“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 9)

The last part of this chapter of the Middle East book covers the end of the 2nd Millennium BCE, it first looks at the return of Assyria as a power in the region. Then it talks about Bronze Age Collapse which occurs in the 12th Century BCE and ushers in what is sometimes called a “dark age”. The big powers (Egypt, Assyria) wobble but many of the smaller states suffer a severe crisis. The power vacuum this leaves sets the stage for the “Age of Empires” as the next chapter of the book refers to it.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty of China (post).
  • 1550-1069 BCE: The New Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1351–1334 BCE: Reign of Akhenaten in Egypt.
  • 1332–1323 BCE: Reign of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
  • 1279–1213 BCE: Reign of Ramesses II in Egypt.
  • 1186-1155 BCE: Reign of Ramesses III in Egypt.

Power Struggles: The Rise of Assyria

Assyria had been a notable power in the region around 1800 BCE, but by 1750 BCE it was practically a vassal to the Babylonians – although there is some limited evidence that there might’ve been a greater degree of autonomy than the term vassal would suggest. At some point in the 16th Century BCE Assyria becomes a vassal of the Mitanni – although the (later) Assyrian King List keeps on listing names of kings for this period there are no contemporary Assyrian royal inscriptions at all from this period. So the “kings” may well’ve been governors installed by the Mitanni in some sense. There’s also some textual evidence to suggest that the Assyrian kingdom wasn’t a cohesive whole during this time – it may’ve been fragmented into several vassal kingdoms of the Mitanni.

Assyrian royal inscriptions reappear in the archaeological record around 1420 BCE, and they start to appear in the diplomatic record again shortly afterwards. By the time Ashuruballit I takes the throne in c.1363 BCE Assyria regards itself as an independent state, capable of participating in diplomatic gift exchanges with Egypt (as recorded in the Amarna letters). 50 years later the Assyrian kings are once again styling themselves “Mighty King, King of Assyria”, reflecting Assyria’s return to the status of major power in the region.

Under Adad-nirari I (ruled c.1305-1274 BCE) the Assyrians conquered the Syrian region where the Mitanni kingdom had once been – not once, but twice. The Mitannian kingdom had given way to a new state called Hanigalbat, and Adad-nirari I’s first campaign against them was justified as retaliation for hostilities committed by the Hanigalbatean king Shattuara. Shattuara was captured and “encouraged” to become an Assyrian vassal, but his son requested help from the Hittites which prompted Adad-nirari I to invade once more, this time finishing the job and retaining control of the region. Adad-nirari I also successfully campaigned against the Kassite rulers of Babylon, pushing the border back into what had previously been Babylonian territory. But culturally speaking the Assyrians looked to Babylon – using Standard Babylonian in written texts (instead of the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian) and revering Babylonian gods. And Adad-nirari I also managed to get himself accepted as an equal of the Hittite king Hattusili III, with all their diplomatic correspondence addressing each other as “brother”. So by the end of his reign Assyria was once more the equal or superior of any of the major powers in the region.

Shalmaneser I succeeded his father as king of Assyria in c.1273 BCE and continued the military expansion of the Assyrian kingdom. As well as putting down another revolt in the Hanigalbat kingdom to the west, Shalmaneser I also campaigned to the north of Assyria. The peoples he fought there were the Urartians, which is the first time they are documented – in later centuries they were to become a powerful kingdom but at this point they were apparently not yet unified. Relationships with the Hittites cooled during Shalmaneser I’s reign – the Hittites attempted to encourage an economic embargo against the Assyrians. Shalmaneser I was also notable for beginning the practice of systematically deporting conquered peoples, using them as an important part of the workforce in the kingdom’s heartland.

