Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Art Eyewitness Essay: The Etruscans and Rome

The Etruscans and Rome
An Art Eyewitness Essay, Part III

By Ed Voves

"We must, indeed, all hang together," Benjamin Franklin declared to his fellow members of the Continental Congress in 1776, "or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

As a man of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, Franklin was well-versed with the histories of the Greeks and Romans. These narratives contained many incidents recounting how the Greeks and Romans had, indeed, failed to "all hang together."

There was another people from classical antiquity whose story also confirms the political lesson to which Franklin referred, the Etruscans.

The Etruscans, unlike the Greeks and Romans, were little known in Franklin's day, but now, two and a half centuries later, we have a much better appreciation of their considerable accomplishments. Thanks to  painstaking scholarship, we also have a significant body of evidence for the Etruscan failure to create an effective confederation of their twelve city-states, as Franklin and his colleagues were to achieve for the fledgling United States.                                                                                                                                                                

Chariot Fitting, 540-520 B.C.
© The British Museum 
The story of Etruscan civilization - and all civilizations - is how their citizens dealt with "existential" problems. These are dire challenges, providing occasions for successful, life-affirming responses or for failures leading to utter disaster.

The theory of civilizational "challenge/response" was the central theme of Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History, published in a multi-volume series from 1930 to 1961. At the risk of over-simplification, Toynbee's theory, "the greater the challenge, the greater the stimulus," can be grasped in several key quotes:

Civilizations, I believe, come to birth and proceed to grow by successfully responding to successive challenges. They breakdown and go to pieces if and when a challenge confronts them that they fail to meet.

The last stage but one of every civilization is characterized by the forced political unification of its constituent parts.

Toynbee also declared that civilizations rise and develop in "environments that are unusually difficult and not unusually easy." Such circumstances present problems which demand solutions. Survival - or extinction - depends on the response.

For the Etruscans the initial problem was how to gain access to the huge store of iron ore and copper ore located in their domains. Mining in the ancient world can never have been easy but the Etruscans managed to exploit the mineral wealth beneath their feet at an early date.

The Etruscan homeland was also rich in defensible positions. As Michael Grant describes in his book, The Etruscans, there were numerous steep-sided plateaus in Etruria. The early Etruscans readily took advantage of these natural fortresses for their villages, which then combined to form city-states.

The key words in the last quote from Toynbee are "unusually difficult." Compared with the problems faced in growing crops in mainland Greece, which is almost devoid of topsoil, the problems faced by the Etruscans were not "unusually" difficult. The Etruscans, skillful miners and metal-workers, were able to extract vast amounts of mineral wealth without extreme levels of effort. 

The Etruscans did confront two existential challenges. Their reactions to these challenges determined the fate of their civilization.

As we saw in the earlier Art Eyewitness essays, the Etruscans brilliantly responded to the first challenge, the overwhelming tides of Greek and Phoenician influence which threatened their cultural independence. Masters at adaptation, the Etruscans borrowed what suited them and ignored what did not, maintaining their own unique identity.

We can assess this response in one of the most famous works of Etruscan art, a magnificent, heartwarming statute of an Etruscan husband and wife from the collection of the Louvre.

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses,  ca. 520 - 510 B.C.
© Musee du Louvre

Known as The Sarcophagus of the Spouses, it was discovered in 1845 near the site of the Etruscan city-state of Caere, now called Cerveteri. The motif of reclining husband and wife on a burial monument originated in Asia Minor and almost certainly was brought to Etruria by the Phoenicians, major trade partners of the Etruscans. The haunting "smile" of the husband and wife exemplifies Greek Archaic art, which flourished during the sixth century B.C. and greatly appealed to the Etruscans.

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses, however, is not a Phoenician statue nor is it a Greek one. In technical terms, this masterpiece demonstrates the skill of the Etruscans in using terracotta ceramics in compensation for the lack of local marble. More fundamentally, this tremendous work of art exudes an equality of husband and wife which could only have existed in a society where women were accorded a very high degree of respect and autonomy. This was exactly the attitude of the Etruscans toward women, very different from that of the Greeks.

