11.16.2010

Etruscan Arches

Until about 900 BCE, most of the highly advanced civilizations of the world existed in Asia and North Africa. With the exception of Crete and a few other nearby Greek islands colonized by these Cretan civilizations (Minoans and Mycenaeans), Europe had remained uncivilized in comparison. That had started to change with the arrival of a group of people called Etruscans on the west coast of Italy.  It is a still a mystery where they came from. They had an alphabet derived from the Greek alphabet, but they spoke an unrelated language. Some archeologists think they may have come from Asia Minor.  Herodotus thought they were Lydians, but Lydians spoke an Indo-European language, of which the Etruscan language was not.  They may have been natives of the area who were 'educated' by the Greeks, Phoenicians, or some other people to the east. The area in which they built their city-state is more or less the region of Tuscany just north of Rome.  In fact, the word 'Tuscany' is modified from 'Etruscan'.

The Romans, who came of age in the region several centuries later, were educated by the Etruscans.  According to legend, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BCE, a time when the Etruscans were the dominate force in Italy. One of early Rome's most important king was a man who came to be known as Tarquin the Elder, or Lucius Tarquinius Priscus.  Tarquin was the son of a Greek father and Etruscan mother who grow up in the Etruscan city of Tarquinii.  He was a very ambitious and shrewd politician but his Greek background had been a barrier to the ethnically conscious Etruscans, so he moved to Rome, a much less advanced city but one that had more tolerance for foreigners.  This toleration of foreigners and foreign ideas would come to characterize Rome and it would be an important component in the success of Rome.

Rome at the time was ruled by a Senate, although this Senate was not quite like the U.S. Senate.  Senators were not elected, but rather were an oligarchy of rich and powerful old men of the region.  Every 30 to 40 years, they choose a king to rule of Rome.  The Senate then functioned mainly to carry out the wishes of the king.  The Senate did not have much veto power of the king, although there were seldom any need for it, since their interests were often the same. Tarquin would eventually win the hearts of the Roman senate and get himself appointed king in 616 B.C. Tarquin would reign for about 40 years and during his reign, he laid the groundwork for the Circus Maximus, a chariot racing stadium, as well as the Temple of Jupiter. Tarquin's son-in-law, Servius Tulluis, succeeded Tarquin and reigned for 44 years.  It was during the reign of these two rulers when Rome underwent the first ambitious building boom.  Engineers began the digging of sewers to drain the city's waste, and Rome's sewage system would be the envy of the world well into the modern era.  Archeological excavations reveal that sometime around 600 B.C., the mud and twig huts that were the primary dwellings of common Romans were beginning to be replaced by stone houses.

One of the most important contribution of the Etruscans was the architectural feature known as the arch.

The easiest way to construct a doorway or passageway into a building is to set up two vertical pieces of wood, stone, or other material and than balance a horizontal piece above the two.  The horizontal piece, unsupported in the middle, can break easily, and the weakness increases the longer the horizontal piece.

If instead you use relatively small pieces arranged in a vertical semicircle so that each piece helps support the piece above, and you use mortar to make the pieces adhere to each other, you have an arch. An arch can span a much wider distance and can carry a much heavier load than a horizontal piece can.

Small but very primitive arches were used as early as the time of the Sumerians.  The Greeks experimented with psuedo- and quasi-arches but they were not very good at it. The Etruscans, however, perfected the concept of using small wedge-shaped stones held in place by resting against each other. These first true arches, properly built for maximum strength and efficient distribution of stress, showed up the first time among the Etruscans.

Etruscans designed and built Rome's first sewer system in about 600 BCE, and they made ample use of arches and archways. The 'Cloaca Maxima' runs through ancient Rome and empties in the Tiber River.  Eventually arches gained respectability and were used in forums, passageways, and buildings as well.

The Etruscans were joined by Phoenician colonizers who, in addition to establishing numerous colonial outposts in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean world, founded the city of Carthage in 814 BCE, according to legend, in what is now Tunisia.  Carthage was an important trading partner to the Etruscans and would eventual become Rome's early rival for supremacy.

Further Reading
The two ancient sources of information about early Rome and the Etruscan influence are Dionysius of Halicarnassis' Roman Antiquities, and Livy's History of Rome.  Dionysius was a Greek historian who went to Rome in the 1st century A.D. and spent 22 years there writing a history of the city. Livy was a native Roman who spent most of his adult life, starting around 25 BC, writing one of the most thorough histories of early Rome ever written.

Other Sources
Jacques Heurgon,1964. Daily Life of the Etruscans. Trans. James Kirkup. New York: Macmillan Co.

Matthys Levy. 2006. "The Arch: Born in the Sewer, Raised to the Heavens"; Nexus Network Journal. 8:7-12

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