A cinerary urn depicting the fight between the sons of Oedipus: Eteocles and Polynices

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During the Hellenistic period, great numbers of terracotta funerary urns decorated with polychrome work were produced in the workshops of Chiusi to be used to hold the ashes of the deceased owner after cremation. This example, of which only the cask remains, would have been closed with a rectangular lid. On this, a reclining figure, an image of the deceased owner, would have been carved. The only decoration of this container, its front surface of the container illustrates an episode from the Theban legend: the combat of the Eteocles and Polynices, the sons of Oedipus, who were enemies and killed each other in the presence of two Furies.

This terracotta urn decorated with polychrome work is typical of the funerary memorials produced in the workshops of central Etruria, in the second century BC. The Etruscans, who both inhumed and cremated their dead until the end of the Hellenistic period, were renowned for producing this type of memorial from the late fourth century BC. The shape and iconography of these cinerary urns are quite conventional: the container is usually decorated with a mythological scene executed in high relief, while the deceased is shown on the lid, half stretched out, in the traditional pose of a guest at a banquet. In some examples, such as this one, the name of the deceased man or can be found in a painted inscription. Here, it is on the lower are of the container.

The reliefs on the containers were often inspired by Greek legends. These legends had long been familiar in the oral tradition thanks to epics, tragedy, and depictions in painting, sculpture, and the lesser arts. Craftsmen were partial to dramatic themes, such as the Seven against Thebes, the life of Orestes, the Trojan myths, and Greek spirits, such as Charon and the Furies.

The episode depicted on this urn forms part of the Theban legend and features frequently on terracotta urns from Chiusi. Eteocles and Polynices, sons of Oedipus and enemies, fight for possession of the throne in a terrible struggle that proves fatal for both brothers. They are goaded on by Furies on each side, each one carrying a burning torch, as if presaging the imminent death of the young princes. The subject was clearly extremely popular with the Etruscans of Chiuasi, particularly the tragedies of the 5th century BC. The scene is sometimes interpreted as a legendary, almost historical episode from Etrusco-Roman past; rather than being the duel between Eteocles and Polynices, some people see it as the struggle of Arruns, son of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (Tarquin the Elder) and the Roman consul Brutus. However, there is little evidence to support this hypothesis.

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