Etruscan Sexuality

Warning - May Offend

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Many Greek and Roman authors including Theopompus of Chios and Plato referred to the Etruscans as immoral. During later Roman times, the word Etruscan was almost synonomous with prostitute, and Livy's histories moralise about the rape of Lucretia, where Roman women are seen as virtuous model wives in comparison to their liberated Etruscan counterparts. On this site we shall examine the evidence given by these sources and also from Necropolis art such as the "Tomb of the Bulls" in Tarquinia.

Athenaeus, a Greek grammarian of the 3rd Century CE came too late to give a personal eye-witness account of Etruscan life-style, and had to rely instead on the accounts of Timaeus and Theopompus who both lived in the 4th Century BCE.
According to Timaeus:
"Among the Etruscans who had become extravagantly luxurious, it is customary for the slave girls to wait on the men naked...."

A Greek historian's account of the behaviour of Etruscan women.
Theopompus of Chios, 4th cent. BCE (Histories Book 43)

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 ask 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.

When they are having sexual relations either with courtesans or within their family, they do as follows: after they have stopped drinking and are about to go to bed, while the lamps are still lit, servants bring in courtesans, or boys, or sometimes even their wives. And when they have enjoyed these they bring in boys, and make love to them. They sometimes make love and have intercourse while people are watching them, but most of the time they put screens woven of sticks around the beds, and throw cloths on top of them.

They are keen on making love to women, but they particularly enjoy boys and youths. The youths in Etruria are very good-looking, because they live in luxury and keep their bodies smooth. In fact all the barbarians in the West use pitch to pull out and shave off the hair on their bodies.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote in the first century BCE:

The Tyrrhenians were a people of dainty and expensive tastes, both at home and in the field, carrying about with them, besides the necessities, costly and artistic articles of all kinds designed for pleasure and luxury.

The Tomb of The Bulls, Tarquinia

Click on a portion of the picture to magnify

(Click on parts of the image to magnify.)

The above image is from the Tomb of the Bulls (Tombe dei Tori) in Tarquinia. The frescos on this tomb are characterised by fertility symbols, although the meaning of some of the symbolism is not entirely clear. The panel on the left depicts a heterosexual scene involving two couples, whereas the scene on the right depicts a homosexual scene. This has been variously interpreted. It is noted that the bull on the right has an aggressive pose, whereas the bull on the left is completed passive, which has been interpreted by some authors as a disapproval of homosexuality. Note also that the bulls have human faces, possibly indicating some mythological context.

The Tomb of The Bigas, Tarquinia

The Above picture is taken from a watercolour painting which was painted soon after the discovery of the Tomb of the Bigas in Tarquinia (These frescoes have since almost completely deteriorated) The picture shows an audience of a chariot race, and show a homosexual couple making love quite openly in full view of all. This shows that perhaps Etruscan society had a high acceptance level of homosexuality. The city of Pompeii was founded by the Etruscans as part of their expansion in Campania. Although captured by the Samnites in the 4th Century, and later by the Romans,it retained many of the customs introduced by the Etruscans, in common with Capua, the Urbs princeps of the Campania league. We have a very good understanding of sexuality among the Pompeians during the 1st Century CE, although to correlate this with Etruscan habitation of Pompeii requires a trained imagination. In Pompeii, all variations of sexuality were openly and blatantly pursued. Here, homosexuality, group orgies and even pedophilia were widely accepted as normal behaviour.

It has been variously argued, that the mores of Pompeii were influenced by the Samnites, the Greeks, or that they reflected the norm in general Etruscan society.

The Tomb of The Floggings , Tarquinia

The tomb of the floggings (tomba della fustigazione) has frescoes which depict erotic scenes, and like those in the Tomb of the Bulls, these may carry an underlying apotropaic theme. On the right hand wall, there are two erotic scenes separated by a prothesis (funerary door). The wall paintings are badly damaged, The scene to the right shows a woman, clad only in a tutulus, bending and holding the hips of a bearded man who faces her with a smile. From behind, the woman is approached by a youth who has one hand on her buttocks and raises a whip with the other hand. On the left side of the prothesis, another woman embraces a young man, while being penetrated from behind by a bearded man.

The other walls of the tomb are covered with scenes of musicians, drinking, dancers etc, which suggest the influence of the cult of Dionysus.

Many Items of pottery from Tarquinia tombs, particularly of the 6th and 5th Century also show such erotic scenes, and tend to back up Theopompus's view of Etruscan society, however these may be no more than copies of Greek art of the same period. Perhaps the erotic images are part of some wider significance such as a religious festival (cf the Roman festival of Lupercalia, probably the forerunner of Valentine's Day).

The fact that the imagery is used so blatantly in tombs tends to reinforce the belief that Etruscan society was much more permissive than other contemporary societies. Some authors have drawn parallels with present day US society, from the perspective of the fact that both are very open societies, and with a high immigrant population. My own opinion is that we should exercise extreme caution when comparing modern societies with their ancient counterparts.

While forming such hypotheses, we must also be cogniscant of the changing influences over time. Of the tomb scenes, the Tomb of the Bulls is the oldest, dated at around 520 BCE. The tomb of the floggings is approximately 50 years younger, about the same age as the Tomb of the Bigas.

Livy on Lucretia

"The royal princes sometimes spent their leisure hours in feasting and entertainments, and at a wine party given by Sextus Tarquinius at which Collatinus, the son of Egerius, was present, the conversation happened to turn upon their wives, and each began to speak of his own in terms of extraordinarily high praise. As the dispute became warm Collatinu said that there was no need of words, it could in a few hours be ascertained how far his Lucretia was superior to all the rest. "Why do we not," he exclaimed, "if we have any youthful vigour about us mount our horses and pay your wives a visit and find out their characters on the spot?"

While other wives were found in various states of wantonness, Lucretia was:

"very differently employed from the king's daughters-in-law, whom they had seen passing their time in feasting and luxury with their acquaintances. She was sitting at her wool work in the hall, late at night, with her, maids busy round her. The palm in this competition of wifely virtue was awarded to Lucretia."

Her virtue only served to make her the target of Sextus Tarquin. Livy goes on to say that:

"Sextus Tarquin, inflamed by the beauty and exemplary purity of Lucretia, formed the vile project of effecting her dishonour."

Sextus Tarquin "went in the frenzy of his passion with a naked sword to the sleeping Lucretia, and placing his left hand on her breast, said, "Silence, Lucretia! I am Sextus Tarquin, and I have a sword in my hand; if you utter a word, you shall die." When the woman, terrified out of her sleep, saw that no help was near, and instant death threatening her, Tarquin began to confess his passion, pleaded, used threats as well as entreaties, and employed every argument likely to influence a female heart...he threatened to disgrace her, declaring that he would lay the naked corpse of the slave by her dead body, so that it might be said that she had been slain in foul adultery. By this awful threat, his lust triumphed over her inflexible chastity, and Tarquin went off exulting in having successfully attacked her honour. Lucretia, overwhelmed with grief at such a frightful outrage, sent a messenger to her father at Rome and to her husband at Ardea, asking them to come to her..."

Her husband and father at her side, they attempted to console her, philosophically explaining that: "it is the mind that sins not the body, and where there has been no consent there is no guilt."

Nevertheless, Lucretia could not bear to live with her honour forsaken. "She had a knife concealed in her dress which she plunged into her, heart, and fell dying on the floor. Her father and husband raised the death-cry."