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reed magazine logoSeptember 2010

From Hum to Tomb

Richard Guillory ’53


Richard Guillory’s latest adventure began with a question. What lay behind Imperial Rome’s conviction that she was destined to conquer the world? Richard spent his professional career in biochemistry and biophysics, but his fascination with the ancient world—first sparked in humanities class at Reed—never waned. He was not persuaded that the Roman Senate had ever had any real coherent plan for world dominion, nor did he believe that the ambition of individual emperors could explain Rome’s thirst for expansion. Instead, he sought answers in the civilization that preceded the Romans and influenced them so profoundly: the Etruscans.

Richard Guillory

Richard J. Guillory ’53 stands at the entrance to one of the Tomba at the Necropoli at Banditaccia, Cerveteri. The Necropoli of Cerveteri were described by D.H. Lawrence in 1932

There is something rather tantalizing about the Etruscans. We know that their civilization flourished in what is now Tuscany from 800 to 300 BC, and that they gave Rome her first three kings. However, their language is lost and very few of their own writings have survived. Contemporary sources, mainly Greek and Roman historians, are not entirely reliable. We do know that the Romans adopted many Etruscan beliefs and practices even as they destroyed their civilization.

The Etruscans did leave one thing behind, however: their tombs. To gain insight into the philosophy of this vanished people, Richard and his wife Stella visited Tuscany last year to see the Etruscan necropoli with their own eyes. “To understand the Etruscans,” Richard says, “one must view in person the land in which they lived and the things which they most loved and left behind.”

One might imagine the study of tombs to be, well, dreary. Far from it—Etruscan tombs contain a veritable wealth of artifacts, including paintings, frescoes, sarcophagi, swords, armor, clothes, jewelry, dolls, chariots, vases, and urns, all revealing lavish details about their way of life. Etruscans were frequently buried with exquisite bronze hand mirrors, decorated with engravings, which held a special religious significance.

One theme that emerges from these investigations is that the Etruscans were a rather fatalistic lot. They believed in predestination; they believed they had been created at a particular moment, and they foretold the end of their own civilization. At Tarquinia there is a tomb depicting two winged demons, Charon and Vanth, arising to take the Etruscan people into the underworld at the hour of their doom. (According to Richard, their predictions weren’t far off. Romans destroyed their last major city, Velzna, in 264 BC.)

Visiting Etruscan sites in Tuscany left Richard with a lasting sense of wonder at the lost civilization. “It was awe-inspiring to see the sheer size of the tombs,” he says. “It really opened my eyes to their magnificent scale.”

Do Etruscan ideas about fate explain Rome’s sense of manifest destiny? Not entirely, Richard says. He and Stella are planning to return to Tuscany this year to look for more clues.


    Further Reading

  • Etruscan Places, D.H. Lawrence. Martin Secker: London, 1932.
  • The Eternal Etruscans. Rick Gore, James M. Gurney, O. Louis Mazzatenta. National Geographic, June 1988.
reed magazine logoSeptember 2010