Shalmaneser I was succeeded by his son Takulti-ninurta I, who may be the real person behind the biblical stories of Nimrod or the stories of the Greek king Nino or Ninus.* Takulti-ninurta I ruled for a long time, 36 years, and expanded the Assyrian territory further into Anatolia and Babylon. After he had conquered Babylon he install Assyrian governors to directly rule the city, and also uprooted several of the religious artifacts from that city and transported them (and some of the associated ritual practices) to Assur. This did not go down well with the Babylonians, nor with the Assyrians. Perhaps due to tensions with the elite in Assur Takulti-ninurta I founded a new capital across the river Tigris from Assur, making a big deal that it was founded on virgin soil. Much of what is known about his reign comes from an Epic that was composed to celebrate his victory over the Kassite rulers of Babylon (presumably commissioned by Takulti-ninurta I). It’s very much a justification of his moral superiority over the defeated foe. Takulti-ninurta I almost certainly died by assassination, and Assyria went into decline for about a century after his death in c.1208 BCE.

*Or so the book says, in a single sentence starting with “Some have viewed” and then promptly drops the info on the floor and fails to explain who views, why they view or indeed any points of similarity. Oh well. It let them use a 17th Century Dutch painting of Semiramis tho, who isn’t mentioned anywhere in the text in this section and later in the book is noted as having been married to someone else *rolls eyes*

The next important ruler of Assyria was Tiglath-pileser I, who ruled from c.1115-1077 BCE, who reorganised the military and set about re-expanding the Assyrian kingdom. He’s the first Assyrian king that we know to have recorded annals for his reign. They’re not dated, nor are lengths of the campaigns mentioned, but his military campaigns are listed in chronological order in these annals. I’m not sure how they know it’s chronological if there are no dates – perhaps internal evidence from the text? He campaigned in the same regions that his predecessors had done – against the people to the north (who at this point were the Mushki), into Anatolia amongst the Neo-Hittite kingdoms, against the peoples in modern day Syria (including Arameans living near the Euphrates), and against the Babylonians. He’s also known to modern archaeologists for gathering together a collection of documents we now call the Middle Assyrian Laws. These seem to’ve been his library copy of a selection of original texts written 300 or so years before his time, covering a wide variety of subjects including things like blasphemy, abortion, inheritance, maritime traffic. He was probably also assassinated, and once again the Assyrian kingdom went into decline for around a century.

The book now breaks from its chronological trot through the rise of the Assyrians to talk about the Sea Peoples, the fall of the Hittites and the ensuing Dark Age. The name “the Sea Peoples” comes from Egyptian texts, starting with sporadic mentions in the time of Ramesses II (reigned c.1279-1213 BCE) through to more frequent mentions in the time of Ramesses III (reigned c.1184-1153 BCE) who had to fight a series of battles against them (which he records on the walls of the temple at Medinet Habu). There are also references in texts from countries in the Middle East of destruction around this time period, and there is archaeological evidence of increased destruction taking place – archaeologists presume that both of these strands of evidence are referencing the same peoples as the Egyptian texts. So who were the Sea Peoples? The short answer is that we’re not entirely certain but there’s a reasonable amount of evidence to link specific named groups of Sea Peoples to people who had previously been living in the Aegean and Anatolian areas. There’s also archaeological evidence of abandonment of settlements in Mycenaea around this time. It’s not at all clear why these peoples were on the move – the reliefs at Medinet Habu depict not just soldiers but families, so it seems that this was migration rather than purely military expeditions. Famine or sudden climate change have been put forward as potential explanations for the migrations, but there’s no consensus. There’s also no consensus on how much of an effect the Sea People’s migrations had on the region – although it seems plausible that they did contribute to the destabilisation that occurred in this time period.

The fall of the Hittites is a part of that destabilisation. The deterioration of the state appears to’ve started during the reign of Tudhaliya IV (c.1237-1209 BCE), and the last of the Hittite kings was Suppiluliuma II (c.1207-1190 BCE). The causes are unclear – conflict with the Assyrians certainly played a part, and probably so did conflict with the Sea Peoples. One key military conflict during Suppliluliuma II’s reign was with people based on Cyprus, to protect grain shipments heading from modern Syria into the Hittite kingdom. The people on Cyprus at the time may or may not’ve been Sea Peoples who’d settled there. Ultimately the Hittites were unable to sufficiently protect their grain shipments, and that caused famine. There’s even a reference in an Egyptian text (dating to the reign of Merenptah) to a shipment of grain being sent to the Hittites as aid. What exactly the coup de grace that finished off the Hittites was is unknown – some cities show evidence of destruction as would be caused by an invasion, some cities show evidence of abandonment instead.

