same day, the Etruscans provided the same freedoms to women as to men. Etruscan women joined their husbands at banquets and public functions and could own property. The sarcophagus to the right is one of the most famed demonstrations of this peaceful period in Etruscan history, and also gives insight into how Etruscan's lived.

Called the Sarcophagus with Reclining Couple (names vary slightly), this large terracotta structure showcases a married couple enjoying a few quiet moments together on a couch. Terracotta was arguably the most popular medium used by the Etruscans, forming the majority of their statues and sculptures. Found in Cerveteri in Italy, this sarcophagus displays the Etruscan love of gestures and emotion. Unlike the less emotional Greek art that was being produced at the time, Etruscan's focused on facial expressions above correct proportions, which was incredibly important to Greeks. The man can be seen smiling and reaching a loving arm up to his wife's hair while she examines what archaeologists believe was once an egg or other similar present from her husband.

The Greeks were a bit shocked by the Etruscans, and it's not hard to see why. Greek culture allowed many fewer freedoms to women, and the idea of a women joining her husband at a banquet was distasteful as prostitutes and slaves were the only women who were allowed to attend Grecian banquets. Greeks were also very adamant about their canon, a set of mathematical proportions used in sculpture and architecture that created some of the most famed works today and influenced the Romans. They found the unnaturally shaped lower torso's of the reclining couple to be distasteful and the couple's oriental-influenced hair and eyes to be unattractive. However, the Greeks were the least of the Etruscan's worries.

The frightened face of the man on this sarcophagus as he clings to his last worldly possessions marks the beginning of the Etruscans end.

The frightened face of the man on this sarcophagus as he clings to his last worldly possessions marks the beginning of the Etruscans end.

This Urn demonstrates the turbulent emotions Etruscans experienced in the presence of an unclear future.

This Urn demonstrates the turbulent emotions Etruscans experienced in the presence of an unclear future.

Period Two: Tragedy

Etruscan history is sadly very short and concise. What was once a prosperous, peaceful community began to vanish rapidly after only a few hundred years. Some cities fought back, and were crushed. Others were peacefully annexed, but the Etruscans did not accept this happily. The animated, pleasant artwork of before was replaced by sculpture and sarcophagi with distinctly dark, fatalistic and somber moods. They could not physically protest the loss of their culture and lands, but they could show their sense of loss and mourning in their works.

The sarcophagus at top right is startlingly devoid of the same warmth and happiness displayed in the sarcophagus from the first period. The Etruscan vision of the afterlife had changed as the end of their people loomed closer. The afterlife was not a place to enjoy hunting or fishing or time with family members anymore. The figures on sarcophagi began to appear alone during the second period, as Romans wiped the Etruscans out. Now, the silent terracotta figures clung to their worldly possessions, often displaying scrolls desperately proclaiming their works on earth, as seen in the Sarcophagus of Lars Pulena (not pictured here). Decorating the bottoms of the sarcophagi were angry reliefs, showing the deceased being beaten mercilessly by demonic creatures in the afterlife. The once positive outlook of the Etruscans was gone.

The Urn of the Married Couple, seen bottom right, is one of the few sarcophagi still produced with a married couple. The two are together still, but carefree moments are no longer captured. Instead the two are weathered and the art of the Etruscans is shown to have aged tremendously. The wife looks to her husband anxiously, perhaps angrily, as if for guidance and reassurance, but he cannot meet her gaze, as he too is plagued by the same doubts and fears. The emotions of the fading civilization are apparent in the sarcophagi from the second period.

This last poignant sarcophagus hearkens back to earlier Etruscan times.

This last poignant sarcophagus hearkens back to earlier Etruscan times.

The End of the Etruscans

The last breath of the Etruscans was one filled with resignation and poignant sadness. They had either been killed, or annexed by Rome. Their culture and way of life had ended, and they had quietly slipped into history, trapped in between the Greeks and the Greek-loving Romans. This last sarcophagus is reminiscent of the first period in Etruscan history. The emotion and intimacy between this married couple is evident in the way they hold each other tenderly, quietly lost in thought. Perhaps the sculptor wanted to call attention to the quiet acceptance of the Etruscan fate, or perhaps those who would one day be cremated and inhabit the sarcophagus had requisitioned it specially, recognizing that their end was near and all they could do was hold each other and enjoy their last vestiges of comfort.

