A Mysterious People

Robert E. Howard’s interests ranged widely, but strong among them was his fascination with the ancient world and the different branches of the human race. That antique people of northern Italy, the Etruscans or Tuscans, caught his attention, but little was really known about them in his lifetime. Even the words Etruscan and Etruria are Roman in origin. Their name for themselves was Rasenna. The Greeks called them Tyrrhenians, and the Tyrrhene Sea between Tuscany and Provence still carries that name. The Adriatic on the other side of the Italian peninsula derives its name from Etruscan influence too. They were famous sailors. They could have given Ulysses a run for his money.

No-one could read their language in REH’s day. It wasn’t Indo-European, as most of Europe’s ancient languages, from the Celtic lands across to Persia, were. The Etruscans and the Basques were among the few remnants of an older time, speaking tongues unrelated to the others. Part of the fascination for Howard may have been that very mystery. In September of 1930, He wrote the following to H.P. Lovecraft:

I agree with you that the Tuscans influenced Roman physiognomy and character greatly. And that brings up another question – who were the Tuscans and from where did they come? I would certainly like to see your views on the subject.

Lovecraft must have responded, because in a return letter REH said:

Your remarks on the Etruscans interested me very much. I am sure you are right in believing them to be of a very composite type of Semite and Aryan. It’s a pity no more is known about them; doubtless their full history was a spectacular pageant of wars, intrigues and culture development. Where did they have their beginning? What unknown tribes went into their making? Was it conquest, friendship or pressure from some common foe which brought together and mingled these alien race-stocks into one people? Was this mingling accomplished in three or four generations or did it require the passing of a thousand years? In what secluded valley did these people slowly and peacefully climb the ladder of evolution, or over what wastelands were they harried by what nameless enemies? Did they spring into being in Italy, or did they come from some far land? And if the latter, what drove them from their original homeland and what chance flung them on the Italian coasts? These are questions whose answers we doubtless shall never know, and after all, may be asked of almost any race.

Not much later, in October of the same year, Howard wrote:

I am much taken with your suggestion for tying up the Etruscans with an Elder World civilization and mean to have a fling at it some day, though my notions about them now are so hazy that it will require a great deal of study of their ways and customs before I would be able to write intelligently about them.

Other people seemed to think so too. I remember reading only two historical novels about the Etruscans. They were pretty widely separated as to quality. One was The Etruscan  (1956), by Mika Waltari, who had written the very fine The Egyptian as well. Lars Turms, the Etruscan, is a superstitious and deeply religious man, like all his people. He travels widely, seeking the secret of his identity, a difficult task as he’s lost his memory. And the other – going from the sublime to the ridiculous – was Lord of the Etruscans, a slim paperback in a cheap 1960s series of pseudo-historicals that were basically lightweight soft porn. Banquet orgies and fine Roman girls captured by lustful Etruscan pirates. I can’t remember anything about it except the title.

That has always struck me as fairly odd. The Etruscans, even from the little that’s known about them, were a fascinating people. REH could have written a rip-roaring adventure story with Etruscan characters, either as villains or heroes, since at their height they contested for control of the western Mediterranean in a three-cornered struggle with the Greeks and Carthaginians. They were skilled seamen, notorious pirates and superb metal-workers. Their religious ideas were quite dark and emphasized the horrors of an afterlife in hell. Their demons were pretty frightening. They invented gladiatorial contests to honor their great men at their funeral games. Rome copied the practice and made it a public sport for bloody entertainment a good deal later. The Etruscans dominated Roman political life in Rome’s early days and provided several of its kings – most famously, “the great house of Tarquin.” By the early days I mean before the Republic.

Howard’s interest in “tying up the Etruscans with an Elder World civilization” and meaning “to have a fling at it some day” could mean that he liked the idea of ascribing (fictionally) the Etruscans’ origin to the former ages of Conan and – perhaps – of Kull. The Etruscans were an ancient race, Mediterranean, and dark in complexion. They had that much in common with REH’s fictional Picts. I forget which Bran Mak Morn story it comes from, but at one point a captive legionary (I think) taken before Bran, asks who he is and receives the reply, “A Mediterranean.” The captive says skeptically, “Of Caledonia?” and Bran tells him, “Of the world.” As to the physical difference between Bran and his gnarled, stunted subjects in the heather, the king says, “I am as the race was.”

