To the ancient Greeks and Romans, there was something scandalous about the
Etruscans, especially the Etruscan women. Theopompus, Greek historian of the 4th
century BC, reported that the women enjoyed all the freedoms the men had. In the
streets they walked boldly beside the men and at dinner they reclined beside
them. They took great care of their faces and bodies, removed hair from their
skin with melted wax and took their exercise in the nude. For the Etruscans,
"there is no shame," according to Theopompus, "to be seen
committing a sexual act in public.......when they are at a gathering of friends,
this is what they do: first of all, when they have finished drinking and are
ready for bed and while the torches are still lighted, the servants bring in
sometimes courtesans, sometimes handsome boys and sometimes their own
Theopompus then goes on to tell us that Etruscan women "brought up together
all the children born to them to them regardless of who the father might
be." Roman historians, especially Livy, censured this disregard for the
rights and status of the paterfamilias. Livy contrasts the virtuous Roman mother
with the Etruscan ladies reclining on their banquet couches.
In the absence of any accounts to the contrary, the Greek and Roman views
prevailed. It may well be that a more balanced account was contained in the
history written by Claudius, but sadly it didn't survive.
It was archaeology that has come to the rescue of the Etruscan reputation. The
most revealing discoveries have been the wall paintings in the tombs. They
depict a life a grace, pleasure and luxury that is a far cry from the orgies
that might be imagined from the ancient writers. While they don't directly
contradict the ancient writers, they do put the Etruscan life in a far more
wholesome and appealing light.
The censorious view taken by the Greeks and Romans may be attributed in some
part to military rivalry and economic jealousy. The Etruscans traded with the
Greeks and collected their art but they also joined with the Carthaginians to
fight and defeat them at sea. The Etruscans taught the Romans much of what they
knew about art, culture and graceful living, but they also sent kings to rule
them when Rome was still a struggling city state.