The Villanovan culture was the earliest Iron Age culture to appear in Italy, generally dated to begin around the late 10th to early 9th centuries BCE. From this developed the Etruscan civilisation, which survived until completely absorbed by the growing Roman Republic around the 3rd century BCE. Indeed the Etruscans can be seen as the forefathers of the Romans, and several of the early Roman kings were Etruscan. However the Villanovan period of the Etruscan civilisation gradually gave way during the 8th and 7th centuries BCE to what scholars call the Orientalizing Period, when increasing influence from outside, especially Greece, lead to changes in society and the appearance of its armies. This set from Linear-A focuses on the Villanovan Period and the two centuries after it, offering us a view of ancient Italy before the Roman Republic and later Empire would dominate that land and much more.
There are a pretty healthy 14 poses in this set, and since this is set 1 there is more to follow. However this set seems to try and cover all the major elements of an Etruscan army, and particularly the range of weapons that might be employed. Axes were a common and basic weapon in many cultures at this time, and three of these poses carry one. Each is very different from the others, yet all are firmly attested to the Etruscans at this time. The two-handed axe was a later development, as opposition (which might simply be Etruscans from other city-states) wore more protection, and this required any shield to be carried on the back, as here. Spears tended to be carried by the wealthier men, who would be described today as heavy infantry. At this time Etruscans did not do battle in organised phalanxes as they would in the later period, so these men are quite possibly engaged in single combat, and all the poses are suitable for that. The spearman in the top row looks particularly menacing as he advances with shield held before him, and the one in the second row is particularly interesting as he is perhaps delivering a blow from underneath while parrying that of his opponent.
Two ordinary poses have drawn swords, and of course many others have one as a sidearm. Neither are of the common triangular type much used (and held here by the commander), but one is of the equally common straight antennae variety and the other has a noticeable curl towards the end, so is clearly a slashing weapon. The first swordsman, figure two in the top row, is a common choice of pose but not one we think is particularly realistic, but the other, the fourth in that row, is nicely done. The set also includes a man with several javelins and another with a bow. Both are known to have been used, but perhaps not so widely, so single poses is probably about right for a set of this size.
The last row shows the specialist and command figures in the set. It begins with the standard-bearer, who holds a standard we know to have been used in later times and so presume was much the same at this period. He is followed by a man playing the pipes, and by one playing the Cornu or horn. Playing musical instruments can be tricky poses to do well, but both here are excellent, and again we have ample evidence for both types of musicians accompanying armies. Finally we have the commander, doing what so many commanders do, which is standing and pointing the way to his troops. Apart from the misgivings about one of the swordsmen we thought all the poses were very well done and in nice active positions.
The costume and armour that is on display in this set is varied, but again is well researched. The poorer soldiers might wear their ordinary tunic, which several do here including the hornist, but there is some evidence that some men at least went into battle naked. This would certainly not be surprising as other cultures did the same, and the piper and javelin man are largely naked here, although both have a narrow strip of cloth which, as chance would have it, hides their private parts. We found this difficult to accept as both ‘strips’ are more draped over the figure than being attached in any way, and even if they could be persuaded to stay in place they would surely interfere with the movement of the arms. This put us in mind of the more conservative elements during the renaissance, which insisted that strategically placed bits of cloth or fig leaves be deployed to make a figure more ‘decent’. Both impractical and unable to authenticate, we must cast great doubt on these strips. However a couple of poses wear just a kilt or loin cloth, and this seems perfectly reasonable.
Only the wealthier members of society could afford armour, and this too is on display here. Many have helmets of various types, most notably the famous crested form seen here on three of the figures. Several of this type still survive today, and are very nicely done here. Other helmets are more simple caps, which might be hardened leather rather than bronze, but several have magnificent crests and plumes, again all perfectly authentic for this period, before we see the widespread introduction of more Greek-style helmets like the Corinthian. The axe-man in the third row is particularly interesting because he has a conical helmet which is associated especially with Northern Etruria.
Body armour, when worn at all, was mostly limited to a pectoral plate on the chest. This could come in many different shapes and sizes, as it does on these figures, but everything matches the evidence available to us today. The standard-bearer and one of the swordsmen wear a particularly fine form of armour, shaped like a modern poncho and intricately decorated. This certainly offered more protection than the pectoral plate, but would have been much heavier, though as an expensive item it may have been more to do with showing off wealth and status than keeping its owner alive. Finally, one of the axe-men wears a full armour tunic shaped like the Greek linothorax but apparently made of metal lamellar pieces rather than linen. Again, this would be a rare high-status piece at this time. As with the armour generally, while wonderfully done and great to see, it is probably much over-represented here and there would have been far more unarmoured troops in most armies.
Some of the men are barefoot, while others wear sandals or short boots. One man wears a large greave on his leading leg, which would have been normal in the later Greek period, but whether it is reasonable for this period we cannot say. Many of these figures wear thick military belts, often highly decorated, and this was a particular feature of such warriors, so good to see here.
Yet to be discussed are the shields here, for there are many. Round and oval shields like those carried here, sometimes with a boss or spine, are authentic and are properly held. The figure-of-eight or bilobate shield carried by the swordsman in the top row is also accurate for this period, and of course the lighter and non-combatants do not carry one, so again all is well with the shields here, with all being carried as if protecting the body, a very pleasing fact often absent from sets where the shield is not separate.
There has been a lot to say about the clothing and weaponry of these figures because of the variety, and almost all of it has been positive. That positive feel from the set is maintained when considering the skill of the sculptor, because these are great figures. The proportions are good, and although this subject demands much fine detail these figures deliver that detail beautifully. Decoration on helmet, armour or belt is really well done and very clear, and the faces are full of character and expression. Clothing is all very convincing, and the musculature on the half or fully naked figures is everything you could want or expect. There is a little bit of flash in some places, but this is not a serious problem, and most of the seams are perfectly smooth. Despite the complexity of edged weapon poses, and the fact that no weapon or shield is a separate item, the sculptor has achieved some realistic and active poses without making the figure seem flat or giving them extra plastic. The only example of unwanted extra plastic is on the figure with the two-handed axe, who has a large clump of extra plastic on his shield for no apparent good reason.
It is a real pleasure to review a set such as this. The sculpting is great and almost everything is easily verified by the available sources, although whether some aspects are more characteristic of the later, Greek-influenced period is hard to say. Of course there is much we do not know about any ancient subject such as this, but the designer here has kept very close to the available information, and managed to produce some very appealing and interesting figures at the same time. The wispy bits of cloth on the otherwise naked men were our only concern, for both historic and practical reasons, but the high quality of sculpting, accuracy and poses makes this a set to delight and inform those who perhaps before knew little about the pre-Roman Italian peninsula.