The story “The Lost Race” also features Picts, but they are not like Bran Mak Morn or his subjects. This is a branch of the Pictish race that inhabits Cornwall, and has been driven from the daylight by the invading Celts, living in caves and ravines and becoming on average scarcely four feet tall – the “little people”, the “dark elves” of legend. But they still call themselves Picts. Cororuc, the Briton of the story, finds that unlikely. In REH’s words:

I have fought Picts in Caledonia,” the Briton protested; “they are short but massive and misshapen; not at all like you!

They are not true Picts,” came the stern retort. “Look about you, Briton,” with a wave of an arm, “you see the remnants of a vanishing race; a race that once ruled Britain from sea to sea.

The speaker, the priest of the little people, says the difference exists because the northern Picts bred with “ … the red-haired giants we drove out so long ago, and became a race of monstrous dwarfs … ” He also declares that his people, originally and long ago, had come “ … from the south. Over the islands, over the Inland Sea.”

That sounds a lot like the Mediterranean. REH might well have theorized that the Etruscans – and the Basques as well, who also spoke a non-Indo-European language – had descended from the Picts of the age of Conan, mixed with other elder world peoples like the Zingarans and Shemites. The Picts who originally “ruled Britain from sea to sea”, a dark Mediterranean folk, could perhaps be identified with the prehistoric beaker people, and also with the Firbolgs of Irish legend, the “people of the leather boats”. The ancient priest of “The Lost Race” says to Cororuc that “… many of us made boats and set sail for the far-off cliffs that gleamed white in the sunlight.”

On that imagined basis, the branch of the race that remained behind in the south could have settled in Tuscany.

Well, anybody can wonder what sort of fictional use Robert Howard might make of the Etruscans. He was interested in the role they’d played in actual history, too. They became prominent in northern Italy from about 700 BCE. Herodotus (writing in 440 BCE) asserted that the Etruscans had originally come from Lydia, in western Asia Minor, and left the place because of famine. Possibly just a legend he was repeating. Agreed, the old boy is known and respected as “the father of history”, but in some quarters he’s also called the father of lies. Virgil, in his epic The Aeneid also said the Etruscans came from Lydia. But Virgil wasn’t even a historian; he was an epic poet. The Aeneid  is as fictional as anything REH ever wrote.

Recent DNA analyses of cattle, though, had a result that this fantasy writer and fan thinks is pretty gratifying. It indicates that Herodotus and Virgil may have been right on target. If they were … record another point for the core of truth in legends and myths.

Marco Pellecchia and his colleagues took samples of cell material from cattle in the north, south and center of Italy, and compared it with that of cattle from Anatolia. Almost sixty per cent of that particular bovine DNA – in cows from central Tuscany – matched that of cows from Anatolia. Elsewhere in Italy, the team found no such congruence. There haven’t been any traces – genetic or archaeological – of Etruscan culture found anywhere between Anatolia and Italy, either, except possibly on the Greek island of Lemnos, the site of inscriptions in a language that appears related to Etruscan. Taken with the Etruscans’ known status in the ancient world as bold and expert mariners, this does suggest that they came to northern Italy by sea, bringing significant numbers of cattle with them.

By “they” I don’t mean the entire population. Probably the Lydians were a comparatively small number of immigrants, but more advanced culturally and technologically than the native inhabitants they found and dominated. I’m no anthropologist – but those would most likely have belonged to the indigenous Villanovan culture of the same region. The Villanovan was the first Iron Age culture in central and northern Italy. Greek traders and seamen had been bringing their influence to the area for a few generations before the (still hypothetical) Lydians arrived, after which the Etruscan culture arose without a significant break. The newcomers brought their language, their script, their sailing skills and probably their metallurgical techniques, and imposed them on their subjects. The Tuscan region was rich in iron and copper ores, along with other metals – notably silver. By exploiting them, the Etruscans grew wealthy and expanded.

They also became highly effective in war. Huge resources of iron meant weapons and armor in plenty. It wasn’t regarded as the metal of the god Mars for nothing.

