Tarchon and Tyrrhenus: The Etruscan Romulus and Remus?
The Etruscans, although enigmatic compared to the familiar civilizations of Greece and Rome, had a significant impact on the development of Roman civilization. As a result, it is unsurprising that the Etruscans play a prominent role in Roman mythology. One example of this may be the stories of Tarchon and Tyrrhenus. They are obscure figures compared to more prominent characters in Greco-Roman mythology, but appear to have been the cultural founders of the Etruscan civilization in the same way that Romulus and Remus were the legendary founders of Rome.
Tarchon and Tyrrhenus, mythical founders of the Etruscan civilization. Etruscan characters from a vintage engraving. (Morphart)
Mythological background of Tarchon and Tyrrhenus
The complete story of Tarchon and Tyrrhenus is difficult to determine because there are multiple versions. Most versions, however, revolve around events that occurred before or right after the Trojan War.
The conflict between the Greeks and Trojans was considered by the ancient Greeks and Romans to have been the most important war in history. For them, it must have explained the ongoing conflict between the Orient and the Occident, or the east and west. It was also used to explain the conflict between the civilizations of Greece and Rome. It makes sense that the Trojan War would also play a role in the relationship between Rome and another great civilization, the Etruscans.
In one version, Tyrrhenus was the son of King Atys of Maeonia and a brother of Lydus. According to this version, there was a famine in Maeonia, which eventually led the king to decide to have some of the people leave for a new land and some of them remain in Maeonia. Atys remained the king over the remaining group, which became the Lydians. Tyrrhenus was made the ruler of the group that would leave, which would become the Tyrrhenians. In this way, Tyrrhenus led the Maeonians to Italy to the land of the Umbrians, where they established what later became known as the Etruscan civilization.
In another version of the story, Tyrrhenus was the son of Heracles and Omphale and the brother of Tarchon. Tyrrhenus’ relationship to Tarchon varies depending on the version. He is either the son, brother, or companion of Tyrrhenus. The one point of commonality is that Tarchon and Tyrrhenus were leaders of the Tyrrhenians and associated with the founding of the Etruscan civilization. In one legend, Tarchon was also visited by Tages, the founding prophet of the Etruscan religion.
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One version of the legend posits that Tyrrhenus was the son of Harcles and Omphale. Ancient Roman fresco from Pompeii, Italy of Omphale and a drunk Heracles. (Stefano Bolognini)
Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid strongly suggested that Tarchon was younger than Tyrrhenus or lived after him, since he is described as king of the Tyrrhenians, implying that the Tyrrhenians were already an established people in Italy by the time of Aeneus. In the Aeneid, Tarchon and the Tyrrhenians, or the Etruscans, were allies of Aeneas in a battle against Turnus, leader of the Rutuli. After defeating Turnus, Aeneas established the town of Lavinium, a legendary precursor to Alba Longa and Rome itself.
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Tarchon and the Tyrrhenians, or the Etruscans, were allies of Aeneas in a battle against Turnus. Aeneus defeats Turnus, 17th century oil painting by Luca Giordano (Public Domain)
Despite the differing details of each version, the outline of this story appears to be the following: After a famine in Tyrrhenus’ home country, he led an expedition to Italy and founded a settlement there. Tarchon was either from the same place as Tyrrhenus or somehow joined him along the way. Together, they founded the Etruscan League of the twelve Etruscan city-states.
A map showing the extent of Etruria and the Etruscan civilization; the map includes the 12 cities of the Etruscan League and notable cities founded by the Etruscans (Norman Einstein / CC BY SA 3.0)
Historic Explanations for the Etruscan Origins
Ancient Greek historians, such as Herodotus and Hellanicus, had many theories for the origin of the Etruscans. One was that they came from Lydia around 1200 BC, in response to famine in central Anatolia. This was the theory favored by Herodotus.
Another theory was that they were from the Aegean and descended from Pelasgians. The term “Pelasgian” appears to have been a general term used by the ancient Greeks to refer to any pre-Hellenic people who lived in a Hellenic land before the arrival of the Greeks. The Pelasgians are described as having lived in Crete, the Ionian Islands, the Sea of Marmara, and Thessaly among other places. They may also have been considered a specific population living in the northeastern Aegean. The Pelasgian origin hypothesis for the Etruscans was favored by Hellanicus.
