by Christopher Smith
OUP (2014) p/b 148pp £7.99 (ISBN 9780199547913)
The wonderful series of ‘Very Short Introductions’ from Oxford serves many purposes. The books give brief cover of subjects one feels one ought to know more about; test the water to see if one wants to know more; and clear away long cherished fallacies and nonsense that the general reading public has been tempted into over the years by those who should know better.
The latter is the case with The Etruscans. S. has little time for the use of mystery and enigma to spice up the study. Of course, he acknowledges the gap between our knowledge and our understanding. Amongst the soft targets for mystery and imagination are the provenance of the people, their language, and their religion. So far provenance has been about myth and DNA—are Etruscans autochthonous, Greek, Oriental, or do they have more northern origins? S. wisely suggests that, for the moment, we just get on with what we know and let science catch up with who they were and where they came from.
Further, we do know how to read Etruscan—we just don’t always know what it means. In the case of religion, as ever, (any old) information has rushed in to fill the gaps. Your reviewer, a seasoned archaeologist in Faliscan soil, heard guides describe chamber tombs at Tarquinia as houses for the living, because that is what the tourists clearly wanted to see.
But much of what remains is history, and S. gets on with the job with remarkably comprehensive economy. He considers the meaning of Villanovan (and other cultural influences/manifestations) in the Etruscan context; the complexity of inter-state networks (‘not an empire—a collection of influential city states’); expansion routes; Etruscan art; decline. Then there is the matter of Roman conquest/colonisation, and precisely what was going on in the Social War. But then S. goes beyond where most histories stop, and considers ‘clothing and the Etruscan body’, the continuation and development of Etruria in the imperial and post-Roman worlds, and finally Etruscology itself. There are 148 pages including an index and some very useful and attractive suggestions for further reading.
A real bargain at £7.99