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Etruscan Origins and Language --- Possible Northern Italian Ideologically Biased History

Etruscan Origins and Language --- Possible Northern Italian Ideologically Biased History

Tom Verso (August 6, 2013)
“The position occupied by the woman among the Etruscans was a privileged one and had nothing in common with the humble and subordinate condition of the Greek woman.” - Bloch

Etruria was a highly developed pre-Roman society centered in present day Tuscany. Indeed, the name ‘Tuscan(y)’ derives from the word ‘Etruscan’ (eTrUSCAN). Knowledge about Etruria is largely archeological. With the exception of mostly gravestone inscriptions, the language of Etruria is lost; there are no surviving documents created by the Etruscans. Nevertheless, the archeological record is rich and provides a great deal of knowledge about the society that at the height of its Italian empire stretched from the Po Valley in Northeastern Italy down the west coast into Campania (circa 600 – 450 B.C.). … However, this archeological record provides little knowledge of the Etruscan's language and lacks unequivocal evidence about their origins. Accordingly, historians since Roman times have posited three different theories about the origins of the Etruscan people: 1) migrants by sea from Lydia in present day Turkey; 2) migrants from the North across the Alps; 3) indigenous Italian peninsula people who evolved into an advanced culture over time. There is little evidence of an evolution from a primordial primitive culture on the Italian peninsula into an advanced Etruscan culture. Etruria appears as an advanced culture suddenly in the archeological record. Nevertheless, recently some Northern Italian and other historians have argued the Indigenous Theory. Most scholars tend to agree that the preponderance of the evidence supports the Lydia origin migration theory. … ‘Just Wondering’: are the supporters of the scant evidence Indigenous Tuscan theory, part of the ‘philo-Northern-Italians-are-superior’ ideological gang wanting to claim the great Etruscan society as genetically their own? The secessionist Northern League and the “Italy-Ends-at-the-Garigliano” crowd would be prone to the Indigenous Theory. … Just Wondering? Historiography and social theorizing are prone to subjective biases. Good teachers train students to be On-Guard against ideological bias passed off as objective history


Etruria map from wikipedia


Circa 1000 B.C. – Eastern Mediterranean Turmoil and the Birth of Italy
From Eastern Mediterranean to Little Italy
In the centuries just before and after the onset of the profound Mediterranean basin first millennium B.C. (circa 1000 B.C.), two pincer-like social upheavals developed north and south of the eastern Mediterranean shoreline.  Those upheavals in turn would come to have profound effects on the whole of Mediterranean history and culture; not the least of which would be the birth of what came to be Sicily and Italy.
About that time, according to Karol Myslliwiec, in his book The Twilight of Ancient Egypt: First Millennium B.C.E., the “Assyrians Conquered Babylon and the Dorians conquered the Achaeans.” The Assyrians went on to eventually take control of Phoenician harbor cities in present day Lebanon, and the Dorians forced the Ionian Greeks to colonize the Mediterranean coast of present day Turkey. 
Adding confusion to the chaos of the early centuries of the first millennium B.C., on the Greek mainland, the Spartans conquered neighboring Messenia, and Egypt was experiencing internal north south civil strife, and external threats from Assyria, Libya and the Sudan.
It was during these dynamic Eastern Mediterranean early centuries of the first millennium B.C. (circa 800 B.C.) that:
- Greeks came to southern Italy and eastern Sicily
- Phoenicians came to western Sicily from present day Lebanon
- Etruscans came to northern Italy from present-day western Turkey (according to prevailing theory below)
From the melding of these eastern Mediterranean colonizers with the indigenous Latin people evolved the culture of southern Italian and Sicily and in turn present-day southern-Italian American culture.
While the history of the role of Greeks and Phoenicians is well document, the history of Etruria is largely lost because virtually none of their language has survived, and Etruscan society and culture was totally absorbed into southern Italian Roman Society. 
The purpose of this ‘note’ (4,000 words be advised) is to explore the prevailing theories of Etruscan origins, as represented by the great classical scholar Arnold J. Toynbee in his book Hannibal’s Legacy Vol. 1, and the very renowned Etruscan historian Raymond Bloch’s The Etruscans (note: Bloch is author of three books on Etruscan life and the Director of Studies, L'Ecole des Hautes Etudes, the Sorbonne).
Etruria Origin … So Who Cares and Why?
“IN THE EYES of both the ancient and the modern world the Etruscans have always appeared a strange people who did not have much in common with the populations who were their neighbours. Quite naturally, therefore, both have attempted to discover what their true origins might be. (Bloch p.51)
However, in most recent times there are those who question the value of seeking knowledge of Etruscan “true origins; some historians posit that origins is not an important or relevant topic of enquiry. Toynbee writes:
“At the time of writing in 1964 it was the fashion among Etruscologists to dismiss that question [of origins] as being unimportant… (p. 365)
To my mind both Toynbee and Bloch open the discussion on the origins of the Etruscans with what is arguable the most important idea about the subject of the Etruscans per se, and, indeed, the raison d'être of the historian’s craft generally. 
Namely, why is the origin of the Etruscans an important historical issue
Bloch elaborates:
“For a number of linguists who are pupils of the Italian scholar, Trombetti [e.g.] Massimo Pallottino and Franz Altheim … the problem up till now has been very badly put.
We always ask ourselves where the Etruscans came from as if it were quite natural that an entire people should suddenly come to a region, which later on was to become its homeland. The Etruscans are known to us only in the Italian peninsula; in fact their entire history unfolds there.
Why, then, should we set ourselves the purely academic question of their provenance? The historian should deal rather with the problem of the formation of the Etruscan nation and its civilization. (p.62)
While Bloch notes his disagreement with the forget-about-it school, it is Toynbee who takes the question of ‘why-study-originshead-on. He writes:
“On the hotly debated and still open question of the origin of the Etruscans, the view that we take will make a substantial difference to our conception of the Etruscan Civilization’s role in Italian, and particularly in Roman history.”
Toynbee answers the question of “why study origins”:
“It is important on account of the light that it may throw on the culture of the Etruscans themselves; it is even more important on account of the influence of the Etruscan culture on the rest of non-Greek Italy.
“The Etruscan's influenced the rest of non-Greek Italy directly during the age of their ascendancy. They continued thereafter to influence it indirectly through their influence on Rome in particular
Roman culture influenced the whole of Italy, and this Roman culture contained an important Etruscan ingredient.” (p. 355 - 356)
Indeed, more generally, the reason we study the history (origins) of any society is to better understand how the characteristics of that society came to be and how that society affected later societies
For example, we study Colonial American history to better understand: how the American nation-state came into existence, and the characteristics of the nation. Why for example does America have a “Bill of Rights”? The answer to that question entails knowledge of the colonial events leading up to the creation of those “Rights”. 
If millennia from now historians only have copies of the “Bill”, but no knowledge of Colonial History, they will be at a loss to explain why and how the “Bill of Rights” came into being.
In short:
 - To understand the influence of Etruscan culture on Italian and European culture generally, entails understanding of Etruscan culture itself.
- To understand Etruscan culture (art, religion, technology, etc.) entails knowledge of Etruscan origins. 
Theories of Etruria Origins
In the most general sense, there are only two possibilities for the origin of Etruscan society in Italy:
- The Etruscan people are indigenous to the peninsula and evolved from primitive social groupings into the advance Etruscan culture.
- The Etruscan people developed a more or less advance culture outside of Italy; then emigrating to Italy bringing that culture with them.
In turn, these two possibilities for Etruscan origins give rise to three theories (hypotheses) to explain how the Etruscan culture came to be in Italy.
Three Theories(hypotheses):
1) Indigenous hypothesis
Two Emigration hypotheses:
2) Nordic Emigration hypothesis: Migration from the North over the Alps
3) Oriental Emigration hypothesis: Migration over sea from Lydia (present day Turkey)
Indigenous Theory
The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 B.C. – 7 B.C) put forth the first documented Indigenous Theory. Bloch quotes him:
“ ‘It thus seems to me that those who say that the Etruscans are not a people who came from abroad, but are an indigenous race, are right; to me this seems to follow from the fact that they are a very ancient people which does not resemble any other either in its language or in its customs.' (p. 53)
While there are today a few scholars that adhere to this indigenous theory, accordingly to Bloch the evidence is scant at best. He writes:
“At present this thesis, although it has not been completely abandoned, has very few adherents. It does not stand up to the evidence of the facts. We must therefore dispose of it at once in order not to complicate the problem unnecessarily. (p. 53)
Nordic Emigration Theory
Toynbee states the theory:
“This theory brings Etruscan-speakers to Etruria overland from the north across the Alps and the Po basin and the Appennines. (p. 359)
Both Bloch and Toynbee note the factual basis for this theory is a fragment of linguistic evidence. However, their respective discussion of the linguistics is challenging and beyond the scope of this presentation.
Suffice it to say, both Bloch and Toynbee find the linguistic evidence not convincing. Bloch, in an excellent exercise demonstrating that knowledge is not simply facts but also logic, puts the basis of the theory’s rejection succinctly:
“… correct facts were used to arrive at wrong conclusions.” (p. 54)
Toynbee not only finds the linguistic evidence wanting; in another exercise of the role of logic (i.e. probability) in history research, he notes the geographic conditions that render the improbability of a Nordic migration. He writes:
“The migration-route that the theory implies must have been impracticable physically before the draining of the Po-valley marshes and the building of roads over the mountains and through the forests…” (p.359)
Oriental Emigration Theory
The first documented presentation of this theory was recorded by the great fifth century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus. Bloch writes:
“Herodotus thus gives a picture of the migration of an oriental people. The Etruscans are presumed to be none other than Lydians who… left their country … and installed themselves on the coast of Italy.
Thus, the whole of Etruscan civilization would derive directly from the plateau of Asia Minor. (p. 51-52)
In short, the Oriental theory argues that the Etruscans emigrated from the land known in ancient times as Lydia (i.e. western Turkey see map below).

After detail consideration of both the Indigenous and Nordic theories of Etruscan origins, Block sums up the current state of scholarship and concludes that the preponderance of the evidence renders the Oriental theory the best beyond a reasonable doubt. He writes:
“The thesis of an oriental origin has much more validity. Many linguistic and archaeological facts seem to confirm it clearly. This explains why it has remained in great favor with scholars.
Oriental characteristics of Etruscan civilization are too numerous and too imposing; the hypothesis of mere coincidence must, they argue, be excluded. (p. 54)
Bloch goes on to discuss the various types of evidence supporting the Oriental theory. He writes:
“It would take too long to enumerate all the Etruscan customs, religious beliefs or artistic techniques that have frequently and rightly been linked with the Orient. (p. 57)
The types of evidence cited fall under the headings of:
·      the position occupied by the woman among the Etruscans
·      artistic and religious fields
·      lack of archeological evolution (sudden appearance of advanced culture)
While, as Bloch notes, the voluminous types of cultural evidence supporting the Oriental theory; ultimately the question of Etruscan origins involves the Etruscan language.
Etruscan Language
Toynbee writes:
“Since it is the character of the Etruscan language that raises the question of the provenance of the original speaker of it, an examination of the linguistic evidence is the obvious starting-point for our inquiry.” (p. 357)
However, the evidence is scant, at best:
“This [linguistic evidence] is either inconclusive or definitely negative, except for one single piece of it. The Etruscan language is non-Indo-European, but it contains a smattering of Indo-Europeanism. (p. 357)

The significance and character of Etruscan language is indicated by the fact that Bloch felt it necessary to devoted a whole chapter in his book titled: “The Enigma of the Etruscan Language”
In sum, he writes:
Innumerable attempts over many centuries by the greatest names in linguistics and comparative philology have failed to decipher the language…” (p. 65)
Interestingly, the problem of deciphering the language is not one of lacking surviving examples of the language. Bloch:
“… the exact nature of the problem of Etruscan … The Etruscan linguistic material that has come down to us is far from negligible … [there are] about ten thousand inscriptions, engraved or painted on all kinds of manufactured objects or works of art--mirrors, cists, vases, sculptures, paintings or tiles, columns, funerary urns and sarcophagi.
[But,] these are epigraphic texts, whose great number must not deceive us; actually, they are nearly all limited to a few words. (p. 66)
A significant problem with reconstructing Etruscan is the fact that surviving remnants clearly demonstrate that [unlike Latin of Romans and Sicilians] Etruscan is not an Indo-European language.
As Toynbee noted above, Bloch also comments that Etruscan is not an Indo-European language. He writes:
“The actual structure of the Etruscan language appears to be very different from that of the Indo-European languages [e.g. Latin]. (p. 75)
Thus, there are not enough surviving examples of Etruscan providing us with the details of the grammar and idiom; nevertheless, we are not completely lacking in knowledge of some of the linguistic characteristics. For example, Bloch writes:
We can read Etruscan with great ease, for the Etruscan alphabet does not present any real difficulty; for centuries, amateurs and scholars have interpreted these obscure texts without trouble. (p. 66)
“But, one cannot distinguish the active and the passive in the verb system. As for the conjugations, they too do not fit into the coherent system of Indo-European conjugations. (p. 72)
Nevertheless, there are enough surviving examples of Etruscan to formulate reasonable hypotheses about the origin of the Etruscans.  And, one in particular is especially significant.
Linguistic Evidence and Oriental Hypotheses
Of all the surviving examples of Etruscan nomenclature, in terms of establishing the origins of the Etruscan people, the most significant archeological discovery was a made at Kaminia on the Aegean Island Lemnos in 1885.
“There is one place outside Italy where there are surviving documents of local origin in a language that has a clear and close affinity with the surviving Etruscan inscriptions in Italy, and this is [at Kaminia] on the island of Lemnos. (p. 357)
(See map above)
“A grave-stone, bearing two short inscriptions in Etruscan-like language… Archaeologists date the Kaminia grave-stone in the seventh or the sixth century B.C. (p. 357)
(see illustration below)

Bloch comments on the significance of the inscriptions on the Kaminia stone:
“The inscriptions are in the Greek alphabet, but the language used is not Greek.
“Very quickly the points of contact between this language and Etruscan were noticed. Here and there the inflexions are the same; the formations of the words seem to follow the same rules. It is thus an Etruscoid language, spoken in the island of Lemnos in the 7th century B.C.
“The stele did not remain an isolated document. Had this been the case its inscription might have been thought the work of an isolated individual-- perhaps an Etruscan immigrant. But, shortly before the last war, the Italian school found other fragments of inscriptions in the island, written in the same language.
“This is none other than the language of the island's inhabitants before its conquest by Themistocles [i.e. before fifth century B.C.]. (p. 56)
Similarly, Toynbee is very specific about the Kaminia text:
“Though these surviving specimens of the Lemnian language are short, the correspondence between them and Etruscan are numerous enough and close enough to warrant our regarding Lemnian and Eturscan as being two dialects of one and the same language.
“An affinity of this degree of closeness makes it virtually certain that, in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., direct relations – necessarily by sea – between Lemnian-speakers and Etruscan-speakers must have been recent… (p. 358)
In sum:
The shear volume of cultural evidence, Bloch noted above, coupled with the linguistic evidence from Kaminia clearly supports the theory that the Etruscans were an eastern Mediterranean people who migrated to northern Italy. 
If my understanding of Toynbee and Bloch is correct:
The preponderance of the evidence renders the probable truth of the Oriental Theory ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’
Post Script
 Nationalism, Cultural Hegemony and Historiography
Again, given the volume of supporting evidence and the number of scholars accepting the Oriental Theory of Etruscan origins, coupled with the scant evidence supporting the Indigenous Theory: one wonders why the Indigenous Theory has not been, in Bloch's words, "disposed of"?  What is the rational for:
- Embracing the Indigenous Theory and
- Rejecting the study of Etruscan origins as a meaningful scholarly endeavor? 
These questions point to the most important lesson students of history must learn.  They must always be conscious of the natural intellectual propensity to let personal values and prevailing ideology affect objectivity.
Toynbee, for example, discussed at some length the way in which nationalistic ideology affected the objectivity of some, otherwise, erudite historians.
To my mind, Toynbee’s discussion of the role of Nationalism’s negative affect on historiography may give some insight to why some Etruscan scholars, in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary, continue to support Indigenous theories of Etruscan origins, or simply reject the relevance of enquiry into the origin.
Toynbee writes:
“The spirit of Nationality has appealed to historians with special force ... the national standpoint has proved specially attractive to modern Western historians…
 “About A.D. 1875, … with the emergence of Nationalism in the Western World, each [nation] claimed to be a universe in itself … all nation states, from the greatest down to the least, put forward the same claim to be enduring entities, each sufficient unto itself and independent [separate] of the rest of the World…
The concepts of enduring entities and separateness are the key to understanding how nationalistic bias affects historiography
For a specific example of what he means by an historian viewing a nation state as a separate and enduring entity, he cites the case of a the French historian Camille Jullian:
 “The lengths to which this tendency [of claiming to be enduring entities] may go can be observed in the work of a distinguished historian…Monsieur Camille Jullian, one of the foremost authorities on the ‘pre-history’ of France …
“The self-sufficiency of France and her separateness from the rest of the World are ideas which dominate monsieur Jullian’s imagination even when he is dealing with the history of the piece of territory at dates hundreds or thousand of years before such conceptions as ‘France’ existed …
[Indeed,] Jullians cannot contain his delight when he discerns the [enduring entity] of France as far back as the Neolithic Age… (“A Study of History” Vol. I, pp. 9-12)
Note: Toynbee posited his thoughts on nationalism's affect on historiography in 1934. More recently in 1996, Margarita Daiaz Andreu wrote a whole book on "Nationalism and Archaeology in Europe".

