I entered the Etruscan exhibit expecting to be charmed by the artifacts of a sweet ancient people. So I was surprised but intrigued to be greeted by a large poster entitled Un eroe tra due monde—A Hero Between Two Worlds.
The exhibit, the mission statement said, was part of a larger project dedicated to Hercules who is “the hero of indomitable strength, but with a fragile humanity and extraordinary courage, fiercely challenged by the hardness of living.” In facing his trials, the statement added, Hercules won immortality. And it was for this reason that he has become a symbol of heroic humanity throughout both ancient and modern art.
The Etruscans were a small people—not tall or concerned with matters of empire. Not heroic by the standards of popular American culture. Or by the standards of ancient Rome where virtue was defined by manliness exhibited in war and therefore not an attribute of women who were praised for their modesty.
Near the beginning of the exhibit was the content of a tomb transferred intact. The artifacts reveal modest living, and the figure in the corner is of person who made me look imposing—as my shadow in the class shows.
Now, I know my one visit to an Etruscan museum and the perusal of several books does not make me an expert. Also, my interest in the Etruscans was part of a personal, not an archeological quest. What that personal observation revealed throughout the exhibit of artifacts from 800 to 200 B.C. was a supremely happy, creative, and peaceful people, particularly in the earliest days of the culture. The
only weapons I saw were in pottery paintings depicting the labors of Hercules.
|Hercules fighting the Nemean Lion|
The Etruscans were primarily artisans, builders, and traders in what was then the global marketplace. They were competitive. But not ruthlessly so. Trade was more what the name implies—exchange, not only of goods but of cultural influences, especially with Greece and Carthage, their chief competitors.
But the small sweet traders were not pushovers. They had warships and used them against Greek and Carthaginian pirates. They also teamed up with Carthage against Rome during the Punic wars. Not for land and or power. Rather they wanted autonomy from Rome that was beginning its power sweep across the world. The small sweet people, of course, lost to the empire. Or did they? More specifically, why were they part of the hero project, exemplars of Hercules and heroic humanity…?