The next 300 years or so (c.1200-900 BCE) is referred to as a Dark Age – as with other Dark Ages this is because of a lack of textual evidence for the era in question. The Babylonian and Hittite kingdoms had both collapsed, and Egypt and Assyria were both weakened. This meant that there was a power vacuum and new players rose to prominence. In Babylon (which had been ruled by a Kassite dynasty) a new local dynasty rose to prominence, although it wasn’t a match in power for its predecessors. Harassing both this Babylonian dynasty and the Assyrians were the Aramean peoples who were spreading into Mesopotamia proper from Syria where they had settled. In the long term they were very succesful at infiltrating into Mesopotamia – their language, culture and alphabetic script all rose to prominence in the 1st Millennium BCE.

The chapter finishes with a four page spread about the Bible and its relation to the history of this period. Parts of this section read like one person wrote it, and another went through scattering “if it really happened” and other such phrases at judicious intervals! Which makes it quite hard to sum up, as almost every paragraph ends by undermining everything it just said. There are possible linguistic and cultural similarities between what the Old Testament says about the Patriarchs and the city of Mari on the Euphrates. There are possibly cultural parallels with Ugarit (in particular Ugaritic poetry), and the Ugaritic language is very similar to Biblical Hebrew. The author here spends a while trying to place the time period of the Exodus – whilst saying that there’s “no evidence but”. They settle on 19th Dynasty prior to the reign of Merenptah, as far as I can tell. They note that the Biblical laws are remarkably similar to the laws of earlier times in Mesopotamia. Interestingly the key difference is that the Mesopotamian ones are generated by the king (and then offered to the gods for approval) but the Israelite laws are created by God who presents them to humanity (as a take it or leave it deal, not for approval). There were, I think, more nuggets of interesting information in this bit of the chapter than I’ve presented here – but something about the tone of it set my teeth on edge (as I’m sure is apparent).

The next chapter of the book will start by returning to Assyria – the Age of Empires is about to begin.

Celts: Art and Identity (British Museum Exhibition)

At the end of 2015 the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Celts, looking at both the original culture in its historical context and the way it was later re-imagined. The overall take home message from the exhibition was that the ancient people we now call Celts probably didn’t think of themselves as such, and the modern peoples who we call Celts don’t necessarily have that much to do with the ancient Celts. The Greeks were the first to refer to “the Celts”, and the Romans later took up the term. They used it for the barbarians to the North and East of Greece & Rome – in modern day Spain, France, Eastern Europe and Turkey; not Britain (at least not intially). It’s not known if the Celts saw themselves as single culture, nor if they used the term Celts to describe themselves, but it seems unlikely.

To set the tone the exhibition opened with three iconic (modern) Celtic symbols: an Irish harp, the Druid’s flag and a Pictish stone. And then around the corner were some examples of ancient Celtic art, and video showing the changes in what Celt has meant through the ages – covering along the way the noble barbarians of Roman writings, the Christian monks of Ireland, the national folk heroes of the 19th Century. After this the exhibition fell into two parts: first the historical Celts and then the later re-imagining of Celtic identity.

The ancient Celtic artifacts were laid out in several cases in one long sweeping room, with curved trails on the ceiling which you could use as a guide for how to travel between the cases. I hope they did that on purpose (I’m sure they did), because it seemed awfully thematically appropriate. The central theme of this whole room was that the ancient Celts were many different peoples & tribes, but they were linked by shared culture, art style and languages. So it seemed appropriate to be moving between the disparate cases following a line drawn from their art style. An important difference between Celtic art and the contemporary Greek art was that the Celts weren’t interested in naturalistic representations. Of course the abstract swirls and so on aren’t naturalistic, but even their portrayals of animals (as in the jug I have a picture of below) are stylised rather than realistic. (That jug is one of the Basse-Yutz Flagons, found in France dating to 400-360BCE – I took this picture a couple of years ago, one of the pair is on display in the Iron Age Europe room in the British Museum, and it’s one of my favourite items to go & see.)

Jug With Hunting Dogs and Duck Decoration

The items in this room were grouped thematically rather than by culture, to emphasise the commonalities. Near the beginning of the space was a reminder that they shared so much because the world was a connected world then as it is now – trade links people – and one of the cases that was particularly striking was a selection of torcs from right across the Celtic region. They were all recognisably the same thing, but different areas had different styles. Some were big and powerful looking, some were beautiful and delicately made. I particularly liked a big silver one from southwest Germany which had bulls heads as the terminals. And then as counterpoint to that case there was a hoard of torcs that was discovered in Scotland – there are several different styles of torc in this hoard, but all were made locally and inspired by exotic foreign designs.

As well as traders the Celts were also warriors. One of the items in the exhibition for this theme was a carynx – a boar headed warhorn. They had both an original and a replica, and a recording of a replica being played, which was rather cool. They also had a replica chariot, based on fittings found in a grave in Wetwang, Yorkshire dating to c.200 BCE, which I was a bit surprised to see had some basic sort of suspension rather than being completely solid.

The Celts also went in for feasting in a big way – the Greek writers thought the Celts were very fond of their wine. And to serve their feasts they had ornate vessels, some of which have also been discovered in graves for feasting in the afterlife. The pièce de résistance here was the Grundestrup Cauldron, which I would’ve loved to’ve taken photos of but had to settle for a postcard instead – which shows the same bit of decoration as the photo below (which I found on wikipedia with a licence that meant I could use it). It’s not actually my favourite bit of the decoration – that was the bit with the warriors playing carynxs.

Picture of the Gundestrup Cauldron
Gundestrup Cauldron Decoration, photo by Malene Thyssen.

The next section of the exhibition looked at the impact of Roman conquest on Celtic art, and identity. In continental Europe the Celtic style pretty much vanished in favour of Roman art. The situation in Britain was more complex – Britain was conquered relatively late, and never completely, so it was more of a frontier and never fully assimilated culturally into the Empire. There was definitely some Roman art in Britain of course – for instance they had on display a statue of Nero found in East Anglia around the time of Boudicea. And there was also some amalgamation of gods (and associated iconography). But Celtic art styles and culture also became a badge of “not Roman”, particularly around the periphery of the Empire on both sides of the border. Torcs, for instance, became more elaborate and are used as a statement of cultural identity (as opposed to just of status within the culture).

The exhibition then moved on to a time after the Romans left and after the Anglo-Saxons arrived. In this period the Celts were once again the periphery of the main culture of the British Isles – the “not Anglo-Saxon” peoples living at the western & northern edges. These post-Roman Celts were Christians, and their Christianity had an art & devotional style that was distinctively Celtic. The items that caught my eye in this section were a large (replica) stone cross from Iona, and at the other end of the scale the St Chad Gospels. For all their Christianity they still kept telling some of their original mythological stories – we know this because they were written down later in the medieval period in manuscripts like the Book of the White Earl.

The last couple of sections of the exhibition left behind the historical Celts and moved on to the later rediscovery & re-imagining of Celtic identity. There’s no evidence that the historical Celts ever thought of themselves as Celtic, and once the Romans had left Britain no-one else called them Celts either. This changed with the Renaissance, when scholars returned the old Greek/Roman term to use, but redefined it as specifically the people of the north-west of the British Isles rather than a Europe-wide culture. Books from the 17th Century tended to depict the ancient Celts in a very similar way to the way contemporary artists depicted Native Americans, and this theme continued through to some Victorian art as well. Even down to skin tone in some cases, as if the peoples met on the other side of the world had to be physically similar to ancient peoples because all were considered “noble savages”! The mind boggles.

