What did the Etruscans ever do for us?
Well, for more than half a millennium, they wore togas, brewed wine, built aqueducts and roads, founded hilltop city states and created sculpture and art. They practised human sacrifice and sometimes made prisoners fight one another in a sort of gladiatorial combat. That might sound a lot like what the Romans did, and there is a good reason for that.
Rome is an Etruscan word, as are the names of its legendary founders, Romulus and Remus. The terms derive either from Ruma, one of the Etruscan’s happy tribes; or Rumon, the Etruscan handle for the River Tiber.
Even the letters you are reading on this page are of Etruscan origin. The Etruscans traded with the Greeks and, although their language was unique, they borrowed the Greek alphabet. They passed on a modified version to the citizens of Rome, who kindly passed it on again. That’s one thing the Romans did for us, but they couldn’t have done it without the Etruscans.
Between around 900 to 400 BC, while Britons were busy constructing Iron Age hill forts, the Etruscans filled a vast swathe of Northern Italy with culture and art. Their heartland incorporated Tuscany, which is named after them, along with parts of modern-day Umbria, Lazio, Emiglia-Romana, Lombardy, Veneto and Campania. They were the most advanced European civilisation outside Greece, and kept up such a healthy trade that in a sand-to-the-Arabs kind of way, they started to supply the Greeks with Greek pots!
The Greeks christened them the Tyrrenhians.
(Image attribution Birgirms, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Tir or Tur is an ancient expression meaning either ‘tower’ or ‘tall rocky hill’. It has crept into many languages, including English – think Blackpool Tower or Glastonbury Tor. The Greeks probably coined the name because Tyrrenhian cities were in high places, and had lofty defensive walls – rather like Rome on its Palatine Hill, when you reflect on it. And Palatine is another Etruscan word.
Romanisation of Tyrrenhian yielded Tuscī or Etruscī, and in turn the monikers Etruscan, Tuscany and Etruria which are still in use today.
Interestingly, the Etruscans called themselves Rasna or Rasenna – simply ‘the people’. A bit like the Welsh, who now refer to their country as Cymru, although this translates literally as ‘friend’ or ‘fellow countryman’.
Most Etruscan written history was destroyed, and their language has not yet been fully deciphered, but the afterlife was hugely important to them. Ironically, their funerary monuments and inscriptions are how much of their culture has been unravelled, and how it lives on today. So, in the end, I suppose they did achieve immortality.
In 1843, English archaeologist S. J. Ainsley discovered an immense necropolis at Sovana. The Archaeological Park Città del Tufo is so called because of the soft, volcanic tufo rock, from which the Etruscans carved staggeringly beautiful and ornate tombs. Vie Cave (singular Via Cava) – sunken roads connected them. Hewn out of solid rock, it is thought these perhaps represent the journey into the underworld, although obviously, we can never be sure. Some speculate that they were defensive structures, that they carried water, or were simply repeatedly re-cut to smooth out the deep ruts caused by the passage of iron-rimmed wagon wheels.
Mark and Rosie explore Via Cava Il Cavone.
Whatever the reason, Vie Cave were clearly important enough for a civilisation to invest the time and effort required to cut out and remove thousands of tonnes of rock by hand.
From Saturnia to Sovana was an epic drive – a whole sixteen miles! It was still hilly, which sparked a slight niggle in the back of my mind regarding our brakes overheating, but all was well. We parked next to a stream, which pleased our water baby Ruby. In keeping with our other-worldly park up adjacent to a crematorium at Oakley Wood, a lifetime ago in England, we were right beside the Etruscan City of the Dead. We could even see a few of the tombs along the Via Cava Poggio Prisca.
The Città had two sections. We paid the few euros to go in the main part of the site, which was home to the most ornate and iconic mausoleums, plus two of the Vie Cave; Poggio Prisca and Il Cavone. Up to four meters wide in places, Il Cavone is the widest of the sunken lanes. Even so, it is still dark and dank, which led to it being dubbed as ‘The Devil’s Road’ during the middle-ages. Christian crosses and other scacciadiavoli – motifs designed to scare away devils – are etched into the walls to protect those who enter. The symbols sit alongside the Etruscan swastika, which symbolises the sun and stars that radiate life, and the inscription Vertna. Dating to the 4th to 3rd century BC, this could be a dedication to a god, or perhaps the name of a noble.
In certain places on earth, the veneer that divides the present from the past seems thinner; Sovana’s Città del Tufo was one of those. The atmosphere was amazing. In mid-April, we had the place to ourselves and, although the graves had been robbed in antiquity, Mark and I both experienced a compelling connection with the mysterious ancestors about whom we know so little, but who founded our civilisation.
Sovana’s Ildebranda Tomb is one of the most important monuments in the entire Etruscan territory. It’s named for Hildebrand of Sovana, although he is not interred there. He wasn’t born until 1015; at least thirteen hundred years too late. Hildebrand is celebrated because he was the local lad who done good – he became Pope Gregory VII – but in reality, no-one knows who occupied the tomb that bears his name. While only one of its twelve monumental columns remains, along with the Hollywood-style staircases at either side, you could still appreciate its sense of grandeur.
The following day, the free-to-enter public part of the necropolis made a fine morning walk for puppies. Looking back along the valley, we could see the Ildebrand tomb. Even in its ruined state, it loomed large in the landscape. Like Britain’s cathedrals, it would have once been covered in brightly painted stucco. Traces of coloured plaster have been found on some of the tombs. In its heyday, it must have been really something.
