In my previous post, we discovered that the Etruscans became the Romans, but where did they come from?
I’m not talking storks or cabbage patches here. I mean where in the world did they come from?
In around 400 BC, ‘Father of History’, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, declared the Etruscans invaders from Lydia, on the west coast of Anatolia, Turkey. He might have been a little biased. His home town of Halicarnassus is modern day Bodrum, Anatolia.
Five hundred years later, upstart Dionysius, also of Halicarnassus, argued Etruscans were one hundred percent Italian stallion.
Modern DNA studies find in favour of Dionysius in that particular debate.
Originally, the Etruscans divided their lands into twelve city-states, known as the Etruscan League. Cerverteri was once among the League’s premier members. On a par with Manchester United or Chelsea.
Around 600 BC, in its heyday, Caisra or Cisra as the Etruscans called it, occupied an area fifteen times larger than today’s modern town. Known to the Romans as Caere, its peak population may have been as large as 40,000.
A town of that size brings to mind a pertinent question posed by John Cleese; “What about the stiffs?”
A real-life hotelier’s response to this very query begat a most entertaining episode of the sitcom Fawlty Towers.
Rather than trying to smuggle corpses out of hotel rooms without upsetting the other guests, the Etruscans celebrated death and the transformation into the afterlife. They built the Necropoli della Banditaccia, a monument so extraordinary, it is now UNESCO-listed. The name Banditaccia comes from the leasing of land (bando) by landowners to allow citizens to bury their dead.
If you love to walk through ancient history, the largest necropolis in the Mediterranean brims with atmosphere. It is definitely one for the bucket list.
Used by the Etruscans then the Romans, the necropolis is vast. It covers an area of 400 hectares (nealy 1,000 acres). We even had early Etruscan tombs right next to our park up, along with swallows diving and a red kite soaring overhead.
Initially, the Etruscans simply laid to rest the ashes of the deceased in pit-shaped a dado (dice) tombs, but as time wore on, the burial chambers became more and more ornate.
Part of the site was free to visit, so for our evening walk, we sauntered along the Via Sepolcrale, which took us past some of the 2,500-year-old burial mounds, including the four Tombe del Comune – Municipality Tombs – thought to be mausoleums for noble families with connections to Rome. Down long staircases that bored into the earth, the tombs were closed off, so we couldn’t look inside. However, pictures on the infographic boards revealed their cavernous interiors, filled with pillared chambers, decorated with frescoes. One of four marble sarcophagi found in the Tomba dei Sarcofagi now resides in the Vatican Museum.
The state of preservation of burial chambers, some from as early as 900 BC, was incredible. As darkness fell, I tried to savour the tranquility, and forget that Banditaccia featured in the 1976 horror film The Omen; a movie I have never watched because I like to sleep easy!
The following day, Mark rushed the pooches through reception as I paid the €6 per person fee to enter the main part of the site. The lady in the booth was not a dog fan. Clearly, if it was up to her, dogs would not be permitted. She told me sternly that they must stay on their leads. Just as I was assuring her that we were incredibly responsible people who would definitely stick to the rules, Kai slipped his collar and wandered back into reception to check where mum had got to.
His timing couldn’t have been more impeccable. Segnora held out her hand to indicate Kai, pursed her lips, and gave me the most infuriating Q.E.D ‘I KNEW it’ kind of stare.
Faced with the evidence, it took some silver-tongued explaining in my best Italian to reassure her that, “Honestly, that never usually happens, and we will definitely not let it happen again!”
Our first view of the necropolis was spectacular, with either side of the Via Sepolcrali Principi flanked by circular Roman tumuli that looked like huge, red-gold stone beehives, topped by emerald-green grass roofs. On parts of the Via, deep ruts worn out of the stone evidenced the passage of generations of metal-rimmed chariot wheels.
Some tombs were open, so we could descend long flights of stone stairs into the realms of the dead, and witness the afterlife and beliefs of our ancestors. The atmosphere was palpable. The Tomba dei Rilieve (the Tomb of the Reliefs) was a real showstopper. One of the most important and famous tombs in Etruria, a carved stone revealed to archaeologists that it was the mausoleum of the Matuna family. After a millennium and a half, we know who this tomb belonged to. That thrills me!
Friezes depicting weapons across the back wall, and representations of household objects on the pillars have given historians a front-seat insight into Etruscan daily life. Beneath the main burial niche was a fabulous relief of Scilla and Cerberus; the three-headed dog who guarded the underworld. As I emerged from the tomb, what looked like my own three-headed dog greeted me as Lani, Kai and Ruby waited with Mark at the top of the stairs. Nosy Rosie was absent; content in the knowledge that mum would definitely emerge safely from Cerberus’ lair, she was busy sniffing.
As the centuries passed and the necropolis filled up, the Romans decided they needed to sort out their stiffs. I was delighted that the Romans applied the principles of town planning, even in their cemeteries! Instead of a higgledy piggledy hotch potch of burial mounds plonked around the place, in 600 AD, they opted for the efficiency of a grid, connected by wide avenues.
The Tomba Mengarelli fascinated me. This was the only excavation in an unfinished mound, which had room to accommodate several more tombs. Mengarelli’s furthermost chamber still had a preparatory design sketched out in charcoal on the ceiling, ready for a carver to get to work.
Although it dated to the second half of the 6th century AD, it looked as though Caecilius the Carver might walk in any second, and pick up where the graphic designer left off.
Features in many tombs reflected the homes of the living. The flat ceiling of the Tomba dei Capitelli boasted a design that mimicked wooden beams and thatch – or an Artex ceiling I had in my house circa 1988! Inside, the Aeolian-style capitals topping two polygonal columns give the tomb its name. The Tomba della Cornice had a cornice around the top of its walls, obviously, but on either side of the door, little chairs, complete with foot rests, were sculpted out of the rock!
The necropolis also gives clues to other aspects of Etruscan life, including their treatment of women. Females were buried with the same status as men and lay alongside their husbands on beds carved out of the rock. The beds were of equal size, but with different-shaped headstones; triangles for ladies, semi-circles for blokes.
Inscriptions tell us that Etruscan women could inherit property and kept their own surnames, which would be inscribed on objects such as pottery buried with them. The inscriptions on the girlie grave goods, such as perfume bottles, cosmetic jars and bronze mirrors, suggest the women were also literate.
A number of sarcophagi found at Banditaccia are considered masterpieces of Etruscan art. The two Sarcophagi of the Spouses, which can be seen in the National Etruscan Museum in Rome and The Louvre in Paris respectively, depict a couple lounging on a dining couch. Again, they demonstrate the equality of women in Etruscan society; something that horrified their neighbours. In Greek society, women could only drink or dine with their fathers, brothers and husbands. A Greek symposium was strictly an all-boys booze up – except for the prostitutes, of course.
The behaviour of Etruscan women so outraged Greek historian, Thrompompus of Chios, that he wrote;
“Etruscan women take particular care of their bodies, and exercise often, sometimes along with the men… they propose toasts to anyone they choose.” And the worst crime of all, “They are expert drinkers and very attractive.”
It’s a good job Thrombopopus never caught me in the bar with the lads after an epic windsurfing session!
After our afternoon of tomb raiding, we drove on to Ceri (pronounced Cherry), a dazzling medieval hilltop fortress surrounded by an enchanted wood, which conceals Etruscan relics and a small church, dedicated to St. Felix. Not every rocky outcrop can claim to have a Ceri on top!
In the Etruscan era, Ceri was a satellite of Caere, and was known as Caere Novum (New Caere) to distinguish it from Caere Vetus – today’s Cerverteri. The earliest documentation of the modern town was in a bull from Pope Gregory IX in 1236.
After D.D.T. (Doggie Dinner Time), Mark and I stormed the fortress in search of pizza and a beer. We strolled up the narrow road that clung to the side of the red-gold tufo-rock cliff. As we entered the formidable citadel gates, we noted a distinct dining possibility on a cliff directly above us, in the form of Pizzeria La Rocca.
In the square, we passed the Church of the Madonna di Ceri, which stands atop a site formerly dedicated to the Etruscan/Roman goddess of home and hearth, Vesta. Best known for her Vestal Virgins, who tended her eternal flame, she somehow also got involved with dehydrated curry in the 1970s. We decided to miss the sanctuary’s renowned 12th-Century frescoes and sanctuary containing the relics of saint and martyr Pope Felix II, who was a protector of the town. Legend states that two oxen refused to carry his relics to Rome, to ensure they remained in Ceri forever.
I spotted a restaurant that promised pizza and a panoramic terrace. At the best of times, I’m a sucker for a panoramic terrace, but in a hilltop fortress, surrounded by an enchanted wood? I was straight in.
The horror only unfolded once we’d asked permission to bring in the dogs and been seated. They didn’t serve pizza! We couldn’t sneak out because restaurant was empty, we were at the far end, and the waiters were by the door. For the second time in Italy, we were denied pizza in a pizzeria! (The first time was in Staffal.)
Kai wanted to sit on Mark’s knee, as usual.
“You can’t come up! We’re in a posh restaurant!” Mark told him.
Ever a man of his word, within minutes, Kai was up and having a cuddle!
The wine list impressed me. The most expensive offering was a Brunello di Montalcino Biondi Santi ‘85, which came in at a mere €900 per bottle. For a paltry €290, a Brunello di Montalcino Banfi ’88 caught my eye.
“Didn’t we buy some Brunello di Montalcino Banfi ‘99 when we visited the Banfi winery?”
“Yeh,” Mark replied. “We drank it!”
If only we’d held on to it. We could probably have retired on it!
We settled on a bottle of our new favourite, Morellino, which we’d discovered in Saturnia. It was delicious and didn’t break the bank. It didn’t even break a €20 note!
Mark wasn’t too keen on the idea of castration (Arrosticini di Castrato) on the menu, so for dinner, we ate Cinghialotto – wild boar to you. The plates were cold, the meal lukewarm, and the potatoes arrived fifteen minutes after the rest of our meal. Although it tasted nice, it did not surprise us that the restaurant was empty.
Our walk back through the dimly lit cobbled streets was a bit ‘Jack the Ripper’. We passed Pizzeria La Rocca and noticed it was full, lively, and its menu boasted pizza and beer.
“That would have been the Ceri on top…” I told Mark.
But you can’t win ’em all!
But you CAN buy buy Vesta beef curry on Amazon!
Join us next time for a tight sqeeze at the beach!
Where to See The Tomb Artefacts
Although many graves were robbed in antiqity, rich finds from the undisturbed tombs are on show in the following museums in Rome:
- Museo Nazionale Etrusco – National Etruscan Museum
- Museo Gregoriano Etrusco – Etruscan Collection of the Vatican Museums
I took most of the photos myself, but used the following additional material;
- Herodotus and Dionysius – Public Domain
- Etruscan Map – NormanEinstein, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons
- Sarcophagus of the Spouses – Sailko, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons