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Sunday, March 14, 2021

Egalitarianism and Domestic Violence in the Ancient World

 I was searching for additional Etruscan metalwork that incorporated the gorgon motif and came across this rather troubling Etruscan cista handle described by the National Etruscan Museum in the Villa Giulia as a Greek grasping an Amazon by the hair. I'm not sure why the female is described as an Amazon because she does not appear to be wearing any armor. The male figure was apparently holding something, perhaps a spear and that may be the reason it is thought to be a battle scene between the Greeks and the Amazons since one figure is obviously female.  To my 21st century eyes, however, it just appears to be a scene of domestic violence which I find sharply in contrast to the many forms of Etruscan art in which the relationship of men and women appears to be amicable and egalitarian.

In his treatise, "Etruscan Art", professor Richard De Puma of the University of Iowa points out , "The subject matter may have been adapted from Greek mythology, but the treatment, both iconographically and stylistically, is almost always distinctly Etruscan."

Although Etruscan relationships between men and women have been considered to be much more egalitarian than those between Greek or Roman couples, epigraphic evidence from funerary contexts indicates Etruscan females referred to themselves as the daughter of a father, sec or sech, and the wife of a husband, puia. Conversely, a man was never described as the husband of a particular woman. Hence, Etruscan society was still essentially patrilineal.

According to the Criminal Justice Research Net, an underlying theme in each society which allowed for domestic violence against women and children is patriarchy.  They go on to explain:

"The level of violence overall in a particular society or time period also plays a role in influencing the acceptance of domestic violence. The more violent society is, as fostered by warfare, violent entertainment, crime, and even punishment of criminals, the more violence is accepted in the home. When the societal violence level is combined with patriarchy, women are easily seen as targets for domestic violence."

"The level of violence available for a man to keep order in his home in these ancient societies was certainly greater than that now afforded, but it was based in part on the level of violence available in the general societies of the times. The death penalty was the prescribed punishment for many crimes, even minor ones such as pickpocketing...By comparison, domestic violence was not only acceptable, but a normal form of familial interaction. It was not considered violence at all."

Despite the pleasant presentation of smiling couples on Etruscan urns or sarcophagi, Etruscans were a warrior-based society. The tradition of gladiatorial combat originated in combats to the death performed at Etruscan funerals. So, it should not surprise us if, despite scholarly speculation that Etruscan females enjoyed a more egalitarian existence, domestic violence was also endemic to their culture. 

What I find particularly appalling about this cista handle is this sculpture appeared on an every day container used in a household probably managed by a woman.

I wish I could have obtained a copy of the essay collection "Violence in the ancient and medieval worlds." According to a Bryn Mawr Classical Review of the essay compilation, a chapter by Margherita Carucci entitled "Domestic Violence in Roman Imperial Society: Giving Abused Women a Voice" explores the emotional experiences of Roman women in the early imperial period and draws attention to how ancient women negotiated a phenomenon that clearly formed a large part of Roman social relations. Like many academic texts, it was simply too expensive, though, and not even available in a cheaper Kindle format.

Image: Cista handle depicting a male (Greek?) yanking a female (Amazon?) by the hair, Etruscan, 4th-3rd century BCE at the National Etruscan Museum (Villa Giulia) in Rome, Italy courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko (digitally enhanced)

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