The Tomb of the Bulls – Etruscan Homophobia beyond the Grave or just a Joke?
Etruscan tombs are arguably the greatest source of information that we have about this most advanced civilization of pre-Roman Italy. The one thing that catches your attention when you enter an Etruscan tomb is usually the decoration. The Etruscan tomb painting frequently uses floral ornaments and scenes from contemporary daily life as its subject. This article is about one specific tomb, called the Tomb of the Bulls, where the painting depicts a rather unusual daily- (or rather nightly-) life scene. Beware the mature content, although in a 6th century BCE quality.
The Site and the Tomb
The Tomb of the Bulls can be found in the Necropolis of Monterozzi near a town called Tarquinia. This town is deeply connected to the Etruscan history and in antiquity, it had to be counted among the leading Etruscan settlements. In Roman legends, Tarquinia was the original residence of Lucumo, the guy who moved to Rome, became king there (known as Tarquinius Priscus) and established a ruling dynasty. His son (or grandson) Tarquinius Superbus then allegedly exploited the unfortunate Roman people to the degree they expelled him, abandoned monarchy altogether and established a republic. Even now the Etruscan heritage is strongly present in the town. Apart from the necropolis, the National Etruscan Museum resides there, as well as a private museum called Etruscopolis. The last one is rather unusual. Despite being near the necropolis, it is quite hard to find, rarely open and the staff’s capability to speak English is limited. However, if you overcame all these adversities and get inside, you will be rewarded by reconstructions of the most spectacular tombs found in the area. There are just reconstructions, not the originals, but precisely for this reason you can actually enter the tombs and have a closer look at the details as opposed to just looking through glass windows at the original tombs in the necropolis. The images used in this article come from Etruscopolis.
The Tomb of the Bulls originates from the early 6th century BCE and it belonged to a man called Arath Spuriana. We know this directly from the inscription inside. The Spuriana family was obviously a respected one in ancient Tarquinia. In the forum of the town, three epigraphs were found that praised the later achievements of the family (offices held, military victories…). In the Plutarch’s version of the assassination of Julius Caesar, the soothsayer that warned poor Julius about the Ides of March was called Spurinna and might have been a distant descendat of Arath. After all, even in the period of Late Republic, the Etruscans were believed to have a strong talent for divination (a point made by Dionysios of Halicarnassus among others).
The Scenes on the Frescoes
The tomb consists of three rooms. Two inner chambres are decorated with animals (bulls, goats, lion, panther…), but it is the third chamber that grabs all the attention. This outer chamber was probably a place for the ritual banquet with the deceased (with places to sit) and is spectacularly decorated.
The largest central fresco depicts a scene familiar from Greek mythology, in particular, the Trojan war. This fact itself is surprising because we don’t normally see Greek mythology scenes in Etruscan tombs. The two main characters are usually identified as Achilles and Troilus, son of the Trojan king Priam (or Priam’s wife and god Apollo). According to a prophecy, Troy was destined to withstand the siege and fight off the invading Greek army, if only the young and charming prince survived his childhood. Achilles obviously couldn’t let that happen, so the Greek hero ambushed poor Troilus on his way to grab some fresh water from a well. This exact moment, just seconds before Troilus’ death, is painted in the tomb. You can see Achilles hiding behind the well, and Troilus, without having a clue about his upcoming end, sitting naked on a horse and generally looking like the guy from the Old Spice commercial. As in many different Etruscan tombs, one can notice many plants casually occupying any free space around the main characters. The red plant below the horse is especially noteworthy. Some scholars (namely a Canadian archaeologist J. P. Oleson) argued it was not supposed to be a plant at all, but an image of the setting sun. This could then indicate a couple of things from the simple identification of the part of the day; through a symbolic connection of the end of a day and the end of life; to a link to Apollo, a god often connected to the sun, Troilus’ fan and possibly his father. If we accept this interpretation, we may see the depiction of the exact moment when Apollo started to hate Achilles and that hatred led to the famous death of the Greek hero - as it was this god who led the arrow directly to Achilles’ infamous heel.
The Troilus fresco is not the only one in the tomb. Right below it you can see small trees painted. In the register at the very top, one can find a chimera and a horse rider. The Greek myth would have Bellerophon as the rider here, but Holloway argued for Troilus again. Nevertheless, between the Troilus fresco and the Chimera group fresco is the register with the most spectacular images – the two erotic scenes. Each of the scene contains a group of people engaging in sexual activities and a large bull hanging around them. Needless to say, these scenes make the tumb the most pornographic Etruscan tomb discovered so far.
The fresco on the left shows a group activity of two men (painted in darker colours) and two women having sex. One of the men seems to perform oral sex on his female partner. The other couple is having sex right on the back of the male from the first one. Even with these orgies happening, one should pay attention to the bull nearby. The animal’s eyes are wide open (honestly, whose wouldn’t be?), but otherwise the bull seems to rest calmly.
