The Etruscans
Lucy Shipley
Reaktion Books
216pp, 56 illustrations, 47 in colour
Hardback, £15

One of the most iconic Etruscan images we have is the Sarcophagus of the Spouses, a striking sculpture of a stylish couple reclining together, which appears on the cover of Lucy Shipley's book. Their fine appearance and enigmatic smiles are made more tantalising by the fact that our knowledge of their culture is far from complete. This addition to Reaktion Books' Lost Civilizations series is therefore to be welcomed.

Shipley sets her course by identifying a select object or place as a focus for each chapter, such as the Piacenza Liver – a life-size, heavily inscribed model of a sheep's liver, used for foretelling the future. These prompt an examination of different aspects of the Etruscan world. It is a neat device enabling the author to guide us through what has actually been discovered, what the objects may say about the Etruscans, and to make robust examinations of a range of theories about them that have been put forward over time. Made up of a group of communities of pre-Roman Italy that occupied a large area north of Rome, Etruscan civilisation was poised between the mighty worlds of Greece and Rome. The myth of 'the mysterious Etruscans', Shipley notes, includes their perceived lack of a coherent origin, their illusive language, their interest and expertise in predicting the future and their eventual political annihilation by the Romans.

So who exactly were the Etruscans? The rediscovery of their culture has been, Shipley explains, a painfully slow process. Its pace increased markedly after excavations undertaken in the early 19th century, and, now, modern scientific developments have helped. She examines theories about their origins put forward by Classical authors from Herodotus to Tacitus, and ideas championed in more recent times, often influenced by prejudices, as in the case of the 20th-century Fascists who saw Etruscans as indigenous Italians.

What is certain is that from early times they had good trading links with far-flung places, accounting for a great and diverse array of objects found in sites such as the Vulci tomb. For centuries, they flourished; by 474 BC, however, they were losing control of Campania in the wake of the Battle of Cumae when their forces were overwhelmed by the Greeks. Later they were engulfed by the Romans. Emperor Claudius was one of the last-known speakers of Etruscan.

From the 13th century, red and black figure vases were found in Etruria and were attributed to the Etruscans. Over the following centuries an enthusiasm for their culture took hold until the 18th-century scholar Johann Winckelmann revealed that the vases were actually of Greek origin.

Some dubious attitudes towards the Etruscans emerged: the fact that they often portrayed women as prominently as men was given a bad press by the patriarchal Romans. A lack of texts has compounded the problem. Etruscan scholars wrote on perishable materials, notably papyrus scrolls or books of linen cloth. Shipley's book contains many exciting accounts of discoveries: the finding of an Egyptian mummy, wrapped in linen strips that bore Etruscan writing and were once part of a book, is one. Happily, new Etruscan inscriptions are still coming to light: the Pyrgi tablet, uncovered in 1964, dates back to 500 BC and, in 1990, a long inscription on three golden tablets was handed in at a police station in Tuscany. In the light of these new finds, our exploration of the Etruscans will continue.

Shipley's book is as engaging as her subject. Her work leaves us eager to discover more about this most fascinating group of people.
Diana Bentley

 

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