The Etruscan skill in using terracotta to sculpt a human likeness was not limited to one or two great works of art. Following Greek example, the Etruscans created terracotta embellishments for the roofs of their temples called antefixes. Modeled to take the form of the heads of a mythological characters, a row of upright antefixes was placed along the eaves of a temple roof to keep rain water from seeping under the roof tiles causing damage to the wooden beams underneath. 

Initially, an antefix was likely to bear the countenance of Medusa or some other fearsome monster. But the Etruscans could not resist creating endearing likenesses of human beings like this antefix, made at Caere, and now in the Getty Museum.

Antefix from Caere , 510–500 B.C.
© J. Paul Getty Museum 

From the humble beginning of creating antefixes, evolved the remarkable Etruscan school of votive portraits, designed to be placed in their temples. There are so many of these to choose from, but the superlative example (below) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art certainly deserves inclusion here. 

Terracotta Head of a Youth, 3rd–2nd century B.C.
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Created during the waning years of Etruscan power, this portrait of a helmeted hero looked back to the golden age of the city states of Etruria. Once again, it is a brilliant adaptation of Greek art, in this case evoking the idealized features of Alexander the Great. The hero's face, however, preserves the emotional mystery, as well as the vigor, of Archaic era which Etruscan artists continued to favor after the Greeks themselves had abandoned it.

By studying the examples cited above, we can see how the "challenge/response" to Greek and Phoenician culture sparked a vigorous assertion of Etruscan identity. The first "existential" challenge culminated in an Etruscan success story of the highest order.

The second "existential" challenge, however, resulted in failure, defeat and the eventual loss of Etruscan political independence.

The threat to the Etruscans was posed by the Latin-speaking inhabitants of a village on the banks of the Tiber River, the southern border of Etruria. The name of this huddle of thatched-roofed huts, built on seven hills, was Rome. 

Early Rome had nothing to recommend it, except its location. There were no deposits of iron ore, copper or tin. Rome's strategic position, however, meant a great deal to the southernmost of the Etruscan city-states and to groups of ambitious free-booting Etruscan warriors. They coveted the fertile soil of Campania, the richest agricultural region in the south of Italy. To get there from Etruria, travelers needed to pass through Rome.

Around 600 B.C., Etruscans took control of Rome and, over the course of the next century, transformed it into a city. The Etruscans introduced the alphabet and stone buildings, drained a marshy area to create the Forum and strengthened the defenses with an encircling rampart. Nobody looks favorably on being conquered, however, especially a people who later became very successful conquerors themselves.

In 507 B.C., the Romans rose in rebellion against the Etruscan king, Tarquinius or Tarquin the Proud. According to Roman history, the king's son, Sextus Tarquinius, raped a virtuous noblewoman of Rome, Lucretia. To preserve her family's honor, Lucretia committed suicide, sparking the successful Roman revolt. 

The story of Lucretia was narrated by the Roman historian, Livy, and passed down as part of the foundational myth-history of Rome. Artists from the Renaissance to the Romantic era frequently depicted the event, usually with Lucretia in varying degrees of "undress" to heighten the erotic appeal and selling price of the work.

Rembrandt, ignoring the "sex sells" approach to art, painted two versions of the suicide of Lucretia which are of enduring value.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Lucretia, 1664
© The National Gallery of Art

Though separated by over two thousand years from the actual event, Rembrandt accurately captured the emotional traits of the citizens of early Rome in the way he presented Lucretia: honor, courage, determination, self-sacrifice and patriotism.

Early Rome's virtues may not have been lacking among the Etruscans, but we have no histories of the Etruscans, written during ancient times. This make an impartial judgement difficult, if not impossible. A comparison of a Roman work of art, much later in date though it is, with the The Sarcophagus of the Spouses, does help us take the measure of Roman attitudes vis-a-vis those of the Etruscans.

Funerary Relief of Publius Aiedius Amphio and his wife Aiedia, ca. 30 B.C.

The Funerary Relief of Publius Aiedius Amphio and his wife Aiedia, dates to around 30 B.C. Roman portraits, such as this, evolved directly from the example of Etruscan votive images. However, these highly realistic Roman likenesses developed in reaction to the spirit of Etruscan votive portraiture. 