From the 1750’s onwards the Celts and their mythology & history were retold in romanticised tales. For instance in 1760 there was a book publised by James Macpherson which purported to be a translation of work by the Celtic bard Ossiam. It was enormously popular, inspiring paintings and sculpture, and admired across Europe by people such as Goethe & Napoleon. Even after it was revealed to be the fabrication of Macpherson and not remotely ancient nor Celtic it still retained a lot of influence. The later 19th Century Celtic Revival was based a little bit more in fact – archaeological discoveries like the Tara brooch inspired jewellery designs and pattern books. Rennie Mackintosh’s work is a part of this movement and the part that I like. The part that I’m rather less fond of is what I’d characterise as Victorian twee-ness, and they had several examples of such things. There’d been a Victorian statue of Caractacus earlier in the exhibition that fell into this category, and also a few rather twee paintings of Celtic myths (like John Duncan’s The Riders of the Sidhe). And they also had the regalia of the National Eistedfodd in the exhibition, all my notes say is “Victorian invention, twee beyond belief!”.

The exhibition finished with a look at Celtic identity today. Again, it’s political and political in a “we’re not that lot” sense just as it was back in Anglo-Saxon times or Roman times. Nowadays of course it’s English that a Celt is not. As the English born & brought up child of Scottish parents I personally don’t see myself as either English or Scottish, preferring to call myself British. But the parts of the Celtic diaspora that headed to the US in particular have a different way to look at it. The exhibition noted that there are more people who identify as Irish in the US than there are in Ireland! And in Ireland itself Celtic identity is a powerful political statement – the mythological Irish hero Cúchulainn is now a big part of Irish Nationalist identity.

I really liked this exhibition (I even went to see it twice!), although I preferred the earlier sections about the historical Celts to the later parts about the re-imagined Celtic identity 🙂

In Our Time: The Roman Republic

The Roman Republic was the subject of an In Our Time episode all the way back in 2004 – we listened to it last August while there weren’t any new In Our Times airing. It’s a pretty broad subject for a 45 minute programme – 500 years of history plus its rise and fall – so of necessity it was painting with fairly broad brushstrokes and looking at themes and commonalities across the centuries. Tackling it were Greg Woolf (St Andrews University), Catherine Steel (University of Glasgow) and Tom Holland (historian and author). (NB: Institutions presumably out of date, it being 12 years ago.)

They started by talking about the foundational myths of the Republic as the stories they told themselves shaped how the Republic functioned. This isn’t Romulus and Remus – they are a foundational myth for the city – instead the two key stories are the rape of Lucretia and Horatius on the bridge. Lucretia was raped by the son of the King of Rome, and afterwards she committed suicide whilst calling on her kin to avenge her. This sparked an uprising (led by a man called Brutus) which drove out King Tarquin. Following this the Romans declared they would have no more kings. The second legend follows on directly from this one* – Tarquin didn’t take kindly to losing his kingdom like this, and enlisted the support of one of the nearby Etruscan cities. He returned to Rome at the head of an army and it seemed like the Romans were going to be forced to take their king back. However before this could happen Horatius stepped forward to stand on the bridge the army were marching over. He and two companions held off the army for long enough for the bridge to be destroyed behind them, preventing the army from reaching the city. So you have this ideal that the people will rule themselves (with no kings) and when a hero is needed a citizen will step forward to give his own life for his city.

*Well, that’s the way they told the legend on the programme, when looking it up on wikipedia to check spellings of names I saw that there it’s set much later in the Republic’s history – the point remains the same though.

The Roman Republic was the first constitutional democracy meaning that people were voted into positions of responsibility. (Athens was a direct democracy, where everyone voted on what should be done.) The political structure was based on sharing power around in two different ways. Firstly the many powers that a king had once had were distributed between several people. Secondly any given person only held a particular office for a short term (rather than for life). The ephemerality of power and glory were a key concept for the Republic. A consul was consul for a year. A general who’d won a victory was given a triumph and treated like a god for a day. Theatres and celebratory buildings (like triumphal arches) were temporary structures. Even the permanent infrastructure buildings weren’t built of stone but of more ephemeral materials. Which puts the Emperor Augustus “coming to Rome a city of brick and leaving it a city of marble” (as discussed on the In Our Time about the Augustan Age (post)) in a different light: that’s not just an upgrade to the buildings, that’s a change of ethos.

