Comparative Guts

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400 BCE-400 CE

Roman-etruscan materials

Dr Jane Draycott

Lecturer in Ancient History, University of Glasgow
In antiquity, Italy was a very diverse region, inhabited by many ethnically, culturally, and linguistically distinct groups. The Etruscans and the Romans were two of these groups, and were located in Central Italy (equating to roughly the regions of Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio today) in the period spanning the first millennium BCE and the first five centuries CE. Etruscan civilization seems to have arisen in the ninth century BCE, becoming the dominant culture in Italy by the middle of the seventh century BCE, and in the following centuries, the Etruscans exerted a heavy influence upon their Roman neighbours, with a dynasty of Etruscan kings ruling Rome from the foundation of the city in 753 BCE until the monarchy was abolished, the royal family expelled, and the Republic founded in 509 BCE. Over the course of the next four centuries, Roman political, military, cultural, and linguistic influence expanded and Rome came to dominate the Italian peninsula. By the late first century BCE, the Etruscans, along with the rest of the Italic peoples, had been absorbed into what had become the Roman Empire, with a sphere of influence extending from northern Europe down to north Africa, and from western Europe across to the Near East. There were close connections between the Italian peninsula and Greece and the Near East throughout this period, and these are attested in both the literary and archaeological records.
guts in roman-etruscan materials
While anatomical votives representing the external body had been used in Classical Greece, anatomical votives representing the internal body were an Etrusco-Italian innovation. This may have been due to the Etruscans and Romans having a different, more positive attitude towards the interior of the body than the Greeks, who viewed it with a degree of disgust. It may also have been due to an increased understanding of the interior of the body due to the use of vivisection and dissection in medical research in Hellenistic Alexandria (4), or the widespread practice of animal sacrifice and haruspicy in religion in Central Italy (1). However, despite the increasing level of knowledge regarding the interior of the body in the last few centuries BCE, as attested by writers of medical texts such as Celsus, artistic depictions of it remained neither entirely consistent nor entirely accurate. There was a wide variety of representations of the internal organs including the trachea, heart, lungs, liver, spleen, intestines, and even the uterus, as well as other bodily features such as muscles and bones ranging from schematic and stylised to more anatomically correct and precise, although some were more akin to animal than human innards. Some votives come in the form of a complete or truncated torso with a tear-drop or oval opening (3), others in the form of a plaque, and others incorporate more creative approaches such as playing with perspective or incorporating human/animal hybridity (2). While they may refer to the literal opening of the body, such as that done by medical practitioners for the purposes of surgery, they may also refer to the figurative opening of the body, such as that done by the gods for the purposes of divine healing. These votives may take the form of male or female bodies, they may be clothed or unclothed, with the larger, more detailed, more individualised examples thought to have been dedicated by wealthier suppliants.