Etruscans have always been one of the most mysterious of ancient
civilizations, which voyagers of previous centuries experienced
chiefly from their exquisitely frescoed tombs spread over Central
Italy. The Etruscan civilization appeared, flourished and spread
for nine centuries. An inevitable decline followed; the Etruscans
were finally absorbed by the rising militant Roman state, leaving
behind little writing. Their origins are obscure and their language
frescoes depict magical religious lives full of banquets, dancing,
music and a preoccupation with the hereafter. Their lives were
filled with demons and deities. Sacred books dealing with their
rituals and accumulated knowledge constituted the Etruscan
Discipline, a unity of theory and practice concerning the
interpretation of signs given to man. Their deities were Jupiter,
Juno, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Minerva, and their terrible
Although the Etruscan
alphabet presents no great difficulties (it derives from the Greek),
the language itself is isolated among known languages. Its absence
of voiced consonantsa morphology different from Indo-European
languagesits extensive use of suffixes, our lack of knowledge
of its verbs, and the limited number of known Etruscan word roots
have obscured comprehension of the few surviving longer Etruscan
Greek and Latin
translations have aided scholars through the centuries, but they
are too few in number to reconstruct a literature that must have
been rich, considering the Etruscan's level of culture and civilization.
Yet literary historians do not doubt the Etruscan impact on Roman
In the I 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 couldnt find ones way out
without a ball of thread." [quo si quis improperet sine
glomere lini, exitum invenire nequeat.]
Pliny wrote about
everything of importance in his epoch. Anticipating "indirect
TV journalism," this special correspondent tackled the arcane
mysteries of the ancient world with a modern spirit. His worlds
four great labyrinthin Egypt, Crete, Lemnos, and in Etruscan
Chiusifell beneath his pen. Pliny died while covering the
volcanic eruption that buried the cities of Pompei and Herculaneum
on August 23 in the year 79 A.D.
His scoop on
Porsennas labirinto italico surely would have
earned him the Pulitzer Prize today. His reportage became the
basis for two thousand years of speculation such as no other journalist
has ever accomplished; simultaneously, he ignited a gold fever
among descendants of the casual, fun-loving, mystical king that
has persisted until today.
Pliny, the stone mausoleum was 300 feet wide and 50 feet high.
Atop the monument were five 150-foot tall pyramids, across the
points of which was fixed a bronze globe from which bells hung.
Their ting ting ting echoed through the surrounding hills
of Etruria. And atop the bronze globe, four additional 100-foot
pyramids, and on top of those five more, and so on and so on.
Photographs of reconstructions of King Porsennas mausoleum
reveal a striking resemblance to the temples in Petra, Jordan
and to the Lama-Buddhist temple in Peking.
that monument base and thus deep under the hill of the town of
Chiusi was concealed the fabulous labyrinth of the legendary king
of the Etruscans. Today, the labyrinth is concealed under the
hill visible from the Autostrada del Sole, 90 minutes north of
Rome. Comparable to the catacombs of Rome, the Chiusi labyrinth
radiates through several levels; it is home to a vast number of
tunnels, caves, caverns, cisterns, cavities, grottos and galleries.
Shafts plunge from the town above into a veritable subterranean
Legend or history? The fog
of time clouds our vision of an age that thrived on the wonders
and miracles sufficient to stagger the imagination of stubborn
moderns. Pliny was the historian of a Roman world that knew no
limits to magic and the occult. Jesus of Nazareth had just delivered
his message of the dawn of a new world at the other end of the
Mediterranean. A new universal man was being born in the ancient
world. For men at the center of that world, it was the beginning
chansons de geste of King Porsenna were always based upon a shred
of reality, in that magic and everything-is-possible atmosphere
subsequent Etruscan fables continued to magnify the legend of
the worlds latest labyrinth. From the murky legends lost
in the lost history of the doomed Etruscan civilization emerged
the myth of Porsennas gold.
on Italys north-south Autostrada del Sole 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 how they still identify with
their Etruscan ancestors. One and all, they consider themselves
descendants of Porsenna, the conqueror of Rome.
