The Greek and Roman historians who wrote about the Etruscans grudgingly admired their wealth, art, and technical accomplishments – but criticized much of their behavior, especially in regard to women. Etruscan women were literate, they could own and bequeath property, they could be priestesses, they could attend banquets, drinking and toasting with men (children were also welcome). They kept their own names, and had their own burial “beds” or shared them with their husbands. Evidence shows that some Etruscan women rode horses, and a Roman visitor declared that the women “stripped naked and exercised at the gymnasium with the men.” This was at a time when Roman women, under “paterfamilias” – the law of the father – were meant to be invisible and had only the female variant of their father’s name. And the Greek “symposium” – drinking and philosophizing parties were exclusively male. In the Greek tragedy, the Bacchae, middle-aged ladies get drunk and fancy themselves dogs pursuing and killing a stag. When they sober up, it turns out the deer was the teen age son of one of the women –not a happy outcome. In the Etruscan world, the more egalitarian partnership of husband and wife is honored on tombs which depict couples in loving embrace.
In other aspects, the Etruscan were quite unique – again, as reported by outside visitors. They used music to lure wild animals in the hunt, and herded goats and pigs with a flute – a la Pied Piper. Funerals were occasions of dancing, music and athletic events. Etruscans were guided by priests, trained at colleges, who used divination to determine the will of the gods, principally through reading of lightning, animal livers, and the flight of birds. Divination guided all activities, large and small, giving spiritual meaning to all aspects of life. Initially, the gods were fairly abstract forces, but later Greek gods and mythology were adapted for Etruscan purposes. Even the chief gods acted in consensus with other gods, and even the most powerful had mixed duties, including the nurturing and sustenance of infants and children. To reach the afterlife required a journey by land and sea, which began with a high dive (no kidding). The afterlife itself, initially, was more banqueting and the continuation of this life’s pleasures.
The Etruscan “Golden” age was probably around 700 BC to about 300 BC, when the Roman incursions began. Parts of Etruscan culture persisted until the fall of Rome in 400, over a thousand-year period. The final centuries were darker, more somber, as reflected in their art. They had been known as fierce fighters against the Greeks and Phoenicians, but they were not able or willing to band together to resist Rome, never uniting under a “tyrant” who would lead and rule them all. Instead, they faced decline with the same fatalistic attitude as their long run of the good life, all of it determined ultimately by the gods. Eventually, their villages were Romanized, and what remains is their burial places and likely some of their DNA in today’s Tuscans.
Still so much is unknown about the Etruscans. And there were negative aspects of the culture as well, including owning enslaved people – also criticized by the Romans as too well dressed, well fed and well housed. Yet, they left a legacy not only of life well lived, but of the possibility that such a life can be lived. Other societies, too, have had their long eras of the “good life” for most of their members, not just for those on top who exploited those below, mainly by means of violence. Many indigenous peoples have had histories of respectful relations between groups and genders. But the Etruscans stand out as a literate people in somewhat urban settings, who manufactured high quality products and art, yet resisted the impulses of all those other societies around them to dominate within and without.