Modern Theories on Etruscan Origins
Modern theories for the origin of the Etruscans revolve around the same themes. One hypothesis is that they came from an eastern province, such as Lydia. Another theory is that they came from north of the Alps. Yet another proposal still is that they were descended from an indigenous population in Italy but had an influx of population or influence from the east over time.
There is archaeological and DNA evidence that some of the Etruscans entered Italy during the late Bronze Age, circa 1200-1000 BC, which is the timeframe of the legends of Tarchon and Tyrrhenus.
The main problem with the eastern origin hypothesis is that most of the lines of evidence used in support of it today can be explained through other means. For example, a primary archaeological structure used in support of the hypothesis is a stele on the Greek island of Lemnos with an inscription very similar to Etruscan in its structure. This has been used by supporters of the eastern origin hypothesis as evidence for an Anatolian origin. The stela, however, dates to the 6th century BC, so it cannot be due to a migration of Etruscan ancestors from Anatolia to Italy. The Etruscans were already in Italy by that point. In fact, it is more likely that Lemnos was an Etruscan outpost established to facilitate trade with the Anatolian region.
The 6th century BC Lemnos Stele, a limestone grave stele inscribed in Lemnian, a language related to Etruscan. Found in 1884 at Kaminia on Lemnos. (Dan Diffendale / CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Another problem, pointed out by the ancient historian Dionysus of Halicarnassus, is that the Lydian and Etruscan institutions and languages have significant differences, which makes it unlikely that the Etruscans originated from that region. Furthermore, most evidence of oriental influence in Etruscan culture does not occur until after 700 BC, five hundred years after the timeframe of the migration of Tarchon and Tyrrhenus.
The theory that the Etruscans came from north of the Alps was first proposed in the 19th century. It was not based on ancient literary references, but rather on similarities between cremation practices of cultures north of the Alps and Villanovan (i.e., proto-Etruscan) practices. It is also based on similarities between the words Rasenna, the apparent native word that the Etruscans used to describe themselves, and Raeti, the name of a tribe that lived in the east-central Alps in the 5th century BC. While there are similarities between artifacts from Etruria (the Etruscan homeland) and artifacts from central Europe in Villanovan times, such as weapons and helmet types, the similarities are not enough to be considered evidence of an ancestral connection by most scholars today.
Similarities between cremation practices and weaponry have been used to support the theory of an Etruscan origin in the Alps. Etruscan biconical cinerary urn with crest-shaped helmet lid, 9th–8th century BC (Sailko / CC BY 3.0)
Another popular theory today and in antiquity is that the Etruscan civilization emerged from a native Italian culture rather than a recent immigrant population from further east. The earliest archaeological evidence of the Etruscan civilization dates to about the 7th century BC. The Etruscans have been archaeologically associated with the pre-existing Villanovan culture (fl. 900-700 BC). This ancestral connection between the Villanovan culture and the Etruscans is widely endorsed today.
The Linguistic Anomaly
The reason that the Etruscan origin has always been considered mysterious is because they spoke a non-Indo-European language. This makes a non-Italian origin for the Etruscans seem plausible. Nonetheless, the Etruscans are archaeologically associated with Italian archaeological cultures that existed just before the emergence of Etruscan civilization. Furthermore, the Etruscan civilization does not make a clear appearance in the archaeological record until 500 years after the supposed time of Tarchon and Tyrrhenus. Also, the Etruscan social institutions and language do not necessarily resemble those of Anatolian cultures. This makes the historicity of Tarchon and Tyrrhenus unclear, if not unlikely.
Interpretation of Myth and Fact
It may not be possible to determine whether Tarchon and Tyrrhenus were historical figures, but what may be more important is the meaning behind the myth. It is not known what stories the Etruscans told about their origins, but the ancient Greeks and Romans appear to have related them to either the Pelasgians or to Anatolia, specifically Lydia. If the story of Tarchon and Tyrrhenus represents the origin story for the Etruscans, it is a narrative told by the ancient Greeks and Romans not the Etruscans themselves. Thus, it tells us more about what the Greeks and Romans thought of the Etruscans, than what the Etruscans thought about themselves.
The Romans had their own origin story: the tale of Romulus and Remus. According to the legend, Romulus and Remus were birthed by Rhea Silvia, priestess to the god Mars. Rhea Silvia’s father, Numitor, was the king of Alba Longa and had just been deposed by his brother Amulius. After this takeover by Amulius, the god Mars visited Rhea Silvia and she became pregnant by Mars with twins. When the twins were born, they were abandoned in the river Tiber by order of Amulius because he was afraid that they would grow up to overthrow him.
