The Etruscans have long been considered one of the most
enigmatic peoples of the ancient world. Still today shrouded in mystery, their
civilization first came to be known from their frescoed tombs spread across the
lands north and west of Rome with their suggestive phallic symbols.
History, as usual brutal and reductive, tells the story of
the Etruscan civilization in a few words: they appeared, flourished for nine
centuries, their kings ruled Rome for hundreds of years, and then they declined
and vanished. Where they came from and where they went still mystifies
The well-preserved frescoes in Etruscan tombs depict magical
religious lives of banquets, dancing, music and sex, filled with demons and
deities and a morbid preoccupation with the hereafter. Their sacred books
dealing with arcane rituals and accumulated knowledge constituted the so-called
Etruscan Discipline, a unity
of theory and practice about the interpretation of signs. Their deities were
Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Minerva, and their terrible God,
The Etruscan alphabet no longer presents insuperable
difficulties since it derives from the Greek. Still, the language itself is
isolated among known languages. Its absence of voiced consonants, a morphology
different from Indo-European languages, its extensive use of suffixes, our lack
of knowledge of its verbs, and the limited number of known Etruscan word roots,
make comprehension of the few surviving longer Etruscan texts obscure.
Though Greek and Latin translations of some of those texts
have illuminated scholars, that is too little on which to reconstruct a
literature that must have been rich, considering the level of the civilization
depicted in their frescoes. Both Greek and Latin authors documented Etruscan
literary activity and reported on �Etruscan Stories,� vaguely identified
authors and an advanced educational system. Moreover no literary historian has
ever doubted the Etruscan impact on Roman literature.
To digress from the chronological story of this mysterious
civilization, I first want to say a few words about the legendary king who
became one of the great Etruscan heroes, chiefly because he conquered Rome, but
also because of his labyrinth. In the 1st Century anno Domini, the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder,
writes in his Naturalis Historia, XXXVI, 13, that the Etruscan King
Porsenna �was buried in his labyrinth under the city of Chiusi� and that
�inside a square base there was an inextricable labyrinth from which one
couldn�t find one�s way out without a ball of thread.� [quo si quis improperet sine glomere lini,
exitum invenire nequeat.]
Both historian and journalist, Pliny wrote about everything
of importance of his epoch. A forerunner of �direct TV journalism,� the Roman
special correspondent tackled the greatest mysteries of the ancient world in a
modern investigative journalistic spirit. Labyrinths were one of his favorite
fields. He investigated the four great labyrinths of the ancient world -- in
Egypt, Crete, Lemnos, and, close to home, in Etruscan Chiusi, just north of
Rome. True to form, Pliny died while �covering� the volcanic eruption that
buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum on August 23 in the year 79 A.D.
Today his scoop on Porsenna�s labirinto italico, where gold was supposedly hidden,
would have earned him the Pulitzer Prize. Pliny�s reportage became the basis
for two thousand years of speculation as no other journalism has ever done
since. At the same time the historian-journalist ignited permanent gold fever
among descendants of the casual, fun-loving, mystical king, which has lasted
According to Pliny, Porsenna�s stone mausoleum was 300
feet wide and 50 feet high. Crowning the monument were five 150-foot tall
pyramids, across the points of which was fixed a bronze globe from which bells
hung, whose ting, ting, ting echoed through the surrounding hills of Etruria,
today�s Tuscany. And atop the bronze globe, four more 100-foot pyramids, and on
top of those five more, and so on and so on. Photographs of reconstructions of
King Porsenna�s mausoleum bear striking resemblance to the temples cut into
rock at Petra in Jordan and to the Lama-Buddhist temple in Peking.
Inside the base of that monument and deep under the hill of
the Tuscan town of Chiusi was concealed the fabulous labyrinth of the legendary
The labyrinth is still there, concealed under a hill visible
from the great north-south highway, the Autostrada del Sole, 90 minutes north
of Rome. Comparable to the catacombs of Rome, the Chiusi labyrinth is a
veritable subterranean city. It is spread on several levels, with a vast number
of tunnels, caves, caverns, cisterns, cavities, grottos, shafts and galleries,
with various entrances from the town above.
The mist of time clouds our vision of the men of an age that
thrived on wonders and miracles, staggering the imagination of skeptical modern
men. Pliny was the historian of a Roman world that knew no limits in magic and
the occult and aspirations for power.
Messiahs abounded in that
world. At the other end of the Mediterranean, Jesus of Nazareth had just
delivered his message of the dawn of a new world. A new universal man was being
born. For men at the center in Rome it was the beginning of time.
Although the chansons de geste of King Porsenna were
always based on a shred of reality, in that everything-is-possible atmosphere,
subsequent Etruscan fables continued to magnify the legend of the ancient
world�s latest labyrinth. From the murky legends lost in the history of the
doomed Etruscan civilization emerged the myth of Porsenna�s gold.
Sometimes traveling on Italy�s north-south highway, I stop
off in the hill town of Chiusi to get another look at Etruscan survivors, and
to drink some of their ruby red wine and taste their venison dishes. The
outstanding characteristic of the 700 Tuscans of this ancient town in Lower
Tuscany is their identification with their Etruscan ancestors. One and all they
consider themselves descendants of Porsenna, the conqueror of Rome.
Though a halo of myth surrounds the powerful Etruscan king,
his exploits were documented by historians of his own time. Two major writers
of the ancient world write of Porsenna�s geste: the Roman, Titus Livy and the Greek, Dionysius of Halicarnassus.
The two writers concur that the high point of the 3,000-year history of Chiusi
was King Porsenna�s victory over Rome in 506 B.C. at the time Rome and the
Etruscans were fighting for control over the realm.
Also the Roman military historian, Tacitus, describes the
exploits of the Etruscan king. Plutarch, too, reports that Porsenna received
from the Roman Senate an ivory throne and a golden crown, and that Rome paid
him regular tributes. King Porsenna however, instead of occupying Rome after
his military victory, wisely allowed the new Roman Republic to exist.
True to casual Etruscan style, he defeated Rome, took the
booty, and then returned north to Chiusi a rich man to dedicate his time to
readings of animal entrails and the preparation of his burial site and his
At the end of the 20th century, a new generation of experts
deciphered the Etruscan alphabet and showed that the old experts were wrong
about everything. The Etruscans, they explained, were not as mysterious as we
had been led to believe. It was because no one had been able to make heads or
tails of their language. Now we know much more.
Now we know that though the Etruscans were mystics, they were
also the world�s first international dealers in arms. They developed the iron
weapons that changed the nature of warfare. A sea-faring, money-minded people
they sold their powerful arms to the rest of the world. Moreover, as their
frescoes depict, they were rich and lazy capitalists who had slaves to do all
the work, man their ships, fight their wars and finally even govern them. They,
too, depended on the brain drain from abroad to enrich and develop their
In reality, the mysterious Etruscans of yore had two things
in mind -- fun in the here and now in a life of comfort and ease, and
preparation for the same in the hereafter. Yet, their civilization made
discoveries. I have come to believe that, in their search for wealth and
influence, their hired sailors-arms merchants reached the Americas long before
the Vikings. Perhaps the Etruscans had contact with the Olmec civilization in
Mexico two millennia before Columbus arrived on Hispaniola. A cursory look at
the sculptures and the features of the two peoples reveals a bewildering
In my investigations, I have never found another place where
Etruscan civilization survives more visibly than in Porsenna�s capital of
Chiusi, which in the 7th century B.C. was the principle city of the great
Etruscan Confederation that ruled from Rome all the way to the Alps.
There in the little town on the hill perched over the Autostrada
del sole, I also
learned that the quickest way to offend contemporary Tuscans of Chiusi is to
remark how ugly are those short and fat, peace-loving Epicureans depicted on
the Etruscan vases in the great museums of the world. For the proud Tuscans of
Chiusi boast they are Etruscans and they still swoon recollecting their victory
over Rome 2,700 years ago.
Ancient peoples survive
The Phoenecians, that extinct people of navigators from
Lebanon, left their vestiges all over the Mediterranean world. Similarly the
Incas apparently share the DNA of many people of South and Central America. The
Han dynasty, which colonized China, is allegedly composed of the mythical Xia
people. The first peoples of Japan originated from China and Korea many
millennia ago. In that sense old civilizations never die. Some even return.
But the case of the Etruscans is different. Where they came
from and what happened to them is still cloudy.
Until recently the hypothesis that contemporary Tuscans of
central Italy were the descendants of the mysteriously vanished Etruscans
seemed so certain that no scientific tests had ever been made. Now a team of
biologists from Ferrara and Stanford universities has confronted the DNA of
ancient Etruscans in their tombs with modern Tuscans in order to settle the
issue. The results published by Professor Guido Babujani of the University of
Ferrara in the American Journal of Human Genetics in 2004 deflated
former assumptions: their conclusion that Tuscans are not Etruscans at all has
disconcerted certainties in former Etruscan cities throughout modern Tuscany.
At the same time, the study raised new doubts and questions
and, if anything, again shrouded the old Etruscans in mystery. One problem is
that the DNA taken from Etruscan tombs are not considered 100 percent
representative of the Etruscans. Moreover, perhaps the original Etruscan DNA is
only present in localities of sprawling Tuscany still not controlled by the
Still, one wonders: if it is true that ancient Etruscans and
modern Tuscans have little or nothing in common, what then happened to the
Etruscans? Until today specialists were uncertain whether the Etruscans were
even one homogenous people or just a mixture of Eastern populations who
wandered to the Italic peninsula in pre-Roman times. The works of Tacitus,
Seneca, Livius, Horace, Ovid, Cicero and Roman Emperor Claudius himself
demonstrate the profound interest in Etruscan civilization by their Greek and
Herodotus (5th century B.C.) wrote that they came by ship
from Asia Minor. Dionysius of Halicarnassus claimed they were instead of Italic
origin and had lived on the peninsula from time immemorial. Now, the team of
biologists from the universities of Ferrara in Italy and Stanford in the USA
conclude that, though still wrapped in mystery, they were one people,
originally from what is modern Anatolia, in a way making Turks truly European.
But their fate remains a mystery. Since they were not only
mystics but also lazy and dedicated to fun, they were most probably eliminated in
toto by the Roman military state.
However that may be, like the Celts in Ireland the old
bacchanal Etruscans have transcended time. People on the cobbled streets of
Chiusi have the same thick necks, high cheekbones and sharp noses as the
figures on the black and red vases and funeral urns studied by historians,
archeologists, anthropologists and students of art.
Early historians cited Porsenna�s labyrinth as proof of the
primacy of Etruscan architecture in the ancient world. As far as the personal
story of King Porsenna is concerned, at the time he returned up the Tiber
Valley to Chiusi after conquering Rome, real history ends and legend begins. We
do not know for certain how much the accounts of Plutarch and Tacitus and Pliny
were based on myth and how much on recorded facts; they wrote about the
Etruscans as we today write about the Aztecs.
However that may be, Tuscans of Chiusi speak of the fabulous
Porsenna as if it all happened in the recent past. The victorious king
allegedly built a sarcophagus in the form of a carriage made of gold, pulled by
twelve horses of gold, surrounded by a golden hen and a brood of five thousand
golden chicks. It is widely believed that his treasure was buried underneath
the town and is protected by an impenetrable labyrinth.
�Pliny�s labyrinth,� folk tales labeled the king�s treasure.
Or �the labyrinth of the hen.� Or simply �Porsenna�s gold.� Legends shrouded in
myth agree on the existence of the treasure, but not on its precise location.
Therefore every village, every hamlet, in Lower Tuscany has claimed it. The
labyrinth is under the next hill. At night, if the wind is right and you have
gazed long enough into ruby red Tuscan wine, you can hear the tingling of the
bells. And you might even see its shape outlined against a distant horizon. You
feel its presence.
From the steps of the town�s Cathedral Museum you look out
over the Tiber Valley toward Rome. Rugged hills are lined with vineyards and
olive groves. The silhouettes of cypresses stand black against the horizons.
You are at the crossroads of modern Italy and in the heart of former Etruria --
that gave its name to Tuscany -- a civilization lasting from the 9th century
B.C. to the first century A.D. At its peak in the 5th century B.C., the loosely
knit confederation of 12 cities, including Camars-Chiusi, was finally crushed
by Gauls storming from the north and Roman firepower from the south.
An imaginary Etruscan interview in Chiusi
�We�re mystics,� the local Etruscanologist says by way of
introduction, waving his hand as if back toward the past. �Deeply religious.
The entire life of our forefathers was guided by symbols through which they
interpreted the will of the gods. Few people recall that besides Judaism the
Etruscan religion was the only revealed faith of the Mediterranean world!
Revealed through the mouth of a child uncovered by a peasant digging in the
�The child, Tagete, revealed to Etruscan kings the secrets
of the origins of the universe. God, the creator of all things, assigned the
world 12,000 years of time. In the first 6,000 years, He created sky and earth,
seas and rivers, sun, moon, stars, birds and animals, and finally in the sixth
millennium, man. He assigned six thousand years to mankind, after which the
time of man will end.�
�What was this religion?� asks the Stanford graduate
student, surprised by that revealed.
�What did the Etruscans believe? What was their faith�s role in their lives?�
Professor: �The prophecies of Tagete and other semi-gods
were collected in sacred books, the famous Etruscan Discipline. Those books revealed the means to
interpret divine will and to affect history through rites and ritual. Through
expiation of guilt Etruscans hoped to be spared the divine punishment that
hangs over peoples, cities and individuals. History itself was sacred. Nothing
happens by chance. Like your being here today to study and ask me these
questions about a vanished civilization.
�In the Etruscan world everything that happened was to
announce a future event. Or it was the realization of a sign the gods had sent
earlier. For the Etruscans, facts were not important because they happened but
because they arrived in order to have a meaning in the future.