Whatever the intention, this sarcophagus is incredibly moving and elegantly simple as sums up the end of the Etruscan culture. The Romans moved on in their conquests, and the beautiful stories that can be seen in the Etruscan sarcophagi lay largely forgotten until now. With further discovery and understanding of the Etruscans, comes a new appreciation for their unique artistic talents and a new place in history for the lost Rasenna.


Shanna (author) from Utah on November 12, 2013:

Yeah, I wrote this a year and a half ago and was a bit lazy with it. I wasn't expecting it to become HOTD, so I wasn't as careful with the grammar and syntax. I plan on going through and editing it when I'm done with this semester at school and have more time.

Joe Minx on November 11, 2013:

Very interesting topic & the theme you chose to present complemented the narrative quite well. There were, however, a number of grammatical mistakes that most likely should have been caught with a thorough proofreading which detracted somewhat from the erudite tone I think you were trying to project. Still quite enjoyable.

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Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on November 11, 2013:

I agree with Dreamer Meg. Why is it that peace-loving people get creamed by intruders exercising their power? Well, we know what happened to the Romans, don't we?

Also, I'd like to share a book I read many years ago about a Tuscan childhood by Kinta Beevor. The book is her autobiography, the only book she had ever written. While written in modern times, the book does give a glimpse into the Tuscan culture. It's a very enjoyable read. It wouldn't hurt for you to add it as an Amazon capsule on this hub, Shanna. Here's a link:

Clayton Hartford from Alger WA on November 09, 2013:

very interesting, had no idea about these people, very informative.

Tom Mukasa from Lives in USA on November 09, 2013:

Thank you so much. I realized the hub has writers who take time to create 'original' works. I know this feeling so well. I have done research into the relationships between Phoenicians and Sub Saharan Africa and found three important points:

1. Africans traded with the early nations around the Mediterranean. They even had stop points in Europe, Asia and Arab Peninsula where they had to conform with the rules of the day ( most especially non-miscegenation)

2. Africans made up the large number of 'eunuchs' in the armies, courts and offices in the subsequent civilizations: Persian, Judeo, Greek and Roman.

3. Africans, especially those from Sub-Saharan were in the medicinal and oratory specialties. We see them as Magi, dignitaries in the court of King Solomon and kings before him ( the black man who rescued prophet Jeremiah, was a court mediator).

As I noted earlier, the issue of 'eunuchs' and taking on names favoured by the rulers in the civilizations where they lived made them 'disappear.' It is not surprising that a name like Lucentius Aventus or Ptolemius Yonus, the latter being Roman and the former being Greek were actually names of an African living in those times in those empires. So much is mixed up in what is history and credit seems not to be shared by all participants in it. Thank you for this. I do like to think am specializing in writing empowering pieces. I hope you will kindly guide me.I am new here but determined to hit 100+ hubs all written the old fashioned way and stressing originality.

Lance Olsen on November 09, 2013:

Interesting article with things I didn't know about the Etruscans but was bewildered by:

"Some cities fought back, and were crushed."

-- you forgot to mention WHO they were fighting back against and WHO crushed them.

Enjoyed your article.

Lance Olsen

Author of Taierzhuang 1938 – Stalingrad 1942 (Insight into a blind spot of WW2)

Koralee Phillips from Vancouver British Columbia Canada on November 09, 2013:

Fascinating hub. Like Barbara Kay, I had never heard of this civilization. I really enjoyed reading about them. You wrote the article extremely well, and it doesn't surprise me at all that your Hub made HOTD! Thanks for the education.