The fresco on the right-hand side depicts a similar scene. There are only two people having fun, but this time they both seem male. One of them has long blonde hair, but a dark skin tone, and even more convincingly a penis, indicate it is definitely a man. The other is painted with a much lighter color, but the general shape of the body resembles a man close enough to take it for granted. The bull is present here as well, playing a much more active part. The animal is running and attacking the gay couple. Moreover, this is no ordinary bull, but it a human face with a beard and a penis of no small size.
While looking at the bulls and the orgies, one has to ask what does it all mean? What were the painter and the noble who commission the tomb trying to say? There are several theories:
- The meaning is anti-homosexual – the fresco on the left shows that one can have sex in many ways, but only with the opposite sex. This way the bull was ok with what he saw. On the other fresco, a gay couple enraged the animal, so it must mean that this sort of sex is bad. This is basically the explanation one can find in the information about the tomb in the Etruscopolis museum. Why would a bull act as an arbiter in such matters is unclear, the animal probably represents nature as a whole or some deity. One should approach this explanation with caution because as far as I know, there is not much evidence for homophobia in the Etruscan civilization. In the Roman and Greek written sources, the Etruscans have usually described as very liberal in the matters of sex. For example, a 4th-century BCE Greek historian Theopompus reported: “They are keen on making love to women, but they particularly enjoy boys and youths. The youths in Etruria are very good-looking because they live in luxury and keep their bodies smooth.”
- The meaning is connected to the Troilus fresco – The abovementioned Olson proposed a theory that the bulls&sex frescoes should not be interpreted on their own but in connection to the central Troilus&Achilles fresco. The theory is base on an alternative version of the Troilus story known to us from the Roman historian Servius and already present in the Greek tradition in the 6th century BCE. In this story, Achilles had another motive to ambush the boy. He was so enchanted by Troilus’ good looks that he fell in love with the boy. Achilles, a mighty hero as he was, succeeded with his plan, seized the boy and tried to rape him. Whether as a consequence of the rape or the attempt to defend himself, Troilus died in this encounter and the deed happened in the temple of Apollo (identified with Helios/the Sun). The two bulls represent the sacred bulls of Helios and they are reacting to the impious deeds in the temple of their god (one vigilant and one angry). This theory heavily depends on the interpretation of the red thing under Troilus’ horse as the sun that would provide the connection to the sun god.
- Protection against the Evil Eye - this theory was suggested by P. Ross Holloway. In the classical antiquity, there was a quite common belief, that people might get harmed if they are stared at by some malevolent enemies. The Etruscans seem to have shared this superstition with Greeks. How can one fight this evil eye? With sharp objects of course! And which objects proved most successful in protecting people against the Evil Eye? An animal’s horn and a man’s penis. This is one of the reasons why you can notice so many phallic apotropaic symbols and statues (in other words - a penis that brings you luck) if you visit Pompeii or any good museum of archeology. Holloway sees the man-faced bull in the right-hand scene as Acheloos, a river god sometimes connected with the underworld in Etruria. This Acheloos was once defeated by Hercules when the two were fighting over a woman. Acheloos is often depicted as a man-faced bull and it is his horn and penis that bring protection against the Evil Eye. The erotic scenes allegedly serve the same purpose and are basically amulets. Even other animals in the tomb’s decoration (horned goats, lions…) are frequently considered enemies of the Evil Eye.
- Bulls and sex are not connected – the most boring explanation, nevertheless it has been suggested that not only the bulls&sex frescoes are not connected to the Troilus scene, but that the bulls are in fact separate even from the sex scenes and are not part of the same story.
- It is just a joke – an amusing interpretation of the obscene scenes was proposed by Jane Whitehead, who didn’t go into deep analysis of the mythological symbols, but noticed (104 years after the discovery of the tomb) that the bulls&sex frescoes are actually very funny. If you want to know what she meant, just have a look at the surprised face of the bull on the very left. The right-hand side scene is no less funny if you see that only one member of the gay couple notices the raging bull running towards them and imagine the trouble the tho man could expect in the following moments.
In case you are expecting a definitive answer, I must disappoint you and leave you to make your own opinion. Was Arath Spuriana, the owner of the tomb, fighting homosexuality, was he afraid of the Evil Eye or was he just a friendly guy who looked at the bright side of life even when facing death?
John Peter Oleson - Greek Myth and Etruscan Imagery in the Tomb of the Bulls at Tarquinia; American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 79
Ross Holloway - The Bulls in the "Tomb of the Bulls" at Tarquinia; American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 90,
Jane Whitehead - Towards a Definition of Etruscan Humor; Etruscan Studies: Vol. 3 ,
Maureen B. Fant, Mary R. Lefkowitz - Women's Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation