Etruscan Athletics

Glimpses of an Elusive Civilization

By: Karen Brown Vellucci

Originally Published in 1985

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The Etruscans represent one of the earliest examples of biased media coverage—a problem originating with the authors of antiquity that has been perpetuated by mod­ern scholars and writers. Graeco-Roman sources used such epithets as cruel, deceitful, degenerate in describing the Etruscans; Etruscan women were called wanton and their be­havior was compared to that of prostitutes. Unfortunately, we do not have contemporary Etruscan documents from which to learn their opinion of the Greeks and Romans.

Transcription of the combat scene, two figures in combat with a dog.
Fig. 1. Drawing of the Phersu from the combat game scene (see Fig. 4) in the Tomb of the Augurs, Tarquinia. Note inscription next to his head-“Phersu” written in Etruscan characters and read from right to left. (moretti, 1974, fig. 15)

The prejudiced reports of’ ancient sources are readily explained. To the Greeks and Romans the Etruscans were aliens. commercial competitors. and military enemies. The underlying but pervasive motif of most Roman historical literature was the glorifica­tion of Rome; the Etruscans were not only former rulers of Rome but also former allies of Rome’s most dreaded enemies, the Carthaginians. The Greeks, if they refer to the Etruscans at all, do so only in a derogatory manner. The Etruscan language and culture were foreign and different: although Etruscans used a derivation of the Greek alphabet for their writing, their lan­guage did not originate from the same Indo-European roots as Greek and Latin. Obviously, there were some basic communication problems coupled with the typical human distaste for things different. It is necessary to keep in mind the biased viewpoint of the historical record and the ramifications of the dearth of nonfunerary material in the archaeological record before studying any aspect of the Etruscan civilization.

The Etruscans remain silent, without a voice to raise in their own defense; they left us no wealth of literature as the Greeks and Romans did. Extant Etruscan written documents are limited mainly to formulaic funerary epi­taphs carved over the entranceways to tombs, or on sarcophagi and cin­erary urns. A typical inscription might read: “This is the tomb of (name of deceased), son of (ma­tronym, mother’s maiden name) and of (patronym, father’s name) lived (number of years) and served as a (occupation).” These docu­ments, due to their brevity and re­petitive wording, have provided in­sufficient data to allow for a secure translation of the Etruscan lan­guage, but contrary to modern mis­conceptions, the language does not remain undeciphered. It is possible to read these funerary in­scriptions and to glean valuable information about Etruscan vocabulary and syntax, as well as interest­ing information about the use and reuse of tombs as family burial plots and the connection of certain names with specific cities, but it is not yet possible to translate with certainty the limited number of lengthier inscriptions from nonfunerary contexts. More of these nonformu­laic texts are needed to supply linguists with the repertoire to achieve a complete understanding of the Etruscan language.

Wrestling scene from a tomb wall.
Fig. 2. Two wrestlers grappling; a stack of three bronze cauldrons is between them (at left). At right is the Phersu figure from the combat game. Tomb of the Augurs, Tarquinia.

The Etruscan archaeological record is similarly clouded by an abundance of phys­ical remains related to funerary practices and a corresponding lack of material from nonfunerary con­texts. It was the accidental dis­covery of tombs during the Renais­sance that first brought Etruscan culture to the attention of ‘modern’ scholars. During the subsequent centuries, vast private collections of Etruscans objects, for the most part from burials and without any ac­companying documentation as to provenience or context, were amassed. Though these objects re­flect the diversity of Etruscan art and as such are important to the study of art history, the lack of in­formation as to their discovery renders them of little value to the archaeologist trying to reconstruct a picture of Etruscan civilization.

Etruscan cities were more diffi­cult to locate and often proved inaccessible to either robbers or excavators since they either lay beneath modern cities on sites continually occupied since Etrus­can times (such as Orvieto) or had been destroyed in subsequent oc­cupations by Romans and later peoples. It is only since the end of World War II that an effort has been made to locate and to exca­vate Etruscan towns; this work has been carried out by the Swedes at Acqua Rossa, Luni, and San Gio­venale, and by the Americans at the site of Poggio Civitate (Murlo, in the province of Siena).