They were great craftsmen, metal-workers and even engineers, as the Romans were after them, building on the heritage the Etruscans left. They were fine city planners, even laying out their necropoli to a gridded street design. As mariners the Etruscans were better than the Romans ever became, more skillful and enterprising. They were certainly formidable warriors. As artists they seem to have had more passion, verve and life in their work than the Romans who succeeded them – whether wall paintings, pottery or bronzes. Roman art always seemed rigid and cold to me.

Two Etruscan bronzes in particular are very famous – the magnificent “Chimera of Arezzo” and the Capitoline she-wolf. The chimera, a fabulous monster, looks alive enough to spring at you. In myth it was the hero Bellerophon, riding Pegasus, who killed the thing, which in some descriptions had the forequarters of a lioness, the hindquarters of a goat, a venomous serpent for a tail, and three heads – of a goat, a lioness, and a huge snake, all breathing fire. More anciently it was supposed to have only two main heads. The lioness’s grew on the shoulders in the normal place, the goat’s out of its back about half-way down the spine. That’s how the bronze of Arezzo depicts it. The she-wolf is a splendid and lifelike piece of work, too, but it’s been established that the twins, Romulus and Remus, suckling at its teats, were added during the Renaissance. Otherwise I’d be tempted to wonder if even that legend had been Etruscan to begin with and the Romans had swiped it.

The Etruscans began to extend their power southwards during the eighth century BCE, and in the Tiber region they found nothing but scattered, unimpressive little villages. They brought the area within Etruria, holding not only north-western but also central Italy, and they created a prosperous town. They gave it what every growing town needs, unromantic though the concept is – a functioning and sufficiently large sewer, the Cloaca Maxima. (By contrast, in medieval England, where villages notoriously did not have sewers, the local stream was often known as Crap Creek or the equivalent.)

Etruscan engineers drained the fever-ridden marsh between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, where the Forum would stand later. They built city walls around the Capitoline. Tarquinius Priscus, father of Tarquin the Proud, was credited with building the first Circus Maximus and starting construction on the Temple of Jupiter. Etruscan culture also provided many of the most lasting and potent sacred symbols and offices in Rome. The Romans owed the vault, the arch and their alphabet to their lively northern neighbors, possibly the toga, and certainly gladiatorial contests (originally part of great men’s funeral services). The Haruspices, the Roman priestly diviners, were derived from Etruria. Even the purple robes worn by emperors were copied from the Etruscans, like the fasces, the emblem of the rods and the axe.

In later times the Romans ignored and swept under the carpet their debt to the Etruscan culture. The Etruscans were remembered as their enemies, who provided nothing, but tyrant kings the brave Romans had kicked out, and good riddance. They were also described – by the Romans, I ask you – as people of lax sexual morality whose women were trollops. In later Roman times the word “Etruscan” was used with almost the same meaning as whore. But for promiscuous and public sex the Etruscans would have had to go far to outdo the people of Pompeii – a Roman town.

The Greeks took the same view. I refer you to Jaime Kozlowski’s website The Etruscans, in particular the section titled “Society of Scandalous Pleasures.” She quotes the Greek historian Theopompus of Chios (378-320 BCE) as stating that Etruscan women were given to sex with a number of partners even in the presence of their husbands, and that the men preferred boys and youths to women anyway – which from an ancient Greek writer had an unblushing pot-and-kettle aplomb you have to admire. His Histories: Book 43 says,

Sharing wives is an established Etruscan custom. Etruscan women take particular care of their bodies and exercise often, sometimes along with the men, and sometimes by themselves. It is not a disgrace for them to be seen naked. They do not share their couches with their husbands but with the other men who happen to be present, and they propose toasts to anyone they choose. They are expert drinkers and very attractive.

The Etruscans raise all the children that are born, without knowing who their fathers are. The children live the way their parents live, often attending drinking parties and having sexual relations with all the women. It is no disgrace for them to do anything in the open or to be seen having it done to them, for they consider it a native custom. So far from thinking it disgraceful, they say when someone asks to see the master of the house, and he is making love, that he is doing so-and-so, calling the indecent action by its name.