The Condemnation of Rhea Silvia by Amulius, 19th century painting by Guillaume-Guillon Lethière (Public Domain)
The infants Romulus and Remus were found and nursed by a she-wolf. Eventually, they were discovered by a shepherd who, with his wife, raised them. When fully grown, as Amulius had feared, Romulus and Remus overthrew him and reinstated their grandfather Numitor as king of Alba Longa. Afterwards, they went off to establish their own city. They chose to build the city near the Tiber River, where they had been left to die as infants. All did not go well. Romulus and Remus had a disagreement in building the city, which led to Romulus murdering his brother. After founding the city, Romulus built up the population by welcoming outlaws and outcasts from the surrounding cities.
The legend of Romulus and Remus is deeply embedded in Roman culture. The Lupa Capitolina: she-wolf with Romulus and Remus. Bronze, 13th century AD (Public Domain)
There is probably little, if any, historical truth to the story of Romulus and Remus, but it is a story that defined Roman identity and gave meaning to some of their customs. In the same way, the Etruscan origin story would be used to explain who they were as a people and their customs.
Since the story of Tarchon and Tyrrhenus is not told directly to us by the Etruscans, it likely reflects what the ancient Romans thought of the Etruscans, rather than what the Etruscans thought of themselves. In the Aeneid, Tarchon and the Tyrrhenians appear as allies to Aeneas, the legendary Trojan progenitor of the Romans. The Romans may have made Aeneas a Trojan to distance themselves from the Greeks. Ancient Rome in many ways existed in the cultural shadow the Greeks. Making the Romans related to a legendary rival of Greece may have been a literary attempt to escape this shadow.
It is interesting that the Aeneid makes it so that the Romans originate from Anatolia, the legendary homeland of the Etruscans. The Etruscans, according to Greco-Roman myth, came from Lydia, an ancient kingdom in central Anatolia, and Troy was in northwestern Anatolia. There is also a similarity in the story of Tyrrhenus and Aeneas, in that they both were fleeing their home countries to escape adversity and founded a new nation in Italy.
Comparison can be made between Tarchon and Tyrrhenus and Romulus and Remus, as well as between Tyrrhenus and Aeneas. Painting of Aeneas fleeing burning Troy, 1598 (Public Domain)
Based on the Aeneid, it could be argued that the Romans identified with the ancient Etruscans. They were both legendary descendants of refugees from Anatolia and had been allies in the mythic past. This is in spite of the fact that Rome conquered the Etruscan city-states and appears to have assimilated their culture.
Unlike in the case of ancient Greece, the Romans appear to have made little attempt to preserve the Etruscan culture. Nonetheless, there is a friendship between Aeneas and the early Etruscans in Roman mythology. Could it be that the Aeneid was trying to stress that the Etruscans had always been Romans in a sense, or at least that Romans and Etruscans belonged together?
The Aeneid was not primarily directed towards the descendants of the Etruscans, but could it be that it reflected a form of Roman propaganda meant to convince the descendants of the Etruscans that there was no contradiction between their Etruscan past and their Roman present? It is possible that the Roman belief that Etruscan lands belonged in the Roman Empire is reflected in the friendship that exists between Aeneas and the Tyrrhenians in the Aeneid.
Legacy and Conclusion
Although there are many inscriptions in the Etruscan language, no Etruscan literary works survive to the present day. Nonetheless, the Etruscan civilization had a profound influence on ancient Rome. In antiquity, the Etruscan language was the third great language of culture in Italy, after Greek and Latin. The Etruscans were known for their religious texts, and possibly an extensive canon of plays and historical literature.
The Etruscan legacy lasted very late into antiquity. In fact, the last reference to the use of the Etruscan language occurs in 410 AD, when Etruscan priests were called upon to summon lightning against the invading Visigoths. Furthermore, several of the kings of Rome, before it became a republic, were Etruscan. The Etruscans also played a role in building part of the city of Rome.
Considering the impact of Etruscan culture on Roman life and society, it makes sense that the Romans would have perceived a cultural and historical bond between Romans and Etruscans all the way back to the days of Tarchon and Aeneas.
Top Image: Right; Dancers in a fresco in the Etruscan Tomb of the Triclinium, Left; Tarchon mosaic, Tarquinia, Lazio, Italy. Source: Left; Public Domain, Right; Public Domain
By Caleb Strom
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