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Etruscan Ladies Performing a Dance (painting from a tomb ca. 500 BC)

Etruscan Ladies Performing a Dance (painting from a tomb ca. 500 BC)

This week is Etruscan week here at Ferrebeekeeper—a week dedicated to blogging about the ancient people who lived in Tuscany, Umbria, and Latium from 800 BC until the rise of the Romans in 300 BC (indeed, the Romans may have been Etruscan descendants). Happy Etruscan Week! The Etruscans were known for their sophisticated civilization which produced advanced art, architecture, and engineering. In an age of war and empires, they were, by necessity, gifted warriors who fought with the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Gauls. They won wars, captured slaves, and built important fortified cities on top of hills. The Etruscan league burgeoned for a while until Etruria was weakened by a series of setbacks in warfare which occurred from the fifth century BC onward until eventually the entire society was swallowed by Rome.

A Map of Etruscan Culture through time

A Map of Etruscan Culture through time

 

Despite the fact that the Etruscans were the most important pre-Roman civilization of Italy (which left a cultural stamp on almost all Roman institutions) they remain surprisingly enigmatic. Although Greek and Roman authors speculated about the Etruscans, such writings tend to be…fanciful. The Greek historian Herodotus (alternately known as “the father of history” or “the father of lies” wrote that the Etruscans originated from Lydia (which was on the Western coast of Anatolia), but he certainly provides no evidence.  Etruscan government was initially based around tribal units but the Etruscan states eventually evolved into theocratic republics–much like the later Roman Republic. The Etruscans worshipped a large pantheon of strange pantheistic gods. The Etruscans produced extremely magnificent tombs which were used by seceding generations of families.

 

Etruscan "Tomb of the Lioness" (ca.520 BC)

Etruscan “Tomb of the Lioness” (ca.520 BC)

It is through their tombs that we have truly come to know about the real Etruscans. The burial complexes are repositories of art and artifacts which reveal the day-to-day life of the people (well, at least the noble ones who could afford sumptuous tombs). Perhaps, more importantly, the actual Etruscans are also there, albeit in a somewhat deteriorated and passive state. With the advent of advanced genetic knowledge and tests, scientists and anthropologists have been able to conduct mitochondrial DNA studies on Etruscan remains. Such studies suggest that the Etruscans were from…Tuscany, Umbria, and Latium. They were most likely descendents of the Villanovan people—an early Iron Age people of Italy who in turn descended from the Urnfield culture.

 

A sample of the Etruscan Language

A sample of the Etruscan Language

This idea tends to conform with what linguists believe concerning the language of the Etruscans—which turns out to be a non-Indo-European isolate with no close language relations. Etruscan was initially an oral language only and it was only after cultural interchange with the Greeks that it acquired a written form (based around a derivation of the Greek alphabet). A few Roman scholars knew Etruscan (among them the emperor Claudius) but knowledge of the language was lost during the early days of the Empire. Today only a handful of inscriptions, epitaphs, and one untranslated book survive. We are left with a people who had unparalleled influence on Rome, yet are only known through inconclusive Greco-Roman accounts and through a tremendous heritage of art and artifacts. These latter are immensely beautiful and precious and form the basis of our knowledge of these mysterious early Italians.

Etruscan vessel in the shape of a bent leg (ca. 550-500BC)

Etruscan vessel in the shape of a bent leg (ca. 550-500BC)

Armor has played a major role in Chinese society from the depths of prehistory to the modern era. The topic of Chinese armor is so very large that it is hard to choose one aspect of the subject. Should I show the Chinese god of war Guan Yu, resplendent in his plate mail or the gorgeous silk portraits of warrior emperors from yesteryear?  Should I write about the Red Army’s mechanized armor program–which began by producing feeble copies of Soviet tanks and has haltingly evolved in its own direction by adding watered-down copies of NATO tank technologies to Russian designs?  I could write about how China’s medieval military leadership adopted and modified the armored mounted archery tactics of the Mongols or about early pre-dynastic armor suits made from turtle shells.

Perhaps the best way to present this topic as a sweeping overview is through pictures. Therefore, here is a series of photos of Chinese helmets from different eras.  I have tried to arrange them chronologically, but, due to the eccentricity and exiguousness of internet sources, I may not have fully succeeded.  Likewise some of these are priceless museum pieces and others are worthless forgeries (I have my eye on you, peacock helmet).

Chinese Shang Dynasty bronze helmet dating from about 1500 BC found at Anyang.

Chou Dynasty helmet from Emperor Wu Wang tomb complex (circa 1020 BC)

A Bronze Helmet from the Yan Kingdom in the Warring States period (ca. 475-221 BC)

A second bronze helm and an iron helm from the Warring States period (476 -221 BC)

A Qin Helmet (circa 221 to 207 BC.)

I'm afraid this picture was the best I could find for Tang Dynasty Helmets (618 AD - 907 AD). It's a pretty remarkable picture though!

Alleged Song Dynasty style helmet/headdress

A Gold and Iron Helmet from the late Yuan (1271 AD–1368 AD)

Late Ming Helmet (end of the17th century)

Emperor's helmet: Qianlong period (1736 AD-1795 AD)

Mass Produced Chinese Helmet from Late Quing Dynasty (circa 18th Century AD)

British Mark II Helmet Used by Chinese troops in World War II

Chinese Cold War Crash Helmet Based on Soviet Design (1950's)

Contemporary Chinese Combat helmet

Kevlar Combat Helmet (ca. present)

One thing that is striking (other than the loveliness of the helmets) is the liberal borrowing from other military traditions from the Mongol era onwards: the Yuan cavalry helmet is a literal Mongol cavalry helmet; the 1940’s era helmet is a British doughboy helmet with a Chinese symbol, and the cold war crash helmet is a Russian knock-off.  The most recent helmet seems to be quite similar to the Kevlar helmets used by United States forces (which probably owe their shape to “Fritz” Helmets from Germany). It will be interesting to see what comes next on this list as material science meet military necessity in the future…

Cerise is a vibrant pinkish shade of red. The color is uniquely lovely–particularly as a glowing light against a dark backdrop, and the name has a long history (having been used to describe that particular shade of red since the middle of the 19th century). Unfortunately there isn’t as much to write about cerise as about some other colors.

