Etruscan Women, claiming an identity

by Loredana Agosta

The Etruscans, the ancient inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, created a sophisticated culture long before the Romans. They passed down to the Romans many elements of their art, architecture, engineering, and religious ritual. However, their story has mystified scholars for centuries since no Etruscan literature survives.

Our sources of information about them come primarily from archaeological finds and surviving texts written by Greek and Roman authors. But these authors give us a distorted image of the Etruscans. The rebellious Romans, who had to fight to overthrow the wealthy monarchs, depicted the Etruscan kings as evil and nefarious tyrants who held on to their aristocracy while the Romans fought to introduce their Republican ideals. In the end, the Romans overthrew them, and as the victors, they were able to pass down their side of the story as history. The Etruscans faced the ultimate defeat — the loss of control over their identity. They seem to have disappeared as they were engulfed by Roman culture, and what little remained of their identity was defamed by the Latin and Greek authors.

Thus, it becomes particularly challenging to reconstruct Etruscan identity objectively. The Greek and Roman accounts of Etruscan life and customs are tainted by their overall disdain for Etruscan culture, a consequential backlash of the political strife the Romans had to endure at the hands of the Etruscan tyrants. Etruscans were regarded as lecherous debauchees who reveled in luxury and aristocratic status.

Etruscan tomb with frescoes, Tarquinia; © wulwais

One particular aspect of Etruscan culture that seemed to shock the Greek and Latin authors was the status women held in Etruscan society. Etruscan women had more social and economic independence than Roman women and were far more emancipated than their Greek counterparts. Etruscan women were able to own property, manage economic activities, and leave wills — all things the ancient Greeks would have surely considered preposterous.

One everyday life scene frequently depicted in ancient art is the banquet. As a recurring theme in funerary art, it was customary to depict the deceased enjoying a paradisiacal banquet in a happy afterlife. Etruscan women, unlike Greek or Roman women, were able to participate in banquets as diners. The Greeks and Romans saw this custom not only as strange but outright barbaric. In ancient Greek society, the only women who took part in banquets were prostitutes, so the inclusion of women in banquets was seen as immoral.

There are many examples in Etruscan art depicting women reclining as diners at banquets. A fine example is the sarcophagus of Larthia Seianthi at the National Archaeological Museum in Florence. This terracotta sarcophagus was found in Chiusi in southern Tuscany and dates back to the 2nd century BC. It depicts the deceased lying in the banquet position reclining on her left side.

With her right hand, she pulls back her veil to admire her reflection in the mirror she holds in her left hand. While her elaborate costume, fine jewels, and mirror denote her social status and wealth, it is interesting to note that her name is carved along the rim of the sarcophagus below the lid. This gives us a glimpse of another privilege upper-class Etruscan women enjoyed, their own identities. The inscription bears her given name and family name, or noble lineage. Unlike Roman women who were identified as their father’s daughter (usually with a feminized version of his name), Etruscan women had individual names. Something as simple as a name however reveals a major characteristic of Etruscan society, that is, women bore their own names and therefore identities and could be legally and financially independent.

We can see these depictions of Etruscan women in art as a means through which these individuals achieved a certain sense of immortality with their identities through time, but this can also be seen as a way in which the Etruscans themselves, as a cultural entity distinct from the Romans or Greeks, reassert their identity and place in history that Roman conquest tried to erase.

Sarcophagus from Chiusi, Tuscany; © wjarek

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