The couple on The Sarcophagus of the Spouses projects feelings of enjoyment of the "good life" - for all eternity. The careworn faces of Publius Aiedius Amphio and Aiedia testify to their lives of toil and sacrifice on behalf of their family and their fellow citizens of Rome. They pose standing-up (some Roman funerary reliefs are full-figure) not lounging on a couch. This marble sculpture, and many similar Roman portraits, proclaims the implacable willpower of the Roman people.

Generalizations, like the above, are risky. What we can say is that, as Rome gained in strength, the Etruscans failed to muster the kind of emotional fortitude we see on the faces of Publius Aiedius Amphio and Aiedia. As a result, they were unable to  achieve Toynbee's "last stage but one of every civilization ... the forced political unification of its constituent parts."

Michael Grant emphasized that we should "erase the term 'Etruscan' and replace it by the name of one of the Etruscan states." The Romans, "team-players" for much of their early history, quickly learned that they were dealing not with Etruscans but with independent-minded citizens of Caere, Veii, Vulcii, Tarquinii and Clusium.

Between the years 507  to 396 B.C., the Romans successfully dealt with a host of political and social problems. Unified on the home front, the Romans sharpened the point of their most effective weapon: the strategy of "divide and conquer." With this policy, rather than numerically superior forces, the Romans began their campaigns to conquer Italy, starting with the Etruscans.

"Divide and conquer" was first carried-out against Veii, located twelve miles northwest of Rome. Veii competed with Caere to be the most prestigious and powerful of the Etruscan city-states. The leaders of Rome's republic took note, establishing good relations with Caere while marshaling their forces against Veii. In 396 B.C., the Romans launched a devastating attack on Veii, capturing and sacking the city. Not one of the other Etruscan city-states sent support to Veii in its hour of need.

Shortly after seizing Veii, Rome was nearly destroyed by a massive invasion of Celtic warriors in 387 B.C. Caere provided vital assistance to help Rome survive, the kind of aid that had been denied Veii. Rome would always maintain cordial relations with Caere but that did not prevent the Romans from eventually bringing this Etruscan city-state under its power.

Rome's triumph over the Etruscans was as much a campaign of incorporation as conquest. The Romans had the good sense to confer Roman citizenship upon the look Etruscans, and eventually upon all the various peoples of Italy, by 90 B.C. At the same time, local customs were honored and even the non-Indo-European language of the Etruscans continued in use for over a century.

Statue of Aulus Metellus, known as "The Orator"110-90 B.C.

The gradual process of "Romanization" is apparent in the bronze statue known as "The Orator."  Created around 100 B.C., the statue records both the physical features of Aulus Metellus and the regalia of the Roman Senate to which he belonged. 

Yet, Aulus Metellus was not a "noblest Roman of them all," as he looks at first glance. Metellus came from an Etruscan family and the hem of his toga is inscribed with an invocation in the Etruscan language. This statue, which I saw at the 2015 Power and Pathos exhibition organized by the Getty Museum and the National Gallery in Washington, is a masterful expression of the now-combined forces of Etruscan and Roman civilization. 

The rise of Aulus Metellus to the rank of Roman senator set the stage for other Etruscans to gain power in the Roman establishment. For good and ill, Etruscans would continue to affect the course of Rome's destiny.

Cinerary Urn with Aeneas and Turnus, 200–100 B.C.
© J. Paul Getty Museum 

The greatest of these influential Etruscans was Gaius Maecenas, (ca.70 B.C- 8 B.C.). Maecenas, the chief political advisor of Octavian Caesar, later Augustus, was also the most cultivated patron of the arts of his age. Maecenas encouraged Virgil to write an epic poem, based on the legends of Aeneas, the refugee prince of Troy. The adventures of Aeneas were sacred to the Etruscans and Romans and were frequently depicted on works of art such as the cinerary urn, made  between 200 to 100 B.C.