Map showing Etruria within Italy.
Fig. 3. Map showing largest extent of Etruscan influence in Italy.

Evidence for Games from Tomb Paintings

Our knowledge of Etruscan athletics and competitive sports is of course influ­enced by the very same factors that affect and tend to prejudice our view of all things Etruscan—the lack of Etruscan literary sources, the limitation of tangible evidence to mostly funerary contexts, and the notion that the Etruscan civilization be viewed as a by-product of the Greek experience and a forerunner of the greatness that was Rome. By looking at some of the extant Etruscan renditions of games and athletes from tomb paintings, vase painting, sculptural friezes, and small-scale statuary, and by a careful interpretation of some ancient sources, it is possible to discern a certain “Etruscaness” in the way that they illustrated athletic events in various media, and also a spirit and an attitude toward athletic com­petition very different from that of their contemporaries.

The best evidence for Etruscan athletics comes from some 20 (of the approximately 200) richly painted tombs that include athletic scenes in their decoration. The ancient Etrus­can city of Tarquinia is most renowned for its painted tomb chambers (it has more than 140); other fine examples are known from Chiusi, Cerveteri, Veii, Or­vieto, and Vulci along with other lesser and isolated examples. The scenes depicted in these tombs clearly show that the Etruscans par­ticipated in many of the same events as the Creeks: chariot- and horse-racing, boxing, wrestling, running, jumping with weights, and discus and javelin throwing. Many of the tomb paintings contain banquet scenes and dancing along with athletics: these may be inter­preted as representations of the funerary celebrations held to honor the deceased. A number of tombs also contained vases, both locally made and Greek imports, depicting athletic competitions. The Etrus­cans clearly loved sports and con­sidered them an important aspect of their lives.

Combat scene from a tomb wall.
Fig. 4. Phersu combat game scene (see Fig. 1). Tomb of the Augurs, Tarquinia. (Moretti, 1974, fig. 15.)

Three tombs from Tarquinia (all dating to 550-520 B.C.) are of spe­cial interest since they contain illus­trations of a definitely non-Greek form of athletic competition along with more familiar sporting events: the Tomb of the Olympiad (so named because of its paintings of many athletic events, but also largely because of its propitious discovery in 1960, a few short months before the Summer Olympic Games were held in Rome), the Tomb of the Augurs, and the Tomb of the Pulcinella. Each of these includes a depiction of as character unique to Etruscan games, the Phersu. (His name is known horn an inscription beside the figure in the Tomb of the Augurs, Fig. 1.)

The Tomb of the Augurs has the most complete series of paintings of the “Phersu games.” In one of these, the Phersu is shown wearing short black tunic and red “shorts,” while on his head is a red pointed cap with visor and elongated ears. His face and neck are hidden by a red mask complete with long Use black beard (Fig. 2). Ile is shown holding a dog (or possibly a wolf) by a long leash. His opponent is naked except for a loincloth and a white cloth Or sack wrapped over his head; he holds a large club in his right hand (Fig. 4). This man is tangled in the long leash of the Phersu’s dog; even his club is enmeshed and ren­dered useless. The dog is fiercely at­tacking and biting his left leg; slashes of red paint show the blood spouting from wounds lie has al­ready received. Another depiction of the Phersu appears on the oppo­site wall of the tomb (near two boxers), but unfortunately this scene is poorly preserved. Here, the Phersu is depicted only in mask and tunic (Fig. 5), lacking his shorts, leash, and dog. Ile is shown instead running and looking back over his shoulder (at his pursuers?).

A very similar though more frag­mentary example of this combat is depicted in the ‘limb of the Olym­piad. (Due to its poor state of pres­ervation, this tomb has been removed to the Museo Nationale in Tarquinia.) Only the head and shoulders of the masked Phersu and his opponent are preserved. The Phersu wears a red cap and mask similar to those depicted in the Tomb of the Augurs; in this ex­ample, his tunic is decorated with a black and white checkerboard pat­tern. The head of his opponent is once again enclosed in a white bag; he holds in his right hand a club with a thickened handle and attach­ment loop.

A man running, surrounded by birds, depicted on a tomb wall.
Fig. 5. The Phersu running. he wears the bearded mask, tunic, and pointed cap seen on most of these figures. Tomb of the Augurs, Tarquinia. (Moretti, 1974, fig. 16.)

Faded wall depiction of a man running, wearing a pointed cap.
Fig. 6. Detail of a scene showing the Phersu running. Tomb of the Pulcinella, Tarquinia. (Bartocinii, 1959.)

The Phersu in the Tomb of the Pulcinella is shown running behind an armed figure on horseback.: it is unclear whether the two are inter­acting or not. The Phersu’s clothing is similar to that worn by the solitary Phersu in the Tomb of the Augurs, consisting of only a tunic (this time with black and white checkerboard pattern) and the characteristic cap and bearded mask (Fig. 6).

The interpretation of these Phersu figures has been the center Of much controversy. The name “Phersu” seems to refer to a general type of masked performer rather than to a specific personage or deity. Several scholars have associated the word with the Latin persona, which originally referred to the masks worn by actors and later came to mean the character or actor himself:

The paintings of the Phersu from these three tombs show him in two distinct roles. In the scenes where he appears together with the man with his head in a sack, the Phersu plays the role of an umpire in the combat of the dog (wolf?) against the man or even perhaps abets the an­imal in his attack. In the depictions of the Phersu alone, he seems to be running Or possible fleeing. Ile wears the same mask and cap with slightly different costumes to per-ham different functions.

Depiction of a man about to throw a discuss found on a tomb wall.
Fig. 7. Discus thrower. Tomb of the Olympiad, Tarquinia. (Moretti, 1974, fig. 33.)

These Phersu scenes all occur in conjunction with representations of athletic events. The Tomb of the Au­gurs includes scenes of boxing, wrestling, a “tug-of-war,” and a runner. The paintings in the Tomb of the Olympiad portray a disco­bolns (Fig. 7), a jumper. runners. boxers, and a chariot race. The Pul­cinella Tomb contains scenes of armed dancers and horsemen. It seems probable then that the Phersu events took place at athletic competitions. The immediate asso­ciation of the gruesome combat se­quences is with later Roman gladia­torial contests. One ancient source credits the Etruscans with passing on gladiatorial events to the Romans (see the article by White in this issue). Gladiatorial competition, however, always involved only hu­mans. The Roman bestiarium, fights between men (usually slaves or criminals) and wild animals, is prob­ably a closer parallel.

A 5th-century tomb from Tar­quinia, the Tomba delta Bighe (Tomb of the Two-Horse Chariot), has one of the most complete dis­plays of various Etruscan athletic games and a unique example of a physical setting for the activities. The painted decoration is divided into an tipper and a lower frieze. The upper band contains what is probably the most comprehensive documentation for the wide variety of athletics and games held at Etruscan funerals: chariot races, riding exercises, wrestling. boxing, jumping, discus and javelin throw. Mg, and dances involving armed participants are shown, complete with umpires and judges. The en­tertainment in this instance seems to be held within a stadium lined with stands, a unique example of Etruscan art of a physical structure specifically for athletics (Fig. 8). The stands are built of wood and covered with a canopy. The spec­tators, both men and women (the woman is on the top tier wearing, a small rounded cap known as a fir-tutus), are shown in animated dis­cussion. The tipper tier seems to be the reserved-seat section for the more dignified and well-dressed fans, while the lower level is taken up by lounging nude spectators without the advantage of actual seating.

Faded depiction of a sepectators seated in a stand, people laying underneath the stands.
Fig. 8. Spectators seated in wooden stands with canopy. Painting from the Tomb of the Two-Horse Chariot, Tarquinia.

Historical Background

During the 6th and early 5th centu­ries B.C., the Etruscans and their allies, the Carthaginians, were in virtual con­trol of maritime traffic in the western Mediterranean. This put them in direct conflict with the Greek colonies in south Italy and Sicily. At its greatest ex­tent, the Etruscan territory reached far beyond its traditional borders of the Tiber and Arno rivers—to the north as far as the Po Valley and to the south to the area of the Bay of Naples (see map, Fig. 3). Expansion to tile south pro­voked additional hostilities with the south Italian Greeks. It was during this same time that the city of Rome vas ruled by Etruscan kings.

Etruscan fortunes began to slowly but irrevocably decline in the 5th century B.C. This was brought about by two factors: the loss of their supremacy at sea due to the end of their tenuous alliance with the Carthaginians, who by this time had consolidated power bases in western Sicily and Sardinia, and the rise to power of the Greek colony at Syra­cuse in Sicily. In 509 B.C. Tarquinias Superbus, the last Etruscan king, was expelled from Rome, ending Etruscan rule in that city and signalling the be­ginning of the Roman Republic.

Statuette of a jude figure about to throw a javelin, javelin missing.
Fig. 9. Bronze statuette of a javelin (?) thrower. Rome, Museum Villa Giulia 24547. (Richardson, 1983, fig. 458.)

Statuette of a nude about to throw a discus.
Fig. 10. Bronze statuette of a discuss thrower. Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale. (Richardson, 1983, fig. 487.)

These losses proved crippling to the Etruscans, both politically and econom­ically. Henceforth. until their eventual subjugation by Borne, the Etruscans states existed as inland territories, cut off from the rich maritime trade they had once enjoyed thanks to Syracuse and the Carthaginians. Unfortunately, the loss of Rome, the only easily acces­sible crossing point on the Tiber River, now deprived them of overland contact with the south as well. In 396 B.C. Veii became the first Etruscan city to fall to the Romans; with the capture of Volsinii in 265 B.C., all of Etruria was under Roman domination.

Further Archaeological Evidence

Examples of athletic compe­tition are also found in other Etruscan art forms. A late 6th-century black-figure am­phora from Vulci (now in London in the British Museum, no. B 64) by the Micah Painter includes scenes of boxing, chariot racing, discus and javelin throwing; together with dan­cers and a youth holding a small pot (probably containing oil for the ath­letes). A group of female spectators stand watching the entertainment. An unusual episode, without known parallel, on this same vase shows a young man climbing a tall thin pole. This has been suggested as a varia­tion on the sport of climbing up greased poles to get prizes balanced at the top.

Small-scale bronze figures were a very popular Etruscan art form and one for which the Etruscans were justifiably famous. Some of these statuettes were used as freestanding figurines, but many served as dec­orative attachments for a variety of bronze utensils: boxes. mirrors, ladles, candelabra, etc. The figures portrayed include deities, warriors, and athletes. The athletic category, containing only mule males, was most popular during the 6th cen­tury. Javelin and discus throwers, riders, and divers are among the known classes. Javelin throwers (Fig. 9) are often difficult to distin­guish from warriors with lances, but there does seem to be a difference in stances between the two. The athlete normally would hold the jav­elin in his right hand very low and far back; his head would be turned so that he could look back at the javelin. The warrior would gaze straight ahead at his intended target and hold the weapon higher and more horizontal. Even though nude, the bronze javelin throwers seem to be in the classic warrior stance and are therefore unlikely to represent participants in an athletic competition. It is possible that these nude figures represent hunters or youths practicing military skills. There is a separate class of obvious warriors with helmets, breastplates, and greaves, posed to hurl a lance or spear.

Relief of a hosreback riders.
Fig. 11. Terracotta relief plaque depicting horseback riders, from Poggio Civitate in Murlo, Siena. (American Journal of Archaeology 77 (1973): fig. 6. Inv. no. 68-86, Cat. no. 4.)

The discobolus types can be more securely identified as athletes. An interesting example (now in the col­lections of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples) shows a nude male figure, rather crudely de­picted, with a discus held vertically in his right hand (Fig. 10). Ilk stance and the positioning of the discus mirrors that of the discobo­lus in the Tomb of the Olympiad (Fig. 7).

Although jockeys and horseracing were a popular theme in tomb paintings, there are very few extant examples in the round, either in small-scale bronzes or in larger stone and terracotta sculptures. They were, however. frequently de­picted in relief’ on funerary stele and architectural friezes.

An important series of horse-racing relief plaques in terracotta from a nonfunerary context were ex­cavated at the archaeological site at Poggio Civitate (Murk, Siena), These formed part of the decoration for a large rectangular structure. first built around 650 B.C. The structure may have served a reli­gious as well as a civic and political function. The friezes date to the second construction phase, ca. 600-590 B.C.; it has not yet been pos­sible to determine the exact place­ment of the friezes on the building. The scenes portray riders in caps and flowing capes seated atop elon­gated horses in lively running poses. One frieze shows a bronze cauldron resting on top of a column (Fig. 11). It has been suggested that this might represent the prize for the race. If so, this is one of only two instances of prizes being associated with depictions of Etruscan athletic events. The second example is the stack of three bronze cauldrons be­tween the two wrestlers in the Tomb of the Augurs at Tarquinia (Fig. 2).

The Written Evidence

Literary evidence supplies some additional information on possible occasions for Etruscan games other than fu­neral celebrations. Herodotus (Book I, lines 166-167) recounts the story of the games held by the people of Caere to atone for the stoning to death of their Greek prisoners.

Etruscan games may also have been held in conjunction with reli­gious festivals. It is Livy (Book 5, chapter 1, lines 3-5) who tells of the athletic events held in conjunction with the religious festival at Fanum Voltumnae. The location of Fanum Voltumnae is still open to debate, but it is clear from the ancient sources that it served as a central meeting place and cult center.

Relief of the Circus Maximus.
Fig. 12. Relief of the Circus Maximus, with details of the spina. (Hönle and Heinze, Römische Amphitheater und Stadien. Zurich, 1981, fig. 63.)

According once again to Livy (Book I, chapter 35, line 9), Tar­quinius Priscus —the fifth of the seven legendary kings of Rome and an Etruscan who, according to tra­dition, ruled Rome from 616-579 B.C.—celebrated his victory over the Latin tribes with a series of games. It was for these victory games that the Elder Tarquin had the grounds laid out and wooden seats constructed for the Circus Maximus in Rome. This provides an interesting link to the wooden stands shown in the Tomb of the Two-Horse Chariot at Tarquinia. Livy’s account also tells how boxers and horses were brought from Etruria to take part in the compe­titions.

There are a few other tenuous connections that tie the Etruscans to the introduction of the circus and the circus games. Some ancient au­thors attribute to the Etruscans the design of the Mae, wooden scaffold­ings which ran down the central spine (spina) of the circus and sup­ported seven eggs which functioned as counters for the laps to be run for races (Fig. 12). (The egg is a common Etruscan motif) It is pos­sible then that not only the circus games themselves but also the ap­paratus for the games were introduced into Rome when the city was under Etruscan domination. The hypothesis follows that the Etrus­cans themselves enjoyed similar games and constructed similar ar­chitectural settings for competitions at other Etruscan cities.

The Etruscans held games on a variety of occasions—funerals, vic­tory celebrations, religious festivals. There is some indication that, al­though tomb paintings include only one example of a physical setting for athletic competitions, the Etruscans may well have had structures such as circuses, stadia, and gymnasia. Possibly such buildings were tem­porary and made of wood; perhaps they were more permanent and have just not yet been discovered or were destroyed in antiquity. Many of the Etruscan events are similar to those of the Greeks, but some are unique: the Phersu combat, the pole climbing, the tug-of-war. Small details of the events are also dif­ferent—the stance of a thrower, the hold of a wrestler, the fact that some Etruscan athletes are portrayed as partially clothed—all these differ from the Greek versions. The very character of Etruscan athletics seems rather informal; competitions seem to have occurred in an almost carnival-like atmosphere, with at­tendant dancers, musicians, and jugglers.

Within the boundaries delineated by our lack of Etruscan literary sources and the limitations imposed by the mainly funereal settings for the archaeological evidence, it is possible to catch intriguing glimpses into the everyday life of the Etrus­cans. Games were obviously an im­portant pastime for them, since de­pictions of athletics play a promi­nent role in tomb paintings and occur in several different art forms. The Etruscans, a fascinating people, are no longer quite so mysterious; scholars from a variety of disciplines are combining their knowledge with new data from modern excavations to construct a clearer picture of this elusive civilization.

Cite This Article

Vellucci, Karen Brown. "Etruscan Athletics." Expedition Magazine 27, no. 2 (August, 1985): -. Accessed July 14, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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