Clearly the Republic wasn’t static over its 500 years of history – in particular the balance of power between the people and the aristocracy was constantly shifting and evolving. But it was at heart a very conservative society which looked back to a prior Golden Age. Much was written in later days in the Republic about how it had been better in the early days (before whatever the most recent crisis had been) – and this genre includes most of the surviving texts written about how the Republic was founded. Changes were often brought in by announcing that they were returns to the ways things were done in the past – whether or not this was actually true. This continues after the Republic as well – they brought up on the programme that Augustus’s propaganda cast the beginning of the Empire as a restoration of the good old days of the Republic.

The end of the Republic can be thought of as it becoming a victim of its own success. Before they went out and conquered such vast lands it was possible for every key political figure to come back every year to Rome and vote for the new Consuls and so on. And when your campaigns only last a year and are nearby then the army can be based on the idea of farmer-soldier citizens. Every able-bodied land-owning male citizen was supposed to enlist – easily done when he comes back in time for harvest, but what do you do about his farm if he’s on campaign for 5 years at a time? And once the land-owning requirement was abolished where do long term soldiers retire to when they’re done in the army? The Senate generally prevaricated over the provision of awards and recompense to these retired soldiers – which left a gap for the generals of the armies to fill. And if your reward would come from the charismatic general you were serving under, then your loyalty would be to him first rather than to Rome or to the Senate.

The Triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus and Caesar (the first stage in the transition from Republic to Empire) can be seen as having grown out of Pompey not liking his downgrade in status when he returned to Rome. Whilst out campaigning in the East he had been treated like a king, back home in Rome he was only one amongst equals. And not a particularly important one at that – having been away he was out of the loop, politically speaking. The experts said that Caesar’s motivation was probably that he saw there as being only so many “slots” for important people in any new regime and he wanted to make sure he occupied one of them.

The defining point for the end of the Republic was the crossing of the Rubicon by Caesar and his army. The Rubicon is a river between Italy and Gaul, and it marked the boundary between the provinces (where a general could be a king in all but name) and the core territories (where the general was no more important than any other aristocrat). The tradition was that you could not bring your army with you into the core – and so Caesar camps on the other side, which makes the Senate nervous. He’s given the choice between dismissing his army and crossing himself, or taking his army and leaving. But Caesar knows that if he does this then he loses all the power he’s worked for – and so he brings his army across the Rubicon.

I said that was the defining point of the end, but as they discussed on the programme that’s only obvious with hindsight. It probably wasn’t clear to the Romans that the Republic was gone forever until one Emperor inherited from another … and perhaps not even until an Emperor was deposed and yet still the Republic was not not restored.

In Our Time: The Estruscan Civilisation

The Etruscans were one of the other cultures to live in Italy in the 1st Millenium BCE. They are often overlooked in favour of the Romans (who conquered them), but they were a power in their day and even ruled over Rome for a while early in its history. They were the subject of an In Our Time episode from 2011 which we listened to recently, and discussing Etruscan history and culture were Phil Perkins (Open University), David Ridgway (University of London) and Corinna Riva (University College London).

The Etruscan culture began around 800 BCE and lasted for the next 800 or so years. They lived north of Rome in an area roughly the same as modern Tuscany – the similarity of the words Etruscan and Tuscany is not a coincidence. Their origins are obscure, Herodotus said they came from Lydia (in modern Turkey) and there is some controversial DNA evidence that suggests a Middle Eastern origin but as described by Perkins* this is unconvincing. The study only looked at Y chromosome sequences from modern inhabitants of Tuscany, and it’s not clear how (or if) they decided who was likely to’ve been descended from the Etruscans. Nor did their results give any indication of when this Middle Eastern origin was so it’s not clear if it has any bearing on distinguishing the Etruscans from other inhabitants of Italy – after all, most of our ancestors in Europe came via the Middle East on the way out of Africa many 10s of millennia ago! The consensus from the experts on the programme was that this was all rather implausible, and it was more likely that their immediately preceding history was as inhabitants of Italy. Interestingly, however, their language is not an Indo-European language and has no modern relatives.

