Etruscan cities: a journey of discovery
German writer Werner Keller once stated the Etruscans wrote “the first, great chapter of Western history.”
Between the 8th and the 6th century BC, this ancient people of miners, metalworkers and seafaring traders settled in the area between today’s western Umbria, Tuscany and northern Lazio (somewhat extending to Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy in the North, and Campania in the South). They reached a level of power that Livy describes as “quite extensive over the sea and land” before the Romans took over.
And even Rome’s culture and power grew and developed at first in close connection to Etruscan history: indeed, the last three Capitoline kings – Tarquinio Prisco, Servio Tullio and Tarquinius Superbus – were Etruscan (aristocrats rebelled against the latter and overthrew him in 509 BC: thus ended the Etruscan hegemony in Rome and the Roman Republic was born).
Among other things, the Romans owe to Etruscan culture and traditions haruspicy (a form of divination), triumphal arches, gladiator games and various symbols of power (the fasces, the curule seat, the praetexta robe, the scepter…).
Scholars still debate over Etruscans’ origins: some say they were indigenous, some say they came from the Orient, some say from the North. Most maintain Etruscan language was not Indo-European, but it is still being studied.
Being organized in a federation of twelve City-States – the Dodecapolis – Etruscans left many important records of their life in Central-Northern Italy.
Let us accompany you on a journey that touches on some of the major centers of this historical civilization.
We start in Tuscany, from Populonia: one of the most populated Etruscan cities and – facing the Gulf of Baratti – the only one in the Dodecapolis to be on the coast.
Renowned for its vast necropolis, Populonia features a large variety of funerary structures: from burial mounds to pits, from sarcophagi to hypogea.
Other important finds are linked mostly to mining and metalworking, with some noteworthy pieces from the industrial districts revolving around hematite, a mineral extracted from the rich mines of Elba. Thanks to its location, Populonia was always an important crossroads for maritime trade in the Mediterranean.
Populonia, municipality of Piombino (Livorno, Tuscany)
Slightly less than 200 kilometers south of Populonia, Tuscania is in Lazio, in the province of Viterbo.
During the 4th century, it was famous for the intellectual education its people enjoyed; it was a “countryside, university citadel” that yielded no less than two “zilachs” (chief rulers of a City-State) and a number of brilliant public administrators and religious leaders.
Although not a coastal city, Tuscania flourished with maritime trade thanks to the port of Regas, near today’s Montalto di Castro.
Tuscania, province of Viterbo (Lazio)
We stay in Lazio, just some 30 kilometers west towards the Tyrrhenian coast, and visit another of the twelve City-States in the Etruscan League, Vulci.
About ten kilometers from the seaside, Vulci was well known – especially after the 8th century – for its ceramics, probably influenced by the presence of Greek craftsmen. Craters, amphorae, decorated and colored vases here were created by the expert hands of celebrated masters such as the Argive Painter.
Vulci, near Montalto di Castro (Viterbo, Lazio)
Further south, 20 kilometers from Vulci, we reach Tarquinia, also an Etruscan City-State in Lazio.
The focal point of this settlement is an exceptional series of frescoes, preserved in the burial chambers of the mounds that make up the city’s vast necropolis.
British author D. H. Lawrence once described
a haunting quality in the Etruscan representations. These leopards with their long tongues hanging out: these flowing hippocampi, those cringing spotted deer, struck in flank and neck: they get into the imagination, and will not go out.
Tarquinia, province of Viterbo (Lazio)
We now turn away from the sea and travel some 50 kilometers to reach Sutri (still in Lazio).
Named after Suthrina, a god similar to Saturn, its coat of arms features an image of the deity on horseback. The most important Etruscan archaeological sites here are some 60 tombs carved out of tuff and dating back to the 5th century BC, and the remains of Etruscan fortifications embedded in the medieval city walls.
After being hotly contested between Romans and Etruscans, in 389 BC it was conquered by Marcus Furius Camillus. The general stormed over Sutri with such speed that his military action was at the origin of a Latin saying,
ire Sutrium, meaning “make haste.”.
Sutri, province of Viterbo (Lazio)
The final stop in our Etruscan itinerary is Cerveteri, known as Caere in antiquity, approximately 40 kilometers from Rome.
Cerveteri (or “Caisra” in Etruscan) had a privileged relationship with the Hellenic world, as evidenced by the fact it had a state treasury at Delphi.
Surrounded by many necropolises (the most important of which is the “Banditaccia”, north-east of the city), Caere was one of the most important City-States of the Dodecapolis, and extended over a territory thirty times the size of today’s Cerveteri.
A prolific producer of bucchero ceramics, jewelry, and tooled bronze and silver, Caere engaged in maritime trade through three ports; one of them was Pyrgi (near today’s Santa Severa), where three gold tablets were found in a temple in 1964, with inscriptions that allowed great strides forward in our knowledge of the Etruscan language and history.
Cerveteri-Caere, Rome metropolitan area