Cerise means cherry in French and I thought it would be appropriate to write about the color as cherry-picking season arrives. When I was a teenager, my parents dragged me to an orchard to pick cherries around the end of June every year. I was always aggrieved to be rousted from bed first thing on a Saturday morning and I treated the annual event as an ordeal–but now I miss cherry picking and I particularly miss having cherries.  The very beautiful ornamental cherry tree in the back yard of where I live is an ornamental cherry which produces no fruit.  Aside from a few tiny plastic containers of pricey bing cherries, I have to be content with the color.

A National Geographic Painting of the Collision

The name “Cerise” has one other claim to fame.  In 1995, the French military launched a spy satellite of that name from Centre Spatial Guyanais (the ESA spaceport in French Guiana which now includes the infamous former penal colony of Devil’s Island) in order to monitor high frequency radio transmissions.  One year later, Cerise was struck by a fragment of an Ariane rocket.  To quote NASA, “The debris appeared to have impacted the stabilization boom, which extended 6 m from the main body of the spacecraft, at over 14 km/s (31,000 miles/hour).”  It was the first recorded space collision of a space craft with space junk (although not the last). Incredibly, the satellite remained operational however the boom broke off and joined the tens of thousands of other bits of space debris–lethal low hanging fruit whipping through near-Earth orbit.

The Romans made use of many crowns during the time of the Republic.  Some proclaimed exceptional soldiers or dominant politicians.  Other crowns were worn by athletes, brides, or festival celebrants.  An entire list of Roman coronae can be found here.  Later on, as the empire began to crumble, Emperors might wear jeweled diadems, but in the republic a very different sort of crown stood above all the rest.

The grass crown was the highest reward a Roman military man could receive during the time of the Roman Republic (and for a brief period at the beginning of the Roman Principate).  A general could only win the grass crown by saving an entire army.  Well, actually, the crown was once given to a mere centurion for saving an army–so it was saving an army that was important.  Usually such a thing could only be accomplished by commanders.  A mere handful of the greatest Roman warriors ever received this singular honor.

The crown was woven out of grass, weeds, and wildflowers taken from the ground where the person receiving the award saved the army.  It was made by soldiers and presented by them to their savior, so it may have lacked the sophistication and loveliness of fancier wreaths and garlands.  Nevertheless the Romans esteemed it above all other headgear. Pliny the Elder described the grass crown in Chapter XXII of his work The Natural History (translated by John Bostock):

Of all the crowns with which, in the days of its majesty, the all-sovereign people, the ruler of the earth, recompensed the valor of its citizens, there was none attended with higher glory than the crown of grass. The crowns bedecked with gems of gold, the vallar, mural, rostrate, civic, and triumphal crowns, were, all of them, inferior to this: great, indeed, was the difference between them, and far in the background were they thrown by it. As to all the rest, a single individual could confer them, a general or commander on his soldiers for instance, or, as on some occasions, on his colleague: the senate, too, exempt from the cares and anxieties of war, and the people in the enjoyment of repose, could award them, together with the honours of a triumph.

But as for the crown of grass, it was never conferred except at a crisis of extreme desperation, never voted except by the acclamation of the whole army, and never to any one but to him who had been its preserver. Other crowns were awarded by the generals to the soldiers, this alone by the soldiers, and to the general. This crown is known also as the “obsidional” crown, from the circumstance of a beleaguered army being delivered, and so preserved from fearful disaster. …

The crown thus presented was made green grass, gathered on the spot where the troops so rescued had been beleaguered. Indeed, in early times, it was the usual token of victory for the vanquished to present to the conqueror a handful of grass; signifying thereby that they surrendered their native soil, the land that had nurtured them, and the very right even there to be interred—a usage which, to my own knowledge, still exists among the nations of Germany.

Pliny went on to list the men who received the grass crown.  It is a short list of Rome’s greatest victors.  Here is that list of peerless Roman commanders with a brief explanation:

  • Lucius Siccius Dentatus (a general during the great civil struggles between the plebians and the patricians)
  • Publius Decius Mus (received two grass crowns—one from his own army, and a second from the legions he had rescued)
  • Fabius Maximus (received the crown for creating and employing “the Fabian strategy” a series of delaying tactics by which Hannibal was ultimately expelled from Italy)
  • Marcus Calpurnius Flamma (a commander who led 300 volunteers on a succesful suicide mission to free the consular army which was caught in a defile during a batule in the First Punic War)
  • Scipio Aemilianus Africanus (adopted grandson of the famous Roman general of the same name: Scipio the younger won his his grass crown in the final Punic war–which saw the utter destruction of Carthage)
  • Gnaeus Petreius Atinas (the previously mentioned centurion, who saved a legion during the Cimbri wars by means of good leadership and heroic battlefield prowess )
  • Lucius Cornelius Sulla (the great dictator won the crown in fishy circumstances during the Social War at Nola  [Pliny is dismissive of the award–and of Sulla])
  • Quintus Sertorius (who defeated several large armies campaigning in Spain–but may not have recived the grass crown[Pliny’s language is unclear])
  • Augustus (the crown was presented to Augustus by the Senate but was it was a political homage to an emperor rather than an army’s reward for its general.)

After Augustus, the grass crown exits history.  It lingers only as a memory of the warlike virtues of the Roman Republic.

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