*Perkins didn’t explain it terribly well though – I wasn’t clear if he didn’t understand it very well or if he just wasn’t producing a coherent explanation.

There is not much surviving textual evidence from the Etruscans themselves – most of what is written down is by the Romans. There is no surviving Etruscan literature at all, and only a few inscriptions. These are in both temples and tombs and written in a modified Greek alphabet, but they just tend to name people or gods and give genealogies. Why there is no literature is an interesting question with no clear answer. It seems implausible that they didn’t produce any written literature – given the time and place where they lived, and the level of sophistication, wealth and power shown by the archaeological evidence. This implies that the literature was destroyed – and one persistent theory is that there was a purge during the time of the Roman Empire (after Claudius was Emperor, I think they said) to wipe out the memory of their rival civilisation. Nobody on the programme was willing to say that this was true, but they seemed to agree that it was pretty plausible it’s just there’s no evidence for it one way or the other.

In contrast to the paucity of texts from the Etruscans there is a wealth of archaeological evidence. The way they phrased it on the programme was that in Tuscany it’s not the Roman ruins you go to see, it’s the Etruscan ones. Even by the standards of Italy this is an area rich in ancient sites. Tombs and graveyards are the main sources of information about the Etruscans – these sites include grave goods, wall paintings and some inscriptions. A few temples and city buildings have also been excavated.

Thinking of the Etruscans as a state is anachronistic. Like Greek culture of the time they were a group of independent city states which shared a common language, culture and religion. Their religion is only known from what the Romans wrote about it, but it appears to’ve been different in emphasis to the surrounding cultures. The origin story for their religion is someone (a mythical/mystical figure) teaching them how to interpret the omens. The worshipper doesn’t pray to the gods and ask them for help or favours. Instead one’s religious duty is to interpret the messages the gods are sending via signs & portents – a one way route of communication.

The 6th Century BCE was the heyday of the Etruscan culture. The hills of Tuscany have rich mineral deposits including both tin and copper. Together these metals make bronze – and so were much sought after at the time. The Etruscans could not only outfit their own people with weapons and tools, but also traded extensively around the Mediterranean. They were later called a warlike people, but the consensus on the programme was that there’s no evidence of them being worse than anyone else at the time. This was, after all, a warlike period. Their artistic culture is sometimes dismissed as “copying the Greeks but getting it wrong” but the experts were unanimous in declaring this bobbins (rather more politely tho). The Etruscans had a sophisticated artistic and architectural style, which had clearly been influenced by the Greeks but was also uniquely their own. They did often employ imported Greek artists, as they were seen as the best of their day. Ridgway referred to their style as being less bland than the Classical Greek style.

The Etruscans had an influence on Roman art, culture and politics. This is not surprising, as Rome is not very far from Etruscan territory and early in its history it was “just another city state” rather than being the juggernaut of empire that it later became. Early in Roman history they were even ruled by one of the Etruscan city states. Later however the Romans conquered and assimilated the Etruscans. As pointed out above, the Etruscans weren’t one cohesive unit so the Romans could conquer them a bit at a time rather than face all of them en masse. They had influence in the Roman political arena much later than one might expect, given they were conquered by Rome around the 4th Century BCE. The Emperor Augustus was supported during the civil war (preceding him becoming Emperor) by several old Etruscan families. These families were the aristocracy of the old Etruscan city states but had been assimilated into the Roman society and political elite by this point. However they were seen as a distinct and influential cultural bloc, that was necessary to get “on side” if you were making a power play. Later still Claudius was married to the daughter of one of these families (who persuaded him to write a history of the Etruscans, now sadly vanished without trace).

I knew pretty much nothing about the Etruscans before I listened to this programme, beyond the simple fact of their existence. I know the British Museum has a room displaying their culture, and this programme has made me want to have a proper look at it sometime.