�Remember that before the Roman conquest, Roman aristocrats
sent their children here to Etruria for their education, to learn the Etruscan
Discipline. But later, under Roman domination, Etruscan soothsayers came to be
considered charlatans. Just goes to show you the potential or probable future
of many of man�s religions. . . . But that is another story.�
Student: �But Professor, how do you explain the historical
curiosity about the Etruscans and their tombs spread over Tuscany and Latium?�
Professor: �The source of life is a mystery. The after-life
is a mystery too. Can we say which is greater? Porsenna�s people dedicated
great attention to their tombs and to sacrifices so that their life after death
would be long and happy. Remember that many primitive peoples -- the Plains
Indians on your continent, too -- did not believe the spirit of man survived
the body for eternity. The result of the mystery of life and death, light and
darkness, good and evil, is our fascination with 3,000-year-old tombs.
�Artists have been enchanted by the legend of the labyrinth,
since Renaissance man reevaluated the classic literature of Greece and Rome --
after all the cradle of the culture of Europe and thus of the New World!�
Student: �But who were the Etruscans? Where did they come
Professor: �Ah, that�s still a touchy question, indeed.
Where did they come from, all
those strange peoples roaming around the East after the Trojan wars? Some say
the Etruscans came from Lebanon. Maybe they were Sumerians. Or they came from
the Sahara when it dried up. Or maybe they lived here all the time. Some
specialists claim the Latin alphabet comes from the Etruscan. For example, the
Italian word Caronte or your English word Charon derives from the
Etruscan demon, Charun. However that may be, in 1767 the historian,
Monsignor Mario Guarnacci, in his Origini Italiche identified their
language as a direct derivation from the Hebrew, from the Samaritan dialect!
Can you believe it? And what about Tagete? And their view of the creation? It
was just so much rot, the previous mystification of the Etruscans. It was only
because for a long time scholars couldn�t decipher their language!�
Student: �But professor what
ultimately happened to them? Their civilization was so evolved. All their
luxury and their fashions, those long colorful tunics, cone-shaped hats and
pointed shoes. Doesn�t that culture count for something historically?�
Professor: �Times change, my dear.
Nations rise and fall. Civilizations are born and die. The Etruscans�
contribution finished in the Iron Age. They inherited a spirit from the East,
developed it, reached their zenith, and then collapsed under Roman firepower.
We could make an analogy with the emergence of your country on the back of its
sophisticated technologies and weaponry.
�I don�t know if it�s proper to
measure ours against ancient civilizations or if the development of mankind is
not a linear affair. In any case, I think it�s safe to say the Etruscans fell
because they never understood Rome. Those who believe in Nietzsche�s eternal
return think the same threat hangs over Europe vis-�-vis the United States
today. Remember that when the Etruscan city of Orvieto naively called in Roman
troops to quell a local revolt, General Fulvius Flacco marched his troops north
and leveled the entire city of Orvieto instead. Willy-nilly it reminds me of
Baghdad! It was at that point, by the way, that Etruscan nobles began moving to
Rome and integrating into the new society. They wanted to be like the Romans!�
Student: �It�s so sad. History
is so unkind. Those poor Etruscans seemed so peace-loving.�
Professor: �You�re confusing
their art with their civilization. They were also the biggest arms traffickers
of the epoch, selling murderous weapons made from their iron. They were selfish
and avaricious. A sick society dedicated to self-amusement and imitation. Is
that enough for survival?�
Student: �I suppose not. But
what could they have done?�
Professor: �They could have
tried to hold out against history but instead they surrendered. Whatever their
faults, my dear curious searcher from the New World, I personally liked them
better when we knew less about them. I prefer the old image of the mysterious
Etruscans to the decadent people we see now on their vases.�
While two centuries of
archeologists and historians have brought to light many aspects of Porsenna�s
world, people of the town of Chiusi have never given up their search for their
king�s treasure. They still dig for the treasure. They dig into their
labyrinth, from above in the town, from all sides. They have explored and
mapped the subterranean city -- a loosely connected underworld of tunnels and
caverns. Yet the mystery of the labyrinth and the mausoleum have not been
Nor has Porsenna�s treasure been
Myth or legend, Porsenna�s gold?
Speleologists, archeologists and scholars and now biologists continue to
investigate and speculate. Yet, the labyrinth remains the stuff of dreams and
imagination -- and of fiction writers. But Chiusi�s people are convinced the
�treasure of the hen� is there. They dream. They hear the bells tingle in the
night. They see the shadow of the mausoleum on the horizon. Each local boy
hopes to find Porsenna�s gold. It is just a matter of time.
Stewart is originally from Asheville, NC. He has lived his adult life in
Germany and Italy, alternated with residences in The Netherlands, France,
Mexico, Argentina and Russia. After a career in journalism as a
correspondent for the Rotterdam newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, he began writing
fiction. His collections of short stories, "Icy Current Compulsive Course,
To Be A Stranger" and "Once In Berlin" are published by Wind
River Press. His new novel, "Asheville," is published by www.Wastelandrunes.com He lives with
his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy. E-mail: email@example.com.