Way back in 590 B.C. or so, an Etruscan married couple named Tanaquil and Tarquin rolled into the two-bit town that was Rome at that time. As they gazed at their new home, an eagle swooped, removed Tarquin’s hat, then returned it to his head. His wife Tanaquil kissed him. “It’s a sign from the gods! You’re going to rule this joint, honey!” Those may not have been her exact words, but her demonstrative love—and her ability to read omens and bird signs, called augury—were typical traits and skills of Etruscan women. Although a man of humble origins, Tarquin did become Rome’s fifth king, ruling with his queen for thirty-seven years.
Researchers still argue over the origins of the Etruscans and their still-enigmatic language. What’s no longer an enigma, though, is the status of women in their culture and the wonderfully warm nature of male-female personal relations. Visual evidence of it glows from the astonishing murals found in Etruscan tombs, as well as on grave goods, bronze sculpture, mirrors, jewelry, and other artifacts.
Etruscan men and women from all walks of life, not just the elite, enjoyed the social mixing of the sexes and expected to have marriages of equals. They also had unembarrassed views about nudity and a frank appreciation of tenderness and love.
What a contrast the Etruscan pictorial evidence and these views were to those of the Greek and Romans! Although the latter two cultures had a keen interest in erotic pleasures, sought love, and experienced it, all too seldom was plain old garden-variety tenderness shown or written about.
Unsurprisingly, they expressed horror at the “decadent” doings of the Etruscans. Greek author Theopompus got quite lathered up about the Etruscan lifestyle. His rumor-based ranting is by turns hysterical and openly envious. The inclusion of women at parties! The wild dancing! The nudity! The promiscuity! Much of what he said is probably pure fiction, but his terror about the autonomy of Etruscan women is real. An excerpt: “Sharing wives is an Etruscan custom. The women take particular care of their bodies and exercise often, sometimes along with the men … It is not a disgrace for them to be seen naked. They do not share their [dining] couches with their husbands but with other men who happen to be present, and they propose toasts to anyone they choose. They are expert drinkers and very attractive.”
Although Greeks, Romans, and other cultures engaged in a stunning array of sexual activities, the Etruscans of Italy were nearly unique in demonstrating tenderness and affection as well.
Other authors added their own spurious assertions. In his comic plays of the second century B.C., Roman playwright Plautus claimed that before marriage, Etruscan women sold their bodies in order to collect a dowry.
Around A.D. 40, Roman emperor Claudius wed his first wife, a woman with Etruscan antecedents; later he wrote a long history of the Etruscans which did not survive. If it ever turns up, the work of Claudius might prove a balanced look at a long-ago culture both passionate and dispassionate.
Etruscan women may have been the first truly emancipated females in early history. They routinely dined with their men (and guests), socialized with their friends, moved about in public, and freely offered their opinions (and sometimes their favors). On bronze sculpture and other art, married couples are portrayed as gently caressing and touching the faces of their loved ones. In addition, they appeared to be very caring mothers, judging by the multiplicity of art objects depicted a mom tenderly breast-feeding her child.
The autonomy and freedom of movement of Etruscan women was extraordinary; so was the local custom of giving and receiving hands-on affection. It is hard to reconcile these beautifully depicted gestures of love and affection with the hard reality of other Etruscan traditions—such as gladiatorial matches, which originated in the funeral games held for Etruscan nobles.