We were in search of the flying phallus – apparently a scacciadiavoli sculpted into the walls of the Via Cava di San Sebastiano. At 25 meters high, San Sebastiano is the deepest of all the Vie Cave, and was truly impressive. Its sheer sandpaper-rough rock walls channelled us towards a flight of steps, which led up to an oratory in a cave in the rock. The oratory was filled with Christian crosses engraved into the walls. From there, we searched in vain for the phallus, reputedly high on the strawberry-roan-coloured walls.
At the top of the sunken road, we had to be careful with the dogs. Invisible amongst the dense vegetation, you would not even know this incredible monument was there – until you fell into it!
At the other end of the site was the Tomba Sirena, so named because of the mermaid-like carving on the portico. I climbed up to it and found a single primrose growing there; a fragile token to commemorate its occupant, whose identity has been lost in the drifting passage of centuries, but whose memory lives on.
That afternoon, we moved just under five miles to the town of Pitigliano. As we drove down a narrow tree-lined road, my first glimpse of the clifftop city took my breath away. Pitigliano’s tower houses seemed to grow organically out of a spur of terracotta-coloured rock, whose cliffs were pitted with Etruscan tombs. The city soars above a lush green valley, and seemed to be suspended above it, floating in mid-air.
Our park up was on a hill opposite the town. Once we had shown a couple of German photographers inside our truck, The Beast, along with the usual queue of fellow tourists, we set off for town. We walked there via a further network of cool and mossy sunken roads, the sacred highways of the Etruscans.
Close to Pitigliano was a major Vie Cave crossroads. There, the Via Cava Madonna delle Grazie that we’d followed met Cava di Poggio Cani – something to do with hill dogs, I believe, which seemed quite appropriate in view of our four canine companions!
The legend of Pitigliano is that it was founded by two brothers, Petilio and Celiano, who sought refuge there after stealing Jupiter’s golden crown.
In truth, the tufo rock cliff has been inhabited since neolithic times.
Pitigliano is sometimes known as ‘Little Jerusalem’ because of the large Jewish community who settled there during the 16th century. Although Florence’s ruling dynasty, the Medici, confined them to a ‘ghetto’, the citizens of Pitigliano were rather liberal, and believed in ‘vive la différence’. I found it incredbly heartwarming to learn that the townspeople were Christian in the truest sense of the word, and loved their neighbours enough to stand by them and protect them from persecution. In 1799, they defended the Jewish population from the French military, intent on sacking the ghetto, and in WWII, locals offered Jewish families sanctuary and help.
The ancient Jewish quarter is full of hidden nooks, crannies, and secret places. Caves in the rock are used as cellars and dwellings. You could wander through its maze of alleyways for months and never see the same thing twice.
Further on, the city opens out into broad boulevards and piazzas, dominated by the arches of the Medici aqueduct. Years ago, in the ancient city of Ephasus, I remember being blown away by its obvious wealth, underlined by the fact it had white marble pavements. In Pitigliano, even the roads were polished travertine, with the colour and sheen of rich clotted cream.
We stopped in the Piazza Garibaldi at the Café del Teatro for pizza and the best fried squid I’ve ever tasted – it just melted in your mouth. Throughout our meal, we were royally entertained by three lads playing football in the square. They bounced their ball off most of the parked cars, even after one chap remonstrated with them as he locked up his shimmering white Audi, and told them to be careful. Moments after he left, the football ricocheted off his windscreen, but if a football hits an Audi and there’s no owner there to see it, did it really happen?
Then, with the surprise that only children have when they realise others can see into their private little world, a look of pure shock spread across the lads’ faces when I yelled, “Goaaaaaal.”
This was to celebrate their ball flying straight through the door of one of the shops facing us. The shopkeeper came out but was incredibly cool about it. He just asked them to change ends and shoot the other way. That way, there were no shops behind the goal, but the stakes were still high. The lads soon tested the reactions of the couple on the table next to us, who caught the football as deftly as Gordon Banks, just before it knocked over their wine!
The views from Pitigliano were stupendous and far reaching. When we looked across the gorge, we could see The Beast. As evening fell, we rushed back because Mark hadn’t brought a fleece and was freezing. We had bumped into our new German friends in town. They were all clad in puffer jackets, but we were doing that British thing – “The temperature’s above 10C. That’s double figures! So, we’re in shorts, a T-shirt and dining alfresco!”
“You’ll soon warm up climbing back up that hill!” I said to Mark.
From bed, our view of Pitigliano with its skyline illuminated gold against a velvety royal blue sky, was breathtaking!
When you see the incredible legacy of culture and monuments the Etruscans left behind, you might well wonder why the question we all ask is, “What did the Romans ever do for us?”
The Romans were masters of assimilation. Think about their Empire; and why Britainnia, Dacia (Romania), Hispania and Gaul (France) all speak ‘Romantic’ language.
The Romans ousted the ruling Etruscan dynasties, although the two cultures co-existed and eventually merged. Perhaps in a gesture of mutual admiration, in 89 BC, Rome granted all Etruscans Roman citizenship.
So, the Etruscan identity became Roman and the rest, as they say, is history.
Join us next time as we discover some even more breathtaking Etruscan culture.