The Etruscan Liver of Piacenza


Historical sources consistently identify sheep farming as one of the main economic activities since remote times in much of western Emilia; indeed this remained a key activity during Roman times and beyond. Indirect testimony of the importance of sheep in everyday life is provided by the so-called “Liver of Piacenza” found at Settima di Gossolengo. This is a bronze model of a sheep’s liver bearing a series of inscriptions in the Etruscan language related to religion and divination. The Etruscans, «the most religious of all peoples…»  according to Livy, used the entrails of the animals they had sacrificed to the gods as the basis for a well-established tradition of divination – known as haruspicy – that revolved around the belief that the signs revealed by these entrails reflected the desires of the deities in the firmament. This was symbolically depicted in the Liver of Piacenza, which was divided into a number of sections each bearing the name of the relevant god and their relative wishes. Haruspicy had a significant influence on the Roman religion, which helps explains why an item such as this one was still preserved, and perhaps used, during the heyday of the Roman Republic (late 2nd century – early 1st century B.C.), when the Etruscans had long been gone from the area. The forty or so names of deities inscribed on the Liver include Hercle (Hercules in Latin), the god of pastoralism, but in the Roman world also known as bibax (the drinker) and Fufluns (in Latin Bacchus, in Greek Dionysus), god of the grape harvest and wine.