Comparing Roman & Etruscan Sarcophagi

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  • 0:02 Know Your Tombs
  • 0:42 Etruscan Tombs & Sarcophagi
  • 2:35 Roman Tombs & Sarcophagi
  • 4:06 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the similarities and differences in Roman and Etruscan sarcophagi and discover how burial practices reflected ancient lives. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Know Your Tombs

If I asked you to get to know someone, would you head straight to the cemetery? Not many of us would. A tomb isn't generally a place we think to go when trying to learn about someone's life. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't. However unsettling it may seem, sometimes a trip to the tomb is a great way to get to know someone. Just don't go during the full moon, on Friday 13th, or at the end of October. We're trying to learn about art here, not accidentally disturb a vengeful spirit. So, if you're watching this video on any of those dates, put off this lesson until after the witching hour because we are going to get to know some ancient Italian civilizations on a tour of their tombs.

Etruscan Tombs and Sarcophagi

The first tombs we are checking out belong to the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization that thrived from roughly 700- 474 BC in the area today known as Tuscany. The Etruscans buried their dead in large, underground family tombs and covered them with large mounds of earth called tumuli. These tombs themselves were built on a the same floor plan as an Etruscan home, complete with beds, couches and dining areas. Walls were covered in reliefs and paintings of daily objects, parties and recreational activities. Overall, Etruscan tombs were pretty cheerful places that emphasized life more than death.

Etruscan Sarcophagus

But we didn't come all the way here just to look at walls. We came to see this: the Etruscan sarcophagus, or coffin. While other Mediterranean powers, like the Greeks, worked mostly in stone, the Etruscans preferred to use terracotta or baked clay, which was later painted in bright colors.

Etruscan sarcophagus
Etruscan sarcophagus depicting man and wife

This sarcophagus is life-sized, despite the fact that it only held the ashes of the deceased, who was cremated after death. So, why the large sarcophagus? Just like the tomb was built like a home, this represented the people who lived there. You see, that's no ordinary couch they're leaning on; it's a banquet couch. People in ancient times reclined while eating large meals. So in this home-like tomb, there are these sarcophagi of people at feasts. But that's not all. I'm sure you've noticed that there are two people here - a husband and wife. This was not just to signify their marriage. In Greece, women were not present at most banquets or major events, and the Greeks commented on the unusual amount of social equality shared by Etruscan men and women. She is a part of this banquet, an equal in this house, and from her typically Italian hand gesturing, we can tell that she is an active participant in the ghostly conversation.

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