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The Etruscans and agriculture

The Etruscans and agriculture

The Etruscans were an ancient Italian people who evolved in Etruria; an area that roughly corresponds to Tuscany, Umbria up to the Tiber river and northern Lazio. In a second period they expanded to the north in the Po Valley (currently Emilia-Romagna, south-eastern Lombardy and southern Veneto) and south to Campania. A civilization that lived between the 8th century BC. and 396 BC, greatly influencing the Roman civilization and finally being assimilated until the definitive incorporation which took place with the conquest of Veii by the Romans, precisely in 396 BC. The beginning of the history of the Etruscans sees them mainly as farmers and shepherds , activities that they never gave up even when they devoted themselves to other activities. In the centuries of the development of the Villanovan civilization, they cultivated chickpeas, barley and triticum dicoccum, a not particularly valuable type of wheat, but easily cultivable in their wetlands.
Subsequently with the development of agricultural techniques, much admired by the Greeks and Romans, the Etruscans increased the number of crops also producing wine and oil. The testimony comes to us from Livio: “the region was one of the most fertile in Italy, the Etruscan countryside, which stretches between Fiesole and Arezzo, rich in abundance of wheat, flocks and everything…” the testimony of Varro who also enters into the merits of agricultural yields: “Therefore you will keep in mind, with regard to the quantity of seed, the use of that country in order to behave accordingly …. so much so that from the same seed in one place you get 10 times as much , in another 15 times as much, as in some area of Etruria”. The Etruscans exported their grain production to Rome, especially in the periods of famine of the 5th century BC. and the war against Carthage in 205 BC. But the most incredible thing, for the times, were the very strict laws that the Etruscans enacted on agriculture; laws, codes and techniques which then passed on to the Romans. In fact, the introduction in Italy of the science of land measurement (through an instrument called groma) dates back to the Etruscans. The rules were so strict that their priests who were the first to delimit the fields of the individual owners with a solemn ritual, decreed that anyone who moved a stone or boundary stone would be sentenced to death.
Important evidence of the agricultural traditions of the Etruscans is that of viticulture and its techniques.
The Etruscans were, in fact, the first in Italy to cultivate vines starting from wild varieties. It was a plant they saw in their natural environment, whose fruit they had already learned to harvest in the woods.
It seems that the Etruscans cultivated vines since the Bronze Age, however at least from the 12th century. B.C.
Later, with the development of civilization, being great navigators and merchants, they had ever more intense contacts with the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean (especially with the Greeks), where culture and viticultural techniques were already more evolved. This allowed them to refine their production techniques, to import new tools and new ways of working. New vines of oriental origin were also imported, whose domestication process had begun in a much more remote era in the Caucasus area. The new vines were grown as they were and also crossed with local varieties.
The Etruscans cultivated vines as they saw them grow spontaneously in the woods. The vine is a climbing shrub, a kind of liana. In a wood, its natural environment at our latitudes, it tends to climb a tree to reach as much light as possible (it is very heliophilous), however it is not a parasitic species: the vine does not interfere with the tree on which it ‘cling.

This method of Etruscan cultivation has been called for centuries, in fact, vite maritata. The vine is as if “married” to the tree it clings to. This definition is not from the Etruscan era but was born later, in the Roman era. It seems that the Etruscans indicated it with the term àitason (read, probably, “aitasun”).
The vines were grown above all on field maples, but also on poplars, elms, olive trees and fruit trees. Originally they were not pruned, later they were subject to long pruning. The vine therefore tended to grow a lot, to have even very long branches. The grape harvest was done with the hands or with sickles, with ladders leaning against the trees, or using tools with a very long handle.
Obviously these original forms were followed by successive evolutions, described by various historical authors.
In fact, the Etruscans also transmitted much of their culture to the nascent Roman civilization, including viticulture and wine production. In fact, in ancient Roman viticulture, as testified in Cato’s De Agri Cultura (II century BC), the cultivation of the vine was done in the Etruscan way, marrying it to the elm or the fig. The Etruscan àitason became the Latin arbustum (vitatum), which Cato sometimes also calls vinea, as does Cicero.
The Etruscans were aware of the techniques of accumulation and distribution of water for agriculture; hydraulic techniques already tested in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece. They built canals and dams to irrigate the land, drained and reclaimed swamps with drainage systems; remains that are still found in Maremma today. According to Varro, the learning of the art of diviners was of the Etruscans. On the other hand, no evidence remains of the cultivation of vegetables, most likely because due to their perishability they were not an easy object of trade with distant areas. The agricultural tools used by the Etruscans were: hoes, scythes, spades and very light plows equipped with iron ploughshares. The plowing at the beginning operated by men was operated by oxen of great strength with an increase also in the weight of the plows and in the plowing depth. Obviously, the step from agriculture to food is short. The Etruscans ate spelled flour, an easily cultivable type of grain which, before being used as food, the spelled grains had to be roasted, to remove their glum (a kind of skin that covers them) and eliminate the humidity. With this flour, baby food and porridge were prepared, boiled with water and milk. But the diet of the Etruscans was obviously more varied; it also included various species of legumes, such as lentils, chickpeas and broad beans but was integrated with pork, game, wild boar, sheep meat and all products derived from milk. Historical evidence tells us that they also ate fish, especially in Populonia and Porto Ercole and, moreover, they knew the fork. They have been found similar to ours, that is, with the four curved prongs, but with a thin cylindrical stem and a small ball at the top. However, it is thought that they were used to stop the meat to cut it into the serving dish and not for personal use.

Guido Bissanti

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