Despite the halo of legend
surrounding the powerful Etruscan king, his exploits have been
well documented by many historians and writers near to him in
time and spirit. In particular, two major writers of the ancient
world write of Porsennas geste: the Roman, Titus Livy and
the Greek, Dionysius of Halicarnassus. They concur that the high
point of the 3000-year history of Chiusi was King Porsennas
victory over Rome in 506 B.C., while Rome and the Etruscans were
fighting for control over the realm.
The Roman military
historian, Tacitus, describes the exploits of the Etruscan king.
Plutarch 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 victory, allowed the new Roman Republic to exist. True to
casual Etruscan style, he returned north to Chiusi a rich man
ready to dedicate his time to the preparation of his burial site.
Though I had
visited their vases and funeral urns in the museums and their
burial sites in Tarquinia and Cerveteri, I became most curious
about Etruscans after a new generation of experts deciphered the
Etruscan alphabet and demonstrated that the old experts had been
wrong about everything. The Etruscans were not as mysterious as
we had been led to believe. It was all because no one could make
heads or tails of their language. Now we know much more. They
were mystics, yes, but also sea-faring arms merchants trading
in powerful iron weapons. Moreover, they were rich and lazy capitalists
who had slaves to do all the work, man their ships, fight their
wars, and even govern them. In reality, the mysterious Etruscans
of yore had two things in mindfun in the here-and-now and
preparation for the hereafter. I have come even to believe that
their hired sailors and arms merchants reached the Americas before
the Vikings and that Etruscans perhaps had contact with the Olmec
civilization in Mexico. A cursory look at the sculptures and the
features of the two peoples reveals a bewildering affinity.
In my investigations
into the once ambivalent Etruscans I have never found another
place where Etruscan civilization survives more visibly than in
Chiusi, the former Lucumonia of Clevsin--or Camars--which
in the VII century B.C. was the principle city of the great Etruscan
Confederation. I learned that the quickest way to offend contemporary
Chiusini is to remark how ugly are those short and fat,
peace-loving Epicureans depicted on the Etruscan vases in the
museums of the world. For the proud Tuscans of Chiusi boast that
they are Etruscans. They still swoon recollecting their
victory over Rome 2700 years ago.
Like the Celts
in Ireland, the 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 studied so diligently by historians, archeologists, anthropologists
and students of art. Under the influence of the Roman historians,
the Tuscan Renaissance architect Alberti often cited Porsennas
labyrinth as proof of the primacy of Etruscan architecture in
the ancient world. The works of Herodotus, Tacitus, Plautus, Seneca,
Livius, Horace, Ovid, Cicero and Roman Emperor Claudius himself
demonstrate a profound interest in Etruscan civilization on the
part of their Greek and Roman contemporaries.
As far as King Porsenna is
concerned, at the time he returned up the Tiber Valley from conquered
Rome to Chiusi, real history ends and legend begins. For we do
not really know how much the accounts of Plutarch and Tacitus
and Pliny were based on myth and how much on recorded facts.
may be, Tuscans of Chiusi speak of the fabulous Lucumone
Porsenna as if it all happened in the recent past. Most certainly
he built a sarcophagus in the form of a carriage made of gold,
pulled by 12 horses of gold, surrounded by a golden hen and a
brood of 5000 chicks of gold. Of course his treasure was buried
underneath the town in an underground construction and protected
by an impenetrable labyrinth.
labyrinth," folk tales began labeling the kings treasureor
"the labyrinth of the hen," or simply "Porsennas
gold." Legend and folktales shrouded in myth agree on the
existence of the treasure, but not on its precise location. Therefore
every village and 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 towns Cathedral Museum you look out over the Tiber
Valley toward Rome. Rugged Tuscan hills are lined with vineyards
and olive orchards. The silhouettes of eternal cypresses stand
black against the horizons. You are at the crossroads of modern
Italy and at the heart of former Etruriathat gave its name
to Tuscanya civilization lasting from IX century B.C. to
I century A.D. At its peak in the V century B.C., the loosely
knit Confederation of twelve cities, including Camars-Chiusi was
crushed by Gauls from the north and Roman firepower from the south.
AN IMAGINARY ETRUSCAN INTERVIEW IN CHIUSI
"Were mystics," the Etruscanologist says
by way of introduction, waving his hand vaguely 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 are aware that besides Judaism the Etruscan
religion was the only revealed faith of the Mediterranean Basin!
