Etruscan Orientalization

Jessica Nowlin, Etruscan Orientalization (Leiden: Brill, 2021). 9789004473256.

Reviewed by Marilyn Evans, Kalamazoo College,

This book offers a timely and in-depth examination of the terms “orientalizing” and “orientalization” in Etruscan scholarship. The text is, primarily, a critical historiography. It surveys the use of both terms from the 18th–21st centuries, contextualizing major shifts in their application with contemporary political and intellectual trends. The book presents an incisive critique of these concepts, which will have broad implications not only for Etruscologists, but also for anyone who studies the Mediterranean world in the 8th–7th centuries BCE. The author argues that “orientalizing” and “orientalization” are rooted in an orientalist framework that (a) presumes a false dichotomy between East and West, (b) assumes the cultural homogeneity of the East, and (c) describes the achievements of the East only insofar as they advance those of the West and therefore should be abandoned. Nowlin presents a convincing case, which only becomes more compelling when discussing recent approaches that encourage a more nuanced understanding of cross-cultural interaction in antiquity.

The work belongs to a growing spate of recent critiques that question the ideological framework of “orientalizing” and “orientalization” in other parts of the Mediterranean.[1] Both terms generally refer to the arrival of objects, ideas, and people from the eastern Mediterranean to Italy and Greece. This development is understood as deeply transformative since it prompted advancements that led to the birth of civilization in Europe and the West (e.g., the alphabet, urbanism, stone architecture, etc.). In recent years, scholars have shown how this narrative is misleading at best since it obscures the cultural diversity of the East and the complexity of interactions across the Mediterranean. At worst, it renders the achievements of the East useful only for the advancement of the West and thereafter frozen in time. At the heart of this discourse is Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and the various critical responses to it, which have shown that much of the West’s study of the East is an exercise in the self-affirmation of the identity of the West. Nowlin’s work is an important contribution to these critiques since she lucidly lays out the origins and development of the concept in Etruscan historiography but marks a significant departure when she calls for their abandonment.

The book is arranged into chronological and thematic sections that trace the evolution of “orientalizing” and “orientalization” from art historical style and historical period to a process of cultural interaction. The Introduction (Chapter 1) introduces the central premise, defines key terms, and situates the argument within broader scholarly debates about Orientalism. Chapter 2, “The Beginnings of Art Historical Periodization,” reviews key antiquarian and art historical texts from the 18th century to show how stereotypes about the East provided an early framework for understanding the relationship between Etruscan, Egyptian, Phoenician, and Persian art. Anne Claude de Caylus, Christian Gottlob Heyne, and Johann Joachim Wincklemann developed evolutionary narratives tracing chronological, artistic, and civilizational progress as moving from Egypt to Etruria to Greece and then to Rome. Nowlin reveals how Etruria functions as the fulcrum between East and West in all three works, marking the point of transition where art (and thus civilization) advanced. Although the words “orientalization” and “orientalizing” have not yet been coined, Nowlin argues that the ideology is, nonetheless, orientalist, since such a narrative renders the East critical to the development of the West but unchanging on its own.

Chapter 3, “Etruscan Origins and Nationalism,” examines how rising nationalist sentiments prompted an investigation into the question of Etruscan origins and how responses to this question further cemented ideas about the West’s superiority. As Nowlin explains, there was a push in late 18th- and early 19th-century Europe to identify where and when western civilization emerged, and in Italy, scholars looked to the Etruscans. The chapter first lays out the three main theories of Etruscan origins in antiquity—autochthony, Lydia, and the Pelasgians—and the approaches of ancient authors to them. It then explores how later scholars deployed these theories to support nationalist aims, especially the theory of Etruscan autochthony. Increasing archaeological activity brought to light numerous discoveries that complicated this picture, however. The discovery of the Regolini-Galassi tomb, for example, included several objects of eastern origin, including bowls and fibulae, making it impossible to ignore the connection between the two areas. As scholars once more turned to evolutionary narratives in order to fit the East into the developmental trajectory of the West, they did so using explicitly orientalist language that characterized the West and East in opposing terms (e.g., the association of the West with law and the East with lack of restraint).

Chapter 4, “Orientalizing: The Birth of a Stylistic Term,” shows the genesis of the term “orientalizing” in both Greek and Etruscan art history. A more complex historiography emerges as scholars in the 19th and early 20th centuries attempted to identify, categorize, and explain the relationship between Greek, Etruscan, Egyptian, and Phoenician art. Nowlin begins by exploring the use of the term in Greek art history since it was first coined to describe eastern motifs on Greek painted pottery (much of it found in Etruscan tombs). She then considers the subsequent adoption of the term in Etruscan art history, which initially referred to an artistic style and chronological period. In both cases, colonialism provided the framework and language for describing these encounters; foreign cultures became something to confront and overcome. For scholars such as Alessandro Della Seta and Pericle Ducati, foreign influence provided the critical push that set the Etruscans on the path to cultural advancement. At the same time, they required liberation from these influences by the Greeks in order to reach their peak, which (under the nascent Fascist regime) was the Roman Empire.

Chapter 5, “Orientalizing to Orientalization: From Period to Process,” traces the evolution of “orientalizing,” a term marking an artistic style and chronological period, to “orientalization,” a term denoting a process of cultural and social change. The chapter focuses on the contributions of Massimo Pallottino, whose work is best known for advancing the question of Etruscan origins. His theory describes the development of Etruscan civilization as a gradual and indigenous process in which foreign interaction and influence function as catalysts that lift Etruria to the world stage. Critical to this perspective was the adoption of foreign practices and ideas by Etruscan groups without the integration of peoples through migration or conquest. Nowlin explains that this conceptualization of civilization formation, and, more specifically, the precise role of foreign interaction in it, drew heavily from Pallottino’s earlier scholarship on Italian colonialism in Africa. Contemporary fascist views saw colonialism as a positive development since it brought civilization to African peoples but required that this process occur without racial mixing. Nowlin argues that Pallottino’s framework, in addition to being colonialist and evolutionary, is also orientalist because the Etruscans require foreign influence to move from prehistory to history but ultimately reject its trappings when more suitable models come along (i.e., Rome).

Chapter 6, “Recent Interpretations of Orientalizing and Orientalization,” assesses the impact of orientalism and colonialism on more recent approaches to cultural change in Etruria. Pallottino’s work, in tandem with advancements in archaeological theory, prompted a new wave of scholarship in the second half of the 20th century focused on exploring the process of cultural change. Pertinent issues included identifying the primary agents of “orientalization” and examining the broader social and cultural changes that came along with it, such as ritual banqueting, new markers of aristocratic power, and a desire for the luxury goods from the East. As Nowlin unpacks approaches to each of these topics, she shows how orientalism and colonialism remain pervasive in contemporary scholarship, mainly by focusing on the transformative nature of the encounter between East and West and presuming a top-down diffusion of cultural change. She demonstrates how both fall short as explanatory models since they are based on the false dichotomy of East and West and do not account for the complexity and diversity of cultural interaction. She argues in favor of replacing “orientalization” with terms drawn from postcolonial studies, such as “globalization” or “hybridity,” which would remove the arbitrary boundary between East and West, question the differential use of objects and practices, and challenge existing social hierarchies.

The final chapter, “Conclusions: Abandoning the Term,” ends with a call to relinquish the term “orientalization” on the grounds that it does active harm in promoting the West’s appropriation of the East and no longer functions as an adequate model for understanding cross-cultural interaction. Nowlin builds on the argument mounted in the first six chapters by illustrating that some scholars have already moved beyond “orientalization” to focus on more integrated approaches to the ancient Mediterranean.[2] In practice, it seems, the term is already no longer functional. The final step remains losing it altogether.

The book has many strengths, primarily the ease with which it dissects the discourse surrounding “orientalizing” and “orientalization.” Nowlin explains in clear terms the orientalist roots of these concepts, revealing the assumptions and biases that have always lain at their heart. Their limitations as interpretive models are abundantly clear and the alternatives—mainly theories of connectivity, hybridization, and globalization—present exciting avenues for future research. The final argument, that both terms should be abandoned, is therefore a convincing one. Improving this point by engaging in a more sustained way with Orientalism as a theory, which mainly happens in Chapter 1, likely would have occurred at the expense of its accessibility (more explicit references to counter-arguments would have also been welcome). R. Osborne’s final chapter in Debating Orientalization comes to mind, since he has recently argued for maintaining the term, but one could consider Nowlin’s entire text a rebuttal.[3]

This book will be of broad interest to historians, art historians and archaeologists working on the ancient Mediterranean, especially during the Iron Age, and historians of European intellectual history more generally. Although the book is aimed at the graduate and post-graduate levels, selections would be useful for advanced undergraduates. The writing is very accessible—that is, free of jargon, technical terms are defined, and selections in Italian, French, and German are translated into English. Since the terms “orientalizing” and “orientalization” remain the norm in textbooks on the archaeology and art history of Greece and Rome, academics who teach this material will also find the book a useful personal supplement, as it provides a guide to addressing the use of such terms.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction (1–9)
2. The Beginnings of Art Historical Periodization (10–18)
3. Etruscan Origins and Nationalism (18–29)
4. Orientalizing: The Birth of a Stylistic Term (29–52)
5. Orientalizing to Orientalization: From Period to Process (52–57)
6. Recent Interpretations of Orientalizing and Orientalization (57–81)
7. Conclusions: Abandoning the Term (81–85)
Acknowledgments (85)
References (85–100)
Index (101–104)


