Friday, November 04, 2011

An Etruscan Mystery

I used to know a guy who, when he wished to express his contempt for an enterprises he thought iredeemably boring or trivial,would say "sounds like the classification of Etruscan tombs." 

It so happens that I spent some time last month--well, not classifying but at least exploring Etruscan tombs and I'd say it's an enterprise neither boring nor trivial: rather it is an avenue towards understanding a great, if now entirely vanished, civilization.   An activity best practiced, I might add, in close proximity to the douceurs of Central Tuscany--the Chianti, the cinghiale sausage and such like--which, as luck would have it, is exactly where you will find the Etruscans at home.

You know the Etruscans even if you've never visited with them if you've skimmed past those hill towns like Volterra or Perugia, poised defensively over the valleys of the Tiber or the Arno as if to ward off Gauls, Celts or Romans.  Yes, especially Romans who finally did in the Etruscans just a few years before the rise of Julius Caesar.  Being Romans, the Romans apparently also carried off large chunks of Etruscan culture that we think of as Roman today: the military triumph as an example, also the Ipad, the childproof bottle, the two-row cotton machine (scholars perhaps disagree about the two-row cotton picking machine).

So it is easy to see why the Etruscans wanted their protected cities even if, in the end, they weren't protected enough.  Build on a hilltop and at least you can hold out for a while, pouring a bit of hot oil on the invaders in the interim.  The Romans, by contrast, never bothered with hilltops.  They'd build wherever they happened to stop for the night.  Partly this was simple self-confidence: they knew they could defend themselves, because they had the army.  Partly also I suspect it was bravado: we do this because we can do it; you got a problem with that?

And here is the puzzle. Most Etruscan cities are on hilltops. But then there is Misa, modern Marzabotto, southwest of Bologna.  Unlike any other Etruscan town that I've seen, Misa is built out flat on a grid plan--surely one of the most ambitious early grid plans in the classical world.

And the question would be: what can they have been thinking? Nothing suggests the Etruscans had anything like Roman military capacity.  Wiki says that the site is "protected on the west by the mountains, on the east and south by the river," but it sure didn't look very protected to me.  I've been schooled to believe that there is a name for a creature that neither fights nor flees in the face of attack, and the name for that creature is "lunch."  Just how the Etruscans got away with it, just how they expected to get away with it--that seems to me to be a puzzle.

Unfunny footnote:  I learned only after I left Marzabotto that it is also the site of the worst civilian massacre committed by Hitler's Waffen SS during World War II--perhaps 770 killed in October 1944, 45 of the victims less than two years old (here's an account of the life of the man who thought it right to murder babies in the service of the fatherland).  A city, perhaps, with more history than it cares to remember.

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