Democratic Doom

Democratic Doom June 15, 2016

Technically, this depicts 3rd century Romans fighting barbarians, but this could easily be a political scuffle.
Technically, this depicts 3rd century Romans fighting barbarians, but this could easily be a political scuffle. Image credit.

The Etruscans handed the Romans much of the military technology they eventually used to spank their older rival into submission. But what gave the Romans the edge? Etruscan term limits. So, dictatorship is the way to go then?

No, of course not. But a political system built primarily to diffuse power and prevent entrenched leadership cannot build a united and sustained policy against a more organized foe who can plan for the long term. (This was mostly before the days of the Roman Republic, and even then the Roman system built a stronger form of leadership.)

Imagine the Eastern states and the Southern states trying to join together to repel an invading Canadian army. Okay, bad example. They’re bringing out the moose–run for your lives!

The Etruscans and Athenians severely limited the power of the executive, to their detriment. The Greeks won against the Persians by the skin of their teeth; the Etruscans weren’t so lucky. Like the Greeks, Etruscans were divided into city-states. In this case, further collected, very loosely, into 3 regional leagues. Each league consisted of 12 of the most prominent cities in the region. Each league had a chief magistrate, and the magistrates of every city-state in the league had to agree before collective action could be taken.

This was not  recipe for success.

Even if you could get all 12 magistrates to commit to a military course, any plan that would entail actions beyond your one-year term would have to start all over again, with the new leader forced to lobby the new set of squabbling magistrates to support the plan once more.

Thus, skirmishes amongst cities or leagues rarely amounted to much. Any land gained would be lost as you were forced to retreat, allowing your rival to regroup or to recruit a new ally.

Instead of a game of Risk, it was more like tic tac toe. Tied again!

That severely hamstrung the Etruscans as they lost their cities one by one to the Roman juggernaut.

The Roman troops are gathering. We really do need to do something about it. No, really, I mean it. Like, now.

I dunno, what’s in it for us?

They’re coming for you next!

The Etruscans once ruled Rome. When the last Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown in 509 BCE, at first only his home region responded. Only when they were defeated did the neighboring city of Veii join the fight, and then only because they feared they would be next. Veii lost, as well…and they were right to be worried.

The Roman historian Livy reported that the neighboring cities failed to come to Veii’s defence because the city had installed a king. The Romans laid siege to Veii for 10 years until the city eventually succumbed to the Romans in 396 BCE.

As you can see, it wasn’t just term limits that eventually doomed the people who gave Livy the writing system he used to pen their epitaph (more on that later). Though they were tied by a shared religion and culture, the Etruscans weren’t really a cohesive nation as we conceive it. There was a reason the Confederation of States gave way to the United States of America. Sorry, states righters.

But certainly, the fact that the Etruscan system all but prevented a united front against the might of Rome was a major factor in their eventual demise.

Like our modern form of term limits, the Etruscans were reacting to entrenched leaders–namely kings and tyrants–when they instituted one-year terms for their head magistrates. (It should be noted that tyrant didn’t hold the same meaning in those days. Tyrants were leaders who seized power from the aristocratic elite and ruled with the backing of the underclasses. However, tyrants, by the nature of their singular, go-it-alone rule (think: Donald Trump), could easily slip into tyranny in the modern sense (also think: Donald Trump).

It’s sad that a well-meaning system meant to check power lead to the loss of such a vibrant culture, where women enjoyed relative freedom, and from which Rome borrowed heavily (except for the bit about the female emancipation). As I’ve said, much of what we know about the Etruscans comes down to us from Greek and Roman writers. The Roman writers (and you and I), owe a particular debt of gratitude to the Etruscans for handing down the script I’m writing this post on.

Image credit.
3rd-2nd century BCE Etruscan stele. Image credit.

The Phoenicians invented alphabetic writing, but a Phoenician Wheel of Fortune would’ve lasted maybe 15 minutes at most. You couldn’t buy a vowel because they didn’t have any. The Greeks made the alphabet more functional by turning the pictographic Phoenician script into phonetic sounds, thus inventing Hooked on Phonics. They also added vowels, for which Old MacDonald is eternally grateful.

But it was the Etruscans, standing at the crossroads of both the Greeks and Phoenicians, who passed the alphabet onto the Latins and thus to us. (Though it was really Big Bird who taught it to many Americans.)

Now we know our ABCs. Sadly, the Etruscans can no longer come and sing with us.

Here is part one, part two, part three, and part four of my series about the culture and downfall of the Etruscans and the relationship to our own times.

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