The Etruscans, by Michael Grant
For a variety of reasons, I have long been interested in the language and history and culture of the Etruscans. For one, they are an obscure people whose language is not well-understood and which are far more important than is particularly recognized with regards to the history of the classical world. Through Rome they have deeply influenced contemporary culture even if their period of peak power and cultural influence over Italy was limited to a few brief centuries between the eighth and fourth centuries, until they were overwhelmed by the combination of increasing Roman strength and Gaulic incursions given their own chronic disunity. Admittedly, it takes an unusual person to be deeply interested in obscure cultures, but I happen to be that sort of a person, one who wishes that some day again dead languages like the Etruscan may be able to return to life, that the way they saw the world and understood those around them may be understood, and that we may be free to see through another set of perspectives than the Greco-Roman sources that we are so frequently limited to when we understand the ancient Mediterranean world, sources whose biases we recognize but whose information we usually cannot do without.
This relatively short book of roughly 250 pages is organized in a striking and unusual way. The author begins with a discussion of the formation and history of the Etruscan states (I), beginning with the importance of metals to the formation of many of these states (1), and then moving on to the creation of the cities as combinations of villages (2), the decisiveness of Greek influences in leading to the formation of states in order to better exploit metal and other resources for trade (3), the origin of the Etruscan people (4), and their expansion to the south (5) and north (6) in the time before 500 AD or so, when their society was at its peak. The second part of the book examines the various independent city-states of the Etruscan people (II), starting with their chronic disunity and ineffectiveness in countering Rome (7) and then examining in turn the city-states of Tarquinii (8), Caere (9), Vulci (10), Vetulonia (11), Volatarrae (12), Clusium (13), and Veii (14), paying close attention to their art and wealth, territory, and sea and landpower, before summing up the decline and fall of the Etruscan states and the rise of Rome from the fifth century onward (15). While the book is not exhaustive, it does a great job placing the material culture of the Etruscan states in a context and looking at the history of the cities.
There are quite a few reasons why someone would want to read this book and others like it. For one, there is a great deal of worth in understanding the past simply so that we can better understand where we came from and gain some insight from the behavior of those in the past. The disunity of the Etruscans and their inability to work together against common enemies to the north and south led their realms to be taken over and eventually for their language and culture to perish altogether. Their inattention to matters of history and writing their own story led them to be viewed mainly through the biased and unreliable reportage of their Greek and Roman rivals, who viewed their women as whorish and disloyal and their men as weak and effeminate. Obviously, a people that was capable for holding its own in Italy for several centuries as naval and military superpowers with high levels of advancement in metallurgy and engineering deserves better than to be viewed according to such libels as this people receive, but when one does not pay attention to writing one’s story, one cannot defend oneself posthumously. And surely the Etruscan people needs a great deal of defense when it comes to being understood, even if their internal and external disunity among the various city-states kept them from achieving the power that could have been theirs had they been able to coordinate responses to Roman and Gaulish military expansion.