[1] For example, Corinna Riva and Nicholas C. Vella, eds., Debating Orientalization: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Change in the Ancient Mediterranean (London: Equinox, 2006); Ann Gunter, “Orientalism and Orientalization in the Iron Age Mediterranean,” in Critical Approaches to Ancient Near Eastern Art, ed. Brian A. Brown and Marian H. Feldman (Boston: De Gruyter, 2014), 79–108; Marian H. Feldman, “Levantine Art in the ‘Orientalizing’ Period,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Phoenician and Punic Mediterranean, ed. Brian R. Doak and Carolina López-Ruiz (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 371–84.

[2] For example, Tamar Hodos, The Archaeology of the Mediterranean Iron Age: A Globalising World c. 1100-600 BCE (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), and Carolina López-Ruiz, Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021).

[3] R. Osborne, “W(h)ither Orientalization?,” in Debating Orientalization: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Change in the Ancient Mediterranean, ed. Corinna Riva and Nicholas C. Vella (London: Equinox, 2006), 150–58.


1. Early in your introduction (p. 3, specifically), you list a series of recent works that ask “why we continue to be fascinated by the level of indebtedness of Greece to the Near East and look at the implications of doing so for modern European identity.” I am wondering what you think about this, especially at a time when we are interrogating this entire process. 

Originally the question of indebtedness was asked by European scholars to discern how much of so-called western civilization could be claimed to be an original invention, an exercise that was critical to defining the West in opposition to the East and to making the case for western exceptionalism. Currently, I think scholars are drawn to revisit this question outside of these modern political goals in order to gain a more accurate picture of ancient Mediterranean connectivity. As the field of Classics has sought to place Greece, Rome, and to a certain extent Etruria back into the Mediterranean-wide milieu in which these cultures developed, more efforts are being made to reconsider the relationship with the Near East outside of an Orientalist framework and beyond questions that focus on a particular level of “indebtedness,” since this question relies on a cultural-historical paradigm for understanding ancient cultures and cultural influence. I would argue that we need to move beyond this continued question of indebtedness between East and West, considering influences from other Iron Age peoples within Europe and Africa alongside the regional Mediterranean networks which have been overlooked in favor of focusing on long-distance trade with the eastern Mediterranean.

2. How have you been approaching cross-cultural interaction in your own work (beyond this book)? You can take this question in whatever direction you like, but I am essentially wondering what abandoning “orientalization” has looked like for you and what avenues doing so has allowed you to explore. 

Abandoning “orientalization” has expanded the geographic range of sites in which I am exploring issues of Mediterranean connectivity, the types of influence I am considering, and the types of cultural practices associated with this connectivity. If we only consider sites with particular types or quantities of imported objects from the eastern Mediterranean, we might miss the full range of ripple effects from increased connectivity within Mediterranean communities. My dissertation explored necropoleis in Abruzzo that exhibited clear connections with so-called “orientalizing” changes in Etruria and contained tombs described as “princely,” but some sites maintained Iron Age funerary practices while incorporating imported objects from Etruria and beyond while others incorporated new feasting traditions but through locally produced vessels. Even with these changes, imported metal wares and amber in the dress of women and infants points to the continued importance of trade with Europe, showing that an Orientalist framework is insufficient for understanding the full range and nuance of connectivity that these communities expressed. Additionally, it has been instructive to explore sites that did not experience the number of imported objects or practices seen in the frequently cited “orientalizing” sites to consider why some peoples would have been resistant to these changes.

3. Who were you interested in reaching with this text and how did that shape your approach to writing? 

This book was written for three primary audiences in art history and archaeology. I wanted to provide graduate students with a historiography so that they understood the term’s history, its political influences, and how these undercurrents continue to shape modern interpretations so that they can forge new approaches for research. I was writing for current scholars who are already pushing new interpretations and exploring approaches beyond the “orientalizing” framework, pushing them to consider how we might write about this period without relying on the “orientalizing” crutch. Many nuanced interpretations of art and archaeological material for this period of connectivity become described as “orientalizing” because the term is thought to succinctly capture the complicated nature of interaction. I want people to consider the challenges and possibilities that are opened when you write without “orientalizing.” Finally, I wanted to reach established scholars, particularly Etruscologists, who might feel uncomfortable with calls to abandon the term, providing an explanation for why it can no longer be used uncritically or used at all. I wanted to show that this is not simply an exercise in terminological iconoclasm, but is intended to spur new discussions about how we might consider connectivity without this term.

Thank you for sharing these insights!

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s