Hui (蕙) on November 09, 2013:

Great knowledge! All those ancient civilizations are insightful to us today. Their peaceful living and fabulous arts were like shooting stars across the sky, and lightening and sparkling from time to time in sky nowadays. We appreciate and learn from them.

nia on November 09, 2013:

I am very impressed and was really taken by your article. I was bewildered, wanted to know who were the Etruscans... Well written, interesting, beautiful, I will be looking for more about them now...Thank you Shanna.

Barbara Badder from USA on November 09, 2013:

I hadn't know such people existed. thanks for a look into the history of Italy. I enjoyed the article.

Shanna (author) from Utah on November 09, 2013:

Thank you everyone! I have to admit, it was a very nice surprise to see that this Hub had been made HOTD. It was one of my favorites to write and research. I think the story is so beautiful.

qeyler on November 09, 2013:

excellent article.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on November 09, 2013:

Congratulations on HOTD! Very well-done, and well deserved.

I'd heard of the Etruscans, but only in passing mention. Reading your article, it make perfect etymological sense that Tuscany takes its name from their culture.

I learned a great deal, here, and I'm at once impressed and at the same time, saddened and angered at the knowledge that humans simply seem unable to learn to get along without coveting other cultures' lands and stomping out said cultures. That we have not learned from history is all the more maddening.

Voted up, interesting, awesome and shared.

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on November 09, 2013:

Congrats on the HOTD! What an incredibly interesting topic - I love the examples you show, and the details about the history. You're right; the last of your examples is particularly touching.

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on November 09, 2013:

Love the recent selections for HOD! HP at its finest. Congrats on this very interesting hub. Great topic!

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on November 09, 2013:

Shanna, congratulations on this well-chosen Hub of the Day. It is stunningly beautiful how you portray the peace, love, simplicity the tragedy in the life of the Etruscan people through their sarcophagi. That last poignant sarcophagus shows some bit of hope in their afterlife, for, the husband and wife still cling together in love. This is a great hub, Shanna, and very well-written.

Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on November 09, 2013:

I have also read some about the Etruscans in relation to the Greeks and Romans. I appreciate the information you have passed on in your hub along with the emotions that would have accompanied the disappearance of such a unique and happy society.

Mr Archer from Missouri on November 09, 2013:

Wonderful hub about a very interesting people and time. Exceptionally well done. Voted up and others. Great job!

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on November 09, 2013:

Very interesting. It's a pity that peaceful communities get annexed by more warlike neighbours!

BethanRose from South Wales on November 09, 2013:

Wow, what an interesting hub. I had never heard about the Etruscans before. I look forward to reading more of your hubs. Good job! :-)

Prithima sharma on November 09, 2013:

nice story, touched my heart...

Vanderleelie on June 23, 2012:

This is an excellent hub covering the Etruscans. The last image of the married couple is especially moving in the intimacy suggested by the figures. The artist's approach, showing the figures under the drapery of bed linens, seems thoroughly modern! Voted up and interesting.

Shanna (author) from Utah on March 20, 2012:

dmop- Thank you very much!

Goodlady- You live Tuscany? No way! I'm super jealous. I'm going through an obsessive period where I'm reading everything I can about the Etruscans, Greece and Rome. Thank you for commenting!

Marcy- Thank you very much! I enjoyed writing it and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on March 18, 2012:

These are beautiful and powerful examples of expressions of life, emotions and beliefs portrayed in an unusual art form. Thanks for this well-written and interesting hub.

Voted up, beautiful and interesting.

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on March 18, 2012:

Beautiful. I live in the Etruscan part of Tuscany and can assure you the people of my neighborhood today, south of Manciano, are purely Etruscan in their attitudes to each other and to our society. They are a peaceful, hardworking intelligent group of people and the women are treated very much as equals.

Voting etc.

dmop from Cambridge City, IN on March 17, 2012:

This is a very well written and unique article, thank you for writing it. Voted up, interesting, and shared.

Shanna (author) from Utah on March 15, 2012:

Thank you! It's a really random story to some, but when I heard about it and saw the emotion in their sarcophagi, it was just too unique of a story not to tell.

viveresperando from A Place Where Nothing Is Real on March 15, 2012:

really enjoyed this, loved the pictures

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