Etruscan Women

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 wives."

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.