Women’s Lib Circa 600 BCE?

Women’s Lib Circa 600 BCE? June 6, 2016

Image credit.
Smiling couple on an Etruscan sarcophagus. Image credit.

Women mingling with men! In public, too! Scandalous!

The images of loving couples embracing tenderly, as depicted on Etruscan funerary art, seems so normal to us that it’s hard to even see why the family structure of the Etruscans was so unnerving to the Greeks and Romans. Yet these material finds are among the most compelling reasons why scholars generally believe that women enjoyed unequalled equality for early antiquity. Women mixed among men, seemed to have near-equal standing in the family, and even had inheritance rights. Shocking, huh?

Greek writers like Theopompus (if ever a name was more appropriate) dissed them in hyperbolic terms:

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 [banquet] 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. 
A little background is necessary here. As I learned in the Teaching Company lecture series, The Mysterious Etruscans, these comments reveal more about Greek culture than Etruscan. Greco-Roman symposia were male-only drinking parties. No Girls Allowed! Women weren’t even permitted to drink wine in Rome until the imperial era. The Etruscan version was more equivalent to our dinner parties, which women personally hosted on occasion.

These supposedly superior Greeks sometimes exposed infants if the father took one look at them and decided that he wasn’t the father. Theopompus was therefore scandalized that men raised all their children without summarily executing some of them because their infant’s puffy little face didn’t look enough like them.

Even the apparent compliment that Etruscan women were very attractive was a slap, comparing them unfavorably to the virtuous Greek women, who didn’t need to primp because the were rarely seen inside their segregated quarters in the household.

But this lecture series prompted a mild disagreement with my own mate. Keith didn’t object to the idea that Etruscan men and women could be comparatively equal (an equivocation Professor Steven L. Tuck repeatedly, but not consistently, made throughout the series). Because of Professor Tuck’s apparent PR campaign for this vanished culture, he left the impression that he might have lost some of his objectivity.

That may well be true to an extent. Keith is himself a feminist; he simply thinks it’s important not to project our wishes and contemporary mores on ancient societies. I completely agree with that.

But my research indicates that the general consensus among historians backs Professor Tuck’s interpretation of the relatively equal status of women in Etruscan society. The emphasis should be on the word relative. Compared to Greeks culture, yes, women in Etruscan society were fairly free. Greek women could only own enough money to pay for the food and other expenses of the family for one week, were cloistered in the home, and not allowed to mingle in public (much like they are in many “modern” Muslim cultures). So much for that advanced Greek culture.

No, women didn’t hold the reins of power in Etruria. No, they didn’t enjoyed equal status with men outside the home. But the archaeological evidence suggests a culture where women were buried with near equality with men.
As the Etruscans were continually defeated by the Romans, their funerary art became more grim. But note that this sarcophagus shows two distinctive elements, It honors a woman (nearly unheard of in Greek culture) and she is unveiled. Image credit.
Circa 150-140 BCE. As the Etruscans were continually defeated by the Romans, their funerary art became more grim. But note that this sarcophagus shows two distinctive elements, It honors a woman (nearly unheard of in Greek culture) and she is unveiled. Image credit.

As I said in my first post about the Etruscans, nearly everything we know about them is drawn from funerary finds and the biased accounts of Greek and Roman writers. But from the preponderance of the evidence, it seem that–at least in the household–Etruscan women enjoyed close to parity with their mates. They were literate, owned their own property, and sometimes even headed households.

Etruscan mother and child circa 450-500 BCE. Image credit.
Etruscan mother and child circa 450-500 BCE. Image credit.

Women and children were rarely depicted in Greek art. Though the Etruscans ate up Greek culture as if it were a Lay’s potato chip (or maybe a food court gyro), they co-opted it with scenes showing women and goddesses in nurturing aspects (and by extension, the women who owned the decorated objects, such as brass mirrors).

To modern day feminists, reducing women to the role of mothers is regressive (I’m childless myself). But to the Greeks, depicting women in maternal aspects was almost unheard of. Women and children were property and invisible outside the home.

If aliens landed in Classical Athens, they might have concluded that humans were hermaphrodites.

While Etruscan women didn’t enjoy true equality in the modern sense, they were practically Amazons compared to their Greek and Roman counterparts. Is it a coincidence that Amazons were such a popular motif in their personal objects?
I’ll leave you with this totally unbiased account by our friend Theopompus.
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.
That last bit is fucking normal to us, if a bit indecorous, to say the least. But as you may of guessed by now, this was not a wholly accurate statement. Again, we’re seeing a misunderstanding about the nature of these Etruscan get-togethers. They were closer to our idea of a dinner party (closer, but of course not the same). So what Theopompus was shocked about was that the kids were both seen and heard at these convivial mixed sex gatherings.

Oh, the horror!

However, there appears to have been some Etruscan religious festivals that included public sex as a form of fertility rite. (I know I’m an atheist, but where can I sign up?) This may have been the origin of some of Theopompus’ more tabloidish claims.

On the other hand, you should do yourself a favor and check out the NSFW clickable art in this link: Etruscan Sexualty. Some of the art depicts homosexual sex, which may or may not suggest that Etruscan society had an unusually tolerant view of homosexuality for the times. (Though I believe this was one area where Greek culture was ahead of the curve.)

Liking the Etruscans yet? No wonder Professor Tuck tried so hard to get his virtual students to empathize with the Etruscans.

It’s impossible for us to not project our cultural values on the Etruscans. And of course that creates a deceptive idea of their lives. Because we know so little about them, they become a blank slate for our projections.

But if I were sucked into a wormhole and sent to the early historic era in Italy, for me it would be Etruria or bust.
Image credit.
5th century BCE fresco in the Tomb of the Leopards. Image credit.
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