The “Sarcophagus of the Spouses”, Etruscan, c. 520-510 BCE, Louvre, Paris.
So you think all ancient societies were patriarchal and that there was extreme inequality in regards to women? Think again. While most were, there was a civilization nestled right between the Greeks and the Romans that took women a little more seriously: the Etruscans. Etruscan society was pretty radical when it came to their treatment of women, and most examples of this are found in funerary art.
Women were allowed at the traditionally all-male symposia. In Greece, the symposium was an all-male event (with drinking, and sex, and sometimes ideas). Women were only allowed as prostitutes or slaves. However, in Etruscan society, women were allowed at similar banquet-type events. They weren’t servants or prostitutes — they were equals. The notion of women dining with men was completely foreign to surrounding societies.
Etruscan women have been described “as immoral and powerful, mingling more freely with men than did Greek women—-offering toasts at the banquets that for Greeks were traditionally all-male events (Larissa Bonfante).” That Etruscan women were a part of such a controversial event indicates their high place in society.
Unfortunately, the Etruscan society was assimilated into that of Rome and subsequently, the traditions and ideals towards women were stamped out by the dominating Roman society.
Etruscan women also kept their own names after marriage and were able to own property. Aristotle also commented on the atrocities of Etruscan culture, shocked that the wives did not stay home like they did in Greece. Women were also allowed to go to sporting events, which traditionally Greek women were kept from.
Etruscans shared similar dining practices with other archaic cultures like the city of Sybaris in Magna Graecia. So, it seems that in “Archaic” cultures, their women were allotted more freedoms than “more developed” societies that boasted larger territories and more “advanced” government regimes.
The inclusion of women in such high statuses not only depicts that the practice existed in Etruscan life, but that it was important to the members of society and in the veneration of their dead.
While there are many depictions of couples in banquet scenes, perhaps the most poignant images of couples and of women in Etruscan art are found in sarcophagi. One of the most famous examples of this is the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple from the Etruscan city of Cerveteri. The Etruscan couple is seated on a kline, gesturing towards the viewer. The husbands arm is resting protectively on his wife’s shoulder, representing familial union. They are stretched out on a symposium kline, an image which would have been rejected in Greek culture. It shows their shared importance, elevating the woman to equal status as the man. There are also sarcophagi depicting only women, showing their importance.
Who knows where modern society would have been if maybe Etruscans had influenced their surroundings, rather than the patriarchal Greeks and Romans.