Northern Italian Nationalism /Cultural Hegemony affects on Etruscan Historiography
Toynbee demonstrated how the nationalistic concepts of separateness and enduring entity could cause an otherwise very excellent historian to misrepresent the reality of history.
I’m wondering if this same type of Northern Italian nationalism and cultural hegemony affects Etruscan historiography; if Indigenous Theorist, similar to Jullian, are motivated by a Northern Italian nationalism, and are looking for non-existent historic separateness and enduring entity of contemporary Northern Italy’s distant Etruscan past?
For example, the biography of Massimo Pallottino, a highly renown Etruscanologist whom both Bloch and Toynbee cite as an Indigenous Etruscan Theorist.
- Pallottino was a student of Alfredo Trombetti and Giulio Quirino Giglioli
- Trombett was a Venetian and a professor at the University of Bologna and Indigenous theorist.
Thus, it is possible that Trombetti would have been imbued with northern Italian nationalism and sense of separateness visa via the southern Italy. In turn, Pallottino, his student from Roman, would have been exposed to and may have embraced a similar ideology causing him to see in Eturia the origins of present day northern Italian society.
- Giglioli was a Fascist ideologist who put forth the theory that Fascism was a continuation of Roman history; i.e. like Jullian he thought he discerned the enduring entity of contemporary Italy in the distant past. Again, Pallottino may have been influenced by the quest to find non-existent ancient roots in a contemporary society.
In short, Pallotino was heavily exposed to nationalistic and northern Italian cultural hegemonic ideology. It is reasonable for those considering his embrace Indigenous Theory to be open to the possibility that the ideology of his teachers may have affected his theorizing about Etruscan origins.
I am not challenging or critiquing Pallottino, or any other Indigenous theorizer. 
I am suggesting that students of history in general and Etruscan history in particular must understand that no matter how impressive and authoritative the historian’s Curriculum Vitae; no matter what universities s/he attended, or is teaching; no matter how many publication in prestigious journals … all of that ultimately counts for nothing when determining the truth and falsity of statements about  past realities.
In short, when it comes to knowledge claims in any discipline, the only two things that count are:
- verifiable factual propositions and
- valid logical inferences.
“that’s all she wrote”

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