Virgil  (ca.70 B.C-19 B.C.). was born in Mantua, a city founded by Etruscans in the north of Italy. After some prodding by Maecenas and Augustus, he composed his great poem, the Aenead, one of the greatest literary achievements of all time. Sadly, Virgil died before completing it.

Maecenas and Virgil represent the culmination of Etruscan civilization. The legacy of Aelius Sejanus (20 B.C.-31 A.D.) had a very different effect.

Sejanus, "this ambitious Etruscan" as Michael Grant calls him, rose to the rank of prefect or commander of the Praetorian Guard. He was the most trusted official of Tiberius, the second emperor of Rome. Then, as a result of a political power play, Sejanus was accused of plotting against Tiberius and executed in 31 A.D.

Marble Relief of the Praetorian Guard, ca. 50-51 A.D.
© Louvre Lens

Whether Sejanus was planning a coup against Tiberius or trying to position himself to thwart Gaius-Caligula, the mad grand-nephew of Tiberius, will never be proved. What is beyond dispute is that Sejanus transformed the Praetorians from a few battalions of bodyguards into a powerful military unit, capable of murdering the emperors they were supposed to protect. Before they were finally disbanded in 312 A.D., the Praetorians were responsible for assassinating thirteen Roman emperors. Worse, their constant intrigue undermined the very concept of the rule of Roman law. 

By creating the "behind-the-throne" power of the Praetorians, Sejanus set in motion a train of events which led to the eventual collapse of Rome's empire. How ironic it is that an Etruscan, whose ancestors contributed so much to the rise of Rome, should have unintentionally caused its downfall. 

Text copyright of Ed Voves. All rights reserved.

Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, J.Paul Getty Museum, the British Museum, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the Musee du Louvre, Louvre-Lens and the Altes Museum, Berlin

Introductory Image:                                                                       
Candelabrum (detail), ca. 500-475 B.C. Bronze: 61 in. (154.9 cm) height, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, #61:11.3

Chariot - or Furniture - Fitting (excavated at Castel San Mariano, Perugia), 540 -520 B.C. Silver electrum repoussé: 15.50 cm (length) x 9 cm (width). British Museum, bequeathed by Richard Payne Knight #1824,0420+.2

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses, (found at Cerveteri, in the necropolis of Banditaccia), 520 - 510 B.C.Terracotta  polychrome: H. 1.11 m. ; l.  1.94 m., Musée  du Louvre.  Campana collection, 1863. #Cp 5194

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses (detail) © Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines, Dunod

Antefix from Caere (Cerveteri), 510–500 B.C.  Terracotta and slip: 34.5 × 28 × 26.1 cm (13 9/16 × 11 × 10 1/4 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum,  Gift of Leon Levy. 83.AD.211.11

Terracotta Head of a Youth, 3rd–2nd century B.C. Terracotta: . 8 1/2 in. (21.6 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase by subscription, 1896. #96.18.173 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Lucretia, 1664. Oil on Canvas: 120 x 101 cm (47 1/4 x 39 3/4 in.)  National Gallery of Art. Andrew W. Mellon Collection # No.1937.1.76  National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Funerary Relief of Publius Aiedius Amphio and his wife Aiedia (found along the Via Appia in Rome)  30 B.C. Marble sculpture:  64.5 x 102 x 24 cm. Altes Museum, Berlin.   https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:-0030_Grabrelief_Publius_Aiedius_Amphio_und_Frau_Aiedia_Altes_Museum_anagoria.JPG

Statue of Aulus Metellus, known as "The Orator", (found near Lake Trasimeno in the province of Perugia), 110-90 B.C. Bronze: 179 cm (70 in) National Archaeological Museum, Florence. Photo courtesy of J.Paul Getty Museum

Cinerary Urn with Aeneas and Turnus, 200–100 B.C. Alabaster with polychromy: 34 × 46 × 19 cm (13 3/8 × 18 1/8 × 7 1/2 in.), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California. # 71.AA.294

Marble relief statue of the Praetorian Guard, ca. 50-51 A.D. Marble: 163 cm (64 in) × 134 cm (53 in) × 28 cm (11 in). Musee du Louvre, Louvre-Lens, France. # Ma1079

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