It appears completely wrong that Etruscan women didn’t share couches with their husbands at feasts. One of the most famous pieces of Etruscan art, the “sarcophagus of the spouses,” depicts just that. Etruscan women kept their own names after marriage, could own property, and were allowed to attend public sporting events, To Greeks and Romans, who kept their wives and daughters shut in the home, this reeked of immorality, and indicated that Etruscan women took part in licentious revels. One of the Romans’ favorite villains from the time of the Roman-Etruscan wars was Sextus Tarquinius, a treacherous and cowardly rapist. Of his Roman host’s wife, who committed suicide to restore her honor.

A famous and stirring poem to immortalize that viecrovwpoint was Lord Macaulay’s How Horatius Kept the Bridge. Stalwart Roman heroes as the good guys, invading Tuscans supporting the tyrant Tarquin as the bad guys, and the Tarquin king’s son Sextus the most despicable of the lot; “false Sextus, that wrought the deed of shame.” Shakespeare also wrote a long poem based on the event – or legend.

That takes us back to the everlasting theme of the difference between what actually happened on the day, and the official version the winners cobbled together afterwards. The very tradition that there were seven kings of Rome before the Republic was founded – the ancient magic number – sounds like legend. Besides, from the founding in 753 down to the year the Tarquins were deposed and banished forever – 509 – makes two hundred and forty-four. The length of the average reign would then have been thirty-five years — too long for that bloody and short-lived time. A dozen or fifteen kings over such a period would be more likely.

The Romans maintained that after Romulus, Numa Pompilius (a Sabine who had been chosen king by popular acclaim) and Numa’s grandson Ancus Marcius, there were only two Etruscan kings of Rome. The first was Lucius Tarquin the Elder, who became King of Rome after an omen involving an eagle – and more realistically, after rising in the favor of Ancus Marcius, becoming the guardian of his two sons, and then outmaneuvering them for the succession after Marcius died. A matter of shifty wheeling and dealing for votes before the king’s funeral obsequies were even complete.

He’s supposed to have led the Romans to victory against the Sabines, the Latins, and even the Etruscans, his own people, as well as beginning to build the Temple of Jupiter, introducing gladiatorial games, and packing the lesser nobility with emigre Etruscans to support him in power. Then he was killed by assassins sent by the disgruntled sons of Ancus Marcius. They didn’t regain the throne, though. Tarquin’s widow Tanaquil pretended her husband was still alive and installed his son-in-law Servius Tullius on the throne as an alleged stopgap king until Tarquin recovered – which naturally he didn’t. Tullius’s rule became permanent. Tanaquil was evidently as politically tricky as her husband had been.

Tarquin’s son, Lucius Tarquin the Proud, then overthrew the ageing Tullius in an outrageously unlawful coup d’etat. He’s supposed to have become a ruthless, arrogant tyrant whom the Romans kicked out in a revolution, along with his entire clan. The facts, while unknown in detail, are without doubt a lot less tidy. Early Rome was dominated by Etruscan culture – to which it owed a lot – and swarmed with Etruscan adventurers and chieftains, or lucumos, from their loose confederation of cities in Tuscany. They rivaled the Romans and each other in confused, complicated power struggles. No doubt several Etruscan hard men ruled Rome before being overthrown or killed by the next to triumph.

The Romans never really became a big deal in the ancient world until after they conquered and absorbed Etruria. Until then, the contest for dominion of the western Mediterranean was between the Carthaginians of North Africa, the Etruscans, and the Greek colonists of southern Italy and Sicily. They were all good mariners and considerable sea powers; they were all enterprising traders and jealous of their markets. The Greeks described the Etruscans as pirates, which without doubt they often were. Piracy was regarded as legitimate so long as it was practiced against foreigners; since the first effective fighting ships were built it had also been, in Mary Renault’s words, an “ancient and aristocratic sport.” But “pirate” was also a word applied freely to anybody who was carrying on merchant activity by sea where you would like to be yourself.

They all possessed swift fighting galleys that made very effective raiding ships. Built for speed and maneuverability, they usually had either one bank of oars (pentaconter) or two (bireme). Herodotus wrote that the Etruscans had invented the ramming beak on a warship’s prow to hole the enemy. They seem to have derived their ship design largely from the Phoenicians, but they modified them. The stem-and stern-posts curved more sharply. Like the later Vikings, they placed their oars low within the hull by passing them through holes in the boards, so protecting the rowers, and hung shields along the rail. Etruscans could be called the Vikings of the ancient Mediterranean without too much exaggeration. Let’s not forget that the Vikings, while raiders and plunderers, were also able and enterprising traders.

Their merchant ships by contrast were quite squat and heavy. They typically carried two masts and two square sails, which wasn’t very efficient at using the wind and meant they might be stuck in port for days, even more so than Greek merchantmen. They were stable in a rough sea, though. They did the job.

The Carthaginians tried hard to bar the Etruscans from commerce in the western part of the Mediterranean. It wasn’t until they came to see the encroaching Greeks as a bigger menace yet that they made an alliance with Etruria’s cities. The Etruscans needed the Carthaginian alliance for its stronger sea-power. They had been able to hold their own against both rivals as long as they predominantly used single-banked galleys and biremes. When the Greeks began building triremes and basing their naval strength on those larger, swifter galleys, the balance shifted in their favor.

Triremes had their disadvantages. They were vastly more expensive to build and maintain. They required much higher proportionate manpower than the pentaconters and biremes. Because of their greater size and the correspondingly greater strain on their timbers, triremes had a short working life. They only lasted half as long as a bireme. The trireme could not carry food and supplies for its large number of rowers and crew for more than a short period. It didn’t perform well in rough seas, either.

It was in actual sea-fights that triremes proved worth all their drawbacks – if you could afford them. A single- or double-banked galley, or even several, against a trireme, was like a group of tabby cats against a bulldog. Besides being bigger, heavier and carrying more fighting men, a trireme was faster. A light pirate craft with fewer rowers could neither defeat it nor outrun it.

Athens developed a navy of triremes because its famous silver mines, run by slave labor, provided the wealth to build them. Syracuse in Sicily could also afford them, though not as many. The Carthaginians, a great mercantile nation, soon learned the lesson and copied the Greeks. The Etruscans never did, to the same extent, because although they were a rich and creative people, their cities were a loose confederation, neither so tightly organized nor so united in purpose as their rivals. Because of that, the Greeks began gaining an advantage over them, and the Etruscans had to resort to an alliance with Carthage. The price tag was yielding trade advantages in the western Mediterranean.

The first Greek colony in southern Italy had been Cumae, near modern Naples. That was founded in about 750 BCE. Two hundred years later, the Greeks controlled southern Italy, Sicily, and the important Strait of Messina in between. That Greek-dominated area became known as Magna Graecia. The Greeks continued expanding north, into Etruscan territory and the Tyrrhenian Sea. They founded a new colony of Alalia on the eastern coast of Corsica. They were muscling in on Carthage’s sphere of interest in Spain as well. The Etruscans and Carthaginians agreed that these pushy people had to be contained within limits.

They joined their fleets and fought the Battle of Alalia against the Greeks in about 535 BCE. They greatly outnumbered the Greeks, who did not have Athenian vessels in the fight and so would have been able to marshal few if any triremes on that occasion. The Greeks lost. At least, although they claimed to have driven their enemies off and so technically won, two-thirds of the Greek ships had been destroyed and they had to abandon Corsica. It doesn’t sound like victory to this writer. The Carthaginians and Etruscans captured many prisoners. They shared them out by drawing lots, and the Etruscans made a brutal example to other Greek invaders by taking their prisoners ashore and stoning them to death.

About a quarter-century later, the Romans overthrew their last king, the Etruscan Lucius Tarquin the Proud. The Tarquin clan must have taken its name from the town of Tarchna or Tarchuna, one of the oldest Etruscan cities. The Romans called it Tarquinii. It was reckoned the first of the Etruscan cities in antiquity, in political matters, and in the vital religious ones also.

Other important Etruscan towns were Vulci, north of Tarchna, and Caere to the south of it. There were twelve main Etruscan cities altogether. All through the seventh century BCE the influence of Greek culture from the colonies of southern Italy continued, and Rome, though the Romans later declared otherwise, was dominated by Etruria’s cities. Tarquinius Priscus is supposed to have become King of Rome around 616 BCE. Tarquin the Proud was his son. Deposed in 509 BCE, he went back to Etruria and gained the support of the cities Tarchna and Veii. He led them against Rome. His forces met the Republican Romans, led by their first consuls, at the Battle of Silvia Arsia, or the Arsian Forest, in Roman territory. Lucius Tarquin led the Etruscan foot soldiers, his son Aruns the equites. The Roman horsemen were commanded by the consul Marcus Junius Brutus, Aruns’s cousin. The two leaders met in a no-quarter mano a mano encounter and gave each other fatal wounds with lances.

Lucius Tarquin lost the battle as well as his son. It didn’t discourage him from making further attempts. The very next year he went to the pre-eminent Tuscan city of Clusium, ruled by the warlord Lars Porsena, who agreed to support him in his bid to retake Rome. Lars Porsena and his allies marched against the city, which of course is the theme of Macaulay’s epic poem, How Horatius Kept the Bridge.

Publius Horatius Cocles led his men across the Sublician Bridge at the approach to Rome and held off the Etruscans. That gained time for the defenders to hack down the bridge and deny the Etruscans entry to Rome. They were greatly outnumbered and it was a brave and daring action – but it’s unlikely to have been Horatius and two comrades against the entire army, as Macaulay describes it. Horatius’s men retreated back across the bridge as it was about to fall. The commander withdrew last, and the bridge toppled. He had to swim the Tiber, wounded, under enemy fire.

They gave him of the corn-land,
That was of public right,
As much as two strong oxen
Could plough from morn till night;
And they made a molten image,
And set it up on high,
And there it stands unto this day
To witness if I lie.

The siege didn’t end there, though Macaulay’s poem implies that it did, and that Lars Porsena withdrew, awed by the Romans’ courage. What really happened was that Lars Porsena settled down to blockade the city. The Romans sent a youngster named Gaius into the Etruscan camp to assassinate the Etruscan warlord, but that didn’t work. Gaius killed the wrong man. In the end there was a peace settlement and an exchange of hostages. The Romans absolutely refused to have a Tarquin as their king again, and Lars Porsena didn’t push the matter. Probably he’d only used “the great house of Tarquin” as a pretext for war, and intended to take Rome for himself. He did send ambassadors to Rome again in 507 BCE, making another approach to the matter, but the Roman senate told his messengers they wouldn’t consider it, and would fight him any time rather than endure Tarquin back again.

Lars Porsena left it at that. Lucius Tarquin didn’t. He departed from Clusium, and with the remnant of his family settled in the city of Tusculum, where his son-in-law Mamilius “Prince of the Latian name” was the ruler. Another of Macaulay’s Roman “lays,” The Battle of the Lake Regillus, describes Tarquin’s last effort, as the Latian army came:

From Setia’s purple vineyards,
From Norba’s ancient wall,
From the white streets of Tusculum,
The proudest town of all …

The description of how “… the thirty standards rose, from every warlike city that boasts the Latian name,” is as stirring as Horatius, and it isn’t easy to forget the description of the aged, bitter king and his last surviving son, either.

Though white as Mount Soracte,
When winter nights are long,
His beard flowed down o’er mail and belt,
His heart and hand were strong:
Under his hoary eyebrows
Still flashed forth quenchless rage:
And, if the lance shook in his gripe,
‘Twas more with hate than age.
Close at his side was Titus
On an Apulian steed,
Titus, the youngest Tarquin,
Too good for such a breed.

Old Tarquin’s other, worthless son, the treacherous coward Sextus, was there too. They both fell. His son-in-law Mamilius also died. Tarquin the Proud’s “quenchless rage” had hardly borne worthwhile fruit, and he never regained the kingship of Rome. The Republic survived, and came, in the end, to dominate the whole of Italy, until it was destroyed from within by Marius, Sulla, and Caius Julius Caesar. Now and then someone like Cato reminded the Romans that about half the Roman towns of the Italian boot had been Etruscan in their origins – but for the most part they preferred to forget it and give the Tuscans the same sort of bad press the Philistines receive in the Bible, or Captain Bligh in the movies.

As with other subjects, it’s a shame REH didn’t get around to stories featuring this remarkable people. Whether he’d penned a dark fantasy concerning their origins in an elder world, perhaps worshipping the demons of the Cthulhu Mythos, or a straight historical adventure that featured a bold Etruscan pirate, or his own individual slant on Lars Porsena, Lucius Tarquin and their war on Rome – it would, as always, have been worth reading.