Revealed through the mouth of a child uncovered by a peasant digging
in the fields.
Tagete revealed to Etruscan kings the secrets of the origins of
the universeGod, the creator all things, assigned the world
12,000 years of time. In the first 6,000 He created sky and earth,
seas and rivers, sun, moon, stars, birds and animals, and finally
in the sixth millennium, man. He assigned 6000 years to mankind,
after which the time of man will end."
this religion?" asks the Barnard graduate student, surprised
by that revealed. "What did the Etruscans believe?
What was their faiths role in their lives?"
Professor: The prophecies of Tagete and other semi-gods
were collected in sacred books to form 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 ask me these questions about a vanished civilization.
happens is to announce a future event or is the realization of
a sign the gods had sent earlier. As Seneca points out, for the
Etruscans, facts are not important because they happened, but
because they arrive in order to have a meaning in the future.
before the Roman conquest, Roman aristocrats sent their children
here to Etruria for their educationto learn the Etruscan
Discipline. But later, under Roman domination, Etruscan soothsayers
were considered nothing more than charlatans.
Just goes to
show you the potential or probable future of many of mans
. But that of course 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
afterlife is a mystery too. Which is greater? Porsennas
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 peoplesthe Plains Indians on your continent
too, for exampledid 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 3000-year-old
Since the Renaissance
artists and writers have been enchanted by the legend of the labyrinth.
Renaissance man, with his enthusiastic rediscovery of beauty and
truth, with his faith in creative energy and his spirit for adventure,
reevaluated the classic literature of Greece and Romeafter
all the cradle of culture of Europe and thus of the New World!and
still had little knowledge of the monuments and culture of the
Student: But who were the Etruscans anyway? Where
did they come from?
Professor: Ah, my dear, you land on 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. But just maybe they lived here all
the timeone Etruscanologist claims that the Latin alphabet
comes from the Etruscan. For example, the Italian word Caronte
or your English word Charon derive from the Etruscan demon,
may be, in 1767 the historian Monsignor Mario Guarnacci in his
Origini Italiche claimed the Etruscans artistic superiority
over the Greeks. He identified them with the ancient Pelasgic
people, guided to Italy by Janus-Noah, and he identified their
language as a direct derivation from the Hebrew--from the Samaritan
Oh, it was just
so much rot, all the previous mystification of the Etruscans.
It was only because for such a long time modern scholars couldnt
decipher their language!
Student: But 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. Doesnt that culture count for something historically?
Professor: Times change. 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. I suppose we could make an analogy with the emergence
of your country on the back of its sophisticated technologies
fell because they never understood Rome. Some think the same threat
hangs over Europe vis-à-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 instead. It was at
that point, by the way, that Etruscan nobles began moving to Rome
and integrating into the new society. In the end they wanted to
be like the Romans.
Student: Its so sad. History is unkind. Those
poor Etruscans seemed so peace-loving.
Professor: Youre confusing their art with
their civilization. They were also the biggest arms traffickers
of the epoch, selling murderous weapons made from their iron.
Then, 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
Professor: They lacked stamina. They could have
tried to hold out against history but instead they surrendered.
Whatever their faults, 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.
The lands of the Etruscans extended from Veio at the gates
of Rome to the north. While two centuries of archeologists and
historians have again brought to light Porsennas world,
people of the town of Chiusi have never given up their search
for their kings treasure.
The private lives
of the once mysterious but high-living Etruscans have been documented
in the scenes painted on the walls of their tombs and their vases:
games, banquets, dances and scenes like the "drunken Etruscan
women" and their love for luxury, the figures that lie at
the heart of Renaissance art.
people of Chiusi dig for the treasure. They dig into their labyrinth,
from above, from all sides. They have explored and mapped the
subterranean citya loosely connected underworld of tunnels
and caverns. Yet the mystery of the labyrinth and the mausoleum
has not been unraveled.
Nor has Porsennas
treasure been found.
Myth or legend,
Porsennas gold? Speleologists, archeologists and scholars
continue to investigate and speculate, yet, the labyrinth remains
the stuff of dreams and imaginationand fiction writers.
But Chiusis people are still 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 Porsennas gold. It is just
a matter of time.