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Commentary Last Updated: Dec 24th, 2007 - 01:52:50

The Etruscans: A parable for America
By Gaither Stewart
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Dec 24, 2007, 01:50

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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 scholars.

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, Charun-Charon.

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.

King Porsenna

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 until today.

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 king.

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 hereafter.

Arms merchants

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 civilization.

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 affinity.

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 biologists.

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 Roman contemporaries.

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.

The labyrinth

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 fields.

�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 from?�

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 unraveled.

Nor has Porsenna�s treasure been found.

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.

